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Bowen systems theory helps us understand relationship dynamics universal to relationship systems, from families to corporations, to churches. Systems theory identifies four common responses when it comes to how we handle anxiety. Here’s an example.
Agnes is an anxious person; she always has been. She is a worrier whose obsessions about something going wrong often turns out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy (for years she worried that her husband would die before she—which he did, confirming yet another focus of anxiety). If everything is going fine she’ll find something to worry about through a litany of “What if…?!”
These days Agnes has plenty of opportunities for anxiety. She worries about catching the COVID virus and for her family. As the church treasurer, she is anxious about the drop in giving. As a deacon she is anxious about how her church friends are doing. She is anxious about everything she hears on the news. Agnes is an anxiety generator.
Usually, Agnes can ease her anxiety somewhat by sharing it with another person. She’s very adept at it. Most people who encounter Anxious Agnes will come away with stress and a tight stomach, unaware of what brought those about. Today Agnes tried to pass along her anxiety to Rob.
Unfortunately for Agnes, Rob is adept at handling anxiety, especially when it does not belong to him. He is an anxiety deflector. Rob does not take responsibility for anxiety that does not belong to him. Sometimes he’s perceived as a cold person as he is not prone to be reactive to other people’s feelings. That’s a misconception. It’s just that Rob is clear about what feelings belong to others and which belong to him. Just because someone is upset does not mean Rob needs to be upset too.
Anxiety seeks a place to settle, so the anxiety released into the emotional field by Agnes continues on its way. Rob deflected Agnes’ anxiety by sharing it with Dorothy. Dorothy listened to Rob’s experience with Agnes but did not herself get anxious. Dorothy is an anxiety dampener. She is like a down-transformer that cranks down the voltage.
Dorothy knows Agnes well and is aware that her anxieties are emotion-driven rather than fact-based. As such, Dorothy does not get reactive nor feels the need to attend to Agnes’ feelings. She accepts Rob’s news as information without feeling obligated to act on it.
Meanwhile, Bertram overhears the conversation between Rob and Dorothy. Bertram finds himself increasingly anxious about Rob’s apparent uncaring stance and Dorothy’s seemingly apathetic attitude. Bertram is a “mindreader,” trying to get into people’s heads and wondering about their motives. As an overfunctioner, Bertram feels the compulsion to “do something,” never pausing to think whether it’s his responsibility to do so. In contrast to Dorothy, Bertram is an up-transformer. He’s an anxiety booster, who cranks up the anxiety in any situation.
At this point the anxiety in the emotional field is cranked up, but it still needs a place to settle. Bowen theory tells us that anxiety affects most the persons who are or feel most vulnerable (Agnes) and those who are or feel most responsible. And so, the free-floating anxiety finally finds a place to settle in Pastor Mike.
Pastor Mike is a people-person, compassionate, empathetic, and caring. He is genuinely concerned for the members of his church. All good traits, to be sure. But, Pastor Mike is also an anxiety absorber. After a ten-minute hallway conversation with Bertram, Pastor Mike is wound up like a 10-day clock. And, he feels conflicted. He’s annoyed at once again having to attend to Agnes’ anxieties, miffed at Rob whom he thinks doesn’t “care enough,” impatient with Dorothy who, unlike he, never seems to get upset at anything, and he’s angry at Bertram for passing along more anxiety. Pastor Mike will develop an ulcer in seven months.
Can you identify your typical tendency in handling anxiety? Which part do you play in the systems of which you are a part: family, work, and church?
To learn to be less like Pastor Mike when handling anxiety join us at the Leadership in Ministry workshops. Join other pastors and ministry professionals who are working at being non-anxious leaders in anxious times.
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. He directs the Pastoral Excellence Program at Columbia seminary. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer & Don Reagan, and Leadership in Ministry: Bowen Theory in the Congregational Context.
His books on education include Mastering the Art of Instruction,The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), and Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice Press).
Galindo contributes to the Wabash Center’s blog for theological school deans and to its teaching and learning blogs.