By James Lamkin
My grandfather was an alcoholic.
One of the most important things about that fact is that I was 40 years old before I said it. It was not that I didn’t know; but it was that I didn’t know that I knew. My maternal grandfather’s alcoholism colored my mother’s childhood; and because it affected my mother, it affected me. The family’s adaptation to this symptom and the contributions of previous generations before, lives on still.
Thus, when I pondered what might be “the most important aspect of Bowen theory,” I gravitated toward multi-generational transmission. In addition, I believe that the first cousin to multi-generational transmission is the notion of the emotional field. These two concepts hugely shape the shape of any system.
I am defining multi-generational transmission as the process of passing along relational patterns, resources, symptoms, strengths, anxiety, and behaviors from individuals and groups to their successors. The emotional field is an environment of influence. It consists of emotional/relational pieces: however, once the field comes into being, it has more power to influence the individual aspects/relationships/selves within it than any of the pieces can influence the field they have collectively created.
Here is a personal example. A few months after coming as pastor to Northside Drive Baptist Church in 1997, I attended a committee meeting in the church conference room. A large table occupies most of the space with chairs all about. The meeting went well. We walked out. One of the participants said casually, “It is so good to have a meeting in that room and leave feeling good.” “What do you mean,” I asked? “Oh,” she said, “seems like whenever we have met around that table, we always have needed to deal with bad news.”
The room itself was a part of the emotional field! How the church functioned in that space was part of the common memory and probably current functioning.
I offer three reasons why I believe the multi-generational transmission process (coupled with the notion of the emotional field) is the most important piece of Bowen Theory.
First, I believe multi-generational transmission always is an unspoken leg of every triangle.
I propose that when it comes to overlapping triangles, the genogram always is one leg.
The first time I “saw” a triangle was when Larry Matthews, founder of the Leadership in Ministry workshops, drew one on a dinner napkin in a Greek restaurant in Vienna, VA. He spoke of hearing Friedman speak of the inherent triangle of nearly every new pastor. It consists of 1) the congregation, 2) the congregation’s vision, and 3) the new minister. Friedman unpacked it: “With joy, the new pastor takes up the mantle to achieve the congregation’s vision. Yet, as she or he does, the resistance kicks-up.”
As Larry drew it, I “got” it. I still remember the “ah ha”. To this day, I still relish the rush of identifying the triangle in a stuck scenario. There is something about the delight of “Now I see it!” that unleashes all sorts of energy and creativity and perception and a reduction in anxiety.
Michael Kerr says, “If you aren’t thinking triangles, you aren’t thinking systems.” Exactly.
Edwin Friedman said, “We are always in a triangle with our predecessors.” This points to the multi-generational nature of systems—whether with family members or employees.
I am the eighth pastor of Northside Drive Baptist Church. The sixth pastor of the church lives 300 yards from my desk. A former Associate Pastor and two former Youth Ministers are members of the church. Part of my job is to live in these relationship triangles. What a wonderful opportunity to keep working on myself!
Bowen’s own confession of his vulnerability to the emotional weight of triangles gifts me from afar. (Have you heard the rabbinical saying, “By your confession, I am healed?”) When Bowen spoke of his early work on his family of origin, he said, “As for my own emotional part…if a person working on a triangle can stay less involved than others, I think that is to be desired. In other words, I was able pretty much to laugh at my brother while he was shaking his finger at me. But I still get emotional. I get emotional talking about it here. I didn’t find a way to get around this last one.”
James Lamkin is senior pastor of the Northside Drive Baptist Church in Atlanta, GA. This article is his reflection from a 2009 panel presentation at the West Virginia Leadership in Ministry Workshop. He is a faculty coach in the Atlanta Leadership in Ministry workshops, part of the Pastoral Excellence Program of the Center for Lifelong Learning.