Hidden Ministries

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in ChristBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

Hellerman (2001, 1) asks an intriguing question: what explains “the marked growth of the early Christian movement?” His response is that the early church was a surrogate family which:

“…may be defined as a social group whose members related to one another neither by birth nor by marriage, but who nevertheless (a) employ kinship terminology to describe group relationships and (b) expect family-like behavior to characterize interactions among group members.” (Hellerman 2001, 2)

This is an intriguing hypothesis because we observe sibling terminology being used by Peter even on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 1:16)—before the church had been organized—and it is used throughout the writings of Paul (e.g. 1 Cor 1:10). We also note that referring to God as father (e.g. Matthew 6:9 and John 17:1) is also consistent with the idea that we are all brothers and sisters in the faith. Furthermore, the early church shared resources, acting like a family in taking care of one another (Acts 2:44-45).

Introducing Family Systems

If this hypothesis rings true family systems ministry holds an important key to congregational ministry. Just like a presenting diagnosis may simply fill a void created by an underlying problem like grief, those that show up at worship on Sunday morning may represent family systems struggling with enormous pain.

Families matter more than normal (individualistic) intuition suggests. A death in the family may leave one person with chronic migraine headaches; another may develop back pain or experience a heart attack; a third may exhibit psychiatric dysfunction. A medical doctor or counselor treating only an individual’s symptoms may not have a high degree of success because the cause of the symptoms lies in the family system, not the individual. While pastors and chaplains may not be surprised by this observation, standard medical and counseling training and practices focuses almost exclusively on the individual.

Five Concepts

Friedman (1985, 19) outlines five basic concepts in family systems theory, including:

  1. The identified patient;
  2. The concept of balance (homeostasis);
  3. Differentiation of self;
  4. The extended family field; and
  5. Emotional triangles.

Each of these concepts deserves discussion.

The Identified Patient

Symptoms arise in a family system first in the weakest members of the system.  This unconscious scapegoating effect arises, in part, because they are least able to cope with problems elsewhere in the system like plumbing subject to excessive water pressure (Friedman 1985, 21). For example, a child may act out (nail biting, bed-wetting, fighting in school, teenage troubles, etc) because the parents have marital difficulties. Focusing on the child may simply make the problem worse, while counseling the parents may not only resolve the marital difficulties, but the child’s issue as well.


The family emotional system strives to maintain equilibrium (resist change) having an effect not unlike a thermostat.  When problems surface, questions according arise like:  what is out of equilibrium? Why now?  Ironically, familiar dysfunction may be preferred to therapeutic change. Dynamic stability may accordingly be attained, in part, by how loosely or tightly individuals respond to changes.  Friedman classifies families as acting more like a serial (tightly integrated) or parallel (loosely integrated) electrical system. Families that are loosely integrated exhibit a greater capacity to absorb stress simply because they are less reactive to the stress. (Friedman 1985, 24-26)

Differentiation of Self

Differentiation means the capacity to be an “I” while remaining connected. Differentiation increases the shock-absorbing capacity of the system by loosening the integration.  The ideal here is to remain engaged in the system but in an non-reactive manner—a non-anxious presence). Great self-differentiation offers the opportunity for the entire system to change by reducing the automatic resistance to change posed by homeostasis. Family leaders (including pastors in church families) who develop greater self-differentiation can accordingly bring healing in the face of challenges. This is a principle that can aid leaders in many a dysfunctional organization (Friedman 1985, 27-31).

Extended Family 

Understanding one’s extended family and family history can identify unresolved issues and repeating patterns.  The principle is that one cannot solve a family system’s problem by withdrawing temporally or geographically—in such events we simply take our issues with us.  Such problems have a nasty habit of reappearing kind of like genetic diseases transmitted by DNA. Friedman (1985, 32) observes that:  family trees are always trees of knowledge and often they are also trees of life. This re-emergence of family systems problems across time and distance extends the principle of homeostasis.

Emotional Triangles

Friedman (1985, 35) writes: An emotional triangle is formed by any three persons or issues…when any two parts of a system become uncomfortable with one another, they will “triangle in” or focus on a third person, or issue, as a way of stabilizing their own relationship with one another. This has the effect of putting stress on that third person to balance the system. An unsuspecting pastor could, of course, end up participating in many such triangles and simply burn out. This leads Friedman to observe that: stress is less the result of quantitative notion such as “overwork” and more the effect of our position in the triangle of our families.

The importance of the pastor’s stance in a church family is immediately obvious in this framework. The pastor functions as a parent in the church family system. Problems in the pastor’s family of origin have the potential to transmit immediately into the church family because of the pastor’s key role in the system. Likewise, the pastor can also be easily triangled into families within the church family if the pastor is not a non-anxious presence within the system. Homeostasis can leave a new pastor vulnerable to dysfunction in a church years after the apparent source of the problem, perhaps a prior pastor, has left.


The relative emptiness of church pews may not be a good indicator of the influence of the church and church leaders within the community.  Suppose the only family members to attend church were the over functioning members. Teaching over-functioning members to become a non-anxious presence, perhaps by modeling Sabbath rest could bring healing to an entire extended family. The importance of funerals becomes more obvious because members of the extended family may suddenly find themselves in church for the first time in many years.

Alternatively, one might find a young person in the youth program acting out. Viewing the young person as the weak link in the family system may provide a flag for unspoken marital difficulties in the family, either present or absent from church. But how would you know unless you made a house call?

Of course, the church as a family system could also be dysfunctional, refusing to cope with leadership problems that manifest in excessive gossip, pastoral burnout, or disregard for the mission of the church.


Friedman, Edwin H. 1985. Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue. New York: Gilford Press.

Gilbert, Roberta M. 2006. The Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory: A New Way of Thinking about the Individual and the Group. Front Royal (VA): Leading Systems Press.

Hellerman, Joseph H. 2001. The Ancient Church as Family. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Hidden Ministries

Also See:

Value Of Life

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/HotWeather_2019

You may also like

Leave a Reply