By now, almost every seminary graduate has been introduced to Bowen Family Theory and Rabbi Edwin Friedman’s effective (and often winsome, even witty) adaptation of it to congregational life. The theory is powerful because it is empowering (though Friedman would probably dislike that word). The theory proposes that one’s family of origin creates patterns that exist and replicate throughout one’s life, and beyond, indeed - generation to generation. Furthermore, the more one stays connected to these patterns, the more agency one has over adapting to the hold they may have. Similarly, congregations are like our family of origins in that they, too, sustain patterns that repeat; some for the better, some for the worse. The more you are aware of them, the more you can work with them for positive purposes. The salient points of this theory (self-differentiation, triangles, multi-generational processes, and emotional cut-off) are all described by Friedman with stories from his own family, and from his services as a rabbi leading a congregation. Has the theory been proven? No. Is there data from a controlled study that shows this way of thinking changes human behavior? No. Nevertheless, Friedman describes Bowen Family Theory (and by doing so makes it his own) as a natural way to view life. When you are done reading the book, the ideas seem as old as Abel and Cain, but much more congruent with not only healthy leadership, but a healthy life.
Reviewed by Tim Shapiro