In the eight concepts of Bowen theory we learn that a family has only a handful of ways in which to deal with its anxiety. One of these means is known as overfunctioning/underfunctioning reciprocity. (I just think that’s fun to say.) Also known as dysfunction in one spouse, this anxiety binding mechanism “results when a significant amount of undifferentiation is absorbed in the adaptive posture of one spouse.” (Bowen, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, p. 378.) One spouse gives in and adapts to the needs or demands of the other so frequently and for so long that this spouse ceases to have an identity of their own.
The trick here is that it takes two to play this game. In order for one spouse to adapt so consistently, the other spouse must consistently pick up the slack, or overfunction. The overfunctioner is fed by the thought of being needed, and that they are doing the underfunctioner a favor. The underfunctioner may appear to need the most care, but in reality, both positions are unhealthy. Both positions need each other in order to adapt with their respective tendencies to under or overfunction. Both end up entrenching the behavior pattern, even impairing, the other.
One day I was spending some time in a hospital emergency room. A doctor came out to speak to a wife, “I’m sorry, we did everything we could. But your husband has expired.” To which the wife’s first response was, “What am I going to do? He did everything for me.” This was the telltale sign of an overfunctioning/underfunctioning relationship.
If this family model is overlayed onto church life, one can frequently see pastor and congregation take on the roles of two spouses in this dance. Ordained ministry seems to attract a lot of eldest siblings, fix-it types, and people-pleasers making them well-suited to overfunction. Margaret Marcuson writes on this topic and says, ” Overfunctioners are common among clergy and lay leaders. They look at underfunctioners and think, “If they would just shape up, everything would be fine around here” They ask, “Why don’t more people volunteer for Sunday school / kitchen duty / visitation / small group leadership?” Then they jump in to fill the gap.” (Margaret J. Marcuson. Leaders Who Last: Sustaining Yourself and Your Ministry (Kindle Locations 170-171).)
Congregations can often acquire a tendency to defer all judgment to a pastor and need the pastor for every decision. For example, I’ve heard at least one story of Staff-Parish Relation Committee that allowed the pastor to set the salaries for the rest of the staff instead of taking that rightful responsibility themselves. This duo of clergy and congregation makes a dynamic that’s hard to break.
Turns out that congregations aren’t very new at doing this. In the book of Exodus, a singular leader led a group that had been conditioned into slavery through the Red Sea. An over/underfunctioning dynamic was set up that lasted for centuries. My favorite example of this dynamic shows up in 1 Samuel 8:19-20 when, after centuries of being delivered, guided, and protected by God wasn’t enough, the people demanded a king, “that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.” (NRSV) That last little phrase, fight our battles, belies an irresponsibility that will eventually lead to exile.
Again, back to the congregational setting, when a congregation begins to think that only the pastor can “deliver” them, the over/underfunctioning dynamic has set in. This isn’t to deny that the pastor has leadership responsibilities. It’s simply to say that, in the long-view, the health of a congregation doesn’t involve a king. In the long-view, leadership is a shared responsibility between the laity and clergy in the same way it is between two spouses.
Peter Steinke lists questions that church leaders can use to begin to examine whether or not they are susceptible to a dynastic monarchy. “Is our congregation looking for a gem, a superstar, a mighty motivator, and does our congregation think it’s special? Do we use superlative words to describe what we want in a pastor or leader—dynamic, sharp, terrific, passionate, charismatic? Are we looking for a savior? (Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times, p. 174)
Clergy on the other hand can reflect on more of Marcuson’s thoughts: “One of the first survival tips for leaders is to recognize our vulnerability to the superhero myth: “If I don’t rescue this individual … this situation … this project, everything will fall apart!” We can go on for months and years carrying other people, until suddenly we can’t do it any longer. This way of functioning is the real source of burnout, not overwork. (Margaret J. Marcuson. Leaders Who Last: Sustaining Yourself and Your Ministry (Kindle Locations 132-134).)
If you or your congregation bears symptoms of over/underfunctioning, you’re not alone. Know that it won’t be cleared up by the end of the week, and that efforts to restore a more healthful balance will be resisted. But, we can all consider how to be just a little bit better today.