Murray Bowen was one of the most influential psychiatrists of the 20th century. His family systems theory, also known as Bowen theory, has largely replaced a great deal of Freudian psychology in the West. The basic concept of Bowen’s therapeutic approach is that the family (as well as any group of persons) is an emotional unit. As a unit, a change in any one of the members results in the others members compensating for the emotional functioning that has been altered. Like touching one part of the spider web, the entire thing shakes. The contribution, importance, and focus of Bowen’s theory was that rather than trying to change the other person, one can change him/herself without becoming part of the problem. The theory states that if any family member can change his or her emotional functioning within the system, the whole family will improve its corporate functioning in response to that change. In other words, we must learn to function in a healthy way within the family system. Personal transformation becomes the best approach to handling family crises and problems.
Bowen was not thinking of churches when working with his clients, but applying family systems theory to the church is not a stretch. It almost sounds like Dr. Bowen was fresh off a congregational meeting when he said: “The human is a narcissistic creature who lives in the present and who is more interested in his own square inch of real estate, and more devoted to fighting for his rights than in the multigenerational meaning of life itself. As the human throng becomes more violent and unruly, there will be those who survive it all…. I think the differentiation of self (remaining connected to others, yet separate from their problems) may well be one concept that lives into the future.”
In a crisis or presenting problem in society or the church, just as in a family, mounting anxiety moves intensely around unhealthy ways of relating. Polarized factions take the spotlight and think only of their emotionally based interpretations of the facts. They fail to see the big picture or look at the welfare of the common good. All they can see is their angle on the unpleasant situation or person. Thinking becomes reductionist, and hearts harden. Everyone ends up looking like a stooge.
Whatever you think of Bowen’s theory, it is not hard to discern that anxiety plays a major role in many individuals, families, and even churches. When worry and anxiety take over a person or group of people, things become emotionally charged. Hence, the church is an emotional unit. Typically, the response to anything we don’t like is to try and change the other person who is rocking the boat or upsetting the status quo web of relationships. But maybe the Apostle Paul was onto all this emotional stuff well before the 20th century: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer an petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7).
Learning to manage our own anxiety and deal with the incessant worry within ourselves is imperative to coping with relational problems in the church. It is the peace of God, and not the peace of others that makes the difference. We are people that are all for change – that is, we want others to change so that we do not have to. But the Christian is to conform to Jesus, and not the other way around. Because the Lord is near to us, we have a consistent and continual presence to anchor ourselves, no matter whether the circumstances are to my liking, or not. So, prayer becomes the means of casting anxiety away so that peace can take its place. Sounds easy – it is anything but.
It is human to want everything and everyone to change when there are problems, adversity, or challenge. But the change most needed is quite personal, and it is only ourselves that we can change. Therefore, our focus must be on finding ways to remain connected to God and others without resorting to passive-aggressive tactics, cutting-off relationships altogether, or bullying others into changing with our violent or manipulative words.
When faced with unwanted change and/or difficult circumstances, rather than looking for an alteration from others, try asking yourself one of these questions:
· What is a small step that I can take to improve my situation?
· If I were guaranteed not to make the situation worse, what would I be doing differently?
· Is there a person in my life whose voice and input I haven’t heard in a long time? What small question could I ask them to help me in my situation?
· What is one good thing about this situation I find myself in?
· What is one positive trait I possess that can serve me well in this situation?
Are there other questions you could ask that would be helpful? A journey that seems like a thousand miles must begin with one step. What will that step be?