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Congregations in mission: rethinking the metaphor of "family".

"One of the most enduring features of the American landscape is the steeple, a landmark signaling the presence of a congregation," writes Nancy Ammerman. (1) R. Stephen Warner adds, "The typical American congregation is a voluntary religious community." (2) Indeed, the typical American congregation is a voluntary religious community and a public meeting place. (3) The authors of Studying Congregations begin this revised edition of the Handbook for Congregational Studies by asserting that congregations are important. (4) Congregations are not only important but also indispensable in terms of understanding the human experience of religion, particularly in the United States of America. (5)

After a period of neglect by scholars and denominational leaders, the congregation...has returned to the spotlight. Despite neglect, the congregation remains the bedrock of the American religious system. It is in congregations that religious commitment is nurtured and through them that most voluntary religious activity is channeled. Indeed, with due respect for pluralism and caution about overgeneralization, I would maintain that the significance of congregations is increasing. (6)

Furthermore, as Robert Schreiter points out, there is a theological reason to support the assertion that congregations are important, if not indispensable to the contemporary religious landscape in this America:

What makes congregations the special places they are is that they are focused on God, in whom they live, move, and have their being. Their members congregate to remember how God has acted in the history of the world and in their own lives. They congregate to discern what is happening to them and to the world today, and to listen for where God is leading them. (7)

What are congregations for? A popular response suggests that a congregation should be like a family to its members. The metaphor has become commonplace. I read it again recently in the Religion section of my local newspaper. In a feature on an area congregation, one of the members is quoted as saying, "My congregation is like my family. Everyone is so close." (8)

Is this an apt metaphor to help us better understand the nature and purpose of a congregation? To the extent that congregations are relatively new on the religious landscape, historically speaking, so too is the notion of "family," at least the way it has become popularly understood and idealized in this America. My concern is not with language and metaphor about the "family of God" as in "Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother" (Lk 8:19-21; cf. Mt 12:46-50, Mk 3:31-34). What I am wrestling with is the desire to equate the local church, a particular congregation, with a smaller, more modern notion of family that potentially diminishes our imagination about what it means to be the church. (9)

The "family" metaphor in system theory

The use of the family metaphor for describing congregations has come to us in large part from the work of family systems thinkers and therapists. It is an excellent tool to use in assessing, understanding, and analyzing family dynamics and in helping individual family members who are sick or in trouble. Family systems theory can also be an effective tool and resource in understanding the emotional processes and dynamics of life and leadership in religious congregations.

The late Edwin Friedman's Generation to Generation has been a popular and, in many respects, helpful book to many pastoral leaders. However, it may be time to liberate many American congregations from the Bowenian captivity of the churches. Friedman applied his Bowenian concepts of systemic family therapy to the emotional life of congregations and their leaders in order to develop a family systems perspective of organized religious life. Bowen was a family therapist whose theory was developed and practiced in a psychological rather than a theological setting. Hence, Friedman's work is built on and employs constructs that originated within a therapeutic paradigm. Is this the best or the right paradigm for religious congregations? My answer is an emphatic "No!"

Many religious leaders have bought, read, and used Generation to Generation, myself included. Insights can be translated from one field to another (in this case, from family systems theory to understanding emotional processes in congregational life). Friedman's work helps to shift the focus of ministry in religious congregations from the parts to the whole. That shift offers a needed corrective to the rampant and dominant individualism (10) so pervasive in this American religious context. However, Friedman refers to churches, synagogues, rectories, and hierarchies as families. (11) Saying that a religious congregation (in terms of emotional processes) can function like a family as opposed to referring to religious congregations as families might appear, on the surface, to be a semantic quibble. I contend that it represents much more.

The ease with which many religious leaders refer to a congregation as "our church family" betrays the extent to which many have uncritically appropriated this powerful metaphor from another paradigm, to the end that it has become insidiously operative in the theological and ecclesiastical consciousness and practice of many present-day congregations. As a case in point, consider a congregation in the western suburbs of Minneapolis. It is suburban, mostly affluent, and growing exponentially. More than 2,200 people worship in the congregation each week at one of its six different services. There are essentially six different "congregations." New-member classes form virtually every month, with seldom fewer than twelve to fifteen people in attendance and often as many as thirty or forty. And yet, each time people are ritually welcomed during a service of worship, that congregation is asked to find these persons after worship and "welcome them to our church family." It is reflexive, an unconscious, albeit uncritica l, practice.

Consider the first congregation where I served as a pastor, located in central Illinois. It is highly agricultural and stays pretty much the same from year to year. There are typically as many people at the weekly staff meeting of the large suburban congregation as there are at Easter worship in this rural congregation (a slight exaggeration)! When I was there, we were grateful to have seventy people at our one weekly service of public worship. We received only a few families into church membership each year, and yet they also were somehow welcomed into "our church family."

The congregation as public outpost for mission

If one understands the congregation as a private, family chapel, which unfortunately seems to be the case for many in our contemporary setting, then perhaps the family metaphor is a helpful one. I am suggesting here, with reference to theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg's understanding of human exocentricity, that congregations as open systems are called to be just the opposite of a private, family chapel: a public outpost for mission.

In Pannenberg's theological anthropology, the true identity of human being is located in human "Weltoffenheit" (Scheler) or exocentricity (Plessner), that is, the "openness" of the human person. (12) Exocentricity means that the true identity of the human person is located and grounded outside of oneself. Pannenberg finds the theological correlate to the concept of exocentricity in Martin Luther's understanding of faith as that which locates the human outside of oneself (extra nos)--whether in God or in false gods. He attributes the discovery of this notion of extra nos or extra se as it relates to the religious dimension of human life to Luther:

It may be, however, that the point was first discovered in connection with this dimension, when Luther described the existence of believers by saying that they exist in faith extra se in Christy ("outside themselves in Christ"). This is precisely a description of the essential structure of faith as trust; for whenever we trust, we "abandon ourselves" and build on the person or thing in which we trust. Through our trust we make our existence dependent on that to which we abandon ourselves. (13)

To be exocentrically open to the other, to the world, and ultimately to God is human destiny, the image of God to which we are called. Human beings are encountered by the Triune God who is the ultimate and unifying source of wholeness; who comes not only from "outside" but from the future; whose limitlessness provides for the human capacity of basic trust; and who calls the human to a posture of faith extra se in Christo that is open each moment to their imago Dei, their destiny in relation to God.

For Pannenberg the image of God is what is in store for human beings. He wants theology to move away from the traditional idea of the image of God as a possession in some original state and reinterpret it as a goal and destination (Bestimmung) toward which humanity is inwardly oriented. Yet humanity will never really "have it" until the eschaton, when that which was revealed in Jesus Christ becomes fully a present reality. Hence, this destiny in relation to God is the reason for which human beings are created; and yet this very destiny remains in the hands of eschatology, for it is only in the eschaton that God's work of creation will be complete.

On the other hand, Pannenberg has identified centrality or egocentricity as another structural component of human existence that works in the opposite direction. Egocentricity manifests itself as the human propensity to be absorbed with/in the moment, that is, homo incurvatus in se (the human turned in on the self). Although Pannenberg understands this egocentric/exocentric tension (dominance?) as constitutive of human being-in-the-world, human destiny, as well as the manner in which humans realize that destiny, is the way of exocentricity. In light of the fact that humans have knowledge of this exocentric destiny, we are held responsible for our nonidentity, that is, our sin.

The family metaphor and the privatization of congregations

Elsewhere I have argued (4) and, I believe, demonstrated that Pannenberg's understanding of the individual human applies also to human systems, that is, to congregations. Congregations are called to be open to the other, to the world around them, and ultimately to God. Congregations also live within the egocentric/exocentric tension. The family metaphor is an appealing siren song that can lull a congregation into valuing privacy and intimacy above all else. When this happens, it is tempting to turn in on the collective congregational self and become a private enclave rather than a public meeting place where there is great passion and compassion for the outsider, the stranger, the marginalized, and the newcomer.

The often uncritical application of the family metaphor to religious congregations has fostered a subjectivization and individualization of piety and an increasing privatization of the Christian faith. With regard to this issue, and specifically in light of Friedman's work, Herbert Anderson has said it well:

[Friedman] is right to identify the emotional interlocking of the clergy's family, the families in the congregation and the congregational "family." All three are human systems and all three share characteristics common to human systems. My uneasiness with his use of the family metaphor for the religious community is not based on this obvious systemic commonality but on the consequences for the congregation's vision of service to the world if it thinks about itself primarily as "family." It is difficult enough to inspire congregations to look beyond their own boundaries to wider and wider communities of human need without confirming that parochialism by the use of the family metaphor. By using the family metaphor for religious assemblies, there is the danger of diluting the lively tension between the family as a necessary human community for the sake of criticism and care and the kingdom of God that calls us to respond to ever widening circles of human concern. (15)

In the final analysis, it is the missionary power of the Christian message and the evangelical, public orientation of congregations that is undermined by the family metaphor.

The introduction and application of the family metaphor into the theological and ecclesiastical consciousness and practice of religious congregations is not due solely to family systems theorists like Edwin Friedman. Peter Steinke, a student of Friedman and Bowenian theory, is a Lutheran pastor. Steinke, with a decidedly theological orientation, broadens the discussion initiated by theoreticians like Friedman and makes systems theory more accessible to a variety of audiences. His integration of systems insights into the life and dynamics of congregations has been tremendously helpful, yet much of his work continues to purvey this powerful metaphor of church as family--which I am arguing fosters privatization and is detrimental to the public life and missionary thrust of congregations--and is cognizant of doing so. In his first book, entitled How Your Church Family Works, he writes, The church is not a family. Families are more committed and intense. Their relationships are repeatedly reinforced and deeply patterned. Nonetheless, the church is an emotional unit. The same emotional processes experienced in the family operate in the church, thus the use of the term "church family" in the title and text of the book.(16)

In my estimation, the title of the book bears a metaphor too powerful to miss. I am not alone in my concern. In reflecting on Steinke's work, Charles DuBois chides,

I believe that "family" is an overused and misused metaphor for the parish community; people do not belong to parishes in the way they belong to families. Parishes do have "emotional systems," and it is important to understand them. There are some similarities between these systems and family "emotional systems," but there are also some important differences. Could it be that some of the neurotic behavior that happens in parish life can be traced to too much unreflective use of the family metaphor? In attempting to understand parish life we need to be cautious in the use we make of the words "family" and "family systems theory." (17)

In the final analysis, and specifically in terms of Christian faith and practice, the privatization of the Christian faith fostered by the use of the family metaphor for religious congregations is detrimental to the public mission of the Christian gospel. Patrick Keifert has spoken to this predicament in which many of the churches find themselves.

The undercurrents of individualism and the separation of the public and the private flow together to create an eddy of pastoral-theological strategies that focus on the private sphere. After all, reasons the modern person, if religion properly belongs to the private sphere, then our pastoral-theological strategies should mimic the tactics that have worked successfully in other private sphere matters, such as the constitution of the family. Thus, it is tempting to idealize intimate contact and intense, long-term relationships as the models for effective ministry. Public ministry--ministry among and for strangers--is at best demoted and at worst set aside.... Although the church is profoundly affected by these two undercurrents, a church that can resist their force by trusting God's promise in the gospel can bridge rather than separate the public and private spheres. (18)

The congregation as gathered community

Although the family metaphor might feel good to a lot of people, it is not the most helpful way to understand the purpose of congregations. God intends for congregations to be more, to be bigger than a family. So, if not "family," what metaphor shall we use for the congregation?

I like the concept of the congregation as gathered community. It may not be as catchy or popular as family, but I daresay it is more adequate theologically. (19) The congregation, as a community of human beings, lives in the tension between centrality and exocentricity. The congregation also is called to practice exocentric living, open not only to the world but ultimately to God, the One to whom the world belongs. It is precisely through the Christian gospel, the "viva vox evangelii" (the living voice of the gospel) that God speaks and the call is issued. Insofar as the gospel is constitutive of the church and the local congregation central to the life of the church, (20) the church (congregation) is necessarily public in its nature, because the gospel is inherently public in its nature.

Douglas John Hall is passionate about the need for the church to disengage from the private realm and reengage with the many publics of which it is a part:

I am pleading with Lutherans, among others, to enter more and more wholeheartedly into the ecumenical dialogue and common task of the church in North America today. Because Lutherans have had a special and different slant on the Christian message, because they have never been quite at home with "the American dream," and because they have often been more diligent than the more liberal churches as catechists, they have much to contribute. But this will occur if the rather dormant theologia crucis (theology of the cross) in the Lutheran tradition becomes contextually alive, and if it expresses itself also in an ecclesia crucis--that is a church that is ready to suffer. The kind of disengagement that I am talking about indeed cannot occur apart from the suffering of the church, not least of all the kind of suffering that is inevitably entailed in the movement from a more private, ethnic ecclesiastical engagement to one that is fully public. (21)

It is the living voice of the gospel, the voice of Jesus, to which we must listen most closely. Jesus' voice continually calls us out of our comfort zones and private enclaves and into public service and engagement with others in God's world.

(1.) Nancy Ammerman, Congregation & Community (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997), 1.

(2.) R. Stephen Warner, "The Place of the Congregation in the Contemporary American Religious Configuration," vol. 2 of American Congregations, ed. James P. Wind and James W. Lewis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 63.

(3.) For an excellent essay in support of this contention see Martin E. Marty, "Public and Private: Congregation as Meeting Place," in American Congregations, 133-66.

(4.) Studying Congregations: A New Handbook, ed. Nancy Ammerman, Jackson Carroll, Carl Dudley, and William McKinney (Nashville: Abingdon, 1998), 7.

(5.) Hereafter I will use the language of "this America" when referring to the larger sociocultural context in which I live and from which I write. In spite of popular and populist rhetoric that might lead one to believe the contrary, I want to acknowledge the reality that, from a global perspective, the United States of America is not the only America.

(6.) Warner, "The Place of the Congregation," 54.

(7.) Ammerman et al., Studying Congregations, 23.

(8.) Dubuque Telegraph Herald, "Religion" section (July 17, 2002), p. 8.

(9.) Cf. Nathan Frambach, "A Larger Vision," The Lutheran (April 2001), 32-34.

(10.) With regard to this undercurrent of individualism, see especially Parker Palmer, The Company of Strangers (New York: Crossroad, 1981), and Robert N. Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart (New York: Harper & Row, 1985).

(11.) Edwin Friedman, Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue (New York: Guilford, 1985), 195.

(12.) Although my primary reference here is the monograph on anthropology, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Anthropology in Theological Perspective, trans. Matthew J. O'Connell (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1985), I believe that a more accessible work is his An Introduction to Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991).

(13.) Pannenberg, Anthropology in Theological Perspective, 71. Cf. Luther's explanation to the first commandment in The Large Catechism in The Book of Concord, ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000), 386ff.

(14.) Cf. Frambach, "Exocentricity in the Theological Anthropology of Wolfhart Pannenberg: A Methodological, Theological, and Systemic Rationale for Leadership and Conversation in Congregations" (Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Dissertation Services, 1999).

(15.) Herbert Anderson, review of Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue, by Edwin H. Friedman, in Pastoral Psychology 37 (Fall 1988): 61-62.

(16.) Peter L. Steinke, How Your Church Family Works: Understanding Congregations as Emotional Systems (Washington, DC: The Alban Institute, 1993), xi.

(17.) Charles H. DuBois, review of How Your Church Family Works, by Peter L. Steinke, in Sewanee Theological Review 37 (Michaelmas 1994): 431.

(18.) Patrick Keifert, Welcoming the Stranger (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), 10.

(19.) Paul Hanson argues that the biblical notion of community is more accurate and more richly descriptive in depicting what it means to be the people of God than any modern notion of family. Cf. his The People Called: The Growth of Community in the Bible (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986).

(20.) Cf. Augsburg Confession, Article VII; ELCA Model Constitution, C2.07.

(21.) Douglas John Hall, "'Ecclesia Crucis: The Theologic of Christian Awkwardness," in The Church between Gospel and Culture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 202-3.

Nathan Frambach wonders whether it is helpful to compare the local congregation with a family. Instead, congregations are a public outpost for mission. According to Wolfhart Pannenberg, the true identity of human beings lies in their exocentricity. We are called to be open to the other, to the world, and ultimately to God. Congregations are called to be open in the same ways. The missionary power of the Christian message and the evangelical, public orientation of the congregation is undermined by the family metaphor. Perhaps a better metaphor would be "gathered community." Jesus' voice continually calls us out of our comfort zones and private enclaves and into public service and engagement with others in God's world.
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Author:Frambach, Nathan
Publication:Currents in Theology and Mission
Date:Jun 1, 2003
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