From Edwin Friedman, “Generation to Generation”
“As stated, family systems thinking locates a family’s problem in the nature of the system rather than in the nature of its parts. A key to that relocation is the concept of homeostasis: the tendency of any set of relationships to strive perpetually, in self-corrective ways, to preserve the organizing principles of its existence. Theories based on the individual model tend to conceptualize the “illness” of a family in terms of the character traits of individual members, and in ways in which their various personal problems mesh. The family model, on the other hand, conceptualizes a system’s problems in terms of an imbalance that must have occurred in the network of its various relationships, no matter what the nature of the individual personalities.
Family theory assumes that no matter what the various members’ quirks or idiosyncrasies, if the system exists and has a name, it had to achieved some kind of balance in order to permit the continuity necessary for maintaining its identity. The basic question family theory always asks, therefore, is not do these types of personalities fit, but, rather, what has happened to the fit that was there? Why has the symptom surfaced now? This is not a static concept, but a dynamic one, as when a thermostat controls the temperature balance, not at a fixed point but in a range. Similarly the fact that the balance in a family system has gone beyond the range of its own thermostat is not always bad. If only some families could be less stable!
The concept of homeostasis can help explain why a given relationship system, family or congregation, has become troubled. It sheds light on which family member becomes, or is likely to become, symptomatic (the identified patient).”
I’ve been thinking a lot about homeostasis and wondering what I remember from my studies and what I’ve forgotten. I first read this book in 1995 while in seminary. I read it again in 1996 while working on my MSW. One of the things I am now thinking about, having re-read portions of “Generation to Generation” is the emphasis on pathology, dis-ease. My experience of congregational life, which is richly informed by family systems thinking, places less of an emphasis on pathology and more of an emphasis on inter-relationship dynamics. I guess I just don’t like the medical model of disease being used so inclusively. Not everything is a disease….sometimes we are just working through the complicated nature of what it means to be human.
Is it a pathology when someone who was given a lot of power and authority in a congregation suddenly finds, because of a change in leadership personnel and style, has lost that power and authority? Is it a pathology when this person begins to push back in an effort to regain the power they had? Or is it just someone trying to restore order as they know it? True, the way the person tries to restore order, by acting out, being divisive, resisting change, can begin to feel dis-ease like. And, it can be very disruptive to the good of the whole. Such behavior can become very destructive, especially if it is not understood by others as being what it is, a struggle for order as it was once known.
The tension only increases as the struggle to restore that old sense of order fails to succeed…or as Friedman says, “the tendency of any set of relationships to strive perpetually, in self-corrective ways, to preserve the organizing principles of its existence.” In many cases, though, the effort cannot succeed because the old is gone – and the new cannot become the old. Of course sometimes the effort to restore the “old order” ends up causing more change because the new leaders burn out and leave. When this happens the “system” thinks it can find a new leader to restore things as they were. Except that never happens in systems, whether congregations or organizations…the old never returns, only more chaos and brokeness. It is hard for us to realize that the healthiest thing is to NOT restore order as it was, but to find a new sense of balance.
Life is, after all, founded and sustained on the principle that all of life is adaptive. It is through adaptation that we are able to grow, thrive, live.
Thus, while it is very difficult work, it is also helpful for the long range health of the system, when the new leadership can maintain a certain level-headedness when encountering the push-back for homeostasis. This level headedness is also known as “Self-differentiation” or the ability to detach oneself from the emotion and see a situation for what it is. It means staying focused on the big picture, the good of the whole, and not the anxiety of an individual, or set of individuals. When the leadership can do this eventually a new sense of balance is established. Sadly (or not) this often comes at the expense of the person fighting so hard to restore the old order. That person(s) either learns to adapt, loses power, or leaves.
It can be very useful to understand congregational life through the lens of family systems, that we are all interconnected in a web of relationship. I appreciate family systems thinking, even though I am not fond of turning the anxious dynamic into a pathology, a disease. We are human beings, each trying our best to do what we think is for the good, for balance. Quality leadership manages to not let the anxiety of the system, and the anxious people themselves, determine the course of direction. Quality, self-differentiated leadership remains non-anxious, and works to focus the group on the big picture.
One thing I have learned, when doing this level of work, there is no guarantee of the outcome.