Joy, anxiety, peace and many other feelings, are often passed on from person to person. Dr. Murray Bowen refers to this as “Triangles” and he claims it is the basic building block for any emotional system. In a “triangle” system the health of a family unit, or organizational system, depends upon the “triangles” capacity for anxiety, or a leader that is able to differentiate from the “triangle” and lead the group another direction. According to the Bowen Theory, any emotional system without differentiation is bound to become toxic and harmful when dealing with anxiety.
In my study of pastoral transitions, particularly the impact on church health when a long-term founding pastor exits and ways an elder-led church can walk through the process, I’ve been drawn to family therapy and the Bowen theory. The Bowen Theory deals with Family systems, triangles, anxiety, and the need for differentiating leaders. It shouldn’t be surprising to us that when one member of our family is stressed and anxious, their feelings can easily transfer to other members of the family. While this is common it doesn’t mean it is healthy. This is why I was pleasantly surprised when reading Edwin H. Friedman’s book, A Failure of Nerve, and see Friedman highlight the Bowen Theory and the importance of differentiation.
As I personally prepare for the exit of my church’s founding pastor I am well aware of the anxiety this creates for others. While studying church health through transition, I know it’s important for the incoming leader to be a differentiating leader. Friedman defines a self-differentiated leader as one who has a “…capacity to be a non-anxious presence, a challenging presence, a well-defined presence, and a paradoxical presence. Differentiation is not about being coercive, manipulative, reactive, pursuing or invasive, but being rooted in the leader’s own sense of self rather than focused on that of his or her followers.” Friedman goes on to explain how differentiation is an emotional concept, not a cerebral one and how it has less to do with a person’s behavior than with his or her emotional being.
Friedman’s work combined with my study of the Bowen Theory has led me to ask a handful of different questions. What emotional “triangles” exist in the church? Can an elder-led team be the differentiating presence in the church or does it just rest on an individual, most likely the Senior Pastor? Is it possible to function in a family unit or an organizational system, that is differentiating or are differentiating leaders just that, individual leaders?
I tend to believe that differentiation is only an individual concept but I will undoubtedly be spending a lot of time studying this concept and how it relates to the health of churches in transition.
 Roberta M. Gilbert, The Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory (Falls Church: Leading Systems Press, 2006), 47.
 Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (New York: SEABURY BOOKS, 2007), 183.
 Ibid., 183-186.