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The Pastor's Role: 
It's All Part Of The System

Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A.

Number 267

Six Family Roles
Family systems theorists and co-dependency researchers have identified at least six family roles which every family or social group creates to sustain the system.
1) The Hero:

The hero is the member of the family who is the focus of positive energies. This individual "plays" or is "appointed" to be the one everyone admires. His or her achievements are always elevated while their mistakes are played down.

2) The Enabler:
The Enabler is the one who is always helping others at great sacrifice to themselves, to keep things settled down. Enablers work to keep the lid on anxieties and to help shield the system from internal breakdown through compromise, repression, etc.
3) The Spiritual Leader:

The Spiritual Leader in the family is the one to whom the family turns to for guidance, support, wisdom and insight. Though others may not be "spiritual," the family's Spiritual Leader is the one to whom they turn with those items of religion, fate, and determining the will of God.

4) The Lost Child:

The Lost Child is a loner who never finds themselves. Always in the midst of the family and looking for love and acceptance, the Lost Child is accommodated but not loved. The Lost Child is an emotional orphan neglected, uncured for, and left to take care of himself.

5) The Mascot:

In response to the fear of being left out (as the Lost Child) and a dread of a guilt-ridden loneliness (as the Scapegoat), the Mascot is marked by visible behaviors which draw attention to himself. Positive mascot behavior is marked by the ability to joke around, provide fun, humor and release of tension in the family. At other times they will be the "cute" one or clown that people point to and enjoy. Whether the Mascot's behavior is constructive or destruction, one thing is sure: the Mascot will be hard to ignore.

6) The Scapegoat:

This family member is the constant recipient of unfair and hostile projections, many of which may be undeserved. As steam needs to be released from a boiling keg to keep it from bursting, so family and relationship systems need a release valve to ease the "pressure" of family. The scapegoat is that release.

Based On "Fantasy"

Each role above may be based on real abilities of family members. But, to a large degree, they may also be based on perception or "fantasy."
The hero, for example, may not necessarily be the hero because of some special competencies. Instead, the hero role is simply a projection of identity by the family with accompanying expectations one family member for subjective "fantasy" reasons. "That's my boy!" the parents shout. Other say, "What a super kid!"
Comments such as these describe the hero but may also influence and shape the hero's behavior by causing the child to conform to their "fantasy" of what the hero should be. The parental use of positive reinforcement coupled with the Pygmalion phenomenon permeate the entire family system. The results? Almost everyone in the system recognizes the person designated the "hero" as the "hero."
This dynamic is present in the other roles as well. Whether hero or scapegoat, enabler or spiritual leader, each of these roles are shaped, encouraged, modeled, projected and reinforced according to the functional or dysfunctional level of equilibrium. When equilibrium is established, the hero can do no wrong and the scapegoat can do no right, but the enabler will always be there to keep the peace, the mascot will be acting in an abnormal way, and the lost child will be distantly aloof...somewhere.
Family Systems Reach Out
Family systems will, to some degree, satisfy the need for these roles by reaching outside of themselves. A key example for our consideration is the "Spiritual Leader" role.
Various institutions help to fulfill the "spiritual leader" role. Such individuals who occupy this role may include pastors, doctors, lawyers, counselors, therapists, or others who provide the spiritual insight, direction and hope upon which the family depends.
Mix And Match: Examples Of Spiritual Roles
These six system roles do not just occur by themselves. They are often found in combinations in which one of the roles is predominant and the other sub-dominant (e.g. hero-spiritual leader). Some combinations such as hero-scapegoat, are not compatible and, therefore are less likely to be found. The following table indicates all thirty-six theoretical combinations.
Dominant Roles

Predominant Roles

Family System Roles

Hero Enabler Spiritual
Lost Child Mascot Scape-
Hero E x x x x x
Enabler x E x x x x
Spiritual Leader x x E x x x
Lost Child x x x E x x
Mascot x x x x E x
Scapegoat x x x x x E

* "E" indicates both tendencies are equal to each other, thereby reinforcing the singular role.

Some Other Possibilities
Other possibilities for system roles include the following.
  1. Though individuals can have just one role, generally tendencies of other roles will be present.
  2. The system roles may be evinced in functional or dysfunctional ways, depending on the functional normalcy or the dysfunctional abnormalcy of the system.
  3. Roles are most likely be in combinations where one role is dominant, the other is less dominant (subdominant) to some degree.
  4. The more subdominant roles taken on by an individual, the greater the anxiety, unrest and confusion will be in that system. Equilibrium will tend to discourage multiplicity of roles.
  5. Roles can be found in inverse relationships such that any of the roles in combination can be either dominant or subdominant.
  6. System roles can exhibit a "stress shift" in which anxiety may cause a role designation to intensify or to change dominant/subdominant tendencies, or to evoke a totally other role designation.
  7. The given roles, role combinations, and the stress shift-roles tend to remain persistent over time.
  8. System dynamics may persist within a family system from generation to generation.
Types Of Pastoral System Roles
From the perspective of systems theory, pastors function as of the family system of each of their parishioners to bring equilibrium to these functional or dysfunctional family systems.
Based on the above table, those pastors who function in the family system as "Spiritual Leaders" may be classified into the following predominant and subdominant types. Below are some examples of each type an accompanying short description of pastors who fit these roles.
How Do Parishioners View Your Pastoral Role?
Certainly one would not want to oversimplify the process by which leadership is accepted, rejected, assimilated, or respected by offering one simple theory as above. Yet, systems theory and the roles which systems seek to maintain themselves may be a significant factor in our personal and professional lives.
Recognition of this can go a long way to help pastors recognize that their success and failure is not necessarily a singular function of their relative self-perceived pastoral competency. Instead, the perceived success or failure of a pastor may be strongly influenced by the expectations and needs of each individual family's role.
In some families, the pastor is a spiritual leader-hero. Perceived in that system role, he can virtually do no wrong. If  he does a mistake, it's casually overlooked or covered up. On the other hand, the pastor who is the spiritual leader-scapegoat may be the perceived cause of every single problem that family has experienced since the beginning of time. In other families the pastor may not even be the spiritual leader since some families have fulfilled the spiritual leader role in other ways.
Congregations And System Roles
System roles are not only found in just families, but they are also characteristic of groups of families or communities of families. Though the numbers are larger, the dynamics are quite similar especially as they related to leaders.
Every congregation is a community system with various relatively fixed roles for their members, leaders, and pastors. Since these role projections are relatively fixed over times, congregations which perceive their pastor as, for example, a spiritual leader-enabler, will try to mold their pastor into that role. Heavy expectations of calling, personal care, and attention to their personal needs will predominate in such a congregation.
What About In Congregational Stress?
If the pastor can fulfill this system role, the congregation's equilibrium will not be disturbed. If he doesn't, the pastor risks being at the wrong end of a congregational "stress shift." Congregational stress shifts can and do vary. But they all have one purpose: to restore equilibrium, i.e., the way it's "supposed" to least among them.
In the example above, if the pastor was a spiritual leader-healer instead of the desired spiritual leader-enabler, the congregation might respond to their frustration with a stress shift. Some stressed leaders might shift from mascot-enablers (i.e. happy, joking, supportive individuals) to hero-mascot (i.e. charismatic, aggressive, "take charge" personalities). Having realized their redefined stress roles for themselves, they must re-define other roles so as to maintain equilibrium.
If, for example, they change the pastor's system role to scapegoat-spiritual leaders, the spiritual leader-enabler will have found himself in the merciless grip of a congregation in stress shift. This shift has numerous benefits for the system. In this case, it defends the system by scapegoating the pastor for everything wrong, forcing his ouster, and bringing peace to the system.
Perhaps the only way this can change is if the pastor, who is the source of anxiety, endures the scapegoating and, by "hanging tough" reflects the anxiety back to the attackers who have only several options.

1) They can get out of the stress shift or 

2) They can leave to find relief elsewhere.

Note the results of this are full-scale congregational equilibrium imbalance which, after key elements of the system are removed (or removed themselves), will come to rest at a new system equilibrium. According to systems theory, if the pastor stays in his role, the sifted and renewed congregation may seek an equilibrium which will support the pastor's system role which he demonstrated during the anxiety, namely, spiritual leader-enabler.
Some Concluding Insights
Obviously, this article has only scratched the surface of the complexity and profound,   permeating effects of system dynamics. Suffice be it to say that in the wide and complex view of things, this theory explains a number of things such as why...

* birds of  a feather flock together,

* it's so hard to change a congregation's "personality,"

* when one antagonist leaves, another rises to fill its place,

* when one good leader leaves, another eventually rises to fill its place,

* some families give exemplar support to pastors,

* other families are so antagonistic to pastors,

* some churches are serial "preacher-killers",

* after intense congregational conflict, congregations change,

* and many, many other insights.

The Lord Of The System
Are pastors, leaders, and members then, merely "waifs among the forces" of relational systems in the church?
No, not at all! It's not the systems which run the church. God does. It is He who created relationships and relational systems, who governs and directs these in each church, and causes all things to work for the good of those who love Him.
What is your respective role in the leaders' families in your congregation? What is your respective role to each individual family in your congregation? What is your system role in your congregation?
The answers to these questions may go a long way to begin encouraging you to understand that whether successful or unsuccessful, fruitful or seemingly unfruitful, it's not all you that's making it happen. It really isn't. It's just God working through an observable relationship dynamic building His church as He wills.
Thomas F. Fischer

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This page was revised on: Tuesday, October 05, 2004 11:04:43 PM