October 15, 2018—A fellow Bowen Theory colleague recently told me, “You’re thinking about this like a first born,” which was completely correct. In that given situation, I had made a list of what needed to be done, gathered information, analyzed that information, and utilized it to help me make an informed decision. When I was an Associate Pastor, I also preached like a first born. I was the person who methodically planned out days for research, writing, and review. No waiting to Saturday for me; I was done a few days earlier. And, of course, I had a manuscript and followed it to the “T”. In general, I lead like a first born in that I am responsible and high functioning while also being compassionate and down to earth. I even quilt like a first born preferring patterns that have a symmetry and balance to them. And to the dismay of my husband, I watch movies like a first born. I am “in front of the story” and often see where the movie is headed often times from the preview alone, whereas my husband – a middle child – “let’s the story come to him.” I do not intentionally try to guess what it going to occur, but it is something that occurs naturally.
Nonetheless, there are things that I do not do like a first born, like dance. In this regard, I follow the lead of the music and let it inform me; and if I do not know what to do, I improvise. While I mostly quilt like a first born, I also do not. I rarely follow the pattern, create my own, or just start sewing and see where the process leads me. I also do not cook like a first born. I do not follow the directions to a “T” and can be adventurous with various flavors and textures.
How can this be? While I am a first born, and have many traits true to first-borns, I am also the daughter of two middle children. They gave me the gift of learning how to follow, which was helpful as an Associate Pastor who was a Second Chair Leader working with the Senior Pastor. They gave me the gift of learning how to get along with several people which helps me as I work with a people of all ages and backgrounds. They gave me the gift of learning to use my resources which is helpful as a social worker helping others find resources for their families and communities. They thought me to be playful and more carefree, which is helpful when I become too serious and begin to lose myself.
I often hear ministers who do not complete their sermons like I did almost try to explain why they do not. This is also not helped by how we learned in seminary to write sermons systematically. What would it look like to embrace our birth order in how we write and preach sermons – or even lessons and bible studies? More ministers may be unapologetic about finishing their sermons later in the week and/or preaching with a different style. Of course, in every scenario, it is important to remember to what/whom we are saying yes and no. Writing a sermon Saturday night is not often the real issue, but how this takes way from family time – which is about boundaries and a topic for another conversation. The point is that knowing not only our birth order, but also the birth order of our parents, can provide insight into our functioning as leaders, family members, and even how we engage in hobbies. And, embracing this can also help us towards a greater differentiation of self.
For more information on birth order, consider reading works on birth order and sibling position by Ronald W. Richardson.
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. 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 Faculty in 2018.
Leadership in Ministry is part of the Center for Lifelong Learning’s Pastoral Excellence Program, with workshops in Atlanta, Boston, Portland OR, Lynchburg VA, and Kansas City MO.