Sibling Position

Sibling Position

By Margaret Marcuson

My younger brother told me recently that one of his most enduring childhood memories is chasing after me on his tricycle while I and my friends shot away from him on our bikes. What memories do you have of your siblings?

“Sibling position” is one of the eight foundational concepts of Bowen Family Systems Theory. Michael Kerr suggests that, for example, “a first born, all things being equal (as Dr. Bowen liked to say) is born into a different sets of needs and expectations of the system than a second born.”

Over time, as we work on our own differentiation we can better manage the automatic responses we learn from our functioning position in the family. Kerr himself says, “I’m less of a youngest than I used to be.” For me, this has to do with managing my overfunctioning and being less bossy. I recognize that when my anxiety goes up, my irritability with the perceived underfunctioning (“irresponsibility!”) of others increases. I can now see it more clearly, and regulate it better, on a good day.

Many in ministry are oldest or only children. This can work well, to a degree. They know instinctively how to take charge and articulate a vision. Still, when the pattern becomes compulsive, it can be a problem. People at higher levels of differentiation will have a wider repertoire than those who are less mature.

Beth Norton, director of music at First Parish Church, Concord, MA and long-time Leadership in Ministry workshop participant, notes that in a high-functioning staff like theirs, the sibling dynamics are a bit less important on an ongoing basis. But, she says, at times of higher anxiety the patterns emerge more strongly: “It’s predictable who is going to be the caretaker, who are going to be the ones who underfunction when it gets really stressful, who are going to be the ones who try to take care of them and restore harmony, and who are going to go into a room and close the door.”

Here are some questions to consider:

Rev. Margaret Marcuson is on the faculty of the Leadership in Ministry Workshops, a part of the Pastoral Excellence Program of the Center for Lifelong Learning. She is the author of Leaders Who Last (Seabury, 2009). Read her newsletter, The Leadership Adventure on her website.

The Center for Lifelong Learning offers Leadership in Ministry workshops in four locations across the country! Registration is open now for the first sessions in Portland, Boston, and Lost River WV. Learn more about these ongoing cohort opportunities or register on our LIM information pages.

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