March 26, 2018—The Bowen Systems Theory concept of multi-generational transmission in families, although often difficult to accept at one level, is logically appreciated at another. Families pass along habits, traditions, beliefs, grudges, feuds, genes, and emotional process down the generations. That force can be as powerful as a tidal wave, or as subtle, though influential as an undercurrent. Most of us can readily appreciate how past generations affect contemporary family systems and the individuals in it.
However, I find that many have difficulty appreciating the same for a congregation. This is despite ample evidence of how congregations get stuck, or have conflict, over issues in the past generations (even from many generations past). Generations and members have come and gone since “the incident,” yet new members, who have no direct experience of or connection with (and sometimes no awareness of) the issue, will find themselves acting out the same conflict. How is that possible? Edwin H. Friedman wrote:
The nature of connections in the present have more to do with what has been transmitted successively for many generations than with the logic of their contemporary relationship.(1)
I think that’s where most people fail to appreciate the power of multigenerational transmission in congregations: they are looking for the logic in common sense. But what we’re dealing here is emotional process, not common sense logic.
One pastor I know found himself hurt and disheartened after experiencing an episode of reactivity in his congregation. He had been at his congregation for five years and in the past three years the church saw an increase in new members, including many young families—the kind of new members every congregation craves: families made up of young adults with young children. But predictably, the quick influx of that population was met with resistance and anxiety as things began to change: new schedules, new groups, new patterns, new faces, not to mention all those little children running around putting their little fingers all over the furniture!
The reactivity took the form of personal attacks on the pastor and the staff. Many of these attacks came from older members who were feeling threatened by all the changes. But some of the attacks came from new members, people who had joined the church not two years before. Both groups were attacking the pastor and staff from the same frame of reference: they were focusing on and accusing the pastor and staff of issues that had happened fifteen or more years earlier—long before any of these parties had been in the church!
Because congregations are a type of faith community, they operate under many of the same systemic dynamics as families, cultural communities, and similar emotional-relationship systems. New members do not just join an organization; they join a community, with its culture, identity, and memory. And part of what any community must do is inculcate new members with these in order to “make them part of the system.” It does not take long for new members to become part of the homeostatic milieu of the community. And along with it, they somehow seem to take on the multigenerational transmission of the emotional process of the community, making it, in a real sense, their own.
(1)Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (New York: Seabury Books, 2007), p. 249.
Interested in learning more about the application of Bowen Systems Theory to ministry? The Center for Lifelong Learning offers the Leadership in Ministry workshops in four locations: Atlanta, Boston, Portland OR, and Lynchburg, VA. To learn more about the Leadership in Ministry workshops.
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning and Director of Online Education at the Columbia Theological 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 and Don Reagan.
His books on Christian education include Mastering the Art of Instruction,The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice), and Leadership in Ministry: Bowen Theory in the Congregational Context.
Galindo contributes to the Wabash Center’s blog for theological school deans.