We often refer to the church, especially on the local level, as a family. And we do so for a variety of reasons: we call each other “brother” and “sister,” we spend time with one another during times of both joy and sorrow, and we even squabble occasionally.
Therefore, can a family systems theory be applied in a church setting?
Family systems theory
The family systems theory originated in the 1950s. Therapists viewed a client’s anomalies and troubles in the context of family mores. Unhealth in a person represented wider unhealth in the family system.1 Given this, the family systems theory was developed.
System may be defined as “ ‘an organized method or procedure for accomplishing something’ ” and as “ ‘a set of interrelated parts, working independently and jointly, in pursuit of common objectives of the whole, within a complex environment.’ ”2 Systems are not just heaps, lumps, or parts. They are characterized by relationships, logical connections, order, and pattern.
What are the implications of this? Our culture shapes us. Moreover, the subculture or subsystem of our biological family diligently trains us in “anomalies” that become ingrained habits. To this end, organizations and therapists are now taking systems theory seriously.3 Such can be applied to church life as well.
Biblical basis for family system theory
Among the foremost to use the image of the family in describing the workings of the church is the apostle Paul (Gal. 6:10; 1 Cor. 3; 4:15; 1 Thess. 2:7; Rom. 16:5; Philem. 2; 1 Pet. 4:17; 1 Tim. 3:15), who regards himself as a “father” to the congregations he established (1 Cor. 4:15). He applies maternal imagery to the church (Gal. 4:19, TLB) and includes other leaders, both men and women, in the parental role (1 Thess. 2:11; Philem. 10; Rom. 16: 1, 2, 7).
In the early church, believers met in homes, which explains why Paul often greeted the congregations that met in various “households” in the manner he did (Rom. 16:5; 1 Cor. 1:11; Col. 4:15). The outgrowth of such home experiences was similar to the natural family cohesiveness and fellowship experienced by literal and functional families. No wonder Paul encouraged believers to be hospitable to all, especially to the family of believers (Gal. 6:10).
At times, the first century believers had issues similar to modern-day families, leading Paul to lament the subsystems at war (1 Cor.1:11, 12).
Early believers, then, thought of themselves in familylike terms long before Paul applied such nomenclature to them. Thus, we recognize him as the promoter, not the originator, of kinship language.
Opportunities and strengths to realize “ideals” for the church lie within our grasp as we apply family therapy to congregational settings. Observe Cosgrove and Hatfield: “In making the congregation a spiritual family, the Spirit calls it to reform its natural family life in accord with the new humanity in Christ.”4 Indeed we are to more closely align ourselves to the prayer of Christ that we all may be one (John 17:21).
The informal family structure in the church
An informal structure can shape interpersonal and congregational relationships in churches in negative ways. “Behind the official systems of the local church (its offices, boards, committees, etc.) there is another system, a familylike system, which greatly shapes the way church members relate to one another, do business together, care for one another, and fight with one another.”5 Therefore, understanding the church’s informal structure assists in conflict resolution. For instance, the one who has authority easily settles in secular organizations. Not so in church.
This happens because the church is a volunteer organization. Members are important stakeholders in this organization and feel they “own” the church. As such, they feel they have a right to be in charge. Norman Shawchuck notes: “Conflict erupts . . . when one or two people or a particular group believe they should be in charge. A hotbed for trouble exists when 25 or 100 people feel they own the programs and personnel of the church.”6
Every church, in its informal structure, assigns members various roles. This informal structure is best interpreted through the metaphor of the family, according to Cosgrove and Hatfield. The roles assigned to individuals have nothing to do with age, maturity, or even official responsibility given in the church. These roles center around the position of power attained by the individual in the informal structure and then becomes the church’s perception of and the respect naturally given to individuals.
For example, the pastor of the church is the designated leader; however, the functioning or recognized leader may be Grandfather Jones who wields great infl uence in the church. With the leader assigned the parental role, the pastor could actually be considered a child in the system.
As it relates to the informal structure, we need to define these terms: parent, child, independent child, and parental child. The “parent” enjoys informal authority. As in many Western families, “parents” in church are the major decision makers. Whether or not they are part of officialdom does not matter. This person enjoys almost unlimited power unless others attained parity status (there can be other “parents” in the congregation).
What makes the difference between “parents” and “children” can be summarized in one word: deference. Children defer to parents. In a sense, children assume the role of followers, and some people are comfortable with that role. They do not want to bear the responsibilities of leadership.
Like older siblings entrusted with the care of younger children in literal families, parental children bear similar responsibilities in the informal structure. They enjoy limited measures of authority. In other words, others defer to them. Unlike independent children, parental children recognize and defer to the parents in the congregational family system; but they are not the decision makers. Like independent children, who have no parental responsibilities or obligations to any other “babies,” some parental children eventually become parents.
Alongside the roles congregations assign individuals, ministers need to recognize the unspoken rules of their congregations if they are to deal effectively with the congregational system. One of the unspoken rules in church is tolerating “troublemakers.” They are symptomatic of the wider unhealth in the congregational system. What happens in the system that gives rise to these “problem people”? Are there times when they are beneficial? Could this be the reason churches tolerate them? “Systems tolerate troublemakers not only to avoid open conflict but also because the group perceives that it derives some benefit from the offending persons and perhaps from their ‘unacceptable’ behavior.”7
Take the case of the Sable Valley Community Church.8 From the beginning, Pastor Peter Wells was warned by many parishioners about the couple, John and Jane Reever. They had literally blocked and frustrated the ministries of former pastors. At first glance, the congregation did not find their behavior acceptable. Yet, three years later, after prayerfully and carefully applying Matthew 18:15–20, Pastor Wells found his and the church board’s recommendation voted down by the church family.
Why did the church not deal with this couple? Overtly, the parents in Sable Valley Community Church claimed that they believed in evangelism and growth in membership. Realistically, they did not.
If Pastor Wells was familiar with the family systems theory, he would not have gone blindly into battle with this couple. He would have known that the “parents” aren’t the church board. Hence, they could not effectively influence the church’s decision. We can avoid such pitfalls by applying mapping—a strategic intervention tool in the family systems theory.
Mapping provides clear pictures of the rules (games) of congregations and the assigned status of congregants. It is the barometer of the informal church structure, giving a description of this structure at a particular time. “Spiritual mapping is nothing more ethereal than creating a spiritual profile of a community based on careful research,” writes Art Moore, who quotes George Otis Jr., president of the Sentinel Group.9 Often the ones we think are “parents” in the informal system may not necessarily be so. Keep in mind that parental children take orders from parents yet enjoy measures of authority in the church.
Church leaders are encouraged to map. To begin, one must take a conflict event, covert or overt, and re-create the event, recalling all events leading up to it. Human beings are complex and not always consistent in their actions. It means, therefore, to frequently consult our maps to update and properly read the congregational system. We want to correctly identify congregants’ status.
Restructuring the system
In carefully profiling members, ministers’ energies are concentrated in areas most needed. They can carefully strategize to deal with the unofficial structure in the church.Our overall objective concentrates on restructuring the system so that the church family can handle conflict constructively. Here are four recommended strategies:
The first is affiliation. “Affiliation means identifying oneself positively with a subsystem, whether a person or a group.”10 Influencing a tyrannical parent in the informal structure may mean that you affirm their good work. Affiliation is played out in one of three ways: affirmation, sympathy, and identification with the objective to retrain members and move from enmity to amity.
Another strategy to employ is unbalancing tactics. Again, the systems theory informs us that every system seeks balance. When a church is thrown into disequilibrium, it will do everything to “fix” the problem—to maintain balance.11 Unbalancing tactics is, however, an opportunity to change—to restructure the system.
One such unbalancing tactic is coalition. “As a pastoral strategy, the aim of such a coalition is to unbalance the system so that it can restructure itself in a way that eliminates the warfare between the two subsystems.”12 For instance, an “undesirable” in a group now enjoys greater levels of acceptance because a strong “desirable” aligns to such a one. The system has changed; it seeks “balance,” because the stronger helps the weaker.
In board meetings, I have engaged the more silent members. At times, prior to such meetings, I have assisted them in determining what to say. And the more vocal ones, the parents, have a brand-new respect for them.
A third strategy to employ in the informal structure is called marking boundaries. This theory suggests that in the formative period of human interaction, patterns of leadership and exchanges are developed. Conflict situations develop because unfair boundaries (unfair roles) are assigned to individuals: unchecked and unchallenged, they feel inadequate. Therefore, gifts that God has endowed are not effectively used.
Parents in the informal structure often invite another to be a child. In his first week in his new pastorate, Pastor Larry Daniels13 was asked by a church member to return a Christian movie to the local movie store. He responded to the situation, immediately and appropriately, by declining to do so. He first commended the member (who was acting the part of a parent giving out an assignment), who had left that note on his desk, and then clarified roles. Clearly, ministers and parishioners have different roles to play. Early on, Pastor Daniels marked the boundaries. In effect, he was saying, “I am not a child—I will not accept the invitation to be one.”
Joining is the final strategy. Pastors who are marginalized and hindered in their ministry, should make this strategic intervention a priority in order to rightly “join” the family. Joining, as interpreted through the eyes of affiliation, involves at least two things: affirmation and identification. Cosgrove and Hatfield state: “Affirmation means expressing appreciation and praise to others for the things we value about them. Identification means discovering and matching similarities between ourselves and others. As a strategy of joining, identification also means adopting the ways of the family.”14
Adopting the ways of the family is the basis for my participation in church social events such as birthday parties and church family fun day. I participate, having adapted to the ways of the family, wanting to be a family member and an effective servant-leader.
Although it takes hard work, these strategies can be employed in the informal structure to foster more wholesome relations.
The challenge of the body of Christ is to allow the Lord to make it the head and not the tail (Deut. 28:13). As the world experiences a paradigm shift in thinking and practice, we are not to be lingering. System thinking is becoming standard practice for care providers. Christ’s body can ill afford conflicts, especially major and debilitating ones, without interventions. Mandated to peacekeeping, God’s people must, in proactive fashion, interweave into their daily experiences and contacts all the truths into which the Holy Spirit guides. Shall we not then embrace family systems approaches?
1 Charles Cosgrove and Dennis Hatfield, Church Conflict: The
Hidden Systems Behind Fights (Nashville: Abingdon Press,
2 William A. Shrode and Dan Voich Jr., Organization and
Management: Basic Systems Concepts (Homewood, IL:
Richard D. Irwin, Inc., 1974), 122, quoted in “Governance
and conflict management/resolution systems,” Developing
and Sustaining Conflict Management Systems as Instruments
of Governance, 2001, p.1 of 11; prepared by CDR Associates,
et. al, in cooperation with The United Nations Department
of Economic and Social Affairs Governance and Public
Administration Branch; available from http://upan1.un.org/
pdf, accessed November 30, 2005.
3 Mac Dominick, “Outcome-Based Religions: Purpose-Driven
Apostasy,” Outcome-Based Religion: Purpose, Apostasy, &
The New Paradigm Church, quoted in “General Systems
Theory,” Church Growth and Management, available from
htm, accessed November 30, 2005.
4 Cosgrove and Hatfield, 19.
5 Ibid., 5.
6 Norman Shawchuck, “Staying Cool When the Heat’s On:
Causes and Cures for Conflict,” available from, http://
accessed November 30, 2005.
7 Cosgrove and Hatfield, 96.
8 Ibid., 95–99. Names are pseudonyms.
9 Art Moore, “Church Growth: Spiritual Mapping Gains
Credibility Among Leaders,” Christianity Today, January 12,
1998, quoted in “Spiritual mapping,” Church Growth and
Management, available from http://www.crossroad.to/
glossary/church-growth-mission.htm, accessed November
10 Cosgrove and Hatfield, 133.
11 Ibid., 137.
13 A Pseudonym.
14 Cosgrove and Hatfield, 179.