Parish priests find themselves thoroughly embedded in families. In nearly everything they do, parochial clergy are dealing not just with individuals but with family units as a whole. Baptisms, weddings, and funerals are the quintessential “nodal events” in the lives of the extended families who attend them and are explicitly multigenerational. Even the more quotidian tasks of dealing with Sunday School systems, stewardship campaigns, and visiting hospital rooms involve families. Furthermore, the parish conflicts and crises in which clergy become embroiled have a family dimension when one only scratches the surface. Families are the setting for the generation, transmission, and management of anxiety, and they bring this anxiety into the parish family of which they are members.
Parochial clergy have a variety of approaches available to them to negotiate the challenge of pastoral care and leadership in a family-based system like a parish. Unhappily, most of them are unhelpful at best and often deleterious to the health of the parish and especially its clergy and their families. In my judgment, the way of thinking provided by Dr. Murray Bowen — Bowen Family Systems Theory, or “Bowen Theory,” for short — offers a way forward for parish clergy to be faithful to Jesus and helpful to their parishioners while also fulfilling their primary responsibility to be a loving and leading presence in their own families.
First, I will speak to the negative reasons for orthodox clergy to explore Bowen Theory. To start, unlike approaches like Freudian theory, Jungian theory, and a host of other psychotherapeutic systems, one does not need to buy into a non- or even anti-Christian mythology in order to “think [Bowen] Theory.” I have never seen a “superego” or “id” displayed on a PET scan or MRI of the brain. Anatomical structures, yes; personality structures, no. Nor am I aware of any archetypes being unearthed by archaeologists in the sands of the Fertile Crescent. Pottery shards and stone foundations, yes; a Hero, Rebel, or Innocent, no. These common psychological systems are based on artistic intuitions that, while brilliant, are completely unverified empirically. One is reminded of 2 Peter 1:16: “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths … ” Psychologists must be forced to acknowledge the lack of science behind their assumptions, and indeed, few are strictly “Freudian” or “Jungian” anymore. More common is “eclecticism,” which is a short-hand for ad hoc attempts to make it up as they go along. Priests and their people deserve better.
Additionally, both psychology and its scientific cousin, psychiatry, focus on the individual as the locus of disease, dysfunction, or misbehavior. The holy scripture of psychiatry, the DSM-IV (soon to be V), is a handbook of diagnosis: that is, of one individual — an “expert” — standing outside and above another individual — the “patient” — and telling them what’s wrong with them. Like a parody of the medieval confessor’s manuals, the DSM-IV functions as a prop to a one-up, one-down system that renders the patient de-selfed to the degree that they are willing to agree with the evaluation of the expert that they are diseased. Dysfunction is the scientific replacement for sin; and there ain’t no grace in their game. As followers of Jesus, we have the promise of being new creations: diagnosis can never be allowed to have the last word. Perhaps it shouldn’t even have the first.
Christians may use Bowen Theory in good conscience because it is stripped of alien mythology and metaphysic. It begins with the attempt to describe, as factually as possible, the discrete behaviors and symptoms that are occurring not just within an individual, but within the network of emotionally significant relationships (called a “system”). There are categories provided to short-hand the most common behaviors — conflict, distance, cut-off, etc. — but these are descriptive rather than diagnostic. There are no “experts” in Bowen Theory — you can’t read Rabbi Friedman and start giving seminars (though some try) — but rather practitioners, those who are spending just as much energy on increasing contact with their extended family as they are on coaching others to do the same. “Thinking systems” means actually getting better connected to the emotional systems of which one is a part, one’s own family first and foremost. One does not define a stronger self, or a greater capacity to choose a more thoughtful course, through a gnostic insight or some “closure” gained from a therapist, but from a sustained effort to be present and accounted for in one’s family. One cannot have a growing parish and a ruined family and present oneself as “differentiated leader.” Like the Anglican pursuit of sanctification, Bowen Theory is relational, incarnational, and a life-long process.
Bowen practitioners hold conferences in which scientists from the fields of biology, genetics, and zoology are invited to present data in which much human behavior is shown to be rooted not in philosophical abstractions but in the life we share with primates and eukaryotic bacteria. Bowen Theory drills down into behavioral dynamics that are rooted in the Creation, itself. Christians do not need to develop a theological histamine response against a theory that says, “Just the facts, ma’am.”
Murray Bowen sought to make each client who came to him an expert in his/her own family. Bowen Theory practitioners eschew the dependence on “authority” that the individual focus in psychology and psychiatry encourages. In Bowen Theory, our own families are the best manual we’ll ever have to learn about ourselves. To become knowledgeable about one’s own family and its empirical behavior patterns and to be able to use this knowledge to improve one’s functioning in all one’s relationships is the goal of Bowen Theory. Rather than working in the polarities of health/disease, sane/sick, well/dysfunctional, Dr. Bowen posited a scale of differentiation of self — a continuum of the ability to thoughtfully respond to life’s challenges and the thinking and emotions of others. On the one hand, Bowen’s skepticism about our ability to manage our emotions effectively would be friendly to those whose theological tastes run to innate depravity. One the other hand, Bowen’s commitment to the improvement of functioning in even the most symptomatic families — such as those with schizophrenia or child abuse — would strangely warm the Arminian heart.
Bowen Theory encourages the humility commended in the apostolic counsels. The Apostle John reminds us, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). Instead of the one-up/one-down of diagnosis there is coaching, instead. One cannot use Bowen Theory to get over on someone, to diagnose them, to dismiss them, to make them lesser than, and still be “thinking Theory.” Bowen Theory, properly pursued, works against thinking “of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment” (Rom. 12:3). We are all up against something in our efforts to be more mature, faithful, and Christ-like. Bowen Theory pushes a priest away from judgmental diagnosis: “well, they’re just a jerk/bipolar/sinful.” Rather a pastor might think, “I wonder what they’re up against in this situation.” Murray Bowen told a client in a taped interview session something that has greatly challenged and deepened my spirituality: “You can’t be mad at someone if you really get to know them.” Believe me, I get mad, but when by God’s grace I calm down a little bit, I can ask myself, “how can I get to know them better?” I wonder if this is how we develop the mind of Christ in our work as a parish priest — getting to know the folks better as Christ knows them in his forgiving love.
I call Bowen Theory “proverbial wisdom” for Christians because my experience has led me to believe that it can function in much the same way for us in pastoral care and leadership as the wisdom literature functions in the canon of Scripture. It simply wants to describe the world as it is, as we live in it — with all its beauty, foolishness, and enigma — and help us live in it “better,” more wisely, more in tune with how the whole thing rolls, more given to life and its flourishing. Like the Book of Proverbs, Bowen Theory doesn’t make a whole lot of metaphysical claims and its wisdom doesn’t come easily or quickly. If you like “Thou shalt/Thou shalt nots,” you’ll be frustrated by Bowen Theory’s reticence in giving moral directives. However, I have found that Bowen Theory helps me apply the Scriptures in my family and vocational life more compassionately, lovingly, and patiently. I encourage you to consider picking up Murray Bowen’s Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, getting a coach who is working on it him/herself, and scheduling some visits with your family (in that order). Like wisdom, Bowen Theory is calling to Christian clergy searching for a better path — let us attend!
The featured image of Murray Bowen was taken by Andrea Schara and is available on her website.