The Systems Thinker - Center for Family Consultation's blog

# Church Too

Authored by John Bell, M. Div.

(Published August 19th, 2018. Reprinted with permission from Thinking Congregations)

Earlier this year, Bill Hybels, the founding pastor of the megachurch Willow Creek in South Barrington, IL, resigned ahead of his planned retirement.  The early departure was in response to allegations of sexual misconduct.  Earlier this month, it was reported that Willow Creek Church settled a separate case of sexual abuse for $3.2 million after a volunteer sexually assaulted two disabled children.  And then last week, a grand jury released its findings that over 1000 children were sexually abused by over 300 priests in six Roman Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania.

These revelations are difficult to read.  All of it is unacceptable at an individual and institutional level.  I struggled this week reconciling my feelings of outrage and frustration with my beliefs and the facts of human behavior.  This blog represents my effort to “think” about the problem of sexual abuse.

It’s difficult to engage one’s thinking about an emotionally “charged” problem when people use words like “shocked,” “ashamed” and “disgusted.”  Even the effort to articulate an emotionally neutral understanding of this behavior is dismissed as dispassionate.  We are right to hold individuals and institutions accountable for abuse.  But is there a better way to respond besides blame and disgust?

Dr. Murray Bowen developed a concept of emotional neutrality that focused on seeing the world as it is, not how one might wish for it to be.  Dr. Michael Kerr wrote that emotional neutrality, “is broadened each time a human being can view the world more as it is than as he wishes, fears, or imagines it to be” (Family Evaluation, 111).  So, what can we view about human behavior?

The assumption in Bowen Theory is that human behavior is both automatic and reactive.  While we like to think that all behavior is intentional, we can get stuck reacting to others.  How we feel, think and act is in response to the feeling, thinking and action of others.  Even our thoughts can be reactive to our feelings.  Bowen described this as fusion.  The level of fusion in a family is passed down from generation to generation through a multigenerational transmission process.  This is the way a family learns to manage anxiety.

Anxiety drives the process.  We carry around a specific level of chronic anxiety that mirrors the level in our family.  The level of anxiety impacts the level of functioning.  The higher the anxiety, the lower the level of functioning and vice versa.  Fluctuations in anxiety are in response to the family’s response to a challenge.  As anxiety rises, human behavior becomes automatic.  One example of this is alcoholism.  As anxiety goes up, one reaches for a drink as the functional level declines.  But few alcoholics drink 24/7/365.  “Functional alcoholics” fluctuate between drinking moderately and drinking excessively.  Variation in functioning occurs in the context of the family in real time.  Bowen describes this variation in his scale of differentiation.

Addressing the problem of sexual abuse is complicated.  Each person plays a part in the level of anxiety in the family and therefore the functional level of each person.  Most people can improve their functional level by regulating their anxiety and reactivity.  Leaders work at containing their anxiety and being responsible for their behavior.  Being more responsible requires an ability to see what is.  Bowen outlined these ideas in his concept of differentiation of self.

It is time for us to change the way we address sexual abuse based on an understanding of differentiation.  Our training, resources, policies and procedures need to reflect human behavior as it is not how we wish, fear or imagine it to be.  Congregational leaders can take the lead by having more open communication about the problem and wade into what may be difficult waters.  The best place for a leader to start is in conversation with one’s family.  We have finally arrived at the real challenge and opportunity.

It is far easier to point the finger at the inability of others to manage their behavior while at the same time excuse our behavior.  It is easier to be disgusted by the sexual abuse of others and not understand how we are all on the same continuum of human functioning.  It is easier, and frankly feels better, to be outraged at the problems of the institutional church then it is to commit to making changes for self in relationship to important others.  If you want to address bad behavior in the congregation, then it is best to start with oneself, one’s relationship with the family and one’s relationship with the congregation.  Differentiation of self is the place to begin.

John Bell

This post was published by

2 Comments on "# Church Too"

  • Kelly Matthews-Pluta says

    Very well done, John. I appreciate the complexity of diving into this highly charged topic of child sexual abuse. It challenges us all to see this through a Bowen lens of human behavior. Anxiety and differentiation of self at the root of human relationships.

  • Stephanie Ferrera says

    This blog leaves me wanting to know more of Rev. Bell’s thinking on the subject of sexual abuse in the churches. Indeed, an emotionally charged subject, but also one that calls for a response from clergy and laity alike. Can one take one’s own emotions, outrage and frustration, as a signal that one must pay attention, locate the problems within the institutions, not only in the offending individuals, that give rise to abusive behavior, or tolerate it, or conceal it? The widespread scope of this problem indicates that it is systemic. That puts responsibility on each of us to ask what part we play in the larger systems in which the behavior exists.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *