Leadership in Ministry Feature: Carla Toenniessen

Leadership in Ministry Feature: Carla Toenniessen

This post is part of a feature series on Leadership in Ministry faculty.


Bowen Family Systems Theory offers a way of thinking that affects every aspect of leadership in ministry.


Workshops are taught by BFST experts and help participants confidently lead their congregations and organizations. Participants gain insight from learning with others while sharing their unique vocational challenges and joys.


This feature explores the thoughts and experiences of Leadership in Ministry faculty member Carla Toenniessen.


How long have you been a faculty member with LIM? How did you become part of the faculty?


I joined the faculty in 2008.  It was an easy and obvious decision to make because after participating in the workshops since 1998, I had become an avid student of Bowen Family Systems Theory and considered the Leadership in Ministry Workshops to provide the best opportunity for deep learning, growth, and transformation.  And the evidence was in my own life.  I could tell that I had more energy for what mattered most to me, better clarity when it came to making decisions and frankly more zest for enjoying life and relationships.  All this led to eventually expressing interest in becoming a faculty coach and when there was an opening, I wholeheartedly accepted the invitation.


What do you enjoy most about teaching and coaching in the workshop?


Thanks to the stimulating presentations, case studies and interesting people who attend the workshop, I have ongoing opportunities for learning and finding new applications. There are always more layers revealed to reflect on my functioning in my family, relationships and work setting. Since Bowen Theory is about life, the workshops offer new ways to apply systems concepts for understanding organizations such as a congregation, and even larger systems such as nations and society at large.  I read the news and consider issues differently now that I have a systems lens to help calm and organize my thinking and offer perspective for these complicated times.


In what ways do you see the workshop helping congregational and other leaders?


Bowen Family Systems Theory is remarkably universal and applicable to all of life.  It provides a guide and compass for understanding the most puzzling patterns and dynamics inherent in families and organizations such as congregations.  For example, church systems are inherently anxious. Within a congregation, people experience the full range of life events such as marriage, birth, raising children, divorce, retirement, illness, tragedy, and death, which makes it all the more challenging for clergy and lay leaders.  With Ed Friedman’s work on applying the theory to leadership, I consider BFST a necessary component for leadership training whether for pastoral ministry, education, government or business. What a difference such training could make, not only on behalf of the health of the leader but for that leader’s family and the health of the organization and beyond.


Why do you think the theory is appropriate as a “theory of practice” for clergy?

The theory provides a framework for observing anxiety traveling through a congregation and the impact both within the congregation and on the clergy leader who is also operating out of his/ her own anxiety and patterns from the family emotional process.  Just as in families, congregations also have predictable patterns and life stages because they are made up of human beings.  This takes the sting out of the messiness of congregational life. Bowen Family Systems Theory provides the best blueprint I know for dealing with anxiety, observing the triangles, raising one’s emotional functioning, growing more self and developing one’s inner leader.


Which of your presentations are favorites for you? Why?


“Crisis as Opportunity: Lessons from the Emergency Room”. The year I gave this presentation, both my father and husband landed in the ER.  Bowen said, ” A goal of therapy is to help the other person make a research project out of life.” Doing this presentation became such a research project which was both calming and goal oriented keeping me focused and thoughtful.  Crisis as opportunity continues to be a life principle for me today.


“It Only Takes a Spark: Catalytic Leadership”.  Researching this presentation provided more evidence and applications for how the presence of well-differentiated leadership can positively influence the emotional process and promote differentiation throughout the system, even impacting interconnected systems. A message of possibility and hope.


Can you give one example of how the theory has helped you in your work or life?


In my family, I was raised to over function, to be all things to all people, to take care of others and their feelings as if that was even possible. I learned to repress my own thoughts and feelings which required a lot of energy and kept me anxious and exhausted. Interestingly enough, I became a school counselor and because of my taking on everyone’s problems, I was on the brink of burnout when I decided to register for my first LIM workshop in 1998.  By bringing my genogram and case studies to each workshop session, I began to see how I was “doing myself in” by taking responsibility for what was not mine.  Because I had been functioning this way most of my life, change came gradually and it took lots of courage and practice and good coaching to face the resistance when I began to drop the many balls I’d been juggling.  It was very helpful to have a systems coach and coaching group hearing my journey and asking good questions during this time.  Change is not easy, but in time I began to feel calmer, to enjoy life more and to give others the gift of having their own lives.  It reminds me of a quote I just read in Michael Kerr’s new book Bowen Theory’s Secrets: Revealing the Hidden Life of Families. “The next part of the effort is translating this new way of thinking into a new way of being.”


If someone doesn’t see the value in this program and the positive impact it can have on participants, what would you say to them?


“Come and see and try it out in your own life.” An important part of the workshops is that participants have the opportunity to present 2 case studies in a small group where they might be stuck or could use some input. Over and over again I have witnessed how the theory can present a way forward in even the most perplexing situations. That’s how I began to realize how much Bowen Theory could help me live the life I wanted to live rather than being pulled here and there by unknown automatic forces.


If you’re looking to teach how the concepts of the family emotional process can be applied to all aspects of ministry, Leadership in Ministry workshops may be for you.


Those seeking to explore the theological implications of this concept, opportunities for personal ministry reflection through small groups and presentations, guide and encourage participants’ work on genograms and family of origin issues and prefer a peer group setting, could benefit from LIM.


Click here to learn more about the program.

Carla Toenniessen, MFT, a native of Northern Virginia, serves as a lay leader at Vienna Baptist Church in Vienna, Virginia. For 31 years, Carla worked in public schools as a teacher and school counselor. Working with both school and congregational systems has provided fertile ground for learning about the importance of Bowen Family Systems Theory and family of origin work as resources for leadership when navigating complex systems and everyday life.  She considers coaching to be an invaluable asset for the lifelong journey of working at differentiation and participates in a monthly coaching group. A participant in the LIM Workshops since 1998, Carla joined the faculty in 2008.


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