Workshop Participants Explore Family Systems Theory in Congregational Context

Nineteen participants from eight states converged on Sewanee Nov. 8–9 to participate in A New Spirituality of Leadership: Using Family Process to Deepen & Revitalize Congregational Life, facilitated by the former bishop of Nebraska, the Rt. Rev. Joe Goodwin Burnett. The group, made up mostly of clergy leaders from The Episcopal Church, gathered in a cozy room on the campus of the University of the South to explore Rabbi Edwin Friedman’s groundbreaking work, Generation to Generation, and the application of its family systems theory to church congregations.

Participants shared their own experiences of church leadership—both good and bad—and worked together in exploration of Rabbi Friedman’s methods and approaches. The themes explored were applicable not only to church congregations but to any organization where people work together toward a common goal. Much of the work revolved around being a non-anxious presence in confrontational situations, and often during the discussions one could feel a collective sigh of relief as the gathered church leaders realized they are not alone in sometimes feeling anxiety about individuals within their congregations. The Rev. Joseph Smith, rector of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Wayne, Pennsylvania said, “I was challenged to evaluate my leadership and the who and what I let make me anxious.”

“I sense that there is a hunger on the part of many clergy and lay for a more in-depth understanding of Family Process, and how to weave it into the fabric of their ministries,” said Burnett. He has woven Friedman’s work into his ministry since 1986, when he first encountered Generation to Generation. “I believe this way of thinking has profound implications for the faithful and life-giving exercise of ministry, administration, and leadership in a variety of contexts.” According to Sheri D. Kling, executive director of the Beecken Center, themes such as this are exactly what the Beecken Center strives to offer its constituents. “Judging by the engaged nature of the discussions during the workshop,” noted Kling, “it will be important for us to continue to to explore this topic with Bishop Burnett.”

Burnett is a longtime friend of Sewanee and of the School of Theology. He served as professor of pastoral theology from 1999 until 2003, and taught D.Min. courses at the seminary in 2013 and 2017. A parish priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi for 25 years, Burnett went on to serve as diocesan bishop in the Diocese of Nebraska from 2003 until 2011 when he became assistant bishop in the Diocese of Maryland. He is now retired and living again in Omaha.