Foundations for Trauma-Informed Ministry: The Church Is A Family (System) Part 1

This article is a part of a series about trauma-informed approaches to ministry. If you have been with us through the first 3 articles, you may have begun to notice that we are building momentum to tackle more challenging topics. Our hope is to help you develop a more nuanced understanding of trauma. Previously, we highlighted the differences between human- and natural-caused trauma. In this article, we explore the church as a family system.

While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”

He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” Matthew 12:46-50 (CEB)

Over the last several years, there has been a trend on the rise in the world of big companies and brands. You may have noticed as these organizations have claimed the word ‘family,’ used often as a reminder to employees or an encouragement to applicants to opt into this ‘family.’

The use of that word in the context of corporate America stirs up a few important questions: How would these companies define ‘family’? Does that definition align with what employees might want or expect out of this ‘family’ of working professionals? And, perhaps most important, why assert that word to describe a group of people who aren’t related by blood, people who likely lack shared identities or experiences that might bind them together?

The impacts of this trend are well documented. For good or for ill, the use of the word ‘family’ carries with it an expectation for increased loyalty to the company, often followed by an increased likelihood for transgressed boundaries or even exploitation. [1]

As some employees push back against family-work culture, employers are learning that this word is incredibly complex. [2] When used without care or with calculated intentionality, it can be weaponized for the sake of amassing power. In the context of an organization in which there are already substantial power differentials, ‘family’ can quickly and easily become dysfunctional.

At the same time, there is an inherent power in ‘family,’ one that Jesus intimately understood.

In Matthew 12, Jesus redefines discipleship. To be his disciple is to be his parent, his sibling. And to be his family is to do the will of his Father.

What this means is that the church on its best day is the family of Jesus Christ. (To be fair, the church on its worst day is itself an incredibly dysfunctional family. See ‘church history’ at any time over the last two thousand or so years for proof.) Rather than claiming this new reality for the sake of power, Jesus instead makes an invitation to his disciples to care for one another as they would for their own mother, for their own brothers. 

The family tree becomes incredibly complex, but add the will of God in the mix and there is potential for incredible transformation, both of this strange (holy?) family and of the world.

As we consider the church as family, the field of family therapy has much to offer to us, particularly as we apply the tool of family systems theory.

First, let’s define what we mean by family systems theory. Family systems theory “is an approach to understanding human functioning that focuses on interactions between people in a family and between the family and the context(s) in which that family is embedded. [...] According to a family systems perspective, an individual's functioning is determined not so much by intrapsychic factors as by a person's place in the system(s) in which they finds themselves [and often includes] self-correcting and self-reinforcing feedback loops in a system can either facilitate or hinder pathology or health, breakdown or resilience” [1]. This theory teaches us that within the family (however we would define ‘family’), each individual develops a role in which they operate in health or dysfunction.

Interestingly, this recent ‘family’ trend observed in the American workplace was preceded by the church by several thousand years. Toxic though this terminology can be in the workplace, ‘chosen family’ is actually an incredibly apt description of a local church. An important distinction to make here is that family systems do not have to be toxic. In fact, family systems operating in health promote positive family functioning, development, and support through change. Because of this, the idea of a chosen family can be incredibly powerful and a source of resilience for many, especially for those who cannot or should not remain connected with families of origin. 

Often when engaging in ministry in the local church, though, we are faced with the pressure to be a part of a close-knit family. But what does it look like to set healthy work-life boundaries, navigate conflict, or work with someone professionally that we don’t even want to consider family? How do we navigate the complexities of our church family?

In this system, pastors and lay leaders are often placed in parental roles, while members become participants in the family system, negotiating their own roles. In seasons of health, this can result in thriving ministry characterized by meaningful connection with God and others in the church family. A survey of this healthy church family would reveal differentiated members united under a shared mission, operating with firm boundaries and clear communication.

However, just as we can observe in the American workplace, these narratives can also create unhealthy expectations, as well as the pressure to conform and to violate healthy boundaries. All of this creates an environment which is neither fruitful nor sustainable.

For the sake of health in the church family, we must examine the family systems at play in the work we do. Whether we realize it or not, our ministry in the church places us right in the middle of a family emotional system.

What is a family emotional system? The idea of the nuclear family emotional system was originally proposed by psychiatrist Murray Bowen. He concluded that while each of us is our own person, we remain highly connected to and influenced by others that are a part of our family system [2, 3]. In other words, whatever affects one of us affects all of us—to a degree. This idea certainly holds true in the church family system.

The more we are integrated into a system (for example, via membership in a local church), the more we can become infused or enmeshed with it. Enmeshment happens in relationships with “two or more people in which personal boundaries are permeable and unclear” [3]. Enmeshment can lead to emotional reactiveness as individuals take on the heightened emotions of others, and struggle to maintain a boundary or any kind of regulation between others in the system and what they themselves are feeling. In other words, when one person is upset or anxious, the entire system can become flooded with emotions. The same can certainly be said for more positive emotions, too.

In Bowen family systems theory, the experiencing and passing on of strong negative emotions (i.e., depression, anger, etc.) is simply referenced as anxiety in the system [2]. The passing on of anxiety is a common phenomenon. A classic example of this is a herd of animals; when one becomes frightened, all of the animals respond to this with a sense of collective fear [2]. In our families, communities, and churches, we are also plagued by this “herd mentality” when responding to anxiety in the systems. This is especially true in this age of technology and mass communication in which we are constantly bombarded with crises and anxiety-producing news stories. 

Apply this herd mentality to our contexts of ministry and the local church then becomes a complex family emotional system. In seasons of high anxiety (say, for example, a pandemic), the church—like any family—can experience intense enmeshment, resulting in an overwhelmingly anxious herd. Spend a little time in an anxious church and you’ll soon understand the challenges that anxiety presents in the church family. This can look like the development of a dangerously limiting scarcity mindset, an increased desire for control over important decisions, or a distrust of pastors and leaders that can quickly emerge and overtake any hope of conducting healthy ministry. 

Just like any family system, anxious churches desire homeostasis. In moments of anxiety or uncertainty, churches need to find a balanced way to proceed in the work God has placed before them in order to cut off the spiral of anxiety.

How can we, as church leaders, work to create that stability in the church family system?

  1. The first task for church leaders in anxious systems is to be able identify and name the anxiety and its causes. Be on the lookout for expressions of anxiety in various interactions, including face-to-face conversation, email exchanges, and even prayer requests. If there are multiple members questioning decisions, expressing concern, or worrying about the future of the church, there is likely something behind those comments, stirring up anxiety.
    This ‘something’ could be easily identifiable: transition, loss/grief, denominational uncertainty, cultural upheaval. However, it is also entirely possible that the cause of the anxiety may need to be teased out. Is there something happening in the community around the church? Are these individuals experiencing uncertainty in other areas of life? Is there a looming sense of uncertainty or doubt about the future? These questions can help name the cause(s) of the anxiety in the system.

  1. Next, church leaders in anxious systems should work to create a healthy atmosphere for the expression of anxiety. Pastoral care is key here. Offer regular time for one-on-one conversation with anxious church members. Listen to their concerns. It is important to note here that listening doesn’t necessarily mean that you respond immediately or at all. It also doesn’t necessarily mean that you share these same anxieties. However, there can be a regained sense of balance in an anxious system simply by naming anxiety aloud.

  1. Be sure to establish yourself as a non-anxious presence. The reality is that members of church leadership often sets the tone of energy in the church. If the leadership of the church is constantly on edge, concerned, or outright anxious, those intense emotions will permeate through the community.
    If you are a naturally anxious person, this might mean taking time to center yourself before leading in a public way. Connect with God in prayer. Pray for the right words to say. Make space to locate your trust that God is leading you even as you are leading the church. Create regular moments of peace and quiet in your otherwise busy schedule. You may even want to carve out space physically on your calendar for these and other grounding spiritual disciplines that can be key in leading a non-anxious church.

  1. Finally, respond; don’t react. If someone shares their anxieties or offers criticism, don’t feel the need to immediately react to what has been shared. If an unexpected event or conversation happens, take a few moments or, depending on the situation, days to consider how you feel called to respond. Some demands of course require immediate action. Most of the time, though, there is time to consider, pray, and plan. 





[3] W.H. Watson. "Family Systems Theory," in V. S. Ramachandran (Ed.), Encyclopedia of human behavior (Academic Press, 2012), 184-193.

[4] Bowen, M. (1993). Family therapy in clinical practice. Jason Aronson.

[5] Gilbert, R. M. The Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory: A New Way of Thinking about the Individual and the Group (Virginia: Leading Systems Press, 2006). 

[6] Fulshear Treatment to Transition. Enmeshment: Symptoms and Causes. Retrieved from:,family%20member%20does%20as%20well.

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