Leadership in Ministry Feature: Vanessa Ellison

Leadership in Ministry Feature: Vanessa Ellison

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 Vanessa Ellison.

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

I joined the faculty for LIM in August 2018, almost a year ago. My longevity with LIM spans 13 years, as I have been an active participant in the workshops and peer coaching groups since then. I bring a dynamic of utilizing the theory professionally since a young age, beginning when I was a minister and now as a therapist and Licensed Clinical Social Worker.

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

I enjoy teaching and coaching because I can help people think through their own situations, thoughts, feelings, principles, values, etc. I particularly like utilizing the Theory, because it provides an approach of practice on how to help with self-differentiation, self-regulation, and staying connected in various relationships and systems. In this way, I am not telling people what to think or what to do, but rather helping them discover what they need to do for themselves.

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

At the workshops: Leaders learn a theory of practice and explore how to implement this into their work settings and personal lives. The focus is on how to strive throughout one’s career and life as opposed to a quick fix to one problem. LIM also strives to make the workshops financially affordable and provides opportunities for scholarships should one need it. Leaders can also come comfortable being themselves, to learn, grow, and fellowship; and in doing so, provide comradeship for many.

Outside of the workshops: The workshops help leaders better understand and function in their role within their immediate setting, larger organizations, and denominations/etc. I have seen many leaders implement healthier boundaries, improve their capacity to handle conflict and to develop leaders within the organization and help them understand their roles and functions within their communities. The workshops also help leaders develop and implement self-care plans for self-regulation that then helps them create a healthier balance between their personal family and their work settings.


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

Bowen Theory is an appropriate theory of practice for clergy because it can help improve the quality and longevity of their functioning both in their congregations and in their own families. It does this by teaching them how to 1) be a non-anxious, self-differentiated person in the midst of their congregations, families, friends, and communities; and 2) function over time through one’s own developmental stages, the developmental stages of the congregants, and the life span of the congregation.  It is also appropriate, because it can be used by all clergy regardless of denomination or whether the minister is the first chair (the main leader in the system) or second chair (a secondary leader).


Which of your presentations are favorites for you? Why?

“Snapshots: Using Genograms to Explore Bowen Family Systems Theory’s 8 Concepts” is one of my favorite presentations, because it reminds me that there are eight concepts, challenges me to look at them all in depth – not just my favorites, and allows me to explore my genogram through each concept. I have given this presentation over many years in various settings. As a result, I can re-evaluate the concepts and my genogram, step-back and look at the bigger picture over time, and then apply these to my current functioning within my family and at work.


Another one of my favorite presentations is “Triangles, more than Just a Shape”, which I have presented as continuing education for mental health providers. I like this presentation because I enjoy seeing how much this concept can help others. It is like seeing a light bulb go off, and people gain a concrete way to think through their functioning that can be utilized in most situations.


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

I unknowingly began my journey in family systems when I was 16 years old wondering how my mother – a Puerto Rican from Brooklyn, NY– met my father – a Hillbilly from Appalachian, TN. How did two systems from what appear to be very different cultures form my parents? What contributed to their marriage? The decision to have children? Their divorce? The theory has helped me better understand the cultural, multigenerational, and independent family systems that brought them together. Most importantly, the reconciliation that occurred with myself, my family of origin, extended families, friends, community, and cultural and heritage backgrounds. Everything is not perfect, and some relationships are closer than others – which is okay. Each day I am more able to better self-define and regulate in the midst of staying connected to others.


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

I would encourage this person to find a program that would be a better fit. Bowen Theory is not about convincing others about one’s way of thinking. It is about thinking through one’s own values, principles, challenges, opportunities, etc. while understanding that these are formed out of and contribute to the systems which we participate. The important thing is to find a theory of practice that does work and to have something in place to help with transference, countertransference, and personal, professional, and spiritual growth. This is especially true for ministers and helping professionals who share so much time, energy, talents and gifts with others.


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.

Upcoming 2020 workshops in Lynchburg, VA and Kansas City locations! Click here to learn more about the LIM program.

The Rev. Vanessa Ellison MSW, MDiv, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) in Richmond, Virginia. She currently works as a therapist at Virginia Commonwealth University’s (VCU) University Counseling Services and at Richmond Therapy Center. Vanessa has clinical experience providing individual, couples, and group psychotherapy and community-based services and ministerial experience serving local congregations, local missional settings, and non-profit organizations. She first learned about Bowen Theory while attending Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond, learned how to apply it clinically while working on a master’s degree at VCU’s School of Social Work, and has attended workshops at the Bowen Center for the Study of the Family in DC. She began participating in the LIM workshops in 2006 and joined the LIM Workshop Faculty in 2018.    

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