Performance Reviews: Bowen Style

Last week I went to an amazing webinar offered by a faculty member at Leadership in Ministry (a Bowen Family Systems workshop).  Keith Harder presented about the possibility of doing pastoral reviews using a Bowen Family Systems lens.  The great majority of this post comes from Harder’s thinking, with a bit of my own pondering and our group discussion thrown in.  Special thanks to coach Bill Pyle for reviewing my thinking for my Bowen-related posts.

First, let’s start with clarification about Bowen’s Theory of the Intellectual System, the Emotional System, and Feelings. (If you need a refresher of the 8 Concepts of Bowen Theory, read this post.)  Once clear on these terms, we’ll get into how we can apply this work to improve our functioning in the congregation or whatever systems we are in.  

Intellectual System, Emotional System, and Feelings

Murray Bowen’s theory includes the Intellectual System and the Emotional System (not to be confused with Feeling).  Here’s a brief overview.


The Intellectual System is what happens in the part of our brain that is uniquely human.

Our prefrontal cortex is where we have our abstract thoughts and imagination.  It is where we are able to work through our principles.  When we are able to respond thoughtfully instead of react instinctually, it is because we’re working from our prefrontal cortex.  Biologically, we can only do this when we are calm.  

When our brains and bodies are inundated with neurotransmitters shouting “Fight!” or “Flight!” it is more difficult to engage the prefrontal cortex. When our bodies are in this state, it is extremely difficult to access our Intellectual System, to be imaginative, to think abstractly, or to act out of principle.  When we are flooded we react instinctively rather than respond thoughtfully.

Emotional System

In Bowen’s terms, our Emotional System is what we have in common with protoplasm.  It is ancient and purely reactionary.  It is our instinct.  It is our autonomic nervous system. It is the forces of “togetherness” and “separateness” that govern relationships.  Bowen believed that we humans are governed by our Emotional System vastly more than we assume we are.


I have used “feelings” and “emotions” as synonyms for most of my life, but in Bowen Theory these two terms mean completely different things.  In Bowen Theory, emotion is instinctive reactions as noted above, while feelings refer to our moods or state of being (happy, sad, mad, etc).  

So, for example, thinking back to an early date with my husband…

  1. My heart rate increased and my pupils dilated, due to flooding of oxytocin and dopamine.  This was the reaction in my Emotional System.
  2. My Feelings were giddiness, hopefulness, etc.
  3. We ended up buying concert tickets three times our own internal limits — because the intensity of what was going on in our Emotional System cut off our access to our Intellectual System to make reasonable and thoughtful choices.

Role vs. Function

Keith Harder presented a “what if” scenario for our Leadership in Ministry group.  What if our pastoral and employee reviews were built on the basis of Bowen Family Systems Theory?  That led to a discussion of role versus function.  Most current pastoral and employee reviews are based on roles.  A Bowen Theory style review would be based on function.

Role: Am I completing my job description?  Are my skills improving?

Function: Am I reading the room? Am I clear about what function I am serving within the system? Do I understand the emotional process going on in the system and myself at this time?

A Bowen Based Review

Choose 3-5 (or more) of the following questions to grapple with.  Write down your thoughts, return later and add more.  Discuss them with a trusted companion.  Repeat as often as is helpful.

A.  Recall a recent time of conflict.  

  • Name 5 feelings you had:
  • What was the unmet need?
  • What did you do with the unmet need: 
    • delegate to someone?
    • take responsibility for it?
    • nothing?
    • something else?
  • How did it work out? 
  • Why did it work out like that? 
  • What might you have done differently?

B.  Is the level of anxiety in the congregation increasing, decreasing, or staying the same?

C.  Are you absorbing more or less of the congregation’s anxiety? 

  • How is that working?
  • Would you like to change anything about this moving forward?

D. Are people distancing from you or from one another? Perhaps as a result of conflicts or anxiety?  Explain.

E.  Are prominent families, founders, etc doing anything differently these days? If so, what might be going on?

F.  Think of a couple of recent situations.

  • Reflect on how your sibling position informed how you reacted/responded.
  • Who, from your family of origin, did the others in the situation remind you of?
  • At what age/moment in your life did you have a similar emotional response?  How are these two moments related?

G. Who has been most difficult to deal with recently?  Who do they remind you of in your family of origin?  Or what event from the past does your emotional system connect with?

H.  How have you been “reading the room” recently?  Do you feel like you have a good understanding of the emotional process going on right now?  Describe.

I.  Map out 3-5 triangles at play right now. How they have changed in the recent past? Start with  this triangle: Self – This Review – Congregation.

J.  What has changed within your own household and within your larger family system in the recent past?  How might that be affecting your functioning within the congregation?


It seems to me like there is value in doing both sorts of reviews. 

The Way We’ve Always Done It, the review of our role, has value.  It is important to understand how we are doing on the technical parts of our jobs.  Are we doing our stated job?  Are we getting better at it?  

It was noted in our discussion of Harder’s presentation, this sort of review is a healthy pressure release valve for people to voice dissent in order to calm the system down.  These sorts of reviews play an important role in keeping congregations and systems functioning, and should continue on some semi-regular basis.

Bowen System Reviews are something I would encourage clergy and lay leaders to engage in several times per year, either individually or with a few trusted and knowledgeable companions.  In a healthy, easy system perhaps taking a couple of hours twice a year for this work is sufficient.  For many, a quarterly review would be wise.  For those who sense a disturbance or know they are in crisis, even weekly may not be too often.

And You?

Give this self-review a try.  Let me know what works about it and what you might add, change or delete.  Share it with colleagues and friends.

Want to read more about Bowen Family Systems?  I’ve got more posts here:

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