EMOTIONAL SYSTEMS, SELF-DIFFERENTIATION, NON-ANXIOUS PRESENCE
- Emotional Systems, Theory
- Emotional Systems and Emotional Intelligence, How are They Alike and Different?
- Resources for Understanding Churches as Emotional Systems
- Resources for Applying Emotional Systems to Congregational Leadership
- Guides for Leaders to Understand Family-of-Origin and Emotional Processes
- Training in Emotional Systems
- Related Resource Guides
Emotional Systems, Theory
A significant block of leadership literature is based on the principles of emotional systems theory. This stresses that leaders are participants in systems of interdependent relationships that create an emotional field or environment. Disruptions to the status quo test the strength of a system, causing it to shift either into unhealthy reactivity on one hand or perhaps productive growth-oriented behaviors on the other. During these times, leaders “influence the field.” They may be highly anxious and push the system into viral behaviors. Or, they may be the “less anxious presence” who provide calm and courageous guidance. The key to being less anxious is self-differentiation, i.e. the ability to remain emotionally connected to anxious people but self-managing enough to remain free of anxious reactivity in themselves. This allows leaders to inspire hope and challenge people to significant levels of growth.
Emotional systems theory says cultures experience periods when anxiety surges and brings widespread uncertainty and unrest. Our era would qualify, some of it due to the radical shifts inherent in postmodernity, and some of it stemming from the unraveling of many institutions and structures that have traditionally provided cultural stability. In these times, people begin to act out their anxieties through extreme, polarizing behaviors that may even come to be regarded as normal. For example, they may staunchly resist change on one hand or champion ill-conceived quick-fix solutions to their problems on the other. Since the demands of growth are so challenging, people become entrenched or “stuck” in unproductive patterns of behavior. This is often protected by an overemphasis on empathy and consensus instead of principle-centered direction. This environment can be toxic for leaders, causing many who lead simply to adapt to immaturity. This is in contrast to the self-differentiated leader who can be “together” with the people’s concerns yet with the emotional capacity to be “separate,” manage one’s own anxiety, and challenge and equip people to grow beyond their present limitations.
Emotional systems is based on the theory of the late Dr. Murray Bowen and the organization that now bears his name, Bowen Center (formerly Georgetown Famil Center). Leaders of churches and other institutions still frequent the center for trainings that have continued long after his death. The application to religious organizations was best expressed by Rabbi Ed Friedman and his landmark text, Generation to Generation: Family Processes in Church and Synagogue. As one of the educators at the Georgetown Center, he impacted many other religious authors.
Emotional Systems and Emotional Intelligence, How are They Alike and Different?
A key to becoming the self-differentiated leader as described in emotional systems theory is to understand the emotional processes learned in one’s family of origin and other life circumstances, and to help others do the same.
A closely related field is Emotional Intelligence (EI), with its leadership expression, Primal/Resonant Leadership. Emotional Systems and EI are similar in that they both deal with emotional processes. They are also different in at least three ways. First, Emotional Systems sees all of our interactions in relationship to others in the system, especially in units such as “triangles.” EI is somewhat more individualistic. Second, Emotional Systems grows out of an interest in the emotional wiring one receives in family-of-origin and early life experiences, and how the use of genograms and other methods increases self-awareness. EI respects these dynamics, but focuses more on skill development to improve a leader’s identification with emotional processes. At the risk of over-simplication, one might say that Emotional Systems focuses on altering behavior from the inside out through understanding one’s deep-seated emotional wiring, and EI focuses on altering behavior at the level of growth exercises. Third, Emotional Systems stresses “self-differentiation” where leaders, while indeed “connected” to others’ emotions, must “separate” by focusing not on others, but on one’s own functioning in the emotional system. EI, on the other hand, stresses identification or “resonance” with the emotional needs of others, and thus functioning as a more empathetic presence. Both make important contributions to the tasks and relationships of leadership.
Resources on Emotional Systems
This Ministry Resource Guide focuses on books that are most useful for congregational leadership. A separate section is devoted to EI Primal/Resonant Leadership. They are listed in alphabetical order, not by preference, as each makes a unique contribution to the field.
Understanding Churches as Emotional Systems:
- Ed Friedman, Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue — The recognized standard on how the emotional processes of congregations reflect the family dynamics of its members, and discusses how leaders who are a “non-anxious” presence may be a resource for positive change.
- Israel Galindo, The Hidden Lives of Congregations: Discerning Church Dynamics — Applies emotional systems to understanding four “hidden” dimensions of congregational life – lifespan, size, spiritual styles, and identity. Also uses systems to redefine the functions of congregational leadership, leading from self, and maintaining the most productive areas of focus.
- Israel Galindo, Perspectives on Congregational Leadership: Applying Systems Thinking for Effective Leadership – Explains the day-to-day dynamics of congregational leadership from a systems perspective.
- Roberta Gilbert’s volumes on Bowen Theory — Gilbert is a recognized authority on emotional systems, and has written at least four helpful volumes on the subject.
- Review and Expositor, Emotional Systems and Church Leadership – The Summer 2005 issue of Review and Expositor (vol. 12, no. 3) was devoted to Bowen system theory and congregational life and leadership. The issue was co-edited by Israel Galindo and Timothy W. Brock. It is an excellent collection of articles.
- Peter L. Steinke, How Your Church Family Works: Understanding Congregations as Emotional Systems and Healthy Congregations: A Systems Approach — Steinke’s foundational works that describe the principles of emotional systems theory that are then applied in his other volume, Congregational Leadership.
Applications of Emotional Systems Theory to Congregational Leadership:
- Jim Herrington, Robert Creech, and Trisha Taylor, The Leader’s Journey: Accepting the Call to Personal and Congregational Transformation — Now in its second edition, this is perhaps the best integration of spiritual formation and emotional systems toward personal transformation and congregational leadership.
- Margaret Marcuson, Leaders Who Last: Sustaining Yourself and Your Ministry — Marcuson was a student of Ed Friedman, and provides some unique features on the subject, especially on knowing and acting on one’s life purpose, avoiding ministry burnout, and leading change.
- John W. Wimberley, Jr., The Business of the Church: The Uncomfortable Truth that Faithful Ministry Requires Effective Management – Uniquely interprets administrative tasks through emotional systems theory.
- Ronald Richardson, Creating a Healthier Church: Family Systems Theory, Leadership, and Congregational Life — Focuses on the emotional processes of congregations. Good observations on how birth order affects leadership style.
- Ronald W. Richardson, Becoming Your Best: A Self-Help Guide for Thinking People (Living Well) – Shows between emotional maturity and integrity, character, and principle. He also stresses that “being good” in this sense is the key to having good relationships.
- Peter L. Steinke, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times: Being Calm and Courageous No Matter What — Provides a well-written, succinct and distinctly church-related distillation of emotional systems theory for church leaders.
- Peter L. Steinke, A Door Set Open: Grounding Change in Mission and Hope — An excellent integration of emotional systems with John P. Kotter’s change theory and Ron Heifetz’ adaptive leadership.
- Ed Friedman, Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix — Friedman describes the tendency of leaders in anxious times to adapt to immaturity, showing “a failure of nerve.” He proposes a strong leadership posture that is connected to others’ emotional processes, but is not so caught up in the swirl of anxiety that leaders refrain from challenging their followers deeply.
Guides for Leaders to Understand Family-of-Origin and Emotional Processes:
- Ronald Richardson, Becoming a Healthier Pastor: Family Systems Theory and the Pastor’s Own Family — Explains how the emotional processes of one’s family of origin influence leadership capacity, and provides self-guided exercises for assessment and growth.
- Peter Scazzero and Warren Bird, The Emotionally Healthy Church: A Strategy for Discipleship That Actually Changes Lives. Expanded Edition – This text, alongside the companion volume, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality are excellent integrations of psychology and contemplative spirituality.
Training in Emotional Systems
- Healthy Congregations Workshops, Peter L. Steinke and Emlyn Ott – Not long after the publication of Healthy Congregations and How Your Church Family Works, Dr. Steinke worked with Lutheran Churches and Lutheran Brotherhood Insurance (now Thrivent) to design a series of equipping workshops to teach the concepts of emotional systems. The result was Healthy Congregations, Inc., led originally by Steinke, and after his retirement by Dr. Emlyn Ott. The ongoing purpose of the organization is to provide training, consultation, and education in emotional process as it relates to community and congregational systems. They offer several workshops and other educational events that apply emotional systems to congregational life. In addition to the workshops, those interested may become facilitators through intenstive training.
- Bowen Center for the Study of the Family, Georgetown Family Center
- Lombard Mennonite Peace Center
- Center for Family Process
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