June 5, 2017—In Leaders Who Last: Sustaining Yourself and Your Ministry, Margaret J. Marcuson has written a deceptively simple book that should be insinuated into the Christmas stockings of your clergy friends who are anxious about coping with the stresses of ministry. It will be, admittedly, a willful act, inconsistent with one of the books principle messages, to “let go of outcomes.” Do it anyway.
Marcuson’s book is the product of years of parish experience and a solid grounding in the concepts of Bowen Family Systems Theory and the thinking of Ed Friedman. The perspective is ecumenical and unapologetically spiritual. It is an easy read, so full of specific examples, adages, and suggestions that it almost comes across as a manual of techniques. The book could be easily categorized as a variant of the business management self-help genre, produced by the clergy equivalent of a management consultant in the business world. The reality is far more interesting. The reader who has little or no acquaintance with systems thinking will actually be exposed to a great deal of theory along the way. By the end of the book the reader will have learned a lot about the Bowen Theory concepts of defining self, triangles, sibling position, and multi-generational transmission process, along with such phenomena as homeostasis, reactivity, over and under functioning, distancing, self regulation, letting go of outcomes, and staying connected: e.g. “Connection with our congregation is an act of spiritual leadership.” (p.128)
Not every aspect of systems theory is introduced, but it would be unrealistic to complain about elements of theory that could not be addressed in 145 pages of text. Marcuson provides a useful bibliography and list of websites and blogs to equip the reader with further opportunities to explore systems thinking and its application to ministry.
Perhaps the book is not best served by the title. Leaders Who Last sounds like a study of decades-long pastoral ministries. Although the principles in the book are precisely those that can make a long-term ministry possible and productive, in fact this book would be especially helpful to a minister as she or he enters the parish.
While the novice will find Marcuson’s work an insightful introduction to applying systems theory to the practice of ministry, clergy and other church leaders who have spent many years in the parish and exploring systems theory explorer will also find themselves making new connections, shedding new light upon their own functioning in ministry and in their families. An alternative subtitle for the book could well be: ‘Considering Ministry in the Light of Systems Theory Again for the First Time’. Especially valuable is Marcuson’s long-term perspective: “Most of us have personal challenges that we will work on for a lifetime. When we keep the faith, we keep working on ourselves.” (p. 3) Marcuson’s book is a notable contribution in the effort to both initiate and sustain that lifetime’s work.
Reviewed by Stephen J. Price-Gibson, Pastor, Church of the Plains (Presbyterian Church U.S.A.), Edgar, Nebraska.
Margaret Marcuson serves on the faculty of the Leadership in Ministry workshops at Portland and Boston. Leadership in Ministry workshops, is a post-graduate program in clergy leadership development. The workshops are offered at four locations: Atlanta, Boston, Lynchburg VA, Portland OR, and Kansas City MO. Check the schedule for the workshop dates at the various locations.