By Rob Price

I attended a clergy conference several years ago in which a judicatory official gave a presentation on how he planned to respond to a contested issue in the denomination. He wore a different colored shirt from the rest of the clergy present, signifying his office. He spoke from an elevated platform behind a lectern while we sat in chairs on the floor. He had the benefit of a sound system, which allowed him to speak in a conversational voice and still be heard. No microphones were present on the floor, which would require an audience member to raise her voice in way that would sound strident if she wanted to be heard by all. At the end of the presentation, the official said, “Now we’ll have some time for questions. You can tell me how you feel about this — I don’t care, really [to scattered chuckles in the audience] — but share if you need to.” After the session, I approached the speaker directly and gently raised my concerns with the tone of his talk, especially the “invitation” at the end. Knowing me and my interest in Bowen Theory, he replied, “What? Too differentiated for you?”

Bowen Family Systems Theory was developed by Dr. Murray Bowen through his work as a family therapist in a career lasting from the 50s through his death in 1990. Instead of seeing psychiatric, medical, or social symptoms as a sickness located within the individual who has been identified by themselves, their family, or the medical profession as the “patient,” Bowen saw these symptoms as signs pointing to distortions within the shared emotional life of the nuclear and extended family. This is what made his perspective “systemic.” The essential source of these distortions — which Bowen described as conflict, distance, triangles, under/overfunctioning, cut off, and family projection — is anxiety, which is managed by the family as a whole and passed from one to another like volts in an electrical current. In Bowen’s thinking, differentiation is a way of talking about an individual’s ability to manage their own emotions and stay true to their goals and principles while staying in meaningful contact with others who may be more anxious than oneself and/or possess different principles, values, and goals.

The incident with which I began illustrates a larger pattern that I have noticed when clergy speak about their relationships with their parishes. Pastors frequently complain about being “enmeshed” with their congregations and describe their mighty struggle to be “differentiated” leaders. When I follow up with questions about what has been going in the life of the parish, their efforts generally translate into a desire — typically inspired by a first reading of Rabbi Ed Friedman’s Generation to Generation — to get some distance from the people they lead. This desire is frequently spiritualized with the label “prophetic.” The goal is to be a leader who stands apart from and often against the congregation as one speaks truth to power and bravely struggles against people’s efforts to “sabotage” one’s initiatives. When conflict inevitably ensues from being a “change agent,” the prophetic pastor remains a “non-anxious presence” in the face of the dysfunctional behaviors of individuals or shadowy groups in the “sick” congregation.

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I think an important mark of differentiation within the framework of Bowen Theory would be the ability to articulate what one believes and what one intends to do or not do precisely while being connected to the emotional life of others (one’s family or congregation). A well-differentiated person would actually care more about how others are responding to his thinking even while remaining committed to his principled course of action. A more differentiated person would be better able to be objective about her own immaturities and how they influence her thinking and behaviors, and thus both be more open to feedback and more able to discern that which is constructive — and not be thrown off course by that which is not, even and especially if it is given in the form of praise. Stating that one “doesn’t care” about what others think is actually a sign that one cares too much, that the response of others is actually more liable to throw one off course. It indicates an emotional posture that is distant, not differentiated.

In my judgment, many clergy underestimate the extent to which they have a “one-up” position and how the interlocking triangles in their congregation may actually distance them from the congregation.[1] I suspect that their frustrations implementing their programmatic ideas may result of having too little — not too much — relational contact with members of their church.

Clergy who have undergone denominational sexual abuse prevention training are familiar with the concept of a “power differential” between themselves and members of their congregation. This term is applied primarily to one-on-one pastoral situations and the abuse of power that results in a sexual relationship. But my experience with the judicatory official’s speaking posture clarified my thinking about the systemic and cumulative effect of congregants’ Sunday morning experience. During the vast majority of the time in worship, the pastor is viewed and heard by the congregation in the midst of a performance. Clergy are listed in the leaflet by their title, even if they encourage people to call them by their given name in an attempt to be informal. In liturgical traditions they wear special clothes (costumes?) that mark them as possessing authority. They speak from a literally elevated position, be it stage or pulpit, placing them several steps up. Even in small churches they usually have the benefit of a sound system that defies the natural boundary of physical distance by putting their conversational voice in the ear of every attender. If a pastor does the math involving the sheer number of hours they are experienced this way by the congregation versus the hours that they spend in private conversation, they may discover themselves to be primarily a performer. Any of the preacher’s advantages listed above likely would serve to create a one-up position with any individual member of the parish. Taken together, they create an emotional distance with the congregation that can only be mitigated, not overcome.

The performer role certainly carries functional benefits in the life of a group, otherwise it would not be so ubiquitous! These would include the ability to: focus the congregation’s attention on a common task or challenge, facilitate the handing on of traditions and core teachings, and process the congregation’s experiences from a slightly more objective perspective. However, being the catalyst of abiding, growth-inducing change that lasts beyond the individual pastor’s tenure in the congregation requires emotional connection with the congregation. Good preaching may assist in the project, but it also carries with it dynamics that create a headwind against good relational connection.

I have come to understand that in many settings outside what takes place on Sunday morning, we clergy may face an emotional space as wide as that between the pulpit and the back pew. To close that gap requires intentional time and effort to develop one-to-one relationships with church members, particularly leaders, if I want to lead them in a change to the status quo. What I mean by “one-to-one” is a relationship in which meaningful contact has been made (I like the vernacular phrase, “doing life”) on an interpersonal basis, apart from the tasks or issues of the congregation. Another way to put it would be to ask, “Have I spent time learning about how individual parishioners think and behave in their most important relationships?”

Another, unseen (and thus more powerful) way in which preaching distances a pastor from the congregation comes into play after the service — in the coffee hour, the parking lot, the committee meeting, the grocery store, and, nowadays, on social media. The pastor may receive some “Nice sermon” comments as people leave, but clergy must also grapple with the reality that much of the response to their performance will be given to others, about them. This means that every sermon puts the pastor into as many emotional triangles as there are people who talk to each other about it afterwards, and she is always in the outside/distant angle of that triangle. Whether two parishioners share with one another their pride in belonging to a congregation with such a talented pastor, or share an intimacy based on their common complaint about the length/politics/style/theology of the sermon — that is, whether the response is positive or negative — the performer is on the outside of that conversation, and more emotional distance is placed between both those conversing and their pastor. The more intense the reaction — good or bad — the greater the distance. Thus, a pastor can be perceived as “larger than life,” which is a way to express a positive distance with the congregation, or a “pot-stirrer,” which points in the opposite direction.

When pastors like me say that we “love to preach,” part of what we may be saying is I am most comfortable precisely in that one-up, distant position in the emotional system. I wonder if part of what pastors who “don’t like to preach” may be saying is that a one-up, distant position feels uncomfortable — perhaps dangerous, vulnerable, or impermissible. Either way, one’s “relationship” with preaching can be taken back into one’s family of origin in an effort to be more responsible and effective within one’s vocational context. Some questions to ask oneself might be: to what extent has my sibling position made it more or less comfortable to instruct others? Where did I learn to think for others? How did the child focus in my family of origin make me more or less comfortable with others paying attention to me? What role does distance play in my family’s management of anxiety?

As I have embarked upon years of work on myself in my family of origin, I have gained a better understanding of how I tend to default to the outside angle of the triangle, even if that carries significant costs in the long-term. Whether the congregation is throwing roses or rotten tomatoes at me (or both at the same time), I am more comfortable being “on stage” than “close up.” I tend to seek the distance of the performer and I recognize that purposeful work is required for me to form relationships with parishioners that are one-to-one. When my programmatic initiatives failed to be accepted or gain traction beyond a few early adopters, I used to assume I hadn’t explained it well or persuasively enough (doubling down on distance), or that the congregation just couldn’t or didn’t want to hear me (the suffering — and distant — prophet). I have learned to ask myself, “With whom have I failed to meet?” or “What relationships have I not appropriately sustained?” or “Where am I especially on the outside angle?” I can always benefit from thinking through the triangles that I’m not seeing by virtue of my role as a performer.

On my good days, I am more humble both about how “connected” I am to the congregation and how effective the sermons I preach can be in creating “change.” Both connection and greater maturity take time and a relational context deeper than those more comfortable with a distant posture would wish. Thinking through theory in one’s family and parish systems and working on one’s own maturity in the former can enable a pastor to lessen the distance in the triangles in which he finds himself, and — just maybe — result in performances that come closer to achieving their desired end.

The Very Rev. Robert (Rob) Price is Dean of St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Dallas, Texas.


This article is based on an essay that first appeared in Family Systems Forum.

[1] In Bowen Theory, a triangle is formed when two people are speaking or thinking about a third person as a way of forming a closer relationship to each other, often outside the awareness of the object of their praise or concern. This has the result of the one in the “outside angle” becoming more emotionally distant from and unable to connect with the others, especially if the first two share their speaking, thinking, or acting as a secret. Frequently found triangles are: two parents discussing/worrying about a child; two workmates complaining about a third; a marital affair; a politician and a crowd forming a “we” to solve a problem in/with “them”

About The Author

The Very Rev. Robert (Rob) Price is Dean of St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Dallas, Texas.

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