15 Jun

Clergy Leadership Training: A Timely Opportunity

The Rev. Dr. Dolores E. Littleton (Dee) is a Clinical Fellow and Approved Supervisor with the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy and is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Pennsylvania. Dr. Littleton is the Director of the Post-Graduate Certificate Program, Clergy Track.

Here’s how post graduate family systems training may enhance your ministry.

This is most certainly a strange and complex time to be leading a faith community. I am sure that regardless of your faith tradition or your theological training, you have not taken one single class that prepared you to lead your congregation through a global pandemic.

For the most part, you have risen to the challenge. You have pivoted and adapted to create an online worship expression, provided digital pastoral care, zoomed your congregational business meetings, and Face Timed with youth groups. Now, the health experts are telling us that our congregations will not be able to return safely to what we were doing in March of 2020. And so, we must get ready, set, and pivot once again! However, more than two months into this process, and with no real end in sight, you may be feeling drained and depleted.

Because of the extraordinary moment that we are in, this may be a very good time for you to be thinking about opportunities that will help ‘fill you up’ as you navigate the changing tide of your ministry. Maybe you are thinking about your calling in new ways. Maybe you would greatly benefit from becoming better attuned to your own needs and values, and better understanding your own reactions. Maybe it is time to address some issues that have surfaced time and time again in your ministry that have to do with your own family of origin: you know, the stuff you just haven’t had the time to reflect and work on as of yet. Is it finally time?

Or maybe it is time to retool—to ready yourself for a career shift? Ministry and therapy are complementary to each other. Did you know that Council for Relationships has been training clergy since 1948 in general Family Systems Theory, and also working with the clergy person to thoughtfully and intentionally practice in ministry? We know clergy, and we understand the stressors of working full-time and trying to fit in an ongoing process of learning and growth.

I have personally benefited from the training I received through the Council for Relationships over 25 years ago—it has enabled me to better function as a pastor and as a leader. Because of my work at CFR I have been able to navigate some extremely complex organizational dynamics, including being an ‘after pastor’ serving a congregation after the sexual misconduct of a predecessor. Because of my work at CFR, I have been able to work to be differentiated and to be curious about the process I am noticing in the congregation, rather than being reactive to it. I work at staying connected without getting caught up in triangles and the emotional process of the congregation. I truly believe that without my training in understanding how systems operate, I would not have been able to navigate the demands and the changes of my ministry and probably would not have lasted more than a year or two in this call. In essence, my CFR training saved my ministry.

I recently spoke with one of our first-year clergy interns at CFR, and she indicated that in her first seven months of training, she has already noticed a difference in the way she does her ministry. She, too, has become more differentiated and finds that she spends more time in being curious with parishioners. Instead of jumping in and “fixing” things, she is stepping back, pausing, and asking probing questions to better understand, so that she can be with her members instead of feeling the need to fix things for them.

Clergy are helpers, and ‘fixing things’ comes to us naturally, but this tendency does not always serve our congregants well. When we attempt to ‘fix things’ for them, often we are actually stunting their growth and their ability to think through things, and in addition, we are approaching them from a one-up position. On top of that, what if your ‘fix’ does not work? This can lead to resentment and diminished confidence in your leadership, and even the loss of a member of your ministry. We clergy do much better if we can stay connected, observe, ask questions, and journey with our congregants in an encouraging and supportive way.

The first program you may want to consider is our premiere Post Graduate Program Certificate Program in Marriage and Family Therapy. This is the program that I completed that led to my licensure as a Marriage and Family Therapist. As a clergy person with a Master’s degree in theology, you will be able to work towards licensure as a Marriage and Family Therapist in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Most clergy can take one day a week for four years to complete the post graduate program while still working full time in their ministry.

Second, I am particularly excited about our newly formed Congregational and Family Systems Academy. The Academy is for clergy interested in learning Family Systems Theory with direct application to their functioning in ministry. This is a 2-year Advanced Training Program and will directly bring theory, theology, and practice into sharper alignment. Most Congregational systems programs limit their study to the Bowen/Freidman perspective on how systems operate. CFR’s Congregational Systems Academy is unique, in that it presents all of the systemic models for consideration and application to our pastoral ministry. The Seminar format offers clergy the opportunity to share experiences and reflect on their own functioning within their congregation’s emotional system. The Seminar’s Guiding Principles include:

  • The importance of observing how things work in a relationship system
  • An understanding of how anxiety affects relationships as well as the clergyperson
  • The challenge to think differently
  • The practice of taking time to think instead of running from one event to another
  • Recognition that theory informs theology and practice
  • Ability to connect with others as equals, with secure boundaries in place

The time commitment for Systems Academy is one day per week for the first year and a once-a-month meeting for the second year.

There are many other educational offerings through Council, and clergy are always encouraged to sign up. Feel free to be in conversation with me. You can email me and I will be happy to connect with you. Meanwhile many blessings to you as we navigate some interesting days ahead.

Dee Littleton, DMin, LMFT
Director of the Clergy Training Program



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