A Structural Family Therapy Approach to Addressing Conflict in a Congregation
Just as individuals can be either sick or well in their religious thoughts and behavior, so congregations can get sick and need the help of caring professionals. This paper distills the author's experience in leading and consulting with congregations to present a model for conflict utilization from a structural family therapy perspective. Congregations that are well, whole, healthy and thriving are a joy for their members and for their communities. But when conflict erupts, many are shocked that such behavior could be found in a religious community.
Begun in the mid-20th century, family therapy adopted systems thinking as a new model of understanding how to help families where things have gone wrong. Instead of directing the energies of therapy on the person with the problem, the symptom bearer, therapists looked at the family as a whole, or as a social unit, with complex interactions and patterns of communication. Instead of focusing on the sickness in a family system, family therapists assumed that human systems have within them a basic impetus toward health. They are created and sustained for the purpose of helping the people within them thrive. In this paper, family therapy concepts and practices are applied to congregations as larger social units, with their complex interactions and patterns of communication.
Conflict in a congregation is understood in this model as a failure of functioning of the whole system, to which individuals react with their own sick responses to religion. The tasks of the caring professional, whether a leader or other member of the congregation, or an outsider offering help, are to reflect critically on the functioning of the congregation, and to act strategically to encourage health and discourage malfunctions. The model presented here for that critical reflection and strategic action is drawn primarily from the assessment and intervention approach of the structural family therapists. Practices of other schools of family therapy are woven into the mix as well.
For the sake of space, issues of joining the system and contracting will be left to another presentation. Involvement by a caring professional with a troubled congregation is described here in two phases of building a systemic hypothesis and designing and implementing systemic interventions for the purpose of empowering health in the system.
To ensure calm, critical reflection on the troubles of a congregation, a caring professional relies on a systemic hypothesis. A hypothesis is a tentative, disprovable, adaptable working model of the functioning of a congregation as an interconnected web of relationships (Bergman, Fishing for Barracuda, 1985, p. 60-61). It might be very simple or even elegant in its simplicity, or it might be more complex to reflect the many layers of relationships and intricacies of connections in the system. As a scientific tool, any hypothesis is always tentative, based on the limited knowledge available at any time, and ready to be disproved by further data or adapted to new insights gained from working in the system. Hypothesis building is, in fact, a circular process as the caring professional moves from hypothesis to strategy to intervention and then back to revise the hypothesis based on how the intervention worked or did not work.
A systemic hypothesis is best when it is framed in a positive way. It seeks to define how and why the distortions of structure, narrative, or symptom seen in the congregation actually serve the balance and health of the system at the present time. The hypothesis also needs to be able to identify where in the conflicted system health or maturity does reside. These concerns help the caring professional remember that conflict is not, in itself, a bad thing. Most often, a congregation falls into conflict because the transformation God seeks for it or its members in its present situation has been thwarted, or the natural adaptive mechanisms of the congregation are stuck on some problem or issue. For example, a congregation with an aging membership is challenged by a younger generation with a request to meet the contemporary needs of that group, or a change in the demographics of the congregation's neighborhood tests its adaptive ability, or a transition in pastoral leadership raises anxiety over the identity of the group or tension among competing groups for control of the congregation in a new chapter of its life.
Systemic Observation of the System
The caring professional gathers information for the formation of the hypothesis through systemic observation of the congregation. The three assessment themes -- structures, stories, and symptoms --of structural family therapist Salvador Minuchin (Family Therapy Techniques, 1981, p. 67-77) provide an elegantly simple framework for observations and reflections on the functioning of the system. To balance the degree to which religion gets sick in a congregational setting, Minuchin's concepts lend themselves to a religious interpretation with each observational hook representing a different aspect of the holy in the life of a congregation.
1. Looking at Structures. Minuchin's construct of structures is a synthesis of assessment tools from several different schools of family therapy, gathered together and given primacy. Structures are defined here as the arrangement, positioning, and relationships among the component parts of a system. Healthy systems of any kind, whether a family or a congregation, need healthy attention to structures. This may be so because structures represent the material, created nature of the world, the embodying of the creative spirit of God in this particular human system.
To begin with structures, the systemic observer will note the existence of component units or sub-systems within the congregation. There will be the formal sub-systems such as the governing board, elected and ordained officers, music groups, fellowship groups, and other social, learning, or working groups. A congregation will also have informal units or structures such as power groups, patriarchal/matriarchal groups, family units, and special interest groups. Each of these units can be identified by finding the specific roles, rules, and rituals which hold them together. An observer can ask people to list the roles and rules that are important to a particular group, and to name the rituals, practices, or even games that bind the sub-unit together. Besides the sub-units, every congregation is itself a sub-system of larger social systems. These might include a denomination as a whole and its regional units, the community, city, or neighborhood where the congregation resides, and social, class, ethnic, and economic systems unique to that particular congregation.
The systemic observer looks for parallels between the patterns of interaction among the larger systems and those in the sub-units. For example, a congregation that was experiencing conflict with the pastor as the identified problem also was found to have a high number of key member families experiencing such crises as divorce, alcoholism, loss of jobs, and teen misbehavior. Instead of finding ways to health for themselves, the families projected their anxieties on the pastor's performance. A systemic hypothesis might find helpful descriptions about what is going on in a conflicted congregation by recognizing that kind of parallelism, sometimes called isomorphism, among the various levels of systems.
A second observation about structures is to describe the extent to which formal and informal, tacit and explicit structures are synchronous. For example, in a congregation that has detailed constitutional rules and carefully delineated roles for the governing board, the observer would look for places where the way the board actually operates are different from the constitution.
Another concept which helps this observation is boundaries, which is defined here as the invisible, emotional borders to sub-systems which limit access to relationships, information, and decision-making. In healthy congregations, boundaries are honored, and even reinforced by the members of the groups. These boundaries are often specified in constitutions or bylaws. Differing levels of access to relationships, information, and decision-making are assigned to such sub-groups as ministerial staff, other staff members, elected officers, governing boards, and official meetings when the congregation gathers to vote on important matters. When a fellowship group begins to dictate or manipulate the decisions of a governing board, that group has stepped over the boundary which limits access to the formal decision-making powers which belong to the board. An example of unhealthy structures would be the clergy leaders holding more power than the formal structures provide, or the reverse, their not being permitted to make the decisions, build relationships, or have access to information which is theirs by the formal definitions of their roles. Healthy boundaries are permeable to allow some information and even influence to pass through. Evidence of either overly rigid or poorly defined boundaries among the component parts of the system is usually an indicator of unhealthy structures in a congregation.
Every congregation has its own structural reality, sometimes unique, but always revealing of its nature and culture. No particular form or type of structure is ideal, or necessarily more healthy than any other. But observable discrepancies between the basic cultural values for the particular church, denomination, location, and economic and ethnic backgrounds of that congregation, and the actual practices of some or many of the sub-units of the system, are often sources of conflict. The caring professional looks at structures with a careful and critical eye to understand what's going on.
2. Listening to Stories. In the Judeo-Christian traditions particularly, God is often understood as Word. As a result, the narrative life of a congregation may be seen as the articulation of God's word among them. Among other religious traditions the presence of consciousness in the universe leads to an awareness of the stories of the people as the outcropping of mind or consciousness among them. The stories a congregation tells about itself are clues to the deeper realities and ultimately the health or unhealth of the group as a human system. When religion gets sick at the corporate level, the stories take on special poignancy as the caring professional listens and learns about the ways God's people talk about their life together and their life with God.
A new congregation, which we'll call here "Endwell Community Church," remembers the stories of their short history as tales of God's working to bring strangers together and making them friends. They like to remember the story of how the committee looked at many different properties in the area recommended by their consultants and could find nothing that fit their needs. Just when the last piece of available property slipped out of their hands, the denominational offices received a letter from another denomination announcing that a church building, within blocks of the demographic center of the target area, was for sale. A large lot on a major highway with a church building on it seemed like a miracle. Within two years of occupying the new property, the members like to tell you, they had grown to their present size. Clearly God's hand was in it. Then a few years later, the church foundered and was in a crisis of conflict and decline.
The caring professional listens for these stories to determine the reality of this particular congregation. The type of story they tell will lead to possibilities of better health. Four major types of stories can be identified (Hopewell, Congregation, 1986) to the careful listener.
The Romantic story focuses on a hero who gets into a pinch and requires divine intervention to save. The story of the Exodus is a Romantic type of story, in which the enslaved people are saved by God's liberating action to take them out of Egypt to the promised land.
The Tragic story focuses more on the character of God than on the plight of the characters of the story. God reveals a law and holds people accountable for their actions. Salvation comes not through liberating but sacrificial action through the liturgies of animal sacrifice or divine atonement.
The Ironic story is based on a worldview that sees good and bad existing together without ready resolution to that tension. God remains a mystery in irony and God's people learn to accept the joys and sufferings of life, and lean on each other to see themselves through it.
The fourth story type is the one which characterizes the young congregation described above. It is a Comic story, not meaning humorous, but in the classical sense of the term, in which the characters of the story look like their lives are in trouble, but that is only because they cannot see the truth and goodness which is in store for them after their tribulations. A comedy always comes out good in the end. The church's current difficulties are likely to be understood as a lack of insight or poor understanding of God's will for their lives, and that faith and learning will see them through.
A systemic hypothesis about the troubles in a particular congregation may well include information about the story type or worldview of the congregation, gathered through careful listening or through a questionnaire provided in James Hopewell's book on studying congregations. The hypothesis might also include information about other narrative analysis such as plotting (how the particular plotting of the congregation's story links people and events, how events unfold, and how plots thicken and twist). Stories are important cues to the ways congregations function or do not function well, and wise use of stories in a systemic hypothesis can also lead to improved health for congregations.
3. Learning from Symptoms. Structural family therapy identifies symptoms as a third factor in its assessment of the reality of a particular family. The use of the term "symptom" here is intended to convey a sense of holistic health rather than a sense of inherent pathology. The ideals of faith suggest a similar distinction. God often is understood as urging humankind toward change and transformation toward the holy ideals of God's future. If we imagine an urge toward change, we can also recognize the ways humankind rejects these invitations. When humans say no to change, the growth is frustrated, and the issues surrounding the growth are stunted. The attempts at a system to keep its life in balance while change is pushing from outside or inside the system will become increasingly robust. Eventually the attempts to maintain continuity will appear ridiculous to the observer. These pinch-points between continuity and change are symptoms. Ronald Richardson (1996) has identified five areas of symptoms in this kind of holistic approach (Creating a Healthier Church, Chapter 10):
1. Noticeable or significant over- and under-functioning.
2. Regular projection of difficulties to a third party.
3. Physical or emotional impairment in key leaders.
4. Expression of emotion or presence of pain which is out of proportion to the issues involved.
5. High levels of reactivity in the system which may be seen as undue compliance, rebelliousness, power struggles, unhealthy triangles, and distancing.
A systemic hypothesis of the troubles in the Endwell Community Church, for example, might include the presence of three noticeable symptoms. First, some of the committees of the church are over-functioning by carrying heavy loads of work to keep the congregation afloat, while other committees under-function and seem never to accomplish very much. At the same time, the pastor is experiencing a bout of depression in which she is questioning her vocation and wondering if any other job would be available to her after a lifetime in ministry (impairment in a key leader). And finally, the governing board has been stymied with unexpected and painful power struggles over recent proposals for new ministries and activities which were presented with the hope that they might move the church to attract more new members. The caring professional involved with Endwell Church might hypothesize that the symptoms are results of frustrated growing pains in the congregation. Some members and leaders want the church to thrive and survive, and others seem to be set on keeping the church at a small and comfortable "single cell" existence. The symptoms might indicate unfinished business of the evolution of a young congregation.
Some, all or none of a hypothesis might be presented to a particular congregation, depending on the judgment of the caring professional. As in family therapy, premature disclosure of hypotheses can bring resistance toward the consultant and short-circuit possibilities of healing interventions. Any presentation of hypotheses will always be couched in positive terms, and often such presentation becomes the first intervention.
When Salvador Minuchin (1998) meets and joins a family, and scopes out his hypothesis for what's gotten this family stuck and unable to solve their own problems, he moves to a directive, active mode to intervene, which he calls "challenging." His actions are "directed toward changing the organization of the family, on the grounds that when family organization is transformed, the life of each family member is altered accordingly" (Minuchin and Nichols, Family Healing, p. 36). The helping professional can use this model to actively encourage a congregation to reorganize themselves into a more healthy, functional group that can return to its life of encouraging the spiritual well-being of its members and addressing the ills of the community around it.
1. Structural Interventions, "Challenging the Structures." The first move in this model is structural. It's the simplest and most accessible type of intervention, and it may in itself accomplish the reorganization needed. If structural interventions don't work, the professional knows that there are deeper, more resistant issues at work in the system requiring more complex story or symptom interventions.
a. Mapping or sculpting exercises. A caring professional can draw a simple diagram of the patterns and connections among the sub-units of the congregation. The map can be a form of a relational organizational chart in which the relationships among the systems and subsystems are noted, indicating where the formal boundaries are and where they are being encroached upon, ignored, or usurped. A map could also indicate by strong or double lines where affiliations or coalitions are especially strong, by jagged lines where conflict exists between groups or members, and bolded or encircled persons or groups to indicate where the real power or influence patterns can be traced. At Endwell Church, for example, the governing board told their consultant that they make decisions on a majority rule basis, but the consultant noticed that there were two members of the board who used anger and threats of withdrawal to force the board to go along with their personal opinions, even when a large majority of the board would have voted a different way. The consultant could map the influences in the board and note a special set of relationships and informal authority granted to the two members and then ask the board to think about and talk together about ways they could bring their formal and informal values closer together. An alternative to mapping is a sculpting exercise in which members are asked to place themselves in positions and in poses which would depict the working patterns and patterns that are not working so well in the system.
b. Experimenting with Different Structures. Just as Minuchin sometimes asked family members to change chairs with each other to put themselves in different configurations of closeness and distance, or asked two family members to talk to each other for a few minutes without letting other family members interrupt, so the congregational interventionist might offer an experimental structure. For example, in a staff group or governing board which has difficulty maintaining boundaries of confidentiality, the interventionist might specifically ask the group to share an important piece of information with each other and ask them to try, just this week, to keep the information from "leaking" out to other parts of the congregation. Another structural experiment might be to ask a very hierarchical staff group to spend time coming to a collaborative decision about an important matter. The interventionist observes with the client groups how these experiments work and offers further interventions to help the healthy organization to thrive.
c. Other structural interventions that can be offered include:
(1) holding a particular structure steady or unbalancing a particular structure to watch the system reorganize around them,
(2) reinforcing healthy authority structures and boundaries; naming the roles, rules and rituals that operate in the system.
For a list of structural interventions, see Piercy and Sprenkle, Family Therapy Sourcebook (Guilford, 1986, pp. 33).
2. Narrative Interventions "Challenging the Stories." "As time goes by," Minuchin (1998) writes, "the construction of the family myth reinforces the structure that guides habitual movement, and vice versa" (p. 42). Minuchin frequently challenged the family's view of itself by offering alternative interpretations of the family's narratives. The caring professional can challenge the stories of a congregation by storytelling, teaching or reframing.
a. Sharing an overarching story. The caring professional can become an alternative storyteller by offering to tell the group a story as a way of helping them understand their situation. Then a story from scripture, a classical myth, a folk tale or fairy tale, or a contemporary story or example can be offered which captures the essence of the reality of the congregation and either exaggerates the problems or focuses on healthy functioning (Hopewell, p. 146ff). The fictitious name given to "Endwell" Church in this paper is derived from the Shakespeare comedy "All's Well that Ends Well." A combination of summarizing the play and giving a thorough description of the comic world-view could be a helpful narrative intervention. One of the key lay leaders of the Endwell Church, himself an entrepreneur businessman, frequently employed a similar intervention on his own. He liked to tell stories of companies which succeeded by hanging on through tough times until their "time came." For him the comic perspective was clear: "God had something good in mind in creating this church, and though we can't see it now, that good is going to come about in due time."
b. Teaching about chapter and plot continuation. Sometimes a congregation feels stuck in the patterns or difficulties in which they find themselves. They take a fatalistic attitude that they are doomed to repeat the same patterns over and over. The interventionist does well to find ways to teach and give information in ways that let the members know that a congregation's story has a plot and is often divided into chapters. Plots, as we know from reading literature, link the characters and settings. Plots keep us reading because they have ways of thickening, twisting, and turning. The present difficulties of a congregation can be described as a plot development. Some congregations are helped by the reminder that stories also arrange themselves in chapters, and the story line of the next chapter does not necessarily follow that of earlier chapters. There is hope in seeing our storylines develop as literature.
c. Reframing Negative Stories in Positive Ways. Like individuals, when groups get into negative thinking, they tend to exaggerate the negative sides of their stories. An interventionist can help by reframing negative stories in positive ways. If a congregation picks as its pastoral leader someone whose ministry leads the congregation into a crisis, and as a result the congregation tells themselves they just don't know how to choose a leader, the caring professional can reframe the story by suggesting that in fact they wisely picked a leader whose peculiarities finally brought into the open the unnamed weaknesses of the group, and this chapter of the story means that they can no longer sweep their problems under the rug.
When structural interventions meet with resistance or even fail to work, the caring professional goes back to the hypothesis, decides whether to change the hypothesis or to go on to issues connected with the stories or the symptoms. A choice of intervention depends entirely on the hypothesis and the degree to which either stories or symptoms appear to be available to the professional and identifiable to the group.
3. Symptom Interventions, "Challenging the Symptoms." A direct challenge of the presenting symptoms loosens the hold of unhealthy patterns and releases the potential for health in the system (Minuchin, 1998, p. 45). Among the many possible ways to challenge symptoms, the following three interventions illustrate the model.
a. Cross-generational or super-system explorations. A simple way into challenging symptoms is to move to another level of the system and engage that level in the conversation. Some congregations have unfinished business with or continued inappropriate involvement by previous professional leaders such as pastors. Settling that unfinished emotional business or setting boundaries for former leaders can "lay the ghost of pastor past," and effectively re-organize the system. A similar outcome is sometimes seen when members of a congregation are asked to look for parallels in their larger contexts. The interpretation we call "what's in the water here" was evidenced as a church re-evaluated their attitude about their internal conflicts after some members pointed out that the school board, the library board, and the YMCA in their community had all recently experienced similar upheavals.
b. Identification of underlying process issues. When emotions around a particular issue are out of proportion to the importance of the issue itself, the interventionist suggests that there is an underlying issue operating in relationships, decision-making, or authority structures. Focusing on the unacknowledged differences between one group of members who wants their congregation to be more like a club for their social needs and another group who expects their congregation to be active in serving the poor and needy is likely to be more fruitful than focusing on the recurring conflict among the members of the staff. The staff becomes the way to keep the pressure off the differing groups who prefer to believe they are all one big happy family.
c. Paradoxical Interventions. Some symptoms are so intense or so habituated in the system that no direct intervention can make an impact. Many family therapists practice the art of paradox by going against the grain of the overt desires of both therapist and client. The effect of instructing the system to rehearse a behavior that is problematic is to set up a situation in which people will either have to accept the direction of the outside consultant, which they don't really want to do, or reject the consultant's advice and give up a well practiced behavior. The congregation that seems to have a "fight" three times a year is assigned to stage a good argument every fourth month of the year. Another congregation which was engaged in serious criticism of a pastor who was not performing his duties was given a paradoxical instruction to send its pastor off for a medical evaluation to see if there might be a physical problem with his performance. When they refused to do so, they also were forced to give up their efforts to find fault with the pastor, and calm was restored.
Evaluating and Exiting
Caring professionals often ask how to determine which aspect of a conflicted congregation they should address first. Beyond the recommendation here that structural issues are the first types of intervention to try, an organic or systemic view of a congregation suggests that where we start does not make any significant difference. If all parts of the system are interconnected, and the whole system is enfolded in each sub-part, then wherever poor functioning can be discouraged and wherever healthy functioning can be enhanced, the whole system will be influenced by the change in a single part. Of course other parts of the system are likely to push the changed units to "change back." Nonetheless, an outside professional may use an artful or intuitive process of choosing in selecting the best sub-system to work with and encourage to change with the full optimism of a systems thinker.
No matter where the intervention has been directed, the desired effect of hypothesizing and intervention is some kind of progress in the direction of reorganization and more healthy functioning in the system as a whole. Restoration of calm is a minimal evidence of progress. Italian family therapist Mara Selvini Palazzoli and her colleagues proposed indicators of how the client system has learned after an intervention by a helping professional (Selvini Palazzoli et al, The Hidden Games of Organizations, 1986, p. 128):
0 = no correction by trial and error,
I = revision of choice among an unchanged set of alternatives,
II = revision of the set of alternatives from which choices are made,
III = meta-change, a reinterpretation of the context of choice through systemic reflection.
When the work of the caring professional has been critically evaluated, and sufficient progress has been noted to assure a continuation of the change process, the consultant exits gracefully.
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Hopewell, J. (1987). Congregation: Stories and structures. Philadelphia: Fortress.
Minuchin, S. and Nichols, M.P. (1999). Family healing: Tales of hope and renewal from family therapy. New York: The Free Press.
Piercy, F.P. and Sprenkle, D.H. (1986). Family therapy sourcebook. New York: Guilford.
Palazzoli, S., Mara, et. al. (1986). The hidden games of organizations. Pantheon Books.
Richardson, R.W. (1996). Creating a healthier church: Family systems theory, leadership, and congregational life. Philadelphia: Fortress.
Weber, T. and Wynn, J. C. (1986). Consultation with the clergy: A systems approach. In Wynn, McDaniel, and Weber (Eds.), Systems consultation: A new perspective for family therapy. New York: Guilford.
David Sawyer, Ph.D., is Director of Graduate Studies at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. In his ministry, teaching, writing, and professional associations, he has brought the insights of the applied behavioral sciences, spiritual disciplines and theology to the issues of leadership and the development of healthy churches. He has led conferences and workshops around the country on the family systems approach to conflict resolution and leadership development. He is the author of “The Church in Transition as a Human System,” in Temporary Shepherds (Alban Institute, 1999), “Toward a Cosmology of Creative Change,” in Creative Change: the Journal of the Association for Creative Change and the Leadership Institute of Seattle, (Fall, 1994), “The Process Tasks of the Interim Leader” in In Between Times (1994), and Work of the Church: Getting the Job Done in Boards and Committees (Judson Press, 1987).
This paper was originally presented as part of the Fall 2002 Symposium: When Religion Gets Sick hosted by the Wayne E. Oates Institute.