Going Beyond Family Systems Theory in the Interim Process

Interim ministers and religious educators are transitional specialists who commonly work with a congregation for a short period of time as the congregation navigates the complicated network of transition between clergy and professional lay leadership.  Interim ministry is built on the common understanding that church communities are complicated systems of people with different ideas, thoughts, and emotions.  It may seem like the departure of one religious leader and the entrance of another should be a simple process; but the multiple layers of human experience and emotion response make this process more complicated.  It is important to honor the confusion, self-doubt, grief, anger, and fear that is embedded in transitions.  When done well, interim ministry does this with patience, compassion, and a non-anxious presence. 

The creation of this interim ministry model in the 1970’s was built on an understanding of family systems theory.  Family systems theory as it is outlined by Murray Bowen and Edwin Friedman sees the family as a tightly connected system where all parts affect the other.  When one member or small group within the family interacts in positive emotional ways, it affects the entire family system for the better.  On the other side, when one member or small group within the family interactions in negative or dysfunctional emotional ways, it introduces challenging influences on the entire family.   Navigating family systems is something we all do in our immediate and extended family. 

This theory has been successfully translated to congregations who often interact like a family.  And for several decades, this theory which studies the multiple layers of interconnectedness and historical trauma has helped congregations understand why transitions between clergy and other religious leaders are more complicated.  Congregations experience confusion, self-doubt, grief, anger, and fear just like families when navigating transitions. This is a good theory, and it has served congregations well for almost fifty years. 

But it is important to note that these theories developed by well-established, economically secure, white men who possibly received more attention because of their race, gender, and economic status.  Is it possible that there are other voices that do not receive as much immediate attention that can also speak to the underlying systems of congregations?  Over the past several years, I have made it a point to dig deeper and find some of these diverse, astute voices who look at systems in different ways.  What I have found is a gift beyond imagination.  This is the first of several blogs I will write exploring these gifts. I look forward to exploring with you. If you have a thought or question, please leave a comment. I believe that the conversation is the best part of blogging!

-Michele Townsend Grove (Townsend Grove Consulting and Coaching townsendgrove@gmail.com)

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