Why Bowen Theory is Useless
November 12, 2018—Bowen Family Systems Theory (BFST), or “Bowen Theory,” continues to grow in its interest to, and influence among, clergy, denominational leaders, and seminaries. I think this is a good thing, overall. Many have found in BFST a frame of reference that helps them understand the nature congregations, leadership, and relationships more accurately than what a “devotional” mindset offers. Theological and biblical metaphors have their place—but they often fall short in accurately explaining what it is that actually is going on in the messy and complex dynamics of human emotional systems.
For example, we are all familiar with the theological concept of “forgiveness.” But beyond assuming we know what that means, and beyond formal theological definitions, what does forgiveness entail in relationships? I recently posed to the Faculty of the Leadership in Ministry workshops the question, “What is the emotional process of forgiveness?” That question engendered deeper insights about the nature, function, and dynamics of forgiveness, and, it raised issues of misunderstandings about forgiveness.
At times BFST seems to suffer the plight of all things that move from obscurity to popularity—misunderstanding, misapplication, overuse, oversimplification, and an unwarranted assumption that one understands the theory due to mistaking “being familiar” with actually “comprehending.” And further, similar to all things that contain esoteric knowledge and have as their goal self-understanding, there is that tendency to confuse comprehending intellectual concepts with “apprehending” truth and insight at the level to which it belongs: the intuitive and affective.
Can I get my money back?
One interesting phenomenon I’ve witnessed is how initial interest in BFST from those who hear about it tends to quickly fade when the pragmatist’s question is raised. It’s a familiar question by now since I get it a lot in my philosophy course.
Student: “This is all really interesting, Dr. G., but what am I supposed to do with this?”
Dr. G.: “Well, you don’t actually do anything with this. It’s not that kind of learning.”
Student: “O.K., but how is this going to help me in my ministry?”
Dr. G.: “Ummm, it probably won’t help you at all in your ministry. It’s not that kind of learning.”
Student: “O.K. Whatever. Do I still have time to drop this course?”
Over the years I’ve seen a long trail of eager visitors to the Leadership in Ministry Workshops come check it out only to check out very quickly. They tend to not find the answers they are looking for—namely how to get people to do what they want, or how to “fix” their congregations. If certain folks find BFST “useless” it may be because it seems to lack the pragmatic quick fix so many are looking for—a modern day penchant among leaders that Friedman talks about at length in his book, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.
It’s not another tool in the toolbox
The reason that BFST may seem useless to the pragmatic-minded is that, like philosophy, it’s not a “tool” that one uses on others to fix, adjust, change, or mold. It does not provide Gnostic “power” as a result of secret knowledge. Nor does it bestow abilities, skills, or techniques that guarantee mastery over others, a stay against bad situations, or the fates. Neither does it relieve self-doubt, personal insecurities or cover a multitude of personal flaws and deficits.
There seems to be a movement of sorts among those who stick with the theory, hoewever. Some enter into it because of curiosity. These are the seekers, students, and those fascinated by “systems” of all kinds (MBTI, Enneagram, etc.). Some are drawn to the promise of discovering another leadership secret that will help them be more effective, or at least, appear to be. And others come because they are hurt, numb, or desperate after being pummeled in particularly toxic ministry settings. For those who are able to give up those initial motivations and stick with the program, the next stage often is just acquiring a functional understanding of the terms, concepts, and theory. After that there are varying ways to work at applying the theory. But that, again, is not a matter of techniques.
Applying the theory has to do with working on one’s own emotional self: working on family of origin issues (mostly through the genogram), working at one’s emotional and relational functioning, and taking more responsibility for one’s well-being, goals, values, and emotional health. Those who stick with it are the ones who have come to appreciate that there’s no quick fix when it comes to growth and emotional health. This is what we call “life work,” and it takes a long time—the rest of your life.
So, if you’re interested in the long game rather than the quick fix, come join us and learn something useless.
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and Leadership in Ministry.
Galindo contributes to the Wabash Center’s blog for theological school deans.