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Creating a Healthier Church: Family Systems Theory, Leadership and Congregational Life (Creative Pastoral Care and Counseling Series) Paperback – August 1, 1996
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The writer appreciated the author's ongoing, consistent references to Scripture and biblical examples and images, such as Paul's own balancing of individuality with togetherness in 1 Cor. 9-13 (62), which Richardson also humorously illustrated with the image of porcupines trying to keep each other warm (66). The clear biblical grounding greatly helped the book's applicability to those who take issue with counselors who try to "secularize" Christianity with "human psychology." Emotional maturity itself, for example, clearly is an example of biblical wisdom (80), which the author states is the basic requirement for all God's leaders (86). Another helpful metaphor used throughout was that of a mobile representing a congregation (of which the pastor is a part), the whole of which is affected by movement of a part, and also equally affected by calming of a part. This helped the reviewer grasp many of the new terms of family systems theory, such as reactivity and distancing, and connectedness balanced with separateness.
The only weakness the reviewer saw was an analysis of birth order and resulting generalizations (144-157), which sounded more like horoscope reading than useful principles. Much more space would be needed to quote the vast preponderance of inspiring, instructional, and helpful elements, for example, "calmer churches usually have calmer leaders" (173).
In Becoming a Healthier Pastor, the reviewer was impressed by the enthusiastic endorsement of the editor, one of the author's former professors, "I am struck by the amount I can learn from a former student" (v). Like the earlier volume, the central theme was using family systems theory to develop emotional maturity, but more specifically for pastors to attain a "higher, healthier level of functioning" (viii). This comes about through extensive research into the pastor's family of origin as having established his or her deep and overriding patterns of emotional functioning (ibid.). As an active proponent of systems theory, Richardson points out that the model uniquely encompasses all aspects of ministry and human function (3). While the reviewer is a counseling novice, the point was persuasive, and took note that the author practices only this model of therapy.
With that said, however, and unlike the earlier, more general volume, several things in this work triggered caution flags for the reviewer. All the general Bowens' theory material as applied to pastors and ministry work seemed quite applicable and apropos, such as "all of us exist on a continuum of emotional reactivity" (20), which creates various levels of differentiation, which then manifests in the acting out of anxious patterns. All this and much more is well and good, and both helpful and informative, such as "The main way to increase involvement and commitment in the church is for pastors to be a safe, less anxious presence" (33). The reviewer thought, however, that Richardson attributed too much formative shaping to one's family of origin and not enough to other equally influential (sometimes more so) childhood arenas such as school, neighborhoods, extracurricular activities, and church. Reinforcing this view, his statement, "Nearly every sort of problematic behavior is most likely a form of reactivity to family" (72) seems to the reviewer to be overly attributed.
The author strongly recommends for pastors to revisit parents and relatives multiple times, yet many cannot because of time, financial hardship, sickness, or death--often, both parents die while one is relatively young. He briefly mentions this possibility, but then suggests pursuing the research with other family members, or former friends and co-workers of one's parents. Such an exercise seems both unproductive and highly impractical. What would seem more useful and practical would be to focus on more readily available friends and acquaintances with similar personality traits that trigger similar reactivity. The author seems to have either unlimited funds or his family remained in close proximity, and seems unaware that most families are widely dispersed, and most pastors cannot afford extensive traveling. A final negative was his virtual dismissal of the entire subject of forgiveness (145), as if immersion in family systems theory absorbs and replaces such obsolete ways of dealing with issues.
A strong positive was Richardson's illustration of the pastor as a coach, and all the many relevant parallels inherent in the concept. Another positive was the way he repeats and clarifies frequently for maximum comprehension. He has a knack for capturing the essence of issues, such as this on avoiding triangles, "The best way to be on their side is to be on everyone's side" (139). Overall, the author met his goals, and the reviewer is genuinely intrigued to further explore family systems theory.
The book incorporates the learnings of family systems theory and applies them to a congregational setting. Richardson discusses anxiety, forces for togetherness and individuality, pursuers and distancers, fusion and differentiation, patterns of reactivity (including compliance, rebellion, power struggle, and emotional distancing), triangles, and leadership. One chapter is devoted to "signs of serious problems in a church" (which includes a section on overfunctioning and underfunctioning). Along the way, Richardson offers some reflection on biblical passages to support the theory, though it felt to me as if this material were added in later, after the bulk of the book had been presented; the biblical material did not feel integrated into the whole of the book.
One chapter is devoted to birth order and leadership style, drawing on the work of Walter Toman. Personally, I have not found Toman's work as helpful (or as "on-target") as I have found Bowen's family systems theory.
The final two chapters, which are very helpful, are devoted to "assessing your congregation's emotional system" and "becoming a better leader" (which includes a discussion about self-differentiation and the negative reactions that differentiation usually leads to, initially).
All in all, this is a very helpful book. I found it to be a useful summary of what I had learned about family systems theory and its applicability to congregational settings from other writers, notably Edwin Friedman. Richardson does not write with the wit and passion that Friedman writes with, making this book to be somewhat more bland, but Richardson's book may be more organized than Friedman's books are. After soaking in Friedman, I did not find much here that was new. Also, if I hadn't soaked in Friedman, I'm not sure I would have fully grasped the power of the model that Richardson offers. This is a very helpful book; I just wish that reading it were a bit more exciting!
I recommend this title highly as a good summary and overview of systems theory as it applies to churches. The knowledge gained is well-worth the price of the book!