The Small Church: The Family System Within

---Submitted by Lay Member, Chet A. Pease, Gordon UMC, Miami Valley District

On Friday, August 9, 2013 Pastor John Gilmore, fellow Lay Member, Greg Bogan, and I travelled 3.5 hours to Marietta, Ohio where we spent the night in order to attend the TARRP training session at Sand Hill UMC in nearby Reno, Ohio the following morning.  This session on developing effective leadership entitled “The Small Church: The Family System Within” was led by Rev. Dr. Howard Humphress who is on staff with East Ohio as the Executive Director of the East Ohio Pastoral Care & Counseling Program.  He received his M. Div. & Doctorate of Ministry from Lexington Theological Seminary in Pastoral Care & Counseling.  He is an Elder in the Ohio Conference, working previously as a Chaplain, Pastoral Counselor, and now with the East Ohio UM Program in Pastoral Care and Counseling.  Howard has offered presentations on Family Systems and Leadership training across the nation and Canada.  He comes to our TARRP event focusing specifically on the special dynamics of small churches and the family system that if often not known, misunderstood, or oftentimes unhealthy.  “Churches are emotional systems.  There are positive aspects like peace, joy, and support.  The downside is, they can become anxious, and intense anxiety can distract the congregation from its purpose, which sets people at odds with each other, and builds walls against outsiders.” (from How Your Church Family Works, by Peter L. Steinke)

Town and Rural Resource Programming (TARRP) is a consortium of clergy and laity from East and West Ohio Conferences dedicated to providing educational opportunities and ministry enhancement programs to town and country congregations across the state of Ohio. TARRP’s mission is to create workshops/ academies/training that develop stronger leadership in town, country, and urban places, so there is more effective proclamation, nurturing, and outreach taking place, for the transformation of the world in Jesus’ name.  TARRP training sessions are offered at a greatly reduced cost, offset by our apportionment dollars through grants from East and West Ohio Conferences.

We arrived at the church in the morning where we were greeted and welcomed.  There was a brief fellowship time in the social hall followed by an opening worship service in the sanctuary.  We then gathered in the social hall for the training event.  At noon we enjoyed a light lunch served by the Sand Hill UMW and then resumed the very interesting and helpful program.  The session concluded a few short hours later and we made the return journey to our homes, discussing what we learned and how we would put the newly acquired knowledge to use in our church.

Family systems are a way small membership churches work, organize, and live out their being. The family system can set the tone of how the church really works, which may or may not be coordinated with the church structure.  Personalities and past confrontations are often just under the surface.  New people do not know how to interpret what they see or experience.  A new member or pastor may become the scapegoat or putout.  Until the family system is, and operates in, a healthy Christ-centered way, any vitality emerging will be short-lived.

During this session we learned:  what a family system is & how it operates, how to think in terms of a family system, what a healthy family system looks like, how to incorporate new people, how our family of origin causes our own actions and reactions, and gained an understanding of how smaller churches act and react as a family system.

In conclusion, I felt that this training was worthwhile and very well worth my time.  Weekends are valuable but I highly recommend and encourage all clergy and lay members to take advantage of these training opportunities.  We made new friends, were reacquainted with old friends, and came away with tools to assist in the building up of leaders within our church so that we will be equipped to lead effectively both in the church and beyond its walls in our community.