Again this year I am continuing to study Bowen Theory at the Princeton Family Center in Princeton, New Jersey. The group I am in is for clergy who wish to step up their functioning as leaders in their parishes or congregations. In the group are clergy from the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, and the United Methodist Church.

We meet eight times a year, and each day-long meeting includes presentations of theory by the faculty and case studies by members of the group presented to the faculty. The overall purpose is to become more effective leaders through the management of oneself and lowering reactivity and anxiety.

Bowen Theory is named for Murray Bowen, MD, (1913-1990) who was a psychiatrist at the National Institute of Mental Health and a faculty member in the Department of Psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical Center.

Bowen Theory is a theory of human behavior that views the family (or organization, parish, or system) as an emotional unit and uses systems thinking to describe the complex interactions in the unit. The theory extends from the fact that human beings are social beings who are formed in their family of origin.

We tend to behave or function in our adult systems (workplace, parish, or volunteer organization) the way we function or behave in our families of origin. It is in the family of origin that we learn our functioning or behaviors that we bring to our adult systems.

It is in the nature of a family that its members are intensely connected emotionally. Often people feel distant or disconnected from their families, but this is more feeling than fact. Family members so profoundly affect each other’s thoughts, feelings, and actions that it often seems as if people are living under the same “emotional skin.” People solicit each other’s attention, approval, and support and react to each other’s needs, expectations, and distress. The connectedness and reactivity make the functioning of family members interdependent. A change in one person’s functioning is predictably followed by reciprocal changes in the functioning of others. Families differ somewhat in the degree of interdependence, but it is always present to some degree.

The Theory is drawn from eight core concepts: Triangles, Differentiation of Self, Nuclear Family Emotional System, Family Projection Process, Multigenerational Transmission Process, Emotional Cutoff, Sibling Position, and Societal Emotional Process. More information is available from the Bowen Center.

The assignment for our first meeting next week is an essay by Anna Moss, “Looking Back To Look Forward.” She is a Presbyterian minister in Sydney, Australia. In the essay she writes, “I’ve also come to understand better how I have found it difficult to sit with other people’s distress. As the good child, I always hated to see my mum get upset or my dad get frustrated and angry. I’ve jumped in and rescued or over-functioned out of this, rather than allowing people to be responsible for themselves and their decisions.”