Three “families” make up your church:  your personal family as a leader [marital and family of origin], the families within your church, and the church as a family of the whole (Friedman, 1985).  The relationship habits of each “family” can complement one another or be in conflict.  When they complement one another, church leaders and church members find church relationships predictable.  In healthy churches, church leaders feel supported.  Church members feel loved.  The church feels like a safe place to be and to grow as a follower of Jesus.  However, when relationship dynamics clash, anxiety rules relationships. Emotional triangles are activated to lessen relationship anxiety [see January 2023 Thrive in Five]. Members and/or leaders disengage or dominate.  The church no longer seems to be emotionally safe. People become self-protective and “prickly.”  Every church goes through trying relationship times.  Healthier churches will bounce back.  Other congregations become “stuck” in persistent, unhelpful relationship patterns.  

How deeply do you, as a church leader, understand how the relationship habits from your own family history support or undermine your ministry leadership?   How clearly can you observe the emotional system at work in your church (Richardson, 1996, p. 38)?

In his book Creating a Healthier Church, Ronald W. Richardson (p. 39-40) recommends the following: 

  1.  Consider your beliefs about people’s motivations.  Think about what your parents modeled or said about other people in general and about you in particular.  These stories operate behind the scenes to influence how we explain another person’s unwanted behavior to ourself.  Remember that the families in your congregation have their own narratives about other people’s motivations, too.  What stories about other people’s motivations did  you bring with you from your family of origin?   In what way does your faith challenge or affect these beliefs?  Reflect on Philippians 2: 1-4 in light of this question. 
  2. Cultivate curiosity instead of judgment.  When someone else has behaved in a way you didn’t want or like, your first tendency may be to engage in criticism and judgment.  You see this pattern in operation in Genesis 3:12-13.  Prior to God’s judgment for Adam and Eve’s disobedience, God had invited self-reflection [Where are you?] and ownership of one’s behavior in the form of questions [Who told you that you were naked?].  Adam and Eve opted for blame [let me off the hook; not really my fault] instead of true confession. How do you explain relationship difficulties to yourself?  Who do you say is “at fault?” If you removed the idea of “fault” from your understanding of the behavior, how would this change your perceptions of self and other…of your motivations and theirs?
  3. Identify your own relationship patterns.  Leaders don’t jettison relationship habits from families of origin or their present family when they accept a church leadership role.  They bring their dynamics with them.  Consider the pattern of deception employed by Abraham (Gen. 12:10-20), Jacob & Rebekah (Gen. 27), and Joseph’s brothers (Gen 37).  Leaders who emotionally withdraw [or dominate] from family tensions are just as likely to emotionally withdraw [or dominate] when faced with church tensions.  Leaders who listen well in their families will most likely listen well in their churches.  How have your experiences and relationships from your family history affected how you relate to your church or particular issues or concerns you have in your church?  What similarities can you observe?
  4. Ask different questions when an upsetting event happens.  One way to begin to think differently about people’s motivations is to describe upsetting events and exchanges in purely functional terms. Describe the event as if you were an objective observer instead of someone who is emotionally involved.  Ask who, where, what, when and how instead of asking “why.”  How can a functional description of an upsetting event affect your understanding of it?  How can a functional description open avenues of understanding, conversation, and reconciliation?
  5. Explore the “emotional system” in your church.  The ways leaders and members relate to one another is part of your church’s emotional system.  When the emotional system is in balance, church ministry moves forward relatively smoothly.  However, all emotional systems will experience periods of imbalance. Imbalance can happen after some challenging event or controversy.  One way to begin to understand your church’s emotional system is to map the triangles that were activated when a past period of emotional imbalance happened.  Refer to the January 2023 Thrive in Five Relational Blog to learn more about triangles.  What insights about your leadership and your church emerge when you begin to map the triangles that are active or dormant in your congregation?  What did you typically do in triangles in which you have had membership?  How helpful or unhelpful were your actions?   


Ronald W. Richardson, Creating a Healthier Church (1996). Fortress Press.  Chapter 2:  The Congregation: More Than Meets the Eye. 

Edwin Friedman, Generation to Generation, Guilford Press.  Section 3:  The Congregation as a Family System. 

Cameron Lee, The Church as A Family System.  or 

Relational contributor: Virginia T. Holeman, PhD., LMFT, LPCC, Retired Chair of the Department of Counseling and Pastoral Care, Asbury Theological Seminary
Executive editor: Johanna Chacon Rugh
Curator of content: Carla Working