The cell as a family system

I wrote this for a class on Pastoral Care and Counseling using ideas from Murray Bowen’s family system theory. It is mainly helpful for cell leaders, but I hope we can all learn from it.

In Circle of Hope, nothing mimics a family unit more than a cell. These circles of ten make up the church as a whole. Borrowing from the Apostle Paul’s famous analogy, they are sometimes referred to as “building blocks” (like cells in the human body). Because they are, in essence, a new family, they are ripe ground for common family dynamics. Cells do not exist just for themselves, however, they exist for those yet to join the church. They exist for the next person, symbolically represented by the empty chair physically placed in the meeting. Their life-cycle creates a familial dynamic that concepts within Family Systems Theory can help heal.

Most cells begin as a child of another cell, being products of multiplication. In fact, as cells multiply and close, Circle of Hope has maintained something of a genogram. Because there are no “marriages,” rather just creations of new family systems, it is not a genogram in the classic sense, but it is certainly something of a family tree.

When the life cycle begins, the cell needs to form. One could say that a cell with a leader, a host, and an apprentice form the basis of the family. In the Bowen theory this is called the “nuclear family.” [1] Though not precise, it is at least analogous.

In Family Systems Theory, the entire group, in fact, needs to learn to self-differentiate from the group from which it multiplied. It needs to create a new norm, even a homeostasis. Similar to a new family forming when a marriage occurs, cells need to “leave and cleave”[2] to use Biblical language. The leader, formerly the apprentice, needs to learn his or her new position and begin guiding the new family to its end goal: multiplication. It is a challenge for a group whose homeostasis has been disrupted, to reform with again the end goal being disruption. The leader accomplishes his or her job most effectively when they can establish values and ideas that help form safety in the group—things like what the group’s goals are, when and where it meets, the duration of the meeting, etc. But despite even the best efforts of a leader, the nature of the group is both “predictable and chaotic.”[3]

As the group norms, roles are unconsciously and consciously formed, as mentioned above. The leadership team (the leader, apprentice, and host) is named and specifically has agreements it keeps. The group has a “covenant” that helps it understand its role in the greater body. But also, most groups have a person who is inadvertently (or not) disruptive; they can be too talkative, they sometimes seek attention, or just behave in a way that distracts the group from its main focus. All of us need extra grace at some point or another, and the disruptive people need extra care and help (outside of the group’s meeting) to function within the family. There is room for all of us in the Body of Christ, and we all have honor. Just like there are familial roles listed in the Bowen theory, so are there in a basic Circle of Hope cell.

Perhaps the greatest area of tension and conflict in the cell’s life cycle, and what prevents many cells from multiplying at all, is that the homeostasis of the group becomes so secure and so safe-feeling, that any disruption to it is met with great resistance. Opposition often meets the leader as he or she attempts to grow the cell, include new people, and move toward multiplication. Some cells are so “stuck,” their system does not include new people at all. Others may have an ambitious leader who includes new people regularly, but the group may not accept the disruption that the new person brings.

When a new person joins, it is not surprising for other members to act out. They engage in conflict with one another, triangulating the leader (whose anxiety leads him or her to solve the problem, for the sake of the new person). In some cases, members will directly confront the ideas and thoughts of the new person who is disrupting their safe cell. It is not uncommon for a close; that is OK. However, when a new person is integrated into the group, that small disruption is often significant enough to change the culture of the cell to one that is focused on generosity, hospitality, and evangelism.

How people act in the cell system is linked to their upbringing as well. Did they come from a system where their mother triangulated them into her conflict with her husband? How open or closed was the system from which they came? Is there a history of cut-offs that leads to someone leaving the group after it is disrupted too much? How much enmeshment occurred in their previous family?

For a cell to successfully multiply, one thing the the group can do is grow toward differentiation and individuation. Each member may need to learn that he or she is an integral part of the system, which is working toward the common goal of inclusion into the Body of Christ. The leader needs to lead as the most differentiated, functioning based on the cell’s goals and agreements regardless of the anxiety in the group. The leader needs to, both in the spirit of Matthew 18 and the Bowen theory, redirect conflict into which he or she is being triangulated, back to the people in question. The leader can get sucked into mediation, or even counseling, both of which he or she is not explicitly trained or expected to do. There are cases when pastoral counseling with a certain member may be required and resources to address such concerns are available to all leaders (usually in the form of a reference to their pastor or Circle Counseling). As the leader reacts less to the anxiety in the group and proceeds to continue to disrupt its well-formed homeostasis, multiplication can occur in a way that includes everyone, both the long-time members that have bought-in to the culture, and newly assimilated members looking for a relationship with Jesus in His body.

[1] Philip L. Cubertson, Caring for God’s people, (Minneapolis: Fortess Press, 2000), 14.

[2] Gen. 2:24, Matt. 19:5

[3] Culbertson, 15.

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