Bowen Family Systems Theory continues to influence thinking about the practice of ministry, especially clergy leadership functions. Although many pastors may not realize it, one of those key functions is preaching.

The act of preaching holds a number of interesting “systems” implications. Few leaders have the opportunity to address the system they lead on such a regular public, corporate, and intergenerational manner. But every week, clergy in pastoral ministry are afforded the opportunity to speak to the minds and hearts of their constituents from the position of pastor, priest, and prophet.

Despite the applicability of systems theory to preaching, when the Leadership in Ministry clergy training program (www. issued a call for “systems sermons” to publish in its newsletter, one reader responded with a legitimate question: “What makes for a good systems sermon?”

I cannot find anything overt on what constitutes a good “systems sermon” in the hermeneutical literature, but I suspect that a good systems sermon is more about incorporating certain qualities than about rigid attention to a definitive set of rhetorical components crafted into the textual structure of the sermon. Specifically, a good systems sermon is not about systems theory; it is about fulfilling the pastoral function that addresses emotional process in the congregation. That said, I think a good systems sermon gives attention to certain aspects of both content and delivery. While there may be more to what makes for a good systems sermon, I believe it incorporates some or all of the following:

  • clarity about the pastor’s relation-ship with the congregation
  • redemptive self-definition
  • awareness of and respect for the destructive power of emotional triangles
  • attention to and respect for the potential for multigenerational transmission.

Additionally, a good systems sermon demonstrates clarity of the function of preaching in the congregational context. A sermon delivered by the pastor of a congregation is not merely a well-honed homily, a polished hermeneutical, or a theological exposition of a text. It has a function by virtue of who is preaching (the pastor-leader), who is being addressed (the congregation, who make up the community—the system), and the context that mediates their relationship (the church, a community of faith). Therefore, a pastoral sermon has purpose in its function: challenge (the prophetic element, including vision), perspective (the particular principles and values that inform one’s stance), theological content (a confessional stance about corporate beliefs and values), and attention to identity (the unique corporate culture of the congregation). But most importantly, a good systems sermon is, first of all, a good sermon.

Clarity of Relationship

As a seminary professor I get to hear and read my share of “seminarian sermons.” It’s part of the literary purgatory that comes with the job. What most of those novice sermons tend to have in common are an over-focus on content and a lack of attention to the mysteries and vagaries of life and relationships, and a lack of attention to (or awareness of) the relational aspects of the pastor and the flock that should inform the function of the sermon. These liabilities are understandable since seminarians tend to be young and have not yet experienced much of life, and most have not been in the position of pastor long enough (if at all) to have experienced the unique role of pastor to a congregation. For the majority of seminarians, preaching is performance grounded in textual exposition rather than a pastoral function grounded in a congregational context mediated by the relationship between pastor and flock.

Redemptive Self-Definition

A good systems sermon reflects both self-differentiation and self-definition on the part of the proclaimer. When a pastor of a congregation stands before the flock with messages that communicate “I will take care of you,” “I need you to validate my worth and ministry,” “You need me, and would be lost without me,” “I bear your burden,” or “I know it all, I’m the expert,” he or she reflects not only a lack of self-differentiation but also reveals a neurotic pastor-congregation relationship. Self-differentiation allows for the ability to self-define one’s own beliefs and values while allowing the same for the other. Additionally, self-differentiation does not have a need to borrow self unduly from others—individuals, groups, or organizations.

Preacher and professor Barbara Brown Taylor offers some good advice on self-definition: “My rule for public truth telling is simple: only say ‘I’ when you are reasonably sure that those listening to you can say ‘me too’. . . . There are several good reasons for following this rule. In the first place, it provides a helpful check on a preacher’s natural exhibitionism. In the second place, it recognizes the difference between an audience and a congregation. An audience gathers to be entertained by someone else’s peculiar take on truth, and to talk about it afterward. A congregation gathers to be engaged by the common truth that makes them who they are, and to do something about it afterward.”1

Emotional Triangles

Leaders occupy the anxiety point of multiple systemic triangles in any system. And clergy who serve in congregations—systems of chronic anxiety—find themselves perpetually a part of the emotional triangles in the congregational system. Some of these triangles are inherited by virtue of office (and are, therefore, systemic) and some come about due to acute anxiety or personal issues. When caught in a triangle, the pastor may be on the receiving end of anxiety or may be the one dishing it out.

The mature and self-differentiated pastor has the capacity to monitor his or her own anxiety and resists bringing anxiety triangles into the pulpit in a willful way. Scholar Walter Brueggemann has warned about the dangers of triangling scripture, God, and the congregation when preaching. Anxious triangles inevitably lead to willfulness. When that happens in preaching, Brueggemann warns, “in the place of the text, stands the voice of the pastor. That leaves the pastor vulnerable and exposed, for it is only one person’s voice. People are not fooled by the substitution when they receive the word of the pastor instead of the voice of the text.”2 But a pastor may also self-define his or her position in the triangle through the sermon without being willful (by not making demands, assigning blame, giving ultimatums, or insisting on conformity), thereby shifting emotional process. Defining self serves to give responsibility back to whom it belongs—and sometimes anxiety and responsibility belong to the congregation rather than the pastor. Typically, an anxious congregation will ask the pastor to assume its anxiety and responsibility, but the wise and mature pastor knows when to give it back. The capacity to do this in a responsible and redemptive manner makes for some of the most powerful and transformative moments in a congregation or, at the very least, in the relationship between a congregation and the pastor.

One pastor, facing an episode of acute anxiety related to a financial shortfall in his congregation, worked at addressing the symptoms of that anxiety (triangling, blaming, hostage-taking, and attempts at scapegoating) by identifying the real issue (it wasn’t about the money) and getting clear about his pastoral function related to his position as leader in his congregation. After coaching his staff, addressing his lay leaders, and dealing with a few members who were acting out, it came time to avail himself of the preaching function that the pulpit afforded him as lead
er. He preached a sermon to address the financial crisis, but he did it by repositioning himself through clarifying his role (he wasn’t a fundraiser for the congregation), clarifying functions (it was not the responsibility of staff or of certain committees to reach into people’s pockets for money), and putting the responsibility back onto the congregation for their stewardship in giving. He challenged both the overfunctioning givers who facilitated irresponsibility on the part of others to give less, and the large percentage of non-giving families for their failure to act as responsible members. It became a defining moment for the congregation—one family left the church, the deacons took responsibility for their personal stewardship of giving to the congregation and started talking, for the first time, to the members and families under their care about stewardship, and the congregation stopped focusing on money as the issue.

Multigenerational Transmission

The best systems sermons I’ve heard give attention to the power of multigenerational transmission and the family projection process. In the family projection process, individuals in the system may become the focus of anxiety by parents in a family, or by leaders in a congregational system. That projection may result in the assignment of functional roles to the person occupying a certain position in a system. For example, in a family, a firstborn child becomes a standard-bearer, charged with carrying on the parents’ life goals or dreams. A youngest daughter may be assigned the role of family caretaker, ultimately bearing the burden of caring for aging parents (even if she lives 40 miles away and another sibling lives just two miles away from the parents!). In a congregation, the projection process may assign functional roles to the pastor, certain committees or groups, or to certain staff members. The emotional process of multigenerational transmission can turn those projections into systemic patterns that become part of the structure and culture of a system generation after generation. The result can be that no matter who the individuals are in the system, as a group they will tend to function out of the functional roles assigned by the system. This phenomenon helps explain how a group of highly competent professional individuals can turn into a dysfunctional, incompetent committee that serves as a point of anxiety in the system. When those individuals become part of the committee, they become a part of a multigenerational projection process that has been in place for generations. Harried pastors soon discover that no matter who gets assigned to that committee, it will always function in the way it was programmed to do in and for the system.

Those are examples of the “hidden life forces” that are so determinative of relationship systems, yet most people remain unaware of how they affect their functioning in the systems of which they are a part.3 For example, often a pastor’s family birth order influences the “systems” relationship component of his or her preaching more than does the delivery style or the textual hermeneutics. It is quite dramatic to hear the voice of a firstborn, middle child, or a “baby of the family” come through in moments of transparency in a sermon delivery or other pastoral functions. For example, I received a call from a pastor who had just moved to a large, corporate-sized congregation with multiple staff members. He called for a consultation because he was feeling “stuck” when leading staff meetings and leadership council meetings. He could not figure out why he felt intimidated by certain individuals in those groups, most of whom he “outranked” as the senior pastor. It got to the point that he realized he was not being effective in providing leadership to those groups. After some conversation and introspection, the minister, who is in his mid-fifties, came to the awareness that what he was experiencing in those meetings was his family-of-origin role of “the baby in the family.” The youngest of four brothers and one sister, despite his education and senior rank in his work setting, he was functioning out of his “follower” and designated “baby” family role. This was confirmed when I asked him to identify the birth order of the persons on his staff and committees that he was most challenged by (some who were chronologically younger than he)—they all occupied “older” sibling positions in their families! Because birth order and family projection process are so much a part of what constitutes self-identity, pastors often define and position themselves from that orientation in their relationship with their congregations, including in their preaching.

Multigenerational transmission and family projection process have two facets every pastor must give attention to. The first is the pastor’s own family of origin related to each. The second is the congregation’s multigenerational transmission and “family” projection issues. On the positive side, the pastor can remind the congregation that, as church, it does not stand alone nor does it exist disconnected from its past—its saints and sages, its Abrahams and Sarahs. But a congregation is also a living community that suffers the ghosts of its Jacobs and Cains. A congregation always exists in the middle of the story, and their pastors enter, minister, and leave from that point. Legacies are celebrated or endured in the present, but they also shape the future.

On the negative side, the pastor may have to navigate the family projection process that is inherent in the congregational system—for example, a tendency to make a martyr or saint of its pastors, to make scapegoats of its staff, to overfocus on the appearance and behavior of the pastor’s family, or to get stuck over “power” issues or ideology issues. The fundamental dynamic in the projection process is a lack of respect for the boundaries of self in relationship to the persons who make up a system. Any pastor who buys into the projection needs of his or her congregation, and therefore denies his or her authentic self, loses the capacity to be prophetic in the preaching function. Instead, the (homeostatic) reciprocal stance may become, “I will be what you need and want me to be.”

Preaching is not performance, although it includes that element. Preaching, at heart, is a pastoral function that is contextual. And it is a pastoral function that is both informed and shaped by the pastor-congregation relationship of the context—the congregational relational-emotional system. Simply put, the sermon is as much about the preacher, the congregation, and their relationship in the context of being church as it is about the text. Until that concept becomes clear, and until systems thinking becomes a part of the way a pastor functions, the sermon event may never provide an opportunity to address the emotional process of a congregation. 

1. Barbara Brown Taylor, “Telling Truths,” The Christian Century, July 25, 2006, 31.
2. Walter Brueggemann, “The Preacher, the Text, and the People,” Review & Expositor, Vol. 102, No. 3, 495.
3. For the concept of “hidden life forces,” see Israel Galindo, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2004).