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Many pastoral leaders seeking meaningful ways to maintain good mental, emotional and spiritual health have looked to the field of psychology to guide their thinking and practice. It would appear that many organisational leaders, including clergy, are turning to Family Systems Theory for such resources. Dr Israel Galindo, Associate Dean and Professor of Practical Theology at Columbia Theological Seminary says, “it seems that systems theory is now the “in” thing—never have there been as many courses on it, or more “experts” on the matter.[1] And a sure sign of its popularity is the rate of books being turned out that claim to have a “systems approach to” something or other…”[2] An expert in Bowen Family Systems Theory, Galindo is among a number of theologians and leadership coaches who have followed the lead of Edwin Friedman who first applied Murray Bowen’s Bowen Family Systems Theory (Bowen Theory) to congregational life. Seminars and courses that educate clergy on how Family Systems Theory applies to pastoral ministry have been taught in some seminaries and other religious organisations since the 1990s[3], however, in the past decade, many new books, courses and podcasts on Bowen theory and pastoral ministry have entered the scene. It appears that leaders are finding Bowen’s eight interlocking concepts to be helpful for maintaining good emotional, mental and spiritual health during anxious times.  

What is Bowen Family Systems Theory?

Murray Bowen

The concepts of Bowen Theory were founded by Dr Murray Bowen, a psychiatrist and Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.,  and set out in his book, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, published in 1985 after twenty years of observation, reflection and teaching in the field.[1]  Bowen began developing his theory between 1954- 1959 when he specialised in the care of schizophrenic patients and their families.[2] Bowen observed the relational patterns that existed between chronic schizophrenic daughters and their mothers.[3] Using the most intense clinical examples he could find, Bowen studied the relationship between the mothers and daughters who lived full time in an unstructured ward setting. Bowen noticed that the “over closeness” that existed between mother and daughter led to anxiety, fighting and separation, which then led to separation anxiety and reunion, sometimes repeating in cycles multiple times a day.[4] In time, Bowen added fathers and siblings and observed the family dynamics.[5]  Bowen began to notice some particular patterns, including the powerful emotional connections between mother and daughter and their inability to differentiate into two autonomous people, the transfer of anxiety between family members, and the effect that the patients had on the staff.[6] Bowen observed that the psychosis presented in his patient was strongly linked to the anxiety expressed by their family members, and in particular, their mothers.[7] Bowen noticed that when the mother’s energy and attention were placed on the patient’s sibling, the patient’s anxiety subsided yet was taken up by the sibling.[8] Bowen then began to apply the same understanding of family dynamics to patients with less severe and obvious emotional illnesses and eventually began an in-depth study of the concepts he was developing using a multigenerational study of 20 of the 64 families across six generations of his own family.[9] As Bowen described it, a “small emotional crisis” occurred within his family and he was able to apply the framework he was developing to that situation with what he called, “spectacular results”.[10]  He later spoke about these events at a national conference[11] and began to convince other therapists that they too needed to understand the dynamics of their own families, and how these dynamics affected their work.[12]

Defining the Concepts of BFST

Bowen Family Systems Theory is a theory of human behaviour that views the family, rather than the individual, as an emotional unit.[13] From this perspective, Bowen considers that a) “whatever affects one affects each one in the system” and that “anxiety moves easily from person to person” and b) “family members trade ‘self’ into the family relationship togetherness in a family ‘fusion” of selves.’[14] From years of observation Bowen noticed that below the level of our awareness, we unconsciously monitor those inside the systems to which we belong, attending to and reacting to all of the other individuals in the system at all times.[15] An important aspect of Bowen Theory is the focus on anxiety, which Bowen also refers to as “emotional reactivity”.[16] Bowen believes that every person operates with a level of background anxiety acquired from our years of experience within our original families and/ or the circling anxiety in our present family.[17] Most of this anxiety occurs beneath the level of our consciousness. Anxiety, he believes, is also highly contagious and addictive.[18]

Bowen explains that two forces are at work within every system; the “togetherness force”, that is, the desire to be “we”,  and the “individuality force”, that is, the desire to be “me”.[19] During anxious times, we feel the togetherness force more strongly in that we conform to common thinking, practice and speaking, even if it means forfeiting our principles or values.[20] The togetherness force is not always a bad thing, as it promotes teamwork and unity which help systems survive during a threat, however, this force also exerts itself against imaginary or exaggerated threats, inhibiting individuals’ ability to think clearly and robbing the system of important emotional resources such as rational and creative thinking.[21] The same processes that promote unity and teamwork can also intensify tension and anxiety so that “when family members get anxious, the anxiety can escalate by spreading infectiously among them.”[22] The “individuality”, or differentiating, force is the internal pressure to be oneself despite the demands of the group and these two forces operate within a system at all times.[23] While systems exist in institutions, churches, sporting clubs and any space where people spend time together[24], the most formidable emotional system is that of the nuclear family.[25]

Eight interlocking concepts form Bowen theory and each describes a separate facet of the total system.[26] Within some of the concepts, further descriptions of terms are developed and key ideas are fleshed out.

  1. Differentiation of self

Bowen considered that humans “vary in their ability to adapt to all that life brings”[27] with some being able to do better when anxiety rises, remaining calm and thoughtful, while others seem more fused to those around them and less able to recognise that they exist as an individual outside of the systems they belong to.[28] Bowen developed a hypothetical scale to map this variation as it is expressed in individuals. At the low end of the scale, people are more fused in their relationships and also between their emotional and intellectual self.[29] These individuals operate with high levels of anxiety which affects their ability to think rationally.[30] They try to control, actively or passively, the functioning of others and depend so heavily on the acceptance or approval of others that they can cave easily to popular opinion, or hold dogmatically to a view of what others should be like and so pressure them to conform.[31] People on the lower end of the scale are more vulnerable to stress and take a long time to recover from the symptoms of stress.[32] At the higher end of the scale, individuals exhibit emotional maturity, less relational fusion and a greater “ability to separate their emotional and their intellectual functioning.”[33] These people are less susceptible to “group think”, clearer about their own opinions, beliefs and convictions and are far less likely to be affected by stress.[34]     

2. Triangles

Triangles are one of Bowen’s most important concepts and one to which he makes regular reference.[35] A triangle is a three-person emotional configuration and is considered to be the “building block” of any emotional system because it is the smallest stable relationship within the system.[36]  A two-person relationship is considered stable as long as it is calm,[37] but as soon as anxiety increases, one of the two members will draw in a third person or group to “relieve some of the stress, to seek allies, or to diffuse anxiety among three persons.”[38] Bowen teaches that “when tension in the group is too great for the threesome, it involves others to become a series of interlocking triangles.”[39]

When an emotional triangle is in a state of tension, the prefered role to be in is that of the outsider. Bowen teaches the outsider to say, “you two fight and leave me out of it” while encouraging them to remain emotionally connected to the other two.[40] A family in conflict may use the triangle system to draw in neighbours, schools, police and practitioners, for example, as participants in the family problems.[41] This can reduce tension within the family and can sometimes create situations in which the tension that should belong to the family is fought outside the family by others. Bowen teaches people how to become aware of when they are being drawn into an emotional triangle, to manage their automatic emotional response to the anxiety produced by being drawn in, and to remain in good emotional contact with both parties without taking one side.[42

3. Family projection process

Family projection process is “the process by which parents project part of their immaturity to one or more children.”[43] Bowen believes that often one child is the particular focus of a parent’s anxiety and that their anxious or worried focus on that child leads to an impairment in the child’s emotional maturity.[44] The child who receives this focus may demonstrate social, emotional, or physical symptoms in life or face more difficulty maintaining jobs or sustaining relationships.[45]

4. Family Emotional Process

Through his observation of individuals and families in his clinical practice, Bowen notices that human beings consistently exhibit only a small repertoire of emotional responses to increased anxiety.[46] Explains Creech, “when we feel stressed, anxious, or threatened we automatically revert to reactions that thousands of years of experience have deeply embedded in our brains.”[47] These responses are to fight, flee, over-function or under- function, or engage in emotional triangles.[48] To enter into conflict is one way that people manage their anxiety. As Creech describes it, those who react with a conflict response “get edgy” or “want to pick a fight”, “insist on their own way and attack those who differ from them”.[49] When counsellors or consultants attempt to manage the conflict in an issue, the anxiety which drives conflict tends to cause new issues to take their place.[50] Others choose to distance themselves from the contexts that are causing their anxiety, withdrawing from relationships, responsibilities, and communication.[51] This avoidance often leads to greater anxiety in the future.

A third automatic response is to over-function or under-function. Overfunctioning can be seen in people who respond to anxiety by taking over, doing for others what they can do for themselves, deciding for others, thinking for others and taking on responsibilities that do not belong to them. Overfunctioning is reciprocated by those who abdicate their responsibilities and in the face of anxiety, become needy and dependent.[52] Underfunctioning can manifest in physical, emotional or social symptoms.[53] The fourth response to anxiety is to project one’s worried focus onto a third party, directing all the anxious energy into an external source. Bowen observes that some systems specialise in one or another of the four responses and that these behaviours are often passed down from one generation to the next.[54] He also noted that when a system did not have a particular “go-to” response (sometimes they fought, sometimes they were distant) they seemed to do better over time.[55] Bowen teaches that even though these responses are automatic, it is possible to choose more appropriate responses to anxiety rather than simply yielding to the four reactive models. A person who is self differentiated will be able to choose a better response.[56]

5. Emotional Cutoff

Emotional cutoff is a more extreme version of what has been described earlier as distancing, where people separate themselves, either physically or emotionally, from others to attempt to manage their anxiety.[57] Bowen uses the term primarily in the relationships between generations within one family.[58] He points out that cutoff never achieves the emotional independence or healing that the wounded person is seeking.[59] Bowen teaches that those who use cutoff as a way of coping in their primary relationships, especially those between parents and children, will likely carry this strategy into new important relationships, namely, into marriage and relationships with their offspring. Bowen encourages families to maintain viable emotional contact with their families of origin throughout their lifetime.[60

6. Multigenerational transmission process

In the concept of family projection process, Bowen taught that “small differences in the levels of differentiation between parents and their offspring lead over many generations to marked differences in differentiation among the members of an extended family.”[61] Both relationally and genetically transmitted information work to shape individuals. The conscious teaching and learning of information from parents to children, as well as the unconscious and automatic programming of emotional behaviours and reactions lead to the formation of an individual’s “self”.[62] Bowen taught that children generally develop levels of self-differentiation similar to that of their parents, but he also posited that due to the “relationship patterns of nuclear family emotional systems,” “at least one member of a sibling group develops a little more ‘self’ and another member developing a “little less ‘self’ than the parents.”[63] If you were to trace the most “impaired” child through successive generations, Bowen suggests that you would see individuals with lower and lower levels of self differentiations than the generations before them.[64] Bowen also suggests that if we were to “follow the multigenerational lineage of those who emerge with higher levels of differentiation, we will see a line of highly functioning and very successful people.”[65]

7. Sibling position

Bowen adapts the work of Austrian psychologist Walter Toman in his development of the concept of sibling position.[66] Toman’s work identified that “the order of one’s birth, that of the parents and the mix of genders among siblings” is a major determinant of personality characteristics. Bowen applies these theories to systems thinking by paying attention to the gender and rank of the individuals within a system. He notes that the oldest children seem most at risk of over-functioning and youngest of under-functioning.[67] The oldest spouses tend to engage in conflict more, while two “youngests” in a marriage will more likely be less able to make decisions and more likely to flounder.[68] Marriage between an oldest/ youngest will tend toward over-functioning/ under-functioning response styles and only children may be more distant in their relating styles. The sibling position descriptions can provide a starting point for beginning to work on oneself.[69] As we learn to become self differentiated, we can work out how to maximise our strengths and diminish the effects of our weaknesses. Bowen writes that no other single piece of information about a person is more helpful than knowing the sibling position of people in the present and past generations.[70] 

8. Societal regression

Bowen writes that “in the 1960s, there was growing evidence that the emotional problem in society was similar to the emotional problem in the family.”[71] Bowen knew that triangles exist in all relationships, and this led him to theorise that “the same emotional processes observable in families were also at work in the larger emotional systems of society.”[72] Just as a nuclear “family unit could enter a downward spiral of regression” so could a human society. The anxiety at work in society make their way into families and then back again and feed into each other in endless loops.[73] Churches and pastors can play a role in breaking the anxiety in a loop. We will turn now to how clergy can use Bowen Theory to help create flourishing communities where anxiety, both within the leader and the people they lead, can be successfully managed.[74]


The People to Learn From…

Edwin H. Friedman

There is a rapidly growing body of academic and popular works and leadership training institutions that apply systems theory to pastoral leadership and the functioning of the church congregation.[75] Edwin Friedman, an ordained rabbi, family therapist and leadership consultant was the first to take the work of Murray Bowen and apply it outside of the context of counselling and therapy, to the “family” of the church congregation, and then to the broader field of organisational leadership.[76] Friedman’s 1985 book Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue looks at how Bowen theory might apply “not only in clergy families, and in the families of the congregations, but also how it might apply to the larger ‘family of God’ or the congregation”.[77] The thesis of Friedman’s work is that all congregational leaders, “irrespective of faith, are simultaneously involved in three distinctive families whose emotional forces interlock: the families within the congregation, our congregations, and our own.”[78] He proposed that “because the emotional process in all of these systems is identical, unresolved issues in any one of them can produce symptoms in the others, and increased understanding of any one creates more effective functioning in all three.”[79] Ronald Richardson sums up Friedman’s application of Bowen theory in the following way:

Our development and experience within our family of origin is a major but usually hidden component of how we function emotionally within our congregations as pastors. The family we grew up in is the first, most powerful, longest-lasting and nearly indelible training we get for how to be part of a group and to function within it. While our later professional training adds a layer of sophistication and expertise that normally serves us well in ministry, when the level of anxiety goes up in a congregation and we become anxious, we tend to revert to our old family patterns and ways of functioning.[80]

Friedman uses Bowen theory to teach the pastor how to deal with relational conflict within the church setting. He believes that familiarity with the laws of family process can help pastors to maintain a non-anxious presence within their organisation and claims that this may be “the most significant capability in their arsenal.”[81] Friedman helps pastors understand how to handle themselves in emotional triangles, how to remain self-differentiated while remaining connected to the congregation, how to deal with sabotage and many other vital skills that contrast to other leadership approaches such as a charismatic approach or a consensus approach to leadership.[82]

An exploration of the work of Freidman and of those who have followed after him reveal how the concepts of Bowen theory are helping pastors manage the anxiety that is associated with pastoral ministry. Contemporary theologians and leaders such as Peter Steinke, Peter Scazzero, Steve Cuss, Robert Creech and Jack Shitama have all recently published popular book-length texts that help clergy apply the concepts of Bowen theory to leading in church ministry. A close look at these texts reveals how the concepts of Bowen Family Systems Theory (BFTS) are being especially applied to managing one’s anxiety as a leader. Pastors are being coached on how to remain healthy individuals who are emotionally attuned to the congregations they lead and effective at navigating challenging circumstances without distancing themselves or over-functioning in their roles.


Peter L. Steinke’s 2021 book Uproar: Calm Leadership in Anxious Times is the most recent of a long line of books he has written on the topic and an example of popular books that take a systems approach to organisational leadership. [83] Steinke studied under Freidman and Uproar continues on many of the themes developed in Friedman’s book A Failure of Nerve. Steinke’s main premise is that no single trigger affects the emotional health of any organisation or system more than its leader, and how the leader handles self in that system is more determinate of its outcome than any other factor.[84] Steinke identifies ways in which Bowen theory helps a leader “focus on presence, self-awareness and being a responsible and responsive self.”[85] He contrasts emotionally mature leaders against those who “persuade, control or mandate others to behave” and against the narcissist who draws people in using charm, grandiosity and need. Steinke characterises failure of nerve in an anxious leader as a person who panders to the “noisy wheel”, who tries to please, rescue and enable everyone, who abdicates responsibility for taking the first steps or makes the most popular move, as someone who avoids conflict and who is a leader in name only.[86] He then offers some of the tools of BFST to help leaders become calm, non-anxious and self-differentiated (mature) leaders who can move groups from anxiety to health.  Uproar follows Steinke’s 1996 book Healthy Congregations: A Systems Approach which gives an introduction to the concept of the church as a living system.[87] Focusing more broadly on the way that healthy congregations emerge from healthy leadership, Steinke introduces the concepts of genograms to mapping the history of the church, and the concept of triangulation when dealing with conflict. This book is less focused on the interior life of the minister and more on the signs of health and unhealth within the church.


Peter Scazzero, dubbed by fellow Bowen Theory enthusiast Steve Cuss as “the modern Godfather of family systems theory in the church” focused his doctoral work on Bowen’s theory of multigenerational transmission process.[88] Scazerro draws on Bowen Theory in his popular series of books around the emotional and spiritual health of pastoral leaders.[89]  The fifth chapter of his popular book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality encourages readers to map their genograms and discover and break the patterns of sin and unhealth that exist across the generations of their families.[90] Scazzero grounds his theory in scripture, showing how generational sin is passed down through the families of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.[91]

Scazzero’s book The Emotionally Healthy Leader: How Transforming Your Inner Life Will Deeply Transform Your Church, Team and The World also offers many tools from Bowen theory to help the pastor achieve the goals promised within the book’s title. In his chapter on Culture and Team building, Scazzero describes a person’s level of self-differentiation as “the degree to which you are able to affirm your own distinct values and goals apart from the pressure around you (separateness) while remaining close to the people important to you (togetherness).”[92] In this chapter, Scazzero coaches leaders to see themselves as the guardians of team building and culture in their workplace as well as being the ones who are responsible for defining and enforcing the boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.[93] Scazzero coaches leaders to deal with conflicts, to stand firm on their non-negotiable values and to tolerate the discomfort of criticism.[94] These are some of the qualities that define a self-differentiated leader and allow them to lead without being weighed down by responsibility. Scazzero incorporates much of the teaching on spiritual disciplines advanced by theologians such as Dallas Willard and Richard Foster. The pursuit of personal transformation that reflects the character of Jesus, referred to by Willard as “renovation of the heart”, and by Bowen as “differentiation of self” are mutually connected and have the same practical implications.[95] A differentiated or spiritually mature person can remain connected to people without participating in their reactivity. They can remain calm and non-anxious even when anxiety levels around them are high.[96]


R. Robert Creech’s book Family Systems and Congregational Life: A Map for Ministry[97] published in 2019 is a comprehensive study of Bowen Theory and its applications for congregational leadership. Creech explains Bowen’s eight concepts in detail and offers many insights into how they can apply to ministry leadership during times of crisis and social regression. The thesis of his book is that “a reasonably firm grasp” of the concepts of Bowen Theory as well as a commitment to intentional work on one’s self-differentiation “offers a way to think about human behaviour and relationships that can make a pastoral leader more effective.”[98] Creech also argues that a well-differentiated leader can offer a steady hand to an anxious congregation and a better chance of thriving even when the culture around them is not.[99] Creech claims that “these leaders will also demonstrate an ability to sustain an active, effective ministry throughout a lifetime, avoiding burnout, blackout or moral failure.”[100] To become a more differentiated leader, Creech says that individuals must lean into their own immaturity, develop the capacity to recognise emotional reactivity in themselves and others, “practice inserting a pause before automatically reacting to others”, become curious about their “own family over the generations” and become an important member of that family.[101]  These practices, developed under the wisdom and direction of a coach, can equip leaders for “more meaningful relationships and more effective congregational ministry.”[102]


Australian born pastor and leadership coach Steve Cuss draws heavily on systems theory in his focus on helping pastors and leaders manage their own anxiety and the anxiety in the people they lead. Cuss began his ministry life as a chaplain in a large hospital setting and was trained in Systems Theory in this context. In his 2019 book Managing Leadership Anxiety: Theirs and Yours[103] Cuss uses Bowen Theory to help leaders see that they have the potential to move the systems they are part of toward greater health.[104] The concept he makes the most use of is that of differentiation which Cuss defines as “the ability to be fully yourself while being fully connected to people” and “gaining clarity on where “I” end and the “other” begins”.[105]  While the original writing of Bowen and Friedman can be difficult for those who do not have a background in psychology, Cuss has the ability to translate these concepts into more accessible language. Another of Cuss’s strengths is his pastoral sensitivity. He is careful to distinguish between chronic anxiety and anxiety conditions such as Generalised Anxiety Disorder which often need medical intervention.[106] The goal of Cuss’s work is to create cultures “where people can bring their whole selves and hold one another’s vulnerability in a caring way, where we can name and move through our shadows, vows, and anxieties to be more fully present to one another and to God.”[107] Cuss is effective in using Bowen Theory to help clergy become a non-anxious presence for the people they lead.


Jack Shitama is another systems theory consultant and a United Methodist pastor who writes about using systems theory for learning to be a non-anxious presence. His 2020 book, If You Met My Family, You’d Understand: A Family Systems Primer and his 2018 book Anxious Church, Anxious People: How to Lead Change in an Age of Anxiety both make an excellent contribution to the conversation.[108] Shitama makes the concepts of Bowen theory understandable for a pastor who does not have training in psychology.[109] In Anxious Church, he writes that growing in self-differentiation and unlocking emotional triangles are the processes that lead to the greatest health for families, organisations and churches and he dedicates a lengthy chapter to the task of identifying and managing emotional triangles.[110]  Shitama identifies the kinds of triangles that exist in many churches and offers ways for the leader to remain a non-anxious presence who can reverse the forces that hold interlocking triangles together in a church.[111] Leaders, he says, can learn how to “give back to the other two persons the responsibility for their relationship, or if the other side is a person and her issue, to give back responsibility for her issue” through self-differentiation, taking responsibility for one’s “own emotional functioning but not for that of the others.”[112] Shitama cautions the leader that this is difficult work because many people have the desire to rescue people from their pain[113], but the more they can stay emotionally connected to people without over-functioning (fixing their issues) or under-functioning (avoiding them completely) the less anxious they will be as leaders.

Angella Son’s peer-reviewed article in The Journal of Pastoral Care and Counselling focuses specifically on Bowen Theory and anxiety in congregations and is a representative example of several journal articles that provide an academic critique of Bowen Theory and congregational leadership. Son presents case studies of two actual scenarios, one in which a church of 3000 is diminished in attendance to only 100 after three church splits and many conflicts, and another where a senior pastor develops an anxiety disorder after being forced to deal with too many church conflicts. Son shows how Bowen theory sheds light on what caused much of the conflict and anxiety, identifying the ways the members lacked self-differentiation, experienced emotional cut off, triangulation and emotional fusion and the way multi-generational transmission process caused disruption. Son’s examples illustrate her thesis that “inattention to anxiety within the church as a system is a main cause of conflicts within congregations.”[118] Her research provides solid arguments for the use of Bowen therapy for helping pastors deal with anxiety.

My Recommendations

Many of the concepts that Bowen and Friedman teach are valuable for clergy but some of the concepts stand out as potentially being extremely effective help for the pastor who is anxiously over-functioning, ignorant of the emotional dynamics of their congregation, unaware of how they are being triggered by childhood wounds, vows or projection, withdrawing from people when there is a conflict or becoming physically ill because they are tired and wired all the time. Without finding a better way, such a pastor is likely to burn out. With the help of Bowen theory and a good coach, this same pastor can move toward greater emotional health and take her whole church with her. Many Bowen coaches are teaching the concept of self-differentiation and carefully explaining how pastors can better understand themselves, move toward greater emotional and spiritual health, and become less affected by the opinions and desires of those who attempt to push and pull them in every direction. They are also teaching about managing conflict with the concepts of triangles, emotional cutoff, anxious over-functioning and under-functioning. As Anna Moss says, “one’s level of emotional maturity will impact how a person can manage the relational demands they face.”[1]

An emotionally mature or well-differentiated person does not find their sense of worth or identity in the roles they perform or their status in the church or community. Pastors who can address personal insecurities are also freed from the need to use the platform of ministry, or the power they have as a leader to build themselves up.[2] Instead, they can put their energy into the work of training and equipping others, multiplying ministries and seeing others mature.[3] Moss states it beautifully when she says that under the direction of a well-differentiated leader, “people will be placed above programs and a meaningful seeking of others’ maturity will override the desire to see one’s own programs succeed.”[4] Self-differentiated people are less prone to rescuing people from their discomforts, people-pleasing and over accommodating.[5] They set appropriate boundaries and do not have trouble saying no. Research indicated that poorly differentiated pastors can have trouble balancing their work and relational commitments. Applying the concepts of Bowen theory can help a pastor become better at establishing healthy boundaries.

Thanks to the work of writers, theologians and leadership coaches such as Steve Cuss, Jack Shitama, Jim Herrington, Robert Creech and others, there is a host of contemporary, accessible material that people can draw on to enhance their understanding of Bowen theory. The theory is useful and becoming more popular for many reasons. It is understandable, “compatible with biblical perspectives and theological categories held by mainline religious traditions”, accessible to pastors without any training in psychology and gives clergy some tools and insights for better understanding the people they lead.[6] The theory has very practical application for the kinds of tasks and scenarios that typify the work of ministry, and it makes a practical difference.[7] Church structures and practices have evolved rapidly in recent days and the church across the next forty years may look vastly different to what it looks like today.[8] Bowen theory is about human reactivity and emotional processes which do not change. Because of this, Bowen theory “will continue to offer accurate ways to understand ourselves despite radical contextual changes. And most importantly, Bowen theory focuses on self and teaches individuals how to manage themselves.[9] Bowen teaches that even when you cannot control the people, circumstances and environments around you, it is possible to learn how to be a calm and non-anxious presence. This is certainly a gift to bring to the people that you serve.

[1] Anna Moss, “Can Bowen Theory Help Us Avoid Burnout? Bowen Theory and the Practice of Sustainable Ministry” Bowen Family Systems Theory in Christian Ministry: Grappling with Theory and its Application Through a Biblical Lens edited by Jenny Brown and Lauren Eddington (Neutral Bay: Family Systems Practice and Institute, 2019), 154.

[2] ibid.

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid, 155.

[5] ibid.

[6] Creech, Family Systems and Congregational Life, 7.

[7] ibid.

[8] ibid., 10.

[9] Creech, Family Systems and Congregational Life, 7.

[1] Ronald W. Richardson, “Bowen Family Systems Theory and Congregational Life”, Review & Expositor 102, no. 3 (Sum 2005): 379–402.

[2] Murray Bowen, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Inc, 2004).

[3] ibid, 4.

[4] ibid, 6

[5] ibid, 3.

[6] ibid., 10. Michael E Kerr and Murray Bowen, Family Evaluation: An Approach Based on Bowen Theory (New York: Norton, 1988), 4.

[7] Bowen, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, 6.

[8] ibid, 9.

[9] ibid, xv

[10] ibid., xvi

[11] Risky.

[12] ibid.

[13] Roberta Gilbert, The Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory: A New Way of Thinking About the Individual and The Group (Virginia: Leading Systems Press, 2006), 5.

[14] ibid., 6.

[15] Creech, Family Systems and Congregational Life, 16.

[16] ibid.

[17] Gilbert, The Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory, 8.

[18] ibid, 9.

[19] Bowen, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, 218.

[20] Creech, Family Systems and Congregational Life, 16.

[21] ibid.

[22] Michael Kerr, One Family’s Story: A Primer on Bowen Theory (Washington: Georgetown Family Center, 2003), preface (Kindle version).

[23] Creech, Family Systems and Congregational Life, 16.

[24] Gilbert, The Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory, 21.

[25] ibid.

[26] Bowen, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, 306.

[27] ibid., 29.

[28] Creech, Family Systems and Congregational Life, 20.

[29] ibid.

[30] Gilbert, The Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory, 30.

[31] Kerr, One Family’s Story, Kindle location 141.

[32] Bowen, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, 472.

[33] Kerr, One Family’s Story, Kindle location 141.

[34] Bowen, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, 475.

[35] Gilbert, The Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory, 47.

[36] Bowen, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, 478.

[37] ibid, 373.

[38] Creech, Family Systems and Congregational Life, 19. Israel Galindo and Betty Pugh Mills “Long-Tenured Ministry and Systems Theory: Bowen Systems Theory as Resource for the Long Haul”, Review and Expositor Vol 113 (2016), 352.

[39] Bowen, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, 373.

[40] Lest the person just move on and find another outsider to draw into the tension. ibid., 478.

[41] ibid, 479.

[42] Creech, Family Systems and Congregational Life, 20.

[43] Bowen, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, 477.

[44] ibid.

[45] ibid.

[46] Creech, Family Systems and Congregational Life, 21.

[47] ibid.

[48] ibid.

[49] ibid, 22.

[50] ibid.

[51] ibid.

[52] ibid.

[53] ibid.

[54] ibid.

[55] ibid, 23.

[56] ibid.

[57] ibid.

[58] Bowen, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, 382.

[59] ibid, 383.

[60] ibid.

[61] The Bowen Centre For the Study of the Family, “Multigenerational Transmission Process” accessed online at (first accessed 5 November 2021).

[62] ibid.

[63] ibid.

[64] Bowen, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, 384. Bowen also claims that people predictable select marriage partners who demonstrate a level of differentiation of self that matches their own. Therefore, together they will transmit similar patterns of emotional maturity to their children. The Bowen Centre For the Study of the Family, “Multigenerational Transmission Process” accessed online at (first accessed 5 November 2021).

[65] ibid., 385.

[66] Gilbert, The Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory, 85.

[67] ibid, 95.

[68] ibid.

[69] ibid, 97.

[70] Bowen, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, 385.

[71] ibid, 386.

[72] Creech, Family Systems and Congregational Life, 27.

[73] ibid.

[74] ibid.

[75] Jenny Brown and Laura Errington claim that “many books have been published that apply systems thinking to the functioning of congregations and pastoral life” and that “numerous organisations have emerged in the USA who consult to church workers, drawing from Bowen Theory.” Jenny Brown and Laura Errington, Bowen Family Systems Theory in Christian Ministry: Grappling with Theory and its Application Through a Biblical Lens edited by Jenny Brown and Lauren Eddington (Neutral Bay: Family Systems Practice and Institute, 2019), 1.

[76] Richardson, “Bowen Family Systems Theory and Congregational Life”, 381.

[77] Michael J. Aufderhar and Ron Flowers. “Learning to Be Calm in the Storm”, The Journal of Applied Christian Leadership 4, no. 1 (Spr 2010): 59.

[78] Edwin Friedman, Generation to Generation: Family Processes in Church and Synagogue (New York: The Guilford Press, 2011), 1.

[79] ibid.

[80] R. W. Richardson, Creating a Healthier Church: Family Systems Theory, Leadership and Congregational Life (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1996), ix.

[81] Friedman, Generation to Generation, 208.

[82] ibid.

[83] Peter L. Steinke, Uproar: Calm Leadership in Anxious Times (Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 2019), vii.

[84] ibid., vii.

[85] ibid., x.

[86] ibid., 33.

[87] Peter L. Steinke, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times: Being Calm and Courageous No Matter What (Herndon: The Alban Institute, 2006).

[88] Steve Cuss interview with Peter Scazzero on his podcast ‘Managing Leadership Anxiety: Yours and Theirs’ Season 5, Episode 6. 21.09.2021 First accessed May 18.

[89] Peter Scazzero’s works include Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, The Emotionally Healthy Church, The Emotionally Healthy Leader (as well as a popular podcast of the same name) and Emotionally Healthy Discipleship.

[90] Peter Scazzero, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality: It’s Impossible to Be Spiritually Mature While Remaining Emotionally Immature (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 93.

[91] ibid, 98.

[92] ibid.

[93] Peter Scazzero, The Emotionally Healthy Leader: How Transforming Your Inner Life Will Deeply Transform Your Church, Your Team and the World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), 225.

[94] ibid., 212.

[95] Creech, Family Systems and Congregational Life, 98.

[96] ibid.

[97] ibid.

[98] ibid., 33.

[99] ibid.

[100] ibid.

[101] ibid., 28.

[102] ibid.

[103] Steve Cuss, Managing Leadership Anxiety: Yours and Theirs (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2019).

[104] ibid, 100.

[105] ibid., 119.

[106] See for example, his interview with Laura Turner on his podcast (Season 2, Episode 3) Steve and Laura discuss Generalised Anxiety Disorder, brain function, medication and tools to move through anxiety when faced with these challenges.

Robert Creech also begins his book with an explanation of the difference between acute and chronic anxiety. Creech, Family Systems, 18.

[107] Cuss, Managing Leadership Anxiety, 181.

[108] Jack Shitama, If You Met My Family You’d Understand: A Family Systems Primer (Maryland: Charis Works Inc, 2018). Jack Shitama, Anxious Church, Anxious People: How to Lead Change in an Age of Anxiety (Maryland: Charis Works Inc, 2018).

[109] Shitama states this as his aim in the introduction to his text, agreeing that Friedman’s work is “dense” and “not easily grasped.” Shitama’s Anxious Church, Anxious People is an attempt to make Friedman’s work more accessible and practical and I believe he achieves his goal. Shitama, Anxious Church, 4.

[110] ibid., 22.

[111] ibid., 30.

[115] Bowen, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, 291.

[116] Cuss is also an advocate of this approach. He states that members of his congregation know that if they are going to complain about another person to him, he will tell that person. He says that his congregation know this, and it prevents him from unnecessarily becoming involved in triangles. I feel it also decreases that opportunity that pastors have to be mentors and coaches, to help people think theologically about their relationships and workshop with them mature ways to handle their own conflicts.

[117] In other places, Shitama gives a good explanation of how to provide pastoral care for complaining congregants by getting past the content of their complaint, and into the process behind the complaint. Often, he explains, people’s criticism are a symptom of anxiety over a completely unrelated matter. Jack Shitama, interview with Steve Cuss on Managing Leadership Anxiety Podcast, S6 E9.

[118] ibid.

[1] Parker, Tavella and Keyes, Burnout, 48.

[2] ibid.

[3] ibid., 49.

[4] ibid., 56.

[5] ibid.

[6] Steve Cuss, Managing Leadership Anxiety: Yours and Theirs (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2019), 6.

[7] ibid.

[8] Krystyna Golonka, Justyna Mojsa-Kaja, Mateusz Blukacz, Magda Gawłowska and Tadeusz Marek. “Occupational Burnout and Its Overlapping Effect with Depression and Anxiety”, International Journal of Occupational Medicine and Environmental Health 19, no. 2 (2019): 230.

[9] A. Shirom, and Y. Ezrachi. “On the Discriminant Validity of Burnout, Depression and Anxiety: A Re-Examination of the Burnout Measure”, Anxiety, Stress & Coping 16 (2003): 93.

[10] ibid.

[1] Israel Galindo, “Clarifying Misunderstandings” in Columbia Connections (2015). (accessed online 1st September, 2021).

[2] ibid.

[3] Michael J. Aufderhar “Family Systems Training and How It Changes Clergy Leadership Attitudes and Practices”, Dissertations (2010): 22. (first accessed 14th October, 2021).

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