Friedman: Families Matter


Edwin H. Friedman.  1985.  Generation to Generation:  Family Process in Church and Synagogue.  New York:  Gilford Press [1].

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

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.


A relatively new field of counseling, family systems counseling, looks at the family as an emotional system.  What matters in family systems is not so much individual behavior, but how individuals in the family interact with one another.  Because any emotionally connected group—an office, business, or church—behaves in much the same way, family systems analysis has wide applicability.  Edwin Friedman’s book, Generation to Generation:  Family Process in Church and Synagogue, is probably the best known book in this field.

Five Concepts

Friedman outlines 5 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 (19).

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 (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? (24)  Ironically, familiar dysfunction may be preferred to therapeutic change (25).  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 (25-26).  Families that are loosely integrated exhibit a greater capacity to absorb stress simply because they are less reactive to the stress.

Differentiation of Self

According to Friedman:  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 nonanxious presence (27).  Great self-differentiation offers the opportunity for the entire system to change by reducing the automatic resistance to change posed by homeostasis (29).  Family leaders (including pastors in church families) who develop greater self-differentiation can accordingly bring healing in the face of challenges (30-31).  This is a principle that can aid leaders in many a dysfunctional organization [2].

Extended Family Field

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 (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 (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 (1).

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 nonanxious 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.

What is fascinating about this line of thought is that, unlike in theories of culture, much of this activity is subconscious—a kind of emotional twin to the thought processes involved in discussions of culture.

Family Therapy

Friedman wrote having worked as family therapist and ordained Jewish Rabbi for more than 30 years in the Washington DC metro area.  He writes in 12 chapters divided into 4 sections preceded by an introduction and followed by a bibliographic and index.  The chapter titles are:

  1. The Idea of a Family;
  2. Understanding Family Process;
  3. The Marital Bond;
  4. Child-focused Families;
  5. Body and Soul in the Family Process;
  6. When the Parent Becomes a Child;
  7. A Family Approach to Life-Cycle Ceremonies;
  8. Family Process and Organizational Life;
  9. Leadership and Self in a Congregational Family;
  10. Leaving and Entering a Congregational Family;
  11. The Immediate Family:  Conflict and Traps; and
  12. The Extended Family:  Its Potential for Salvation (ix-x).

Although Generation to Generation is a textbook, it is a fascinating read—Friedman is famous for his story-telling and he wrote another book, Friedman’s Fables (New York:  Gilford Press, 2014), which focuses more explicitly on the stories.


Applying Friedman’s principles in my own family life has brought enormous healing.  My seminary training, for example, worked to increase my level of self-differentiation within my family which is very close (fused in Friedman’s terminology).  This book is well worth the time and effort to read and study.  The life you save may be your own.


[2] An entire book has been focused on this same principle:  Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky. 2002.  Leadership on the Ling:  Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading.  Boston:  Harvard Business School Press.

Friedman: Families Matter

Also see:

Nouwen: Make Space for Self, Others, and God 

Vanhoozer: How Do We Understand the Bible? Part 1 

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site:

Publisher site:



Continue Reading

Mason Counsels Suicide Prevention

Review of Karen Mason, Suicide PreventionKaren Mason.[1] 2014. Preventing Suicide: A Handbook for Pastors, Chaplains, and Pastoral Counselors. Downers Grove: IVP Books.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

If you are contemplating suicide, help is available.

Call: 1-800-273-TALK.[2]

Earlier this month with the death of two prominent celebrities, Kate Spade (June 6, 2018) and Anthony Bourdain (June 8, 2018), the epidemic of suicide in America has become more obvious to the public. The New York Times reported already in 2017 that suicide rates reached a thirty-year high (Tavernise). For those of us personally touched by suicide, the more surprising report is that, like Kate and Anthony, the fastest growing demographic affected by suicide is the fifty-plus age group, which is historically anomalous—we do not expect successful people to kill themselves.

What, if anything, can be done about it?


In her book Preventing Suicide, professor of counseling and psychology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Karen Mason, cites philosopher William James who“regarded religious faith as the most powerful safeguard against suicide.” (17) Her focus in writing is “on suicidal acts that include at least some intent to die.”(22) This definition is important because not all acts of self-harm are suicidal. For example, cutters, usually young people in deep emotional pain, normally use the pain of cutting themselves to distract their minds from their emotional trauma, but do not intent to kill themselves.

What Can Be Done?

Mason sees the pastors, chaplain, and pastoral care workers as able to reduce suicide rates by:

  1. “Teaching a theology of life and death, including moral objections to suicide.
  2. Teaching theodicy, or how to understand and manage suffering.
  3. Directly engaging the issue of suicide—stigma free—when people become suicidal, attempt suicide or die by suicide.
  4. Teaching how to build a life worth living with meaningful purpose and belongingness.
  5. Offering community where relationship skills are learned and practiced and where those who need support get it.
  6. Partnering with others in preventing suicide.”(18)

She sees the goals of suicide prevention as being realistically achievable, but those who attempt suicide must be taken care of. Those who attempt suicide but do not die are at much higher risk of succeeding on a second attempt—“A prior suicide attempt is the single strongest risk factor for death by suicide.”(114)

Personal Experiences

Suicide has been a part of my life experience since my youth.

The year before I came to Christ at age 13, my best friend’s father shot himself to death.

During my graduate program at Cornell University (1976-1979), I found myself in the midst of a cluster of suicides on campus. So many suicides occurred in my first fall on campus that students demonstrated to close the school until something was done. One student reportedly jumped off a bridge (Cornell is located on a mountain) and, after suffering only a broken leg, crawled up to the bridge a second time and jumped again, this time to his death. During that fall, one of my housemates attempted to overdose herself and within my circle of friends we knew of half-a-dozen suicides.

During my clinical pastoral education at Providence Hospital in 2011-12, I met with and counseled numerous patients who had attempted suicide, either through my work in the emergency department or psychiatrics. I also counseled a number of cutters. Being the first one to visit seriously with someone after an attempted suicide is a heavy, burdensome responsibility. After such visits, I often ended up in the chapel in prayer.

During the past twelve months, two fifty-plus age men in my family circle of friends killed themselves. One of those men was someone that I had attempted to reach out to and provide support, but he proved unwilling.

Organization of the Book

Mason writes in nine chapters preceded by acknowledgements and an introduction and followed by a conclusion and notes. The chapters are:

  1. “Who Dies by Suicide?
  2. Shattering Myths About Suicide.
  3. Suicide and Christian Theology.
  4. Theories of Suicide.
  5. Helping Someone in a Suicide Crisis.
  6. Helping a Survivor of Attempted Suicide.
  7. Helping the Helpers.
  8. Helping Suicide Survivors.
  9. Helping the Faith Community.” (vii)

What is interesting about these topics is the range of issues and people involved. Mason makes the point that suicide clusters—copycat suicides—can be dramatic.

Warning Signs

Mason cites a serious loss as triggering event, which can be a legal problem, financial difficulties, relational breakup, or unemployment. Other warning signs include:

  • “Talking about or writing about death, dying, or suicide.
  • Threatening to kill oneself.
  • A worsening mental health problem such as depression, especially when accompanied by agitation.
  • Dramatic brightening of mood after a period of depression.
  • Seeking access to means, such as hoarding pills.
  • Reckless behavior, such as increased substance abuse.
  • Decreased hygiene, such as not showering.
  • Social withdrawal.
  • Preparatory behavior, such as giving away prized possessions.”(84).

Those contemplating suicide may talk to friends, family, and/or clergy before attempting suicide. “Based on large national surveys, it is estimated that for every fourteen suicides per hundred thousand people each year, approximately five hundred people attempt suicide and three thousand think about it.”(28)


Karen Mason’s Preventing Suicideis an important resource for caregivers who assist those who think about, attempt, and commit suicide. I wish that I had read this book years ago because the guidance that Mason offers would have been helpful, particularly in dealing with those who survived an initial suicide attempt. Because suicide rates have reached crisis levels, this is a book that caregivers ought to read and discuss.


Tavernise, Sabrina. 2016. “U.S. Suicide Rate Surges to a 30-Year High”New York Times. April 22. Online:, Accessed: 13 March 2017.


[1]; @ivpbooks.

[2]Or text: CONNECT to 741741. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Mason Counsels Suicide Prevention

Also see:

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site:, Publisher site:

Newsletter at:

Continue Reading