Building Resilience through Family Systems Theory

Ken Morgan


The potential for parish ministry to induce stress in clergy has been a subject of concern for more than three decades. The diverse and conflicting expectations of parishioners are often experienced by clergy as incessant demands.  Society is growing less accepting and more suspicious of the church in general and clergy in particular. A greater focus on risk management at the denominational level places ministers under an increasing burden of compliance.  Clergy enter their profession as a God-ordained vocation, often maintaining unrealistic expectations of themselves and what they may be able to achieve in ministry.  There is seemingly endless scope for the potential of local parish ministry to trigger anxiety in the souls of clergy.

Much has rightly been written and recommended about clergy acting to protect and nurture their own souls.  The conventional wisdom holds that workload and anxiety lead to burnout - and so clergy must be careful not to work too much, to avoid sources of anxiety, and take time to care for themselves. 

However, less emphasis has been placed on developing resilience: the capacity to function well in a demanding and anxiety-producing environment.  Limiting exposure to challenge may limit the stress experienced by clergy, but it does nothing to build the resilience and the capacity to function well in the midst of difficult circumstances.  And sometimes stress-producing circumstances such as parish conflict rise up to confront clergy despite their best efforts to care for themselves.

The writer to the Hebrews teaches us that adversity is for our discipline.  Enduring its lessons produces growth and maturity: a ‘harvest of righteousness.’

Since the watershed publication of Edwin Friedman’s Generation to Generation in 1985, there has been a growing movement of practitioners applying Family Systems theory to congregational  life. Over the past 30years the application of Family Systems theory has been demonstrated effective in improving the personal wellbeing of clergy by developing personal resilience.

First articulated by Murray Bowen primarily in a clinical setting, the theory has been applied to the pastoral setting by authors such as Freidman, Peter Steinke, Ronald Richardson and Roberta Gilbert. 

Family Systems Theory views the family or any other human grouping as a system, in much the same way that an organism is a system of cells.  The theory holds that observation of emotional processes between the participants in a system gives a clearer understanding of the system’s functioning than the temperamental or psychological characteristics of individuals. 

Ephesians 4:11-16 paints a picture of the church growing in maturity, together becoming Christlike as each individual does their work.  The whole body-corporate can function more maturely when individuals exercise personal responsibility while connected in community. 

According to the theory, when an individual can be more thoughtful and less reactive in their participation in a family or congreagation, taking responsibility for their part in the emotional process, the functioning of the entire system will over time will become healthier.  The work of thoughtfully choosing ones principles, practices and position is termed ‘self-differentiation’.

Family systems theory helps ministers to understand the predictable patterns that emerge in family and parish life when these systems face challenge, which is often the time when a priest’s work is most stressful.

In applying Family Systems in a parish setting, a minister will be encouraged to begin by working on their functioning in their nuclear family and their family of origin.  Here is where they will best understand how they function in a relational system and how they may have been socialised or ‘primed’ to react in certain ways.  Rather than seeing immature or poorly-differentiated behaviour under stress in terms of pathology or dysfunction, the theory looks at challenge as an opportunity for growth and the development of a better-differentiated sense of self.

Practically speaking, ministers applying the theory are encouraged to give up trying to ‘fix’ their parishioners, to avoid apportioning blame, and be cautious about labelling to people as ‘victims’, or ‘problems’.  The key questions become “What do I observe?”, “What’s my part in this?” and “What’s my responsibility?” 

Over the past five years clergy participating in the Parish Renewal program have undergone introductory training Family Systems, supported by coaching and encouragement to engage in further learning.

To this end reading groups have more recently formed, working through books by Roberta Gilbert, Jenny Brown and Edwin Friedman.  The groups meet to discuss their learning and application of the theory, primarily in their own family systems. 

In 2016 a pilot program will be launched, where ten participants will undergo more comprehensive training in Family Systems, and undertake personal application projects.  Their wellbeing will be measured at entry, midpoint, exit and one year hence using well-validated instruments.

While the results of the pilot will not be available until the end of 2017, there has been very promising feedback from parish renewal program participants who have found themselves in challenging pastoral contexts.

Several priests have credited application of Family Systems theory as a major contributor to them enduring difficulty in their parish and remaining in ministry.