A few years ago, I attended a hospital leadership retreat with the other managers, directors, and administrators of the hospital I served. If you’ve been to one of these retreats, then you’re familiar with the format. Often there is some kind of ice breaking activity, some kind of keynote speaker, a few meals together, some strategizing, and some activities. The activities are intended to help people to get to know each other better for relationship building purposes. During this retreat, held on the campus of Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, one of the activities was a word play activity. We were given about thirty small cards containing words or phrases and we were asked to arrange them in order of importance to us. The cards featured words like “love”, “happiness”, “friendship”, “success”, etc. Eventually, we were supposed to eliminate cards until we were only holding five, and those were supposed to represent our top five values. There was an audible gasp in the room when a friend of mine, Trudy, noticed that the very first card I discarded said the word “family” on it. “Oh my! Father Tim doesn’t appreciate family!” she told everyone playfully. In fact, to this day she still reminds me of the card I discarded.

It is important to remember that Utah is heavily influenced by Latter-day Saints, and Trudy is a Latter-day Saint. To the LDS, family is everything. In fact, if you have ever seen an LDS temple, then you know that there are sacred ceremonies performed inside. One of the most sacred of these ceremonies is called a sealing, during which a family is sealed together for time and all eternity. A husband is sealed to his wife when they are married and they subsequently are sealed to their children. This means that their family unit will be intact after death. To many Latter-day Saints, it is comforting to know that family members will be reunited in the afterlife. At my grandparents’ funerals, both of whom were Latter-day Saints, my LDS cousins went to the front of the church to sing a hymn sung at virtually all LDS funterals called “Families Can be Together Forever.” I didn’t participate because I do not know the words of the hymn (although I am appreciative to my grandparents’ bishop, who invited me to co-officiate and to preach a homily during my grandfather’s funeral).

The question continues to linger in the air. Why, in the words of my friend Trudy, does Father Tim not appreciate family? Well, first of all that’s not exactly accurate. Father Tim does appreciate family. The complicated piece is that Father Tim has studied something called Family Systems Theory, and he is aware of how family dynamics affect places like hospitals, schools, and especially churches. Speaking once again in the first person, I have seen and experienced family dysfunction. I have experienced pain in the dysfunction, and I have seen how shared dysfunction affects others around us. I like to be very careful when using the word “family” because families do not always dwell in the warm and fuzzy bubbles in which they are sometimes painted.

Family Systems Theory is an approach used in psychotherapy that helps patients to begin to understand some of the pain they experience in life and how their upbringing has influenced their development. How many times have you caught yourself saying something like, “Great! I’m sounding just like my mother (father).”? There’s a good reason for this! Family Systems Theory gives us our answer. Even if we do not like the way our parents interacted with other people while we were growing up, humans learn a great deal from our parents and we learned how to live by living with them. We are often most heavily influenced by the parent who is of the same sex as us. In other words, boys are frequently heavily influenced by their fathers, while girls are usually more heavily influenced by their mothers. If you are a male and your dad sat on the couch, drank beer, and watched football all weekend, then there’s a really good chance you are inclined to do the same. In fact, children of alcoholics frequently grow up to be alcoholics themselves. Alcoholism is more than simply drinking too much. It involves a series of unhealthy behaviors that usually include drinking too much, but also include hiding, secrecy, skepticism, and denial. Not everyone who drinks too much is an alcoholic, and some alcoholics don’t drink at all.

When people come together, we function as a system. Humans are actually far more intuitive than we give ourselves credit to be. We feel our way through life, feeding off of cues that others put out. In an intimate setting, like church, something inside of us tells us that we can behave like we might behave at a family reunion. Sometimes this is good and sometimes it’s not so good. If a lot of us have experienced family dysfunction (and let’s be honest, who among us hasn’t experienced family dysfunction?), then we bring that dysfunction into the room. We must be aware of how we are in the system and we must take care to be cognizant of how we are operating. We don’t want to behave like that little boy or girl who we were years ago when we were scolded for drawing on the living room wall. We don’t want to behave like the crazy uncle who shares conspiracy theories during Thanksgiving dinner. We don’t want to behave like the dad who yells at mom or the brother who isolates himself from the other siblings because he doesn’t get his way. We want to behave like rational, healthy adults who choose to be in relationship with one another.

While families don’t choose each other, churches get to do that! We are here because we choose to be here. We choose to be in relationship with each other and we choose to love each other. This means that we carry the burden of paying extra special attention to our own behavior and self-regulation. It means we walk together in holiness, and we hold one another accountable. If someone mentions that our behavior isn’t appropriate, then we must look inward to evaluate whether that person notices something we didn’t. It’s hard work, but it pays off in the form of healthy relationships.

I’m happy to be here with you at St. John’s and you’ll notice I don’t use the word family. I prefer words like community, congregation, or fellowship. In fact, I believe St. John’s to be exceptionally healthy. I choose to be here, just like you choose to be here. If you have a family that is free from dysfunction and pain, then I am sincerely happy for you. If you, like me, have experienced pain within your family, then know that I empathize with you and I’m happy to make time to talk and to compare notes. If you’d like to read more about Family Systems Theory and how it plays out in the Church, then I recommend the book I am reading together with your Vestry. It’s called How Your 21st Century Church Family Works, by Peter Steinke. When we study Family Systems Theory, we are often amazed at how much better we come to know ourselves and how much healthier our relationships become with others in our life.

Family Systems Theory and Keeping Church Healthy