My spring semester begins!
Super Tuesday Eve

Becoming a healthier pastor

The first reading for Reb Goldie's Pastoral Care Intensive class was Ronald Richardson's Becoming a Healthier Pastor: Family Systems Theory and the Pastor’s Own Family. Caveat lector: it may be that if you are neither clergy, nor studying to become clergy, nor engaged in one of the "helping professions," this won't be especially engaging to you! But I found it to be a fascinating read.

Family systems theory "is a theory of human behavior that views the family as an emotional unit and uses systems thinking to describe the complex interactions in the unit." Basically, the idea is that families aren't just agglomerations of individuals; they're systems, and each of us plays a part in how her/his family of origin functions.  Coming to understand the system that is my family of origin can help me relate to that family in a healthier way -- which will in turn help me enact my ministry in a healthier way, because congregations often replicate family dynamics. As Richardson puts 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." Right.

Figuring out the various undercurrents of my family-of-origin is, in a sense, an exercise in self-differentiation, which isn't always easy or comfortable. "[W]orking on differentiation of self is like taking your little sailboat out on to the lake when a storm is brewing, hoping to learn something both about storms and yourself and about how to manage your boat in a storm." (That's Richardson quoting Michael Kerr, by the by.)

Over the course of the book, Richardson tackles topics like "the pastor's own emotional system and unresolved emotional attachment," the importance of differentiation of self (and the ways in which excessive distance between family members can be just as unhealthy as excessive closeness), the challenges of developing a new view of one's family of origin, and how to manage reactivity and expectations. He talks a lot about triangles within families (when two people relate by talking about a third person) and about the stories we've learned to tell about who our families are and why.

Richardson is clearly a strong proponent of pastors doing family-of-origin work, though he stresses a few times that this work may not be for everyone. Part of what I like about this book, though, is that he doesn't stop there. I read him as saying that pastors ought to do this work in order that our own relationships with our families might be healthier, in order that we might deal with our communities in healthier ways, and in order that we might be able to bring this work to those in our communities who would benefit from doing it themselves. In other words, this isn't purely navel-gazing; it's supposed to ripple outwards, making our communities healthier places to be. 

Doing our family-of-origin work is the primary way we grow and become more emotionally mature and healthier persons. But as John Donne said, our lives are not "complete and entire" of themselves. Especially as pastors, we are closely connected to a community of people in which their health and ours are closely intertwined. As we grow and develop emotionally, so will they.

I did a lot of underlining in my copy of the book, sometimes because he'd made a point I found interesting, and other times because he'd said something that made me wince a little in self-recognition. I'd like to think I don't fall prey to any of the pitfalls he describes, but it's clear to me that we all do. I'm guessing those of us who are clergy or studying to become clergy will find the book particularly resonant, but I found myself tempted, as I was reading it, to recommend it to other people in my life because there's so much interesting stuff here.  If anyone reading this post has also read the book, I'm curious to know whether it resonated for you as it did for me -- and also where you locate yourself on the religious spectrum (e.g. are you religious, are you clergy, are you Christian -- and if not, were those aspects of the book challenging for you?)

Toward the end of the book, Richardson started using a coaching metaphor, which is where I'll end this post. (Seems only fitting, given that today is Superbowl Sunday.) Murray Bowen, he explains, liked to think of his form of psychotherapy as "coaching" rather than therapy, and this can be a useful mental image for clergyfolk, too:

Good coaches are well connected to their teams and know the strengths and liabilities of their players. They are interested in the lives of their players, not just in their athletic skills. They can see the bigger picture. They can look at the field from the wide-angle, more distant perspective. They also know the playbook. They have studied the dynamics of the game and the moves of the opposing team. They have a sense of the whole as well as the individual parts.

(Does anyone else out there automatically think of Coach Eric Taylor, reading that, or is it just me?) Our aim, as pastors, isn't to tell our congregants how to feel or how to change, but to ask good questions that might help them see things more clearly, and to support them in the growth they're willing and able to do. "In the coaching image, our parishioners are their own stars; they are the heroes of their own stories," he writes. And the better we can understand our own stories, the better a job we might be able to do of helping others come to terms with theirs, in a healthy and productive way.

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