Jenny is Director Emeritus and founder of the Family Systems Institute (FSI) in Sydney, Australia. FSI has been providing training and clinical services in Bowen family systems approaches since 2004.
In June 2021, she stepped down from her leadership role but she continues as faculty. Jenny is committed to contributing to FSI events and mentoring emerging systems thinkers as demonstrated in her new Parent Hope Project endeavor.
In 2022 she was awarded the Polly Caskie research award by the Bowen Center for Family for the Study of the Family in Washington, DC, honoring her work with parents and the family projection process.
Jenny’s best-selling book “Growing Yourself Up: How to bring your best to all of life’s relationships” is now in its second edition. She has also published a primer on parenting called “Confident Parenting: Restoring Your Confidence as a Parent by Making Yourself the Project and Not Trying to Change Your Child”.
While she is with us Jenny is going to be digging deeper into Bowen theory as it relates to defining a self – The I position. This is a key skill for maintaining a calm presence and connection with parties in a triangle without adding energy from your own reactions.
This subject follows on nicely from discussions in last year’s Clergy Clinic about triangles, among other teachings from The Leaders Journey. Here is an interview by two authors on the subject of triangles in Jenny’s book.
Come to Advanced Clergy Clinic prepared to learn about your best next steps!Churches: Plums and Pills
Where are all the staff? So many businesses seem to be a shell of themselves. Staff are around and working hard, but there is a general sense that there are just too few of them. Maybe you have experienced this as well. While many things have returned to pre-pandemic conditions, American employment certainly has not. During lockdown, many Americans reflected on their career priorities and came to life-altering decisions. Some decided to retire, while others decided to leave a current job that no longer suited them. Between April and September in 2021 alone, 24 million Americans walked away from their jobs, an all-time record, commonly referred to as the Great Resignation.
Seeking to understand why this has been occurring, researchers from MIT took a deep dive into the data and found that “toxic culture” has been driving the exodus.1 They identified these five key attributes of a toxic workplace: Disrespectful—defined as a lack of consideration, courtesy, or dignity for others; Noninclusive—defined as inequity around LGBTQ, racial, disability, age, or gender issues, or a tendency toward favoritism, nepotism or cronyism; Unethical—characterized by unethical behaviors, dishonesty, or a lack of regulatory compliance; Cutthroat—described as having backstabbing behaviors and ruthless competition; and Abusive—refers to bullying, harassment, and hostility.2 While attrition rates are high on average, they are not universal. Pinpointing the elements of toxic culture in an organization can help leaders focus on addressing the underlying issues that lead employees to resign.
That is the corporate world. What about the church? LMPC recently conducted a listening process with a large, mainline church that was concerned about staff turnover. Not the senior pastor, who was settled and managing programs well, but the music director, associate pastor, youth director and administrative staff, as well as a number of volunteers and committee members. Leadership wanted us to interview former employees and try to understand why they left. In a word, it was toxicity.
Churches need to be intentional about their culture.3 Rabbi Edwin Friedman refers to some churches as plums (great places to serve) and others as pills (hard places to serve) and says that every judicatory leader knows which church is which in the region. Pills have toxic culture, are abusive, disrespectful and lack basic civility.
Paul reminds the Ephesians to lead a life worthy of their calling in Christ, bearing with one another with gentleness and humility and forbearance, and speak the truth in love, i.e., create a culture of acceptance and belonging. Staff attrition can be a key indicator of the culture of the congregation. Adopting a covenant of behavior like the PCUSA document, “Seeking to be Faithful Together” can be a positive way to change the culture of a congregation.
— Jay WittmeyerThe 20-Year Evolution of Clergy Clinic
One of the signature programs offered by Lombard Mennonite Peace Center is Clergy Clinic in Family Emotional Process. This has been offered for several decades with nearly two thousand clergy participants between Clergy Clinic and Advanced Clergy Clinic. In both programs, the focus is on Bowen Family Systems Theory which is a theory about human behavior and functioning. The concepts of Bowen Family Systems Theory are differentiation of self, emotional triangles, the family emotional system, family projection process, emotional cutoff, multigenerational transmission process, sibling position, and societal regression.
In our previous blog posts, we have used the metaphor of a toolkit and have shared about the “tools” we use through our programming. As with any tool, there comes a time when it needs to be sharpened or cleaned. Such is the case with our program Clergy Clinic in Family Emotional Process (the first year offering). In sharpening this program, we have changed the name of the first-year Clergy Clinic to Leadership Development Through Family Systems. The name change is to encourage anyone in leadership to participate in the program, not just clergy. The content of this program is accessible to anyone in a leadership role.
All leaders today face many challenges. In this time of increased anxiety and stress, our goal at Lombard Mennonite Peace Center is to help leaders focus on their own integrity, functioning, and the nature of their presence rather than seek quick-fix solutions or trendy techniques. In the book The Leader’s Journey (Herrington, Taylor, & Creech) the authors share that “Effective leaders will focus on their own lives, their own thinking, their own roles and responsibilities, their own part to play, and the log in their own eye rather than on the failures of others. They will learn to manage their own reactivity to the anxiety of society and to the anxiety of the people they lead…Leadership requires a different focus, away from society’s symptoms to our own convictions and beliefs. Leaders need the capacity to separate themselves from the surrounding emotional process, the discipline to be clear about their own principles and vision, the willingness to take risks, the persistence to face inertial resistance, and the self-regulation to stand in the face of reactive sabotage.”
An integral part of this program is an effort to understand multi-generational emotional processes in one’s family of origin and how those processes have shaped one’s emotional being. Participants begin to recognize how that emotional field might be affecting their functioning in their current roles including leadership in their organization. Bowen Family Systems Theory proposes that the more one can make differentiating efforts in their own family of origin, there is immediate carry-over in their leadership role.
What participants discover is that focusing on differentiation of self requires commitment to the lifetime project of being transformed by one’s life experiences and learnings. They recognize that it is a primary tool to depend on in their leadership roles. This understanding leads participants to continue after their first year of study and sign up for Advanced Clergy Clinic in Family Emotional Process.
We invite anyone who is in a leadership role to sign up for Leadership Development Through Family Systems. It is an opportunity to grow your emotional maturity and functioning, to work at defining self, and to regulate your reactivity in highly anxious and polarizing times.
— Tammy MartensPromoting Peacemaking – wherever and whenever we can
The Lombard Mennonite Peace Center focuses on training people across the country in biblical education regarding the principles of peace; conflict resolution training; and community building techniques. We also welcome opportunities to do this for a range of areas and stages in life. Many people who take our workshops are clergy or lay people, but we also have participants from the mediation, counseling, and legal professions and the not-for-profit sector.
For the past two months, we have been happy to host an intern from the DePaul University program in Peace, Justice and Conflict Studies, John Lindley. Under the instruction of our Executive Director John has been preparing scholarly materials for presentations. He’s been able to sample two of our biggest workshops, the Mediation Skills Training Institute and Advanced Clergy Clinic, as well as our new one-day program, Restorative Conversations. Through the grace of a mediation client, he was able to see peace circles in action. He’s also gained a sense of the history of our 40-year-old organization by working in our archives. John is graduating this spring, and will be seeking some travel adventure before applying to graduate schools for a counseling degree. He wants to work with young people at the middle or high school level. Please join us in wishing this compassionate, richly experienced young man well on his life journey. We have been happy to mentor him in the art of peacebuilding.
Here is John Lindley, the LMPC intern from DePaul University program in Peace, Justice and Conflict Studies. He’s standing by a Chinese scroll that was made for our Executive Director, Jay Wittmeyer, when he was working in China for the Brethren. It reads, “The Lord is My Shepherd”, from John 15.
The backstory for the scroll is that in 1910, the Brethren started building hospitals in China that introduced Western medicine and concepts of caring for all. The hospitals and their principles were welcomed, marked with centenary celebrations in 2010. The hospitals were another form of peacemaking.
— Dorren Gertsen-BriandThe Fierce Art of Peacemaking: Part 2
In my last post, I referenced a poem by Joy Harjo in which she likens conflict resolution to the performing and literary arts. Lest you think Harjo—or I, for that matter—are absurd to suggest such a turn in thinking about conflict, she is not alone.
Four decades ago, the linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson wrote an article called “Metaphors We Live By” in which they begin to explore such a turn in thinking. In the article, Lakoff and Johnson explain how the metaphors we use to describe our world shade our view of the world. Fortunately for us, they used the example of argument to demonstrate their point.
If you’ve ever noticed, in the English language—or at least in North America—we are prone to speak in military terms when talking about argument and conflict. We shoot down the other person’s argument. We build up our defenses. Our argument was right on target—you get the drift. And this way of talking about conflict shapes how we think and feel about conflict which is often fraught with the whole gamut of negative vibes—from fear to frustration.
Lakoff and Johnson then pose the question of how our perspective of conflict would shift if instead, we used metaphors from the world of dance. Unfortunately, my dance skills and knowledge are on par with my musical talent when it comes to ineptness. The little I do know, though, let me imagine how our perception could shift if we used words like rhythm, timing, improvisation, partner, in-step, and so forth to describe our engagement with conflict. Rather than entering a win-or-lose situation with an opponent, you would instead be entering into the possibility of bringing something creative about with a partner.
I know that is a lot to ask and may seem far-fetched for those of us steeped in Western society. However, this is exactly the point Harjo makes in her poem. The way you win an argument does not rely on your ability to destroy your opponent but on your ability to enter into a creative engagement with a partner, much you as would when dancing, playing jazz, “or anything else that matters in this world.”
What would happen if we began to think of dealing with conflict using metaphors from the dance world or the music world? How would it change our attitude when encountering differences in our churches?
What other metaphors might be considered that would alleviate our anxiety when we learn there is conflict in our midst? How might those metaphors help us arrive at a “fierce understanding of each other” rather than tearing each other apart?
–Devon MillerRecognizing the Prophetic Voice Through Community
The New Year is often a time of turning pages in life, between reflecting on past chapters and finding meaning to guide writing the next. As Christians, we seek guidance from Scripture and prayer. But seeking inspiration is not just a solitary activity. In the context of a church congregation, it is a community job.
When we think about the life of a congregation and the experiences that bond its members, the highlights might come to mind: the moving sermon, the effective outreach, and the festive gathering. There are also the comforting aspects of participating in history, sharing in sacraments like 2,000 years of Christians before us. Ease comes from sharing in the service with the members of one’s community for so many years that you know the identity of the person in front of you without seeing their face, as their form and gait are so familiar. Yet there may be other experiences that bond a congregation: witnessing traumatic events; experiencing loss or injustice; maybe even just growing old together.
Each person in that church, whether ordained or not, impacts the community’s life. That may be by getting involved or walking away. It may be by showing up ready to welcome all, or by bearing hurts from the world. One may come for succor, and another to support. All are children of God and bear gifts to be nurtured and shared. During times of stability, one set of people’s gifts may come to the fore. Times of change can be stressful to the status quo but may also be an opportunity to develop the gifts of others. When things are calm sometimes the practice of listening stagnates. Change invites us to re-open our ears and hearts to those around us. Each person can offer insights into the prophetic voice of the community as the fresh pages of tomorrow are considered and words weighed.
Sometimes, hearing the truth from others is hard, especially where there is hurt or guilt. Sometimes, those normally involved in leadership are too close to the challenge, and for healing to happen a consultant must be brought in. This is the forte of the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center. We are not here to tell you what you should do but to create a safe space where substance and inspiration can be discerned to write new chapters that are not hampered by unfinished storylines of the past. Peace in community settings is a gift we give each other by listening to, respecting, understanding, and seeing the potential in each other as we face new situations in life. Meaning develops between members until the suitable words flow, speaking for the community from its prophetic heart. If you seek a coach to support hearing your community voice, we are here.
—Dorren Gertsen-BriandThe Art of Asking Questions
I recently attended a remote one-hour workshop on Facilitated Dialogue led by Rachel Viscomi from the Harvard Negotiation and Mediation Clinical Program. One piece of guidance she shared was that when facilitating dialogue among a group of people it’s important to slow things down. One way to slow things down and enhance understanding is to ask more questions. And then she shared a slide with this heading on it:
“Keep Calm and Ask More Questions”
This piece of wisdom can be used in many circumstances and conversations, not just in facilitated dialogue. When we are involved in mediation work with churches it is imperative that we ask many questions. When we are assisting/coaching clergy in understanding Bowen Family Systems Theory and they share about their family of origin, we use questions as a tool for them to explain the patterns of behaving/functioning that they developed as they grew up. And as they share, we ask more questions that may lead them to see the bigger picture of their family’s (parents, grandparents, ancestors) challenges and strengths.
As I was participating in Clergy Clinic in Family Emotional Process led by Lombard Mennonite Peace Center, I recognized that my relationship with my father was emotionally distant. Yet, I didn’t know how to go about bridging some of that distance. I started to understand that some of this distance was simply because I did not know my father very well. It was then that I explored the idea of interviewing my dad to get to know him better. But interviews involve questions. And what questions would I even know to ask my father?
Fortunately, a friend suggested I use Grandpa, Tell Me Your Memories which is a resource that provides hundreds of questions to ask and can easily be used for interviewing other people than just your grandfather.
And it worked! Conducting an interview with my dad helped to bridge some of the distance that had existed between him and me. Since that interview, I have been able to ask my dad more and more questions which has helped our relationship deepen.
When facilitating mediation with churches we often will introduce our time by reading a passage from Philippians 2, focusing on verse 4, “Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others.” And a primary way we look to the interests of others is by asking them questions. We become curious and allow open-ended questions to deepen our understanding of one another.
I think of Jesus who was a master at asking questions. In the book Jesus is the Question, the author Martin Copenhaver shares this fascinating detail of Jesus’ ministry: “According to the Gospels, Jesus asks 307 different questions, is asked only 183 questions, and answers fewer than 10 of those he is asked.” Jesus’ use of questions helped to deepen relationships, disarm tensions, and help people define themselves better.
Going into the holiday season, maybe this phrase “Keep Calm and Ask More Questions” could be a way for us to deepen our relationships with family and friends as we gather. It’s another tool in our peacemaker toolkit. We just have to remember to use it. Holiday Blessings,
–Tammy MartensThe Fierce Art of Peacemaking: Part 1
A few years ago, my daughter gave me a book of poetry called Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings. The book was written by Joy Harjo, who at that time was Poet Laureate of the United States. The book includes a poem called “Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings.”
Harjo is a tribal member of the Muskogee Creek Nation located in present-day Oklahoma. The poem, as I read it, is a ironical account of historical negotiations between Indigenous communities in North America and the United States government.
I have read that poem repeatedly in the past several years. One line sticks out to me that I keep coming back to in my work at the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center. It reads,
We will wind up back at the blues standing on the edge of
the flatted fifth about to jump into a fierce understanding
I am not a musician by any stretch of the imagination; I can’t keep a beat worth a hoot. So I have relied on others to help me come to a fuller understanding of this line.
In other sections of the poem, Harjo lifts out the way in which Indigenous communities practiced what negotiators of European background would have considered flawless conflict resolution skills, only to have these practices turn around and bite them.
Earlier in her poem she writes:
I could hear the
spirits who love us stomp dancing. They were dancing as
if they were here, and then another level of here, and then
another, until the whole earth and sky was dancing.
We are dancing, they said. There was no there.
I see Harjo’s poem as attempting to turn the tables on good conflict resolution skills. Rather than following simple formulas, she is suggesting that dealing with conflict is an art form that is similar to dancers negotiating dance moves with a partner or jazz musicians rifting their way through a difficult piece on their guitars without the help of any sheet music.
Evidence that this is what Harjo has in mind is found in her line,
You cannot legislate music to lockstep nor can you legislate
the spirit of music to stop at political boundaries—
—Or poetry, or art, or anything else that matters in
this world, and the next worlds.
I often read this section of Harjo’s poem when I lead a Conflict Transformation Skills workshop. After reading it in one session, someone with way more musical background than myself mentioned that the “flatted fifth” that Harjo mentions is a dissonant chord. In other words, it is filled with tension and begs to be resolved. How the dissonant chord is resolved and brought back into harmony in music is beyond my pay scale. However, in conflict, as Harjo suggests, being at peace with someone I may not see eye-to-eye with involves coming to a “fierce understanding of each other.”
-To be continued
— Devon MillerUsing Structured Process as a Support in Times of Change
Last week Tammy Martens wrote about the use of family diagrams as a tool for analyzing family emotional systems, “for observing the family as it adapts to life”. There is what David Ford called “multiple overwhelmings” (The Shape of Living) in life today that impact family and congregational life from the outside. These are events that happen, often more than one at time, over which we have no control. These events, like conflict, are a normal part of life. How we deal with these events, sense the movement of the Spirit through them and make meaning of them in our lives is where theology can guide us. Having a structured process to support that thinking when under stress is beneficial.
Peter Steinke points out that no generation has had to face greater and more prolonged change than the present one (Healthy Congregations). The Visual Capitalist has wonderful graphic representations of the speed of change (Long Waves: The History of Innovation Cycles – Visual Capitalist and Chart: The Rising Speed of Technological Adoption (visualcapitalist.com)), illustrating why our absorption capacity is full. The result is we as individuals, organizations, and society, are engaging in trauma responses: cutting off relationships, numbing, acting out, blaming, getting tired and depressed, and having a reduced capacity for positive emotions like trust and love.
One of the basic structures in our society is the family unit. It serves as an organizational and value-shaping entity for us, positively or negatively. Author Joshua Coleman identified a fundamental change in the function of the family itself starting in the 1960s, shifting from what was “once seen as a bond of mutual duty and obligation, and now its seen as a launchpad for personal fulfillment.” (Rules of Estrangement). This changed the idea of right relationship and its associated values from ones focused around responsibility to others (often defined by faith) and re-centered on care for the self, first (faith optional). One of the challenges for addressing multiple overwhelmings today is the very structures that we relied on to frame our experiences have shifted.
How can one sense where the Spirit is moving when our senses are dulled and overwhelmed? The gurus of the 1960s were not wrong in placing value on self-knowledge. We cannot help others if we ourselves are hurting. We do need to take time for connecting with our values. But ultimately, we also need to come together again. Families, traditional and modern, can root for the individual growth of their members. Congregations can find new direction in-line with changing realities. Societies can discuss what’s working and what’s not via their governments and shift their policies.
The Lombard Mennonite Peace Center offers structured processes and expert facilitators to help fractured groups work through change, difference, and trauma. Having a system to follow can help mitigate anxiety knowing a tested system will encompass all concerns and hold places for naming, grieving, healing, and dreaming again. It can take time to discern the right path but reconnecting with ourselves will help with future engagement. Being able to lead with an informed response developed from self-examination rather than inflamed raw reaction is the key.
— Dorren Gertsen-BriandThe Family Diagram as a Tool
I started attending Clergy Clinic in Family Emotional Process in 2012 led by staff at the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center. As a participant, I learned about Murray Bowen’s Family Systems’ Theory and began the work of exploring my family of origin.
One assignment that is given to clergy clinic participants is to construct a family diagram. A family diagram is a graphic representation of family members and their relationships over at least three generations. It is different from a family tree because it includes more than just basic facts of our family. It also includes information about the kinds of relationships that exist between family members.
Victoria Harrison shares in her book The Family Diagram & Family Research “Developing a family diagram with facts about the functioning of the family over generations is one way to transform the way one thinks about the family and human nature. It is a cure, of sorts, for simplistic cause-and-effect thinking and for blaming or diagnosing individuals…It is a tool for seeing the family as an emotional system, for recognizing patterns of reactivity that govern the lives of family members, and for observing the family as it adapts to circumstances of life. It is a tool for working on differentiation of self.”
As Devon Miller shared in his blog post “The Art of Peacemaking”, one tool in our LMPC toolchest is Family Systems Theory. One concept of that theory is Differentiation of Self. As we lead churches through conflict mediation, we are aware that our level of maturity and functioning—differentiation of self—impacts the process. One way of understanding differentiation of self is to create a family diagram. A family diagram helps us to explore what our particular relationship patterns are within the family. It helps us see our part of the emotional process, and especially the patterns we use particularly when we experience increased anxiety. These patterns are deeply ingrained in us and will surface automatically in our relationships with family members and others outside the family. Once we become aware of our automatic reactions, we can try and modify them to help us grow into maturity. As we work on our own differentiation of self, we become better equipped for the task of peacemaking.
The Family Diagram is a tool for working on differentiation of self which assists us in bringing our best selves to the mediation table. There are helpful resources we use to create family diagrams. One resource is the book The Family Diagram and Family Research which I quote in this post. There are also several software programs. One program we recommend exploring is GenoPro: https://genopro.com/articles/how-to-create-a-genogram/
Ideally, people will make use of these resources while coaching with someone who has training in Bowen Family Systems’ Theory. We invite you to contact us at Lombard Mennonite Peace Center if you are interested in us assisting you with this work.
— Tammy Martens