It’s this last book, Becoming a Healthier Pastor: Family Systems Theory and the Pastor’s Own Family by Ronald W. Richardson, which has captured me the most lately. Part of Fortress Press’s Creative Pastoral Care & Counseling Series, this book has been revolutionary in its abiolity to explode misperceptions and unconscious anxieties within my own life and thinking… and how that impacts my family and my ministry.
I have spent a good ten years as a pastor, and more prior to that, experiencing ‘righteous indignation’ over the way things happen around me… the way a family member doesn’t do what I know would be the best way or the way a parishioner ought to do something. This book starts off with a summary of the literature in this area by quoting Michael Kerr: “The more anxious, frustrated, judgmental, angry, overly sympathetic, or omnipotent one feels about the problems of others, the more it says about unresolved problems in self.”
I wondered what he meant by us feeling “omnipotent” until I read a bit further and Richardson clarifies: “Omnipotence in this case means, ‘I know what your problem is and what you need to do about it.'”
Richardson goes on and explains the basics of family systems theory and its accompanying anxiety and reactivity and then notes that “differentiation of self… is the antidote to anxiety.”
Differentiation of self is the process whereby we consciously evaluate why we react emotionally in certain ways and then make specific conscious choices as to how we choose to respond in those situations from now on. The argument that ‘I get really angry and blow up because I have red hair’ or because ‘I’m Irish,’ doesn’t cut it. Differentiation says: I get angry and blow up because I choose to… Nobody, and nothing, makes me react in that way. (Neither can anyone make me angry, for that matter.)
“The Michael Kerr quote at the start of this chapter describes some of the conscious feeling reactions we can have to church members and situations. You may identify with and experience these feelings and attitudes. But there are other, less conscious patterns we carry with us that can cause just as much trouble. For example, these blind spots can occur quite easily while we are in the role of helping or caring for others. When, as pastors, we begin to give advice, sympathize with one side in other people’s arguments, get stuck in their stories and try to figure out ‘answers’ for or with them, participate in triangles, become overinvolved with and overly supportive of them in their problems, or, conversely, try to distance and get out of the helping relationship, we are manifesting our lack of differentiation.” –emphasis mine.