Breaking New Ground: Pastoral Leadership in the Roman Catholic Church Through the Lens of Bowen Systems Theory

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Willimon, William H

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This thesis studies Bowen Systems Theory from the perspective of leadership in light of the Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church because I believe that this theory/systemic understanding of leadership has much to offer to pastoral ministry today and to the theology of the ministerial priesthood within the Roman Catholic Church.

The Second Vatican Council brought forth a renewed ecclesial understanding of the Church and of the ministry of pastoral leadership on the part of the ordained - one that focuses on the people of God as the foundational reality of the Church, and one that emphasizes the sharing of the gifts of all the baptized as the key to a vast project of ecclesial renewal. In this thesis I look at Bowen Systems Theory through the lens of the ministerial priesthood's pastoral leadership in the Catholic Church as articulated by the Council and a series of subsequent official documents that spelled out the implications of the "genius" of the Council. This new understanding of ordained ministry makes the local Roman Catholic parish an ideal place to implement the insights of Bowen Systems Theory as a way to provide a more effective style of pastoral leadership aimed at creating a vibrant, dynamic faith-filled community focused upon the Church's mission of evangelization.

In the half-century since the time of the Second Vatican Council, new insights have matured among researchers studying how families and organizations function, particularly around the role that self-differentiated leadership plays in promoting healthy functioning on the part of organizational leaders. The cohesiveness and intensity of emotional bonds that characterize church systems makes the application of Bowen Systems Theory particularly apt in the study of ecclesial communities. Much has been written about Bowen Systems Theory and its application to church/synagogue leadership in other ecclesial communities, and yet little has been written from a Roman Catholic perspective. By looking at the Catholic Church's theology of ordained ministry in light of Bowen Systems Theory, I draw parallels that ground a robust pastoral theology of leadership within the Roman Catholic tradition.

In a remarkable passage that foreshadowed the challenges to today's pastoral leader, the Council insisted that in order to minister effectively, pastors must be prepared to "break new ground in pastoral methods" . To minister effectively today, a pastoral leader needs to master ministerial approaches that simply were not required by previous generations of pastors. Bowen Systems Theory is one innovative and contemporary understanding of leadership from a systems perspective that is a particularly meaningful and fruitful way to understand the need for a leader to be "self-differentiated" so as to lead more effectively.

1 The Holy See. Directory on the Ministry and Life of Priests (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1994), 13.


Doctor of Ministry





Reamer, Mark (2014). Breaking New Ground: Pastoral Leadership in the Roman Catholic Church Through the Lens of Bowen Systems Theory. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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