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How Churches, Ministers Build Healthy Relationships – Part 1

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It’s not always true, but it seems to be true.

Healthy churches and healthy ministers tend to find one another. Healthy churches tend to be pastored by healthy ministers, and healthy ministers tend to serve healthy churches.

The rules governing how they get together are mysterious, but the laws of attraction seem to apply along the lines of health and unhealth.

What makes for a healthy minister?

Typically, healthy ministers are emotionally mature, live a balanced life between work and personal life, and continue growing emotionally, intellectually and spiritually.

Importantly, they have the ability to think clearly about the church without experiencing a charged emotional response (knot in stomach, grinding teeth at night, tightness in the chest, self-medicating with drugs or alcohol for stress and/or depression, escapist behavior such as flights of fantasy).

Healthy churches have equivalent traits. They are joined by a mutually shared covenant. They have a desire to spend time together and share a deep spirituality.

In times of conflict, they embrace careful reconciliation. They are willing to adapt to change and have a keen sense of mission and purpose.

Healthy churches and healthy ministers deserve one another.

Does that mean the opposite is true? Perhaps. It’s not much of a statement to suggest that congregational health and clergy health are somehow connected.

There is a psychological theory designed to think more clearly about the health or unhealth of the church that is designed to help analyze the relationship between the church and its minister.

In the 1940s, Murray Bowen began to research and write about the connectional relationships that exist in the family.

He came to realize all members of the family were emotionally connected with one another and that those connections could be explored to treat the family as a whole and not as individuals.

Family Systems Theory, which Bowen pioneered, is a psychology to enhance clergy/leader health.

In applying family systems thinking to other social organizations, this became a psychology for the system, or more particularly, a psychology for the church (as an emotional system).

Bowen’s Family Systems Theory became the fourth wave of psychology (after psychodynamic, behavioral and humanistic psychologies, all of which were focused on the individual).

Symptoms were often viewed as an expression of a dysfunction within the family and these dysfunctional patterns were thought to be passed across several generations.

Family Systems Theory is a tool that can open up an understanding of the relational life of the church and to think more deeply about how those relationships are effective or detrimental.

This is how the church runs at its most basic level. Touch one end and the other end responds. All are somehow interconnected. These relationships are powerful factors in the life of the church.

Editor’s note: This is the first in a five-part series. The second installment, which will appear next week, will focus on the effect of anxiety in a healthy organization.

Keith Herron

Keith Herron is the Bridge Pastor for First Congregational Church of St. Louis. He is the author of “Living a Narrative Life: Essays on the Power of Story," and served previously as a member of the EthicsDaily.com / Baptist Center for Ethics board of directors.