hero default image

Along the Journey  |  

Pastors, their families and best practices

The paradox is that if we want our families to be healthy, balanced and whole, then we need to work on ourselves.

How do I bring my best self to my family?

If I say that something is important to me, to what extent am I functioning in this way?

If not, what are the challenges to this?

How do I adjust my life so that my functioning is congruent with my values?

In my youth days, we used to say, “You can talk the talk, but can you walk the walk?”


Edwin Friedman, who was a family therapist and rabbi, wrote in Generation to Generation, “What is vital to changing any kind of ‘family’ is not knowledge of technique or even of pathology but, rather the capacity of the family leader to define his or her own goals and values while trying to maintain a non-anxious presence within the system” (pp. 2-3; bold emphasis mine).

Pastors have the capacity to be leaders with their families, not only with their congregations.


Family leaders…

• Work on their own life goals

• Lead out of guiding values and principles

• Understand family dynamics (anxieties, triangles, and patterns) in their family, family of origin, and prior generations of extended family

• Maintain who they are while developing one-to-one relationships with members of the system

• Think beyond blaming, cause and effect, and either/or thinking

• Learn the facts

• Accept challenges

• Take a stand when needed despite how others may respond or react

• Apply all of this to various systems: family, work, friendships, community, nature, etc.


Murray Bowen noted that very few people have achieved this, yet it is something for which we strive.

Some people like to develop one set of overall principles, values, and rules and some like to make them for various areas: Personal, Ministry/Professional, Marriage, Parenting, Friendships, Health, etc.

These may include ways to set boundaries, practice self-care, work on spirituality, maintain friendships beyond the church, and so on.

Sometimes the rules inspire the principles and values; and at other times, the rules come out of the principles and values.

The rules can also change with seasons and/or developmental stages.

How you do this is up to you.


The value of family and a guiding principle for this may be to develop one-to-one relationships with each person in the family.

How this looks with preschoolers is different than high schoolers.

Likewise, how this looks during our current pandemic is different than pre-COVID and will be different post-COVID.

One size does not fit all.

We come from various backgrounds and levels of differentiation, so what works for one person and family, may not work for another.


For example, a set of rules may be:

• No cell phones at dinner.

This works for some families, but others find they are unable to see each other for dinner every night and go out to eat one night a week.

• Work 2/3rds of your day.

Some pastors work 2/3rds of their day with the other 1/3 for family and/or life outside of the church. Others prefer a strict, set schedule or to figure out their priorities that morning and then schedule accordingly.

• Set times for phone calls, emails, and social media.

This works for some, but others are okay with responding to these throughout the day.

• Date night once a week.

Some couples find this too rigid and prefer to get away for a weekend from time-to-time. Others prefer to stay in contact throughout the day via texts.

• Set a strike “weekly appointment” for yourself.

Some pastors do this for their in-depth spiritual practice, reading, and/or a favorite workout class. Others prefer to do a little every day.


You get the picture.

What works for one person does not work for another.

The challenging part is to get clear for you.

This pandemic and current social climate is providing us with opportunities to 1) work on our own principles and values and functioning to live these out; 2) improve self-regulation, and 3) work at staying connected in one-to-one relationships with members of our various systems.

It truly is a paradox – the more we work on self, the more it has the potential to benefit the system.


A word of caution here. The outcome may not be a “happy family”.

Happiness is a feeling – and feelings are fleeting.

What makes one person happy one minute may or may not make them happy the next –and what makes us happy may not be good for us.

I may want to eat a cheeseburger and fries every night – it would make me very happy – but this is not good for me, will not nourish me, and could potentially harm me.

Israel Galindo notes in 10 Best Parenting Ways to Ruin Your Child that God does not ask Jesus if he is happy while hanging on the cross; instead God asks, “Son, do you still love me?” (p. 4).

Galindo adds that “God defines his relationship with us not on transitory and circumstantial feelings of happiness, but on the binding commitment of mutual love. God is more concerned with your relationship with him than he is with your happiness” (pp 4-5).


Doing this work may not lead to happiness per se, but it can lead to higher functioning families who are able to balance being individuals while staying connected, have less life problems, make better decisions, focus on responsibility more than entitlement, and are healthier overall.

The best part is that this can lead to positive, good, and real change that can last for generations.

It can also help you be a better leader for your congregation. So, grab a pad of paper – or your iPad – or whatever works for you, and dream.

Get clear, manage self, and stay-connected.

Blessings to you on your journey.

Vanessa M. Ellison, MSW, MDiv. is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) in Richmond, Virginia. She currently works as a Bowen Theory Psychotherapist and Coach at Richmond Therapy Center. She also serves on the faculty of the Leadership in Ministry clergy training program at the Center for Lifelong Learning.

Vanessa has clinical experience providing individual, couples, family, and group psychotherapy and community-based services and ministerial experience serving local congregations, missional settings, and non-profit organizations. 


Bowen, M. (1985). Family therapy in clinical practice. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson.

Friedman, E. H. (2007). A failure of nerve: Leadership in the age of the quick fix.

Friedman, E. H. (1985). Generation to generation: Family process in church and synagogue. New York,

NY: The Guildford Press.

Galindo, I. (2003). 10 Best parenting ways to ruin your child. Kearney, NE.

Gilbert, R. M. (2006). The eight concepts of Bowen Theory: A new way of thinking about the individual and the group.

Along the Journey