Why Churches Split: A Family Systems Explanation

Most Korean Americans I know have experienced or witnessed a church split in their lives. At least one. And by the time they’re adults just kind of shrug it off as if they are inevitable, because in their minds and experiences, it is. Even pastors will say, oh, it’s that whole depravity thing. We’re sinful creatures, blah blah blah, drivel drivel drivel. As though that is an acceptable posture to project in front of a world that is mocking churches these days. Shame on us, judgment on us, and boo for us. A church splitting is absurdly normal for Korean communities. And between church splits and new church plants, Koreans are prolific, sometimes embarrassingly so, but rarely profound.

One of the things I realized while serving a church that had been decimated by the associate pastor bolting for another local church was that the circumstances which created the dysfunction were still in place, which to me was troubling. Most of the time, when a church does split, it is viewed by the “faithful remnant” that finally there will be peace because the troublemakers have all left. But in many cases that is not true. And it’s not an individual thing, it’s a systemic thing. That is to say, you can purify each bucket you draw up all you want, the well is poisoned.

So when I read this in my Family Systems for Ministry class, I was floored. This really helps to articulate the dangers present in the Korean immigrant church.

From the book, “Creating a Healthier Church” by Ronald W. Richardson (which I highly, highly, highly recommend for pastors- and did I mention, highly?), he discusses four functional styles of congregational life. In one of those styles, he outlines the “Enmeshed” format. Here I offer some clips and edits (I apologize for the rather long reading, but really, it’s good stuff). Enjoy!

[Enmeshed is when] In the extreme, when individuals, families, and congregations…have trouble knowing where one person’s boundaries stop and those of others start….

The fear of abandonment, of being left alone in the world, would be the most powerful motivating force for people when operating in this quadrant, and they would do everything they could, including giving up major parts of self, to avoid this outcome. They have a deep-seated need to be loved, accepted, approved, of, and guided by others; or, conversely, to provide this for others. Their emotional life soars when they are praised, and crashes when they are criticized….

Here are some characteristics…

  1. We are on guard for any sign of interpersonal threat, always watching for any minor slight as well as overt attacks.
  2. We tend to think others are responsible for our experience, and/or we are responsible for theirs.
  3. We have a sensitivity to criticism, which creates a sense of feeling damaged or harmed by it, so we tailor our lives to avoid criticism, and we resent or fear those who give it.
  4. We seek approval and praise, perhaps believing we need this to be happy, and like an addict feel miserable if we don’t get it.
  5. We may work hard to please others, getting our feelings of okay-ness from pleasing them.
  6. We become overly concerned about our position in the hierarchy and whether we are receiving our due recognition or about whether our authority is being respected.
  7. We may have a reaction to the difficult circumstances of others that leads us to be overly sympathetic by trying to make things better for them, rescuing them, when they actually have to do the job for themselves.
  8. Conversely, we may think that others should be doing more for us, even when we are actually capable of doing for ourselves. (We see others as responsible for our happiness)….

The development of our own personal faith is difficult….The reaction of others to our beliefs will have a powerful modifying impact, so we play down or do not voice all our beliefs. We might even change our beliefs in order to fit in with the prevailing beliefs of the emotional system of or some subsystem within the larger system, or with the beliefs of the leadership of the system whose approval we want….

Walter Lippmann once said, “When all think alike, no one thinks very much.” That is a good description of some enmeshed church systems. There will be a low level of tolerance for differences in thinking, feeling, and doing. The leadership will tend toward authoritarian, autocratic, rigid, legalistic, and dogmatic stances. They will not allow any questioning of the principles of faith or of the authority of the leadership….

Even in spite of the appearance that they are “gifted” in many ways and appear to be “successful” by many standards, the emotional morass of their communal life will ultimately defeat their ability to maintain a unified and effective way of working together. So much energy will go into the internal life of the group…and the turmoil centered on this, that the group will ultimately be unable to accomplish its goals.

This kind of church eventually develops a major symptom of some sort–a “church split” is one of the most common.

It was like reading a church fortune cookie–unbelievably accurate from where I sit. So the million-dollar question (and I’m still reading the book) is how do you get un-enmeshed? Let me finish the book and I’ll keep you posted. 🙂

But back me up here, does this family systems theory description of an enmeshed congregation resonate with your experience?