January 9, 2017—It was in the mid-1980s when I came to terms with the fact that my life was not working! I was at a loss, tired and frustrated. My pastor, Larry Matthews, referred me to a rabbi for counseling. I saw Ed Friedman for two and a half years during which time I worked on what I came to understand later as my emotional process. I knew little about Bowen Family Systems Theory (BFST) at that point, but this work changed my life!
As a part of my work, I took control of my life and graduated with a Master’s Degree in Social Work with the intention of becoming a BFST therapist and coach. After I graduated in 1996, Larry asked me to become a faculty member in the Leadership in Ministry Program. For 20 years, I have coached clergy and clients in BFST. In my experience, using the concepts of this theory paves the way for profound change in one’s personal life and in one’s leadership role at work. While other theories may affect some change, it is only when emotional process is addressed that profound and lasting change occurs.
My work with clergy has led me to believe that being a pastor is one of the most difficult jobs one can have. The leader’s own mutigenerational and nuclear family emotional process combined with being the leader of one of the more anxious systems (church) in our society is a recipe for frustration, stress and failure for the leader, and in some cases for the organization itself. Using BFST as a way for becoming aware of one’s own emotional process and that of the organization’s, strengthens the pastor’s capacity to lead more effectively. In turn, the church is often able to function at its highest level. This requires an on-going commitment to understanding one’s family of origin through creating a family diagram (genogram), asking questions, observing family and organization dynamics and becoming aware of one’s own emotional process.
Over the years, I have seen participants in the LIM workshops make significant changes in how they function in both their personal family life and at work in their congregations. Those changes seem to be most obviously centered in differentiation of self: defining self, managing reactivity and still staying connected. Observing emotional process in the congregation through triangles and other relationship patterns helps clergy to see the big picture, manage reactivity, take things less personally, and in general function as a better leader. In turn, the congregation often makes better decisions and moves more effectively toward doing the work to which it is called. Overall, those people who stick with the program and do the work, become more comfortable in their own skin, have clearer direction in their lives and are generally more content.
It is important to note that this process of change takes time. It seems to take about 5 years to really begin to “think systems.” It also takes work—a willingness to ask the hard questions, to identify and interrupt emotional process, and to observe self—to know what one will do, won’t do and to be able to state so.The theory is often counter-intuitive causing many participants to struggle with the concepts. Some, in fact, are not willing to stay the course.
In my opinion, the Leadership in Ministry program offers one of the most effective venues for actualizing personal and professional growth. Perhaps the strongest point of this program is that each participant has three opportunities during each workshop to present her personal case studies and receive one-on-one coaching from a trained facilitator. That, in combination with hearing other participants present in the small group, allows for a deeper understanding and application of the theory.
It has been an honor and personally a good learning experience to be an LIM coach for these past 20 years. I do this work for two reasons. One, I believe in the efficacy of working the theory so much that I want others to experience the extraordinary growth that can happen. Clergy need this—and in turn, the world needs clergy. For me, it is a “give-back” to the world. Secondly, by coaching and preparing presentations, it helps to keep me “thinking systems” in a community. During these years of working with LIM, I think I’ve learned to ask better questions, identify emotional process quicker, have more patience for those who don’t get it and give better presentations.
Elaine Boomer, LCSW has been a faculty-coach in the Leadership in Ministry (LIM) workshops for twenty years. Here she reflects on her experience with the workshops and why she values it as a resource for clergy leaders. She has a private practice in Vienna, VA.
The Center for Lifelong Learning offers the Leadership in Ministry workshops, a post-graduate program in clergy leadership development. The workshops are offered in four locations: Atlanta, GA; Boston, MA; Lynchburg, VA; Portland, OR; and now Kansas City, MO. Check the schedule for the workshop dates at the various locations.