A New Spirituality of Leadership: Using Family Process to Deepen & Revitalize Congregational Life

Since the publication in 1985 of Edwin Friedman’s groundbreaking work, Generation to Generation, the application of family systems theory to the nature, behavior, and functioning of churches and church leaders has seemingly become routine. However, among many would-be practitioners there continue to be misunderstandings and a lack of awareness of the crucial underlying theses of this approach.

Utilizing the insights of family process to understand the dynamics of a congregational system is not just another pastoral “tool” or method of problem solving. Rather, it goes to the very heart and soul of what it means to be a pastoral leader. When clergy (and lay) pastoral leaders can self-differentiate, remain non-anxious, and yet stay deeply connected to others, the inner integrity that emerges from that identity can empower the development of healthy relationships that fuel congregational ministry and mission.

This workshop, designed for both clergy and lay practitioners, will explore these issues in depth from the perspective of a congregational setting, paying special attention to relevant biblical and theological themes. This will be a collaborative experience, utilizing didactics, audio-visual resources, and plenary and small group discussion and presentations.

This workshop will explore:

  • The dynamics of healthy functioning among members and ministers,
  • The deep spiritual dimensions of mature responses to anxiety,
  • How leaders can regenerate and transform congregational vitality,
  • New insights for forming and training effective pastoral leaders,
  • The biblical and theological roots of a family process approach.

When pastoral and lay leaders can self-differentiate, remain non-anxious, and yet stay deeply connected to others, the spiritual integrity that emerges from that identity can empower the development of healthy relationships that foster congregational ministry and mission.

In this understanding, leadership is much more than a collection of honed skills. It is a way of being, a “discipleship” of sorts, a spirituality. Indeed, the essence of the notion of a “non-anxious presence” is laden with biblical and theological roots and implications.

What is crucial here is not knowledge or technique, but the leader’s own deep awareness of his/her place and role in the system. It is a perspective that “leadership is itself a therapeutic modality.”  In this approach leaders focus not on the pathology of a system, but on their own emotional presence and participation in it to foster healing, promote vision, and instill in others the courage and capacity to treat crisis as an opportunity for growth.

Location: The EQB Building at the University of the South in Sewanee, TN (https://goo.gl/maps/QMXGMoKTejr), located behind the University of the South Bookstore.

The workshop will commence at 9:30 a.m. CST Thurs., Nov. 8 and will conclude at 1 p.m. Fri., Nov. 9. Download a schedule here.

Tuition: $225 until Oct. 1, $275 from Oct. 2 onward.
Tuition includes materials and lunch on both days.
University of the South faculty & staff: $125 (meals included)
University of the South students & seminarians: Free (no meals)

Lodging is not included with tuition. For travel & accommodation information, click here.

Register here >

Day one will focus on:

  • Edwin Friedman and the roots of Bowen theory,
  • The basic tenets of family process,
  • Leadership as a therapeutic modality.

Day two will focus on:

  • Spiritual dimensions of family systems theory,
  • Biblical and theological themes,
  • A New Spirituality of Leadership.

Suggested Reading

Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (10th Anniversary Revised Edition). New York: Church Publishing, 2017.

Paul David Lawson, Old Wine in New Skins: Centering Prayer and Systems TheoryNew York: Lantern Books, 2001.

Register here >>


The Rt. Rev. Joe Goodwin Burnett is a native Mississippian who was drawn to The Episcopal Church while a United Methodist seminarian at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas. Following his ordination as deacon in 1974 and priest in 1975, he served in the diocese of Mississippi for twenty-five years in a succession of parishes. He was active in diocesan leadership roles as vestry and parish consultant, convocation dean, diocesan liturgical coordinator, and chair of committees in evangelism, liturgy and music, and mission strategy.

From 1999–2003 he taught pastoral theology at the masters and doctoral levels at the School of Theology at Sewanee. In May of 2003 he was elected bishop of Nebraska, where he served for eight years, overseeing increases in diocesan funding for youth and young adult ministries, supporting and building new congregations, revitalizing existing parishes, equipping lay and clergy leaders for ministry and growth, and promoting global mission. Burnett was also a founding member in 2006 of the Omaha Tri-Faith Initiative, a partnership between the Diocese of Nebraska, a Reform Jewish congregation, and a Muslim community.

From 2011-2014, he served as assistant bishop of Maryland, followed by a twenty month period as interim rector of St. Columba’s Episcopal Church, a 4,000-member parish in Northwest Washington, DC.

Burnett was a frequent faculty member of the annual Preaching Excellence Program for Episcopal seminarians, and served multiple times, both as a chaplain for the Mississippi Conference on Church Music and Liturgy, and later as chaplain and lecturer for the Sewanee Church Music Conference. He has numerous published sermons, as well as articles and essays on liturgy, pastoral theology, and pastoral care. He served as a member of the Board of Archives of the Episcopal Church from 2006-2011, and as a member and later chair of the Theology Committee of the House of Bishops from 2004-2015.


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