“But That’s Just Normal”

coffee4_1.jpgIs it?  Or, is it just the way we’ve always done it.  Perhaps it feels normal because my rut is so deep that I can’t imagine doing life any differently.  

Shortly after we married, Charlotte and I had some sort of disagreement (read "argument") and my response was to back away, get quiet, and even withdraw.  I did this repeatedly.  Meanwhile, Charlotte would want to talk about the issue, get it out on the table, and deal with it.  Her family seemed to deal with their issues this way most of the time. 

I remember going to her house one time when we were still dating.   As I recall, we walked into the kitchen and Charlotte’s dad was sitting at the kitchen table with her little sister who was about fourteen.  The conversation was — "intense."  Charlotte told me as we passed through that they were just dealing with some things.  Now that scared me to death.  Why?  It was different for me.

We tend to bring into our marriages old ways of relating to people.  We bring into our marriages habits and comfortable patterns of behavior.  This is one reason why it is important for any person who is considering marriage to at least become acquainted with their prospective spouse’s family and the dynamics of that family.

Church leaders do the same.  We bring into our churches the dynamics of our families.  We bring into these churches the dynamics and system of relating that feel most comfortable and "normal."

About fourteen years ago, I was a part of Edwin Friedman’s post-graduate study program.  Friedman was a former Rabbi, marriage and family therapist, and author.  He took Murray Bowen’s work on Systems Theory and applied it to the dynamics of church and synagogue.  (Later, people such as Peter Steinke developed this even more and made it even more applicable to church leaders, etc.)

Being a part of Friedman’s program meant a trip to Bethesda, Maryland, three times over the course of a year.  (The following year, I was a part of the second part of his program, which meant two trips to Bethesda that year.)  With Friedman, a small group of church leaders would talk about not only our roles as leaders but also how we functioned in our families.  Of particular interest to him was our functioning in our families of origin.  Each person came with a Genogram that mapped out his or her family of origin and their way of functioning in that family.  Friedman believed that a person could actually increase his capacity for leadership by working to stay connected with his family of origin while at the same time being a person who was an authentic "self" (as opposed to simply reacting to that family).


Yes.  I can tell you after years of working with ministers, elders, and other church leaders that the most important clue as to how they will function in their ministries and how they will relate to others is the way they function in their families.  Some examples:

  • A church leader avoids conflict — at all costs.  He has always done that in his marriage as well.
  • A minister is very disconnected from the other church leaders.  Looking back at this person’s family of origin, there are very similar patterns with these family members as well.
  • One church leader tells a joke or in some way tries to be funny whenever a discussion calls for people to share what is on their hearts.  It has a way of destroying the moment.  This person has done the same thing in the marriage for many years.
  • A certain church leader is a "benevolent controller."  With a smile on his face, he carefully orchestrates situations to fit his agenda.  He gained these skills many years ago as he, his sister, and his mother would maneuver around his alcoholic father.

We ALL bring something to the table.  We bring in our own family dynamics.  What is important is that I make an attempt to recognize these dynamics in myself.  What about you?  What patterns or ways of relating to people do you recognize in yourself that you have brought from the past?  How do these patterns impact the way you relate to people today?  In particular, how have they impacted the way you relate to people in your church?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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16 thoughts on ““But That’s Just Normal”

  1. This is so true.  My daughter recently married and it’s been interesting seeing the SO different family dynamics and watch the two of them learning to deal with that.  And in thinking about answering your questions I think about even in families we relate to people in different ways.  Maybe due to where we are in the sibling line as far as the oldest, middle, or youngest.  I’m the middle girl and I relate different than my 2 sisters.  I guess I’m the social butterfly and way too care free but one thing I would like to say is people can change.  We can’t change them but we can change ourselves but first I do think we have to see ourselves for who we really are.  For instance, just because someone is a control freak in their home and then they bring this into their church doesn’t mean they HAVE to be that way.  There are tools to deal with that.  For me personally, I’ve had to change to MAKE MYSELF listen better.  I’ve got a long way to go btw but am aware this is something I want to be better at.  My oldest sister is a very good listner but I have to work at it.   

  2. That is really good.


    So much of who we are is programmed early so what bearing does that have in
    the context of transformation? Can Jesus circumcise a heart and if so does that
    circumcision only take place in the context of our programming?


    I don’t know it just makes me think.

  3. Jim, I don’t know how you come up with such great stuff day after day.
    "…just dealing with some things"  I can hear her say that.  I love that.
    The bad thing is leaders so often get away with the way they are.  It’s good for me to have this brought to my attention.  "Thanks, I needed that."

  4. Jim, Knowing Charlotte’s family the way I do, I had to chuckle when I imagined you walking by while Uncle Charles and Carole were just dealing with some things.  You are a brave man!  🙂 
    Your blog today is especially thought-provoking.  I have found that, in order to grow past some of my automatic programmed responses, it has helped to asume an "observer" role at times.  Just stand back and look at myself in situations as if I were looking at another person.  Trying to stay detached from the emotions associated with it and analyze why I’m behaving the way I am.  When I can manage to do that I learn surprising things about my self!  (Not sure if this made any sense, but I’m going to post it anyway!.)

  5. I came from a family that was a bit dysfunctional and sarcastic. My wife came from a very loving, outwardly demonstrative family tht hugged and affirmed each other. It was a HUGE transition for me to make, but I’ve been very deliberate to be more like her side of the family and less like mine.

    Good thought-provoking words today.

  6. As a systems-oriented therapist who loves Bowen, I truly appreciate this post.  It is hard to recognize how we are influenced by our families, especially when the patterns are familiar and comfortable!  Some of what we gain is strikingly helpful, and some is incredibly hurtful when engaging with another’s dynamic.  Honestly?  When folks come for therapy, I work with them in relating differently to their family of origin on issues that are problematic for them.  For most, this is often what helps generalize to other areas of their life as they learn that life won’t destruct if interactional patterns are different than normative.  This is true of me personally as well. It is much easier for me to interact in healthier patterns generally as I have worked hard to interact in my family differently.  Some people aren’t able to do this for a myriad of reasons (go back into their family of origin) and for those I recommend finding places where they are able to be supported in practicing new patterns.  This is tough work, and I am glad you are shedding light on it!  Thanks Jim, I always appreciate your thoughts. 

  7. I would add to Connie’s idea of looking at myself as an "outside observer" by finding those people around you that you can trust to give you honest feedback of what they observe of you during those difficult or uncomfortable situations.  I have benefited greatly by a team of friends who feel free to challenge and encourage me in my spiritual and emotional journey.  As Jennifer suggests, this has helped me practice new ways of relating than in my younger years.  Great post!

  8. Jim, I see this so often in church conflict issues. Rarely do people behave in a vacuum.  So often destructive behaviors in church life stem from family system issues that we carry into all of life.  Thanks for talking about this.  You always give me something good to chew on.

  9. Hello Arlene,I really like the way you expressed this: "Rarely do people behave in a vacuum."  Is that ever true!I can’t tell you how many times that I have been totally baffled by someone’s behavior only to learn of some unspoken family issues that they were dealing with.Hope you guys are doing well.  

  10. Tony,As I read your comment, I thought about how unfortunate it would be not to recognize some of the issues that were actually driving some unproductive or even negative behavior in my life.    

  11. Eric,You are blessed to have friends like these.  Your comment not only reflects well on them but says so much about you as well (I mean that in a positive way).  

  12. Jennifer,Thank you for what you added to this discussion.  (In fact, you probably could have written a better post than me on this.)  One of the most helpful things I have ever done, Jennifer, is work on my family of origin issues/etc.  Tough.  Difficult. But—very significant in terms of functioning in other relationships.  Thanks.  

  13. Greg,A wonderful testimony to how you changed a way of functioning (probably a way that seemed very "normal.")  

  14. Hi Darin,You raise a very good question.  I do think that on the other side of the cross/resurrection that Christ works in this "new creation" to transform our thinking, relationships, habits, etc.  I do believe that such transformation is often very gradual and over a period of time.  What do you think?  

  15. Lisa,You make a good point.  While know one is destined to be stuck in a particular way of functioning (especially as Christ has power not only to forgive but to deliver from bondage).  What happens to far too many of us though, is that we simply repeat old, destructive patterns of behavior into new friendships and then get the same negative results.  Thanks