What Behavioral Psychology Teaches Us About Parish Ministry

Many years ago I read a book by Virginia Satir, a famous family therapist. She talked about the way families structure themselves and the way “people” are formed. In her book, Peoplemaking, she tells a story from her youth:

When I was a little girl, I lived on a farm in Wisconsin. On our back porch was a huge black iron pot, which had lovely rounded sides and stood on three legs. My mother made her own soap. When threshing crews came through in the summer, we filled the pot with stew. At other times my father used it to store manure for my mother’s flower beds. We all came to call it the “3-S  pot.” Whenever anyone wanted to use the pot, he was faced with two questions: What is the pot now full of and how full is it?

Her point here is that all of us have a “pot level” or self-esteem level which is affected by our perception of ourselves and affects those around us. We can use this image to explore how we are as parish community or as a minister.

There will be times in our collective or private lives where we have “high pot” level. Where everything is going well, we feel energized, cared for and loved for who we are. Then there will be “low pot” times where we may feel un-cared for and un-loved, where we feel full of negativity. These periods are passing moments in time just as the big black pot is used for many things. We are not static at any one moment. We have the opportunity to change from day to day, minute to minute. Having the belief that change and growth are OK will be a major advantage as we exercise our ministry.

Satir discusses two types of family organization or systems. Systems have four aspects that mark them.

1) Self-esteem

2) Communication

3) Rules

4) Consequence or Effect

The concept of systems can be applied to parishes or other group settings where someone is in a position of authority over others. Much as a parental system, any group that has rules of conduct, communicates needs, and includes individuals can be interpreted as a system. The two types of systems are Open or Closed systems.

First, in a Closed System: Self-esteem is low. The individuals in the system feel poorly about themselves because they are not supported. The goal of a closed system is to maintain power and to act in the “right” ways. The classic example here is the child who asks “why?” and the parent answers “because I said so.” The message here is that one has no right to ask a question or express disagreement and that power lies only in the role of parent. The second area of concern in closed systems is communication. The manner of communicating in the closed system is indirect and unclear. Those in this type of system never know what is coming next since there is no mandate to tell anyone what is up. At times, communication is based not on reality but on the fears of the “parent” figure. Another area is that of Rules. The rules in this system are covert, rigid and often out-dated. The power figure may set rules which address his/her perceptions but are not real to the present situation. Comments on the making or consequences of rules are not allowed. Any internal dissension signals disintegration of power. The consequences in this system are unpredictable since the power figure may change rules, withholding communication, or blame others at any point. The outcome of this system is falling self-esteem, unmet needs and uncertainty. The power broker in the system grows in self-esteem, but also in fear of losing grip on control. The power figure keeps track of all rules, communication, and decision making for and in the system. This job is overwhelming for anyone.

You might imagine this type of system as a box with strong walls. They contain the energy of those in the system and defend from outside ideas. Any outside influence may cause comment on system rules. Therefore, interaction with new ideas is discouraged.

By contrast, in an Open System, all four areas are above board. The self-esteem of people in this type of system is high because they are valued, allowed to speak and share their needs and feelings in an open, respectful way. Communication is open and direct. An honest conversation about rules and boundaries can be had. The threat of the system falling apart is minimal because everyone is aware of what is taking place and has a stake in the outcome. Regulations are above board; everyone has a say in how rules are established and invoked. Rules are realistic and fit the age and experience of those in the system. Finally, the outcome of this system is that reality is affirmed. The perceptions of individuals are respected. The system adjusts according to the needs of those in it and applies rules to address evolving circumstances. The consequence is that self-esteem flourishes. The self-esteem of those in the system grows due to the confidence they feel in sharing, commenting about and communicating their selves.

One may imagine this system as fluid, with permeable walls. It is maintained by the bonds between people of the system. The type of control seen in the closed system is not present. All ideas are welcome and lead to discussion of ways the system might be bettered.

When applied to a parish setting these ideas offer a new understanding. Over time, the role of pastor and parish are changing drastically. In their book, Transforming Parish Ministry, Dolan, et al; discuss the roles we have traditionally envisioned for priests, sisters and laity in the Church. These roles are in flux given the diminished numbers of priests and religious. Laity are becoming more involved in parish administration. This challenges those who have historically had exclusive domain in this area. How are we to open up the system of parish life and still exercise our role as “pastor” in a parish community?

One area of change is the new role of priests and lay parishioners. In many communities, pastors are seen as “Parent/Father” of the church family. They are also seen as “Spiritual Leader” or  “Friend.” By wearing different hats, we find ourselves crisscrossing professional boundaries. How do we relate to these parishioners? Our emotions are stretched in that the same people on whom we count to meet our emotional needs as friends are the very people we are called to parent/shepherd as pastor. This muddies the waters in professional relationships. We have to develop a core group of people who offer constructive criticism and a support system outside the parish so that we do not place unfair burdens on those to whom we minister.

Another area of need is the open communication between pastor and laity. It is a different dynamic to imagine parishioners as instructing us in life’s issues but this is what must take place. We have to be open to hear what they feel and think, to listen to their struggles, and to learn from their life experience. To allow ourselves to be attached to the power, the position or the adulation of pastoral ministry is a dangerous thing for our emotional well-being.

Finally, the majority of ministers are not trained in administration or finance. We are placed in the role of administrator as pastor but the rules of economics are foreign to our theological training. As a pastor, we communicate guidelines and teach moral principles but we ought to tread lightly in management issues lest we become benevolent tyrants who ruin things by our lack of knowledge.

The aftermath of our “open system” approach in parish life may mean a more fruitful ministry and more loving and caring church community. When we are meeting our personal needs in an appropriate way, i.e., external to our parish, then we can offer more to our people. If we can define our role clearly and not fall into the trap of expecting others to fulfill our emotional needs, we can maintain our own pot level and that of those we serve.

Bryan Silva, OMI, PsyD is a psychologist and priest with over 25 years experience in counseling. He is currently professor of pastoral counseling at Oblate School of Theology.




Satir, Virginia; Peoplemaking; Science and Behavior books; 1972 {a second edition was published called New Peoplemaking about 1994}

Dolan, J., Appleby, R.S., Byrne, P., & Campbell D.; Transforming Parish Ministry; Crossroad; 1989