By Published On: June 19, 20220 Comments
Six Family Roles
Family systems theorists have identified at least six family roles which every family or social group. These roles can also be found in congregations. These roles include…
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.
Stress Shifts
As demonstrated by several personality profile instruments including the Personal Profile System, the MBTI, and other such instruments, stress may change the profile of each personality, sometimes to a remarkable degree. Such changes in personality and behavioral preferences are called “stress shifts.”
System roles as found in congregations may also be subject to these stress shifts depending on the needs for equilibrium in the system. For example, one who is a Hero in a non-anxious congregational situation may, when anxiety arises, draw back into a less prominent or less forceful role of Enabler (“Hero-Enabler”).
On the other hand, one who had been an Enabler in a non-anxious congregational environment may become a Scapegoat in an anxious environment (“Enabler-Scapegoat”). Thus within each system each person may have not one, but two sometimes very different roles: their non-anxious role and their anxious role.
Mix And Match: Role Combinations
The following table indicates all thirty-six theoretical combinations. Notice that is is possible for some individuals to have the same role in both non-anxious and anxious environments (e.g. “Hero-Hero,” “Scapegoat-Scapegoat,” et al..


Non-Anxious Roles

Family System Roles

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

Applications For Your Ministry
How does this impact your ministry? Whichever paradigm one uses to describe the “stress shift”–whether it be personality inventories, systems theory, etc.–the “stress shift” has numerous applications for leaders.
For example, the “stress shift” may help describe why…

1) Trusted leaders in non-anxious environments may not be trustworthy in an anxious environment.

2) One cannot really know any individual’s specific response to an anxiety-provoking event until that person is observed in what that individual considers an anxious situation. One must remember, however, that what is a “anxious” situation for one individual may or may not be an anxious situation for another person.

3) Every individual has different levels of tolerance of anxiety before they take on their anxious role.

4) The stress shift to anxious roles can be affected by events, people situations both in and outside of the church.

3) Pastors who are generally well-respected (e.g. Heros) in non-anxious settings may become Scapegoats in an anxious setting.

4) Pastor and leader behaviors, attitudes, faith, and ability to lead may be strongly affected by anxiety factors in his or her own stress shift.



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.
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. 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.
  6. The given roles, role combinations, and the stress shift-roles tend to remain persistent over time.
  7. 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.
  • SPIRITUAL LEADER/hero: The pastor who can do no wrong. “How could we do without him!”
  • SPIRITUAL LEADER/enabler: The kind, helpful, approachable pastor. “Pastor’s always willing to help!”
  • SPIRITUAL LEADER/lost child: The “distant and aloof” pastor. “He’s not very friendly, but he’s an OK pastor.”
  • SPIRITUAL LEADER/mascot: The “popular” pastor. “He’s the life of the congregation. He makes church so fun…the youth all love him!”
  • SPIRITUAL LEADER/scapegoat: The pastor who can do no right. “Let’s get rid of him!”
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 be…at 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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