Learning the Theory

Learning the Theory

October 2, 2017—The first time I ever heard of Larry Matthews, founder of the Leadership in Ministry workshops, was when I heard his voice on a cassette tape. In Chicago in April 1997, Larry led a workshop on church renewal for American Baptist pastors from around the country, and my husband brought me an audiotape of the workshop. I was intrigued by the idea of leadership that Larry presented, and the concepts of individual/togetherness forces and anxiety that are at the heart of Bowen Family Systems Theory (BFST). Larry introduced the emotional triangle as the way to “see” what goes on in the emotional process, comparing it to putting a hat and clothes on the invisible man.

About a year later, Larry came to New England to introduce Leadership in Ministry Workshops to that region of the country, and I signed up. The first New England workshop was held in the spring of 1999, and since that time I have been very engaged in studying BFST. I have studied at the Center for Family Process in Bethesda, Maryland, attended an annual symposium held by the Georgetown Family Center, participated in many workshops at the Vermont Center for Family Studies, and several at the New England Seminar on Bowen Studies.

I confess that when I first learned about BFST, I was overzealous in my goal to study the concepts of Bowen theory out of my own anxiety and hope that Bowen theory would be a “salvation system.” In June of 2000 I became the adoptive mom of three Russian sisters who were “tweenagers” at the time. My daughters were pulled out of their family of origin and native culture and immersed into my family and a totally unfamiliar culture, context, and language. The word of the day in my house everyday was anxiety, which was what I wanted to be saved from. Family systems thinking provided me with some language and concepts to help me understand what was happening in my family, and though BFST helped me to see the anxiety that was occurring in my family and in me at that time, which was very valuable, my thoughts were nuanced about the value of Bowen theory as a salvation system.

It took many years of attending Leadership In Ministry workshops to realize that I was using, or misusing, the concepts of BFST. I was dividing the world into those who knew and understood Bowen theory and those who did not. I became very clear about those who got it and those who didn’t. I was judge and jury. Those who didn’t “get” the concepts of triangles, reactivity, and chronic anxiety were less worthy in some way. In some crazy way, this cataloging of people relieved some anxious feelings in me, at least in the short-term. However, that perspective was not a long-term solution to my anxiety, and also it offered no salvation. I came to see that it was a personal anxiety-binder that I needed to examine and understand.

After recognizing that cataloging people was unhelpful, I turned toward attending the workshops with a spirit of humility. Increasingly, I used my time in my small group to look at my own functioning in the group, to reflect on the times when my anxiety arose as I made my presentations. I focused on observing how I related or did not relate as creatively as I would like to other members of the group. I paid attention to how my body reacted when someone else presented. When I felt my heart pumping stronger or felt a surge of anger within me, I realized that something about the speaker’s story was causing a reactive or more anxious state in me, and I tried to learn from that.

I have become known in the local conference of my denomination as someone who is an expert in family systems. I do not feel like an expert. I think that I see some of the emotional process going on in my congregation and in me; and certainly I work on being clear about my roles, tasks, and responsibilities as a pastor. I also believe that family systems thinking has enhanced my preaching because it has provided a valuable observational lens through which to view relationships. However, I still feel like a novice in BFST. I continue to find the concepts fascinating, and I love talking about them and sharing them with others. I plan to continue working on my own functioning through this kind of thinking because I believe that there is much truth in it.

I lead a clergy support group in a United Church of Christ conference. I have presented several times at an annual symposium at the Vermont Center for Family Studies (VCFS). At VCFS I focus on ways that I have found Bowen theory to be useful for clergy. In the past year, I moved from participant to faculty at the LIM workshops, which is an exciting challenge for me.

As I become more immersed in teaching BFST and leading clergy groups, it is as important as ever to continue my work on my personal family of origin, and in those times when I reach what I think is a dead end in that work to get curious and wonder, “Hmmm, what is that about?”

Rebecca Maccini serves on the faculty of LIM at the Atlanta and Boston locations.

The Center for Lifelong Learning offers the Leadership in Ministry workshops in four locations: Atlanta, Boston, Portland OR, and West Virginia. Click to learn more about the Leadership in Ministry (LIM) workshops.


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