Foundations for Trauma-Informed Ministries: The Church is a (Family) System Part 2

“He existed before all things,
and all things are held together in him.”

Colossians 1:16-17 (CEB)

“Hold everything in your hands lightly, otherwise it hurts when God pries your fingers open.”
Corrie Ten Boom

When the church is at its best, the invitation extended to us is to engage in close, meaningful relationships—holy friendships, you might say—with people we might otherwise never know… people we might not otherwise have a desire to get to know. In a time when polarization rules the day, the church has the potential to offer a counter-witness, one that asks us to set aside party affiliation and class and race to gather around a feast table together.

Whether the American church is healthy enough to offer that counter-witness is another conversation altogether. But those of us engaged in the work of ministry in the church know about this invitation into meaningful relationship better than most because as pastors and leaders, the church invites us to sit and pray at the bedside of the woman who just three weeks ago picked apart our sermon, or to serve at the food pantry with the man who calls the church office regularly to ask about events that have been listed in the bulletin for weeks. The church invites us to be humbled when someone we can’t stand gives generously to support mission and ministry, or when baptizing the children of our greatest critics.

If you’ve been in ministry for any length of time, you almost certainly have stories like these of your own, moments when you felt real love, real compassion, real connection with people who—outside of the uniting faith and mission and community of the church—would be strangers to you.

And so it is that one of the greatest gifts the church can offer is that of proximity. Brené Brown writes, “People are hard to hate close up. Move in.” [1] To be a part of a church is to choose to ‘move in’ because there are not many spaces in our society closer than sitting by the bedside during a pastoral care visit, or baptizing at the font, or communing around the table. The relationships cultivated in the close proximity of the church have the potential to be full of joy, or surprise, or peace, even as the church is made up of a community of people who are related only by their commitment to discipleship.

The church, then, is one the primary sites of the “holding together” Paul describes in Colossians 1. We are held together by this force of love far greater than ourselves. We are held together in this strange, messy church family by Christ himself. 

However, as all church leaders and pastors know, there is also great potential for holding on too tightly instead of being held together by love. There is great potential for suffering, fear, and anxiety the closer we get to one another in the church family system.

When we face this suffering, fear, and anxiety, it can be extremely difficult for us to stay grounded and remain engaged as healthy individuals with strong boundaries. As overwhelming as leading during challenging times can be, church leaders are still responsible for setting the tone for the church family system as we face these struggles together. 

One of the best tools family systems theory can offer to us is the practice of differentiation of self, which “is defined as the ability to distinguish between thoughts and feelings in an emotional relationship system.” [2] In other words, differentiation of self in the family system is what empowers us to hold onto our individual identities while we participate in the shared identity of the system—in this case, the church.

It is important to note that family systems theory and differentiation of self was originally developed by a white man who engaged a heteronormative understanding of families and systems. As a result, this theory is highly influenced by patriarchal and individualistic cultural values. While we are applying this theory to the life of the church, we are not suggesting that in order to be healthy, you must seek individuality over and against connection within the system. 

Instead, the idea of the differentiated self in the church family system should lead to the empowerment of every member of the community to achieve greater awareness of their own thoughts, feelings, opinions, and bodies. This awareness also engenders greater understanding of the similarities and differences of the individual in relation to the surrounding community. Differentiation, applied to the life of the church in this way, is about creating space for individualized expression and strong boundaries for the sake of greater connection and relational health.

Healthy differentiation requires us as leaders to be aware of our own needs first. Much like the idea of securing your own oxygen mask on the plane before assisting others, the work of differentiation becomes a way to care for ourselves so that we might care for others. Strong boundaries—both around time and relationships—are essential to the work of differentiation. Maintaining a work-life balance, especially for church leaders, is the primary way to maintain a differentiated self.

Even as church leaders practice strong boundaries and work-life balance, one of the greatest threats to healthy differentiation in a church family system is an overabundance of anxiety. Thích Nhất Hạnh writes that “One of the greatest gifts we can offer people is to embody non-attachment and non-fear. Many of us are very afraid, and this fear distorts our lives and makes us unhappy. We cling to objects and to people like a drowning person clings to a floating log.” [4] When fear or anxiety arises within us, our instinct is often to turn to other people for comfort, validation, reassurance, support, or even so that we feel like someone is on our “side.” The result is that we hold onto one another, or our traditions, or even our theology too tightly. 

This practice of holding too tightly is what can lead to triangulation. As a pastor or church leader, you have almost certainly been triangulated by being drawn into the center of a conflict between at least two other people.

Bowen theorizes that “A two-person system may be stable as long as it is calm, but when anxiety increases, it immediately involves the most vulnerable other person to become a triangle. When tension in the triangle is too great for the threesome, it involves others to become a series of interlocking triangles.” [3]

When there is conflict or tension between us and another person, often the instinctual response is to immediately go to someone else. If the tense situation causes minimal internal reactions, we may notice some discomfort in our minds and bodies, causing us to try to process the situation with someone else in order to help us reduce the discomfort. If, however, the situation stimulates intense internal reactions, we will often seek out a third party to blindly take our side in order to validate our feelings, thoughts, and opinions. 

This kind of unhealthy triangulation is common in the life of the church, especially when leaders—those in positions of power—require hard lines of conformity, particularly concerning theology or ideology. Unhealthy triangulation is incredibly divisive in the church family system, causing us to “other” the surrounding members of our community. This can happen in a literal triangle made up of three people, or it can occur in larger groups at a systemic level.

The most salient example of this triangulating dynamic can be found in today’s United Methodist Church, particularly as ongoing fractions of the church continue to split because of unyielding conformity to a deeply harmful and limiting understanding of human sexuality. While there are two primary factions leading the conversation around disaffiliation, church members and even local churches have frequently been triangulated in deeply unhealthy and manipulative ways in this decades-long debate.

While triangulation may seem inherently negative, the formation of relational triangles do not have to be unhealthy. Healthy triangulation requires individuals to have good differentiation of self, self-awareness, and emotional regulation skills. This kind of triangulation can help stabilize relationships and communities. Additionally, for those of us in positions of power in the church family system, we can even use healthy triangulation to help mediate conflicts.

The most important model of healthy triangulation for Christian people is the Trinity.  The process of “perichoresis reveals healthy triangulation— [a] circle dance” which “describe[s] the foundational quality of God’s character: relationship and communion.” [7] The persons of the Triune God practice healthy triangulation through mutual submission, constant communication, and unity in purpose.

How can we learn to embody healthy triangulation, which is itself imbued with the divine? We have some recommendations of where to start in your own church family system.

Recommended practices: 

  1. When anxiety arises in the church family system (or even in your own family!), slow down, and try to remove the sense of urgency. This is the first step in mindfully responding rather than reacting to the anxiety that has been brought up. 
  2. Practice the 90-second pause: “When a person has a reaction to something in their environment, there's a 90-second chemical process that happens in the body; after that, any remaining emotional response is just the person choosing to stay in that emotional loop.” [6] 
  3. In Part 1, we named the importance of responding and not reacting. If you can pause to practice 3 sets of 4-count breathing (4 counts inhaling, 4 counts exhaling), your body will slowly become more regulated, allowing you to more calmly decide how to respond to the situation/person in front of you.
  4. When someone invites you into triangulation, there are two healthy ways to proceed:
    You can choose to enter into this triangle from a position of authority to help resolve the problem.

    You can set a boundary to encourage each party to take their concern directly to the other person.
  5. Refer people to mental health practitioners when appropriate. This may be necessary whenever you encounter someone whose anxiety is disproportionate to their experience. It may also be helpful when you notice someone cannot achieve emotional regulation, when they are unable to differentiate themselves from the identity of the group, or if they continually invite unhealthy triangulation.
  6. In seasons of great anxiety, consider bringing in a mental health practitioner as a consultant to collaborate with church leadership and members for the sake of relational health in the church family system.
  7. Carve out time for spiritual practices that help loosen your grip on your relationships, your theology, and even your work in ministry. Learn to hold these things close to your heart, while maintaining a loose grip that leaves room for God to be at work. Pray for God to help you loosen your grip. Create a rule of life that reinforces healthy boundaries. Meditate on each area of your life, all the while looking for ways to be present as a leader without clinging too tightly to control.


[1] Brené Brown, Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone. (NY: Random House, 2017).


[3] Murray Bowen, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice. (Jason Aronson, 1993).

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

[5] T.N. Hanh, How to love. (NY: Random House, 2016).


[7] Richard Rohr, The Divine Dance: Exploring the Mystery of Trinity (Center for Action and Contemplation, 2016).

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