Hidden Ministries: Monday Monologues, September 9, 2019 (podcast)

Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018
Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

This morning I will share a prayer and reflect on Hidden Ministries.

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Hear the words; Walk the steps; Experience the joy!

Hidden Ministries: Monday Monologues, September 9, 2019 (podcast)

Also see:

Monday Monologue On March 26, 2018 

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

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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

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

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Relational Ethics. Monday Monologues, February 25, 2019 (podcast)

Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018
Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In today’s podcast, I will offer a Prayer of Presence and talk about the Relational Ethics.

After listening, please click here to take a brief listener survey (10 questions).

To listen, click on the link below

Hear the words; Walk the steps; Experience the joy!

Relational Ethics. Monday Monologues, February 25, 2019 (podcast)

Also see:

Monday Monologue On March 26, 2018 

Other ways to engage online:

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

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/Lent_2019

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Gilbert Simplifies Family Systems Theory

Gilbert_review_03042015Roberta M. Gilbert. 2006. The Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory:  A New Way of Thinking about the Individual and the Group.  Front Royal (VA):  Leading Systems Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Families matter.  How much they matter to our health and well-being is sometimes shocking.  Frequently in patient visits in an emergency room, physical and psychiatric problems could be linked to problems elsewhere in the family, such as a death or trauma.  This might be obvious when a young mother comes in complaining of chronic headaches, but it might also be a significant factor explaining backache, heart attacks, stroke, ineffective medication, and drug addictions.  Of course, as a chaplain one needs to ask.


Family systems theory helps to make sense of these connections by focusing on “the family as an emotional unit”, rather than on particular individuals (3). This focus runs counter to most counseling approaches which assume the clinical model where the individual is treated as autonomous. Problems with their origin outside the individual obviously cannot be solved by treating the individual alone but that is the common practice.  The systems approach often yields counter-intuitive results[1].  Family systems theory is often applied to other “emotional units”, like offices, churches, and groups, where relationships are intense and span many years.


In her book, The Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory, Roberta Gilbert outlines 8 principles of family systems theory which outlines her chapters. These chapters include:

  1. Nuclear Family Emotional System;
  2. The Differentiation of Self Scale;
  3. Triangles; Cutoff;
  4. Family Projection Process;
  5. Multi-generational Transmission Process;
  6. Sibling Position; and
  7. Societal Emotional Process (4).

These chapters are preceded by an introduction and followed by an epilogue.  Murray Bowen developed family systems theory in the 1950s working as a psychiatrist at the National Institute of Health in Washington DC; he elaborated this theory as a faculty member at Georgetown University[2].  Roberta Gilbert was one of his students.

In her explanation of emotional units, Gilbert write:

“My grandfather’s herd of cattle…Say the cattle are peacefully grazing…but…one cow gets too close to the electric fence, sustaining a shock, she may jump, vocalize and even jump or run, showing that she is in a very anxious state.  How long does it take for the other cows in the pasture to ‘catch’ the anxiety?  Of course, it happens almost immediately. Their behavior soon becomes agitated, showing they have taken on the anxiety of the initial individual.  The cattle are showing, by the movement of anxiety through the herd, that they are an emotional system.” (6)

Anxiety is Contagious

Anxiety transmission is a flag for the limits of an emotional system.  Gilbert classifies anxiety as acute—in response to stress—and chronic—the background anxiety in a group (7-8). Relational responses to anxiety come in 4 patterns:

  1. Triangling;
  2. Conflict;
  3. Distancing; and
  4. Overfunctioning/underfunctioning (11-12).

Anxiety is infectious (7).  Anxiety transmission is more rapid and intense in tightly “fused” groups where individual are relatively close and unprocessed emotions run wild, so to speak (21). Anxiety transmission is less rapid and intense in groups with individuals who are “differentiated” where individuals are able to separate feelings from thinking and emotions are less readily shared (33). Gilbert’s grandfather attempts to be a “calming presence” when he is working with his cattle (22).

Family Systems Concepts

Family systems theory focuses on how a particular group resolves anxiety.


An important therapeutic result from family systems theory arises in how anxiety is resolved.  If a parent is anxious, then the other parent picks it up. If a child is nearby, they too will become anxious—the child becomes the third corner in a “triangle”.  If this situation is repeated, then the child may develop a symptom (48).  This symptom could be simple things, like sleep problems or bed wetting, or it could develop in social problems, like acting out, fighting, etc.  If the child’s symptom developed in response to parental conflict (think about divorce or separation), then sending the child out for counseling will not resolving the problem.  However, the child’s problem could be resolved by dealing with the parental conflict.


Gilbert defines conflict as: “when…neither [party] gives in to the other on major issues.” (15) Obviously, conflict has the potential to generate a lot of chronic anxiety.

Distancing and Cutoff

When people resolve conflict or anxiety through leaving—either temporarily or permanently—nothing is resolved—only deferred.  Gilbert writes:

“Distanced persons think about each other, the relationship and the conflict that led to it, a great deal.  By distancing, they are far from free of the problem.  They are still emotionally bound and defined by it” (16).

To see this effect, think about a reunion that you have attended—what did people talk about?

Gilbert speculates that because grief is, in part, the result of emotional cutoff (distancing), remaining in contact with the deceased persons extended family can help mitigate at least some of the grieving process (62).  This is part and parcel of a traditional funeral.


Gilbert writes:  “the overfunctioning/underfunctioning reciprocity describes partners trying to make one self out of two.” (17)

The overfunctioner:

·       Knows the answer,

·       Does well in life,

·       Tells the other what to do, how to think, how to feel,

·       Tries to help too much…

The underfunctioner:

·       Relies on the other to know what to do,

·       Asks for advice unnecessarily,

·       Takes all offered help, needed or not, becoming passive,

·       Asks the other to do what he or she can do for self… (18)

Gilbert notes that in the workplace, leaders can be overfunctioners (19).

An important outcome of family systems theory is that differentiation-of-self functions as a shock absorber on the emotional system.  High functioning leaders lead through principles (not emotion), stay grounded in facts and thinking, and remain in good contact with appropriate individuals in the system (43).


Gilbert’s The Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory is a helpful book.  In my case, I was already aware of the principles of Bowen theory, but had not fully absorbed their significance.  Gilbert’s presentation simplified my learning process.


[1] My last two published papers working as a financial engineer applied the systems approach in risk management (Responding to Systemic Risk (http://bit.ly/18lrV5f); Putting the System Back in Systemic Risk (http://bit.ly/1Gnfll2)).

[2] Murray Bowen (1913-1990; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murray_Bowen).

Gilbert Simplifies Family Systems Theory

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Books, Films, and Ministry

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