Coming to grips with Bowen Family Systems Theory in a collaborative learning environment.

Applying a systems lens to a leadership collapse – case example Mark Driscoll

 by Jenny Brown

“focuses on what happened, and on how and when and where it happened “ in order to see the bigger picture

In October 2014 Mark Driscoll, a prominent US pastor of a mega church resigned. Unlike many examples of clergy falling from grace this was not prompted by exposure of a criminal or sexual scandal but rather a culmination of flaws over a number of years, including dominating leadership style, plagiarism and dubious financial and marketing practices. It is easy to focus on the content of this man’s failings and to ask the usual question of: WHY did this successful, respected leader in the evangelical Christian church, become apparently so focused on success that principles fell by the wayside? The “why” question leads to answers such as: narcissism, a bullying personality and sin/wrongdoing. While these explanations may have validity they keep a narrow focus on an individual’s flaws and don’t open up a perspective on a systems process.  Bowen writes that his systems theory “focuses on what happened, and on how and when and where it happened….It carefully avoids [people’s] automatic preoccupation with why it happened (Bowen, 1978:416)”,—or with cause and effect thinking which reduces complexity.

Drawing on information available in the public domain (published news articles and internet biography) here are some systems hypotheses about this particular case.  These are based on data that appears to be close to objective fact as opposed to speculation.

Family of Origin:

  • Mark Driscoll comes from a family with many symptoms of mental illness, alcohol dependence and domestic violence in previous generations of his family (on his father’s side- mother’s side not known).
  • Marks family of origin moved from North Dakota to Washington State to get away (cut off) from negative extended family influences.
  • His family life in his growing up years had some turbulence; his neighbourhood was rough.
  • He was the eldest of 5 children
  • He was a high social achiever at school – voted person most likely to achieve.

This information indicates that the generational family system had lower levels of differentiation, making it harder to manage life challenges without the emergence of symptoms. The use of cut off as a way of managing relationship tensions suggests intense patterns of relating (conflict & reactivity). When a family distances from extended family to manage relationship sensitivities it most likely renders their nuclear family more fused and reactive as a result. As an eldest in an intense family system Mark is likely to have been elevated to a position of importance and pseudo leadership. He may well have been aligned with one parent and accustomed to their investment in his ‘star’ qualities. Mark Driscoll was renowned for emphasising the need for men to “man up”, which may well stem from a triangle alliance with his mother and his father seen as lacking. His broad high school success profile, suggests that this may have become the way Mark secured his identity in relationships.

Family of creation and early adulthood

  • Mark Driscoll grew up nominally as a catholic but met Grace, his wife to be at age 17 at high school. She was a daughter of an evangelical pastor and gave him a bible. He converted to protestant Christianity soon after and began dating Grace.
  • At age 19, as a college freshman, Mark reportedly had a strong conviction to marry Grace and become a preacher and plant churches. He earned a Bachelor and Master of Arts from Washington State University.
  • He started working as an intern in a Seattle church and began meeting with others who shared in the planning for starting an “urban, postmodern” church. The new venture was encouraged and supported by the pastor of the church where he was an intern.
  • In 1996, at age 25, with the first of his 5 children born, he partnered with 2 others to start a church in his home in Seattle.


This information suggests that life decisions were made quickly with a strong emotional charge driving them.  The pull to be acceptable to the young woman he was attracted to and to her family runs parallel to a change of religious tradition. Decisions made somewhat impulsively and in the context of new relationships are likely to be driven more by relationship and emotional forces than by careful, thoughtful process. Starting a church at a young age, with little experience and at the intense time of stress in the family, may indicate a hurried approach to life and lack of ability to delay plans when other life priorities and demands are present. Any rush to lead rather than a commitment to learn and follow experienced elders, suggests an anxious need to be important as a way to steady insecurities. Such a platform programs a person to need approval and validation from others and intolerance for expressions of disagreement or criticism. It is interesting to note the participation of the mentoring pastor who encouraged Mark at such a young age to lead this new church. This suggests a system complicity in hastening this man’s leadership without a good basis of apprenticeship. It is likely that the partners in this venture were similar in their ‘dreaming big’ ahead of thinking realistically.

The rapid rise to prominence and success – then decline

  • In 1 year the church had expanded to 2 services in a new venue. (Apparently Mark Driscoll has reflected that at age 25 he was not ready to plant a church.)
  • 1997 – Mark Driscoll was an invited speaker at a leadership conference. The response thrust Mark and his church into the public spotlight. He began receiving national media exposure.
  • 1998- Mark Driscoll and another man founded a national church planting network with a lofty goal to plant 1000 new church around the world. By 2006 there were 410 churches in this network.
  • 2006 – Mark Driscoll founded another organisation = a theological co-operative to train leaders. It included a publishing house.
  • 2006 Mark Driscoll’s Seattle church had 4 to 5000 weekly attendees at 3 campuses. Mark reached a personal crisis due to his “overwhelming workload” as leader of 3 organisations, international speaker and author of a number of books. He was sleeping 2-3 hours a night. (It would be predictable that there were serious strains in his family unit). He restructured the church at this time to divest himself of tasks, while at the same time making major decisions without consulting his council—such as a new building project.
  • Cracks started to open up in this new leadership structure with original partners being fired due to dissenting views.
  • From 2007 – 2014 more resignations of church leaders followed. At the same time Mark Driscoll started new high profile programs and prominent media appearances.
  • He wrote a book with his wife that he promoted to NY Times best seller status through using large sums of the churches money to a marketing firm. This book about his marriage and sex showed a kind of exaggerated honesty and exposure of his personal life (Possibly indicating an expression of pseudo self that courts an audience through an openness about one’s personal life that appropriately belongs with significant others).
  • Accusations of plagiarism emerged about a number of Mark Driscoll’s previous books.
  • A number of other patterns of earlier social media “ranting” emerged. Previous colleagues began speaking of their experience of an aggressive leadership style that was dominating, verbally violent, arrogant and quick tempered.
  • From 2012 to 2014 Mark Driscoll was asked to step down from various leadership positions. In October 2014 he resigned from his church which subsequently closed in January 2015.

The seeds for the pattern of Mark’s leadership were already sown in his early life. Over the course of the church and organisations 15 year history it is helpful to see how the relationship system co-created many of the failings that unfolded. A hasty elevation of a bright but immature and inexperienced young man by leaders in the church is part of the problem.  Seeing gifted oratory prowess and novel charismatic personality as a basis for leadership appointments indicates and anxious emotionally driven process within the church system. It is easy to lose sight of the importance of character and principles when the outward results appear so successful. In churches this can create a tolerance for bullying behaviour because of the public popularity of the preacher.

It is also telling that calls to accountability and exposure of misguided projects only came to light in the later phases of the ministry – even though many were in public view over previous years. This suggests that a blind eye was employed by many while ever the projects were seen as successful.

Such patterns reflect similar trends in the broader society. What gets created is a celebrity machine where accountability in relationships is bypassed because of the apparent achievement. The togetherness forces are present in all relationship groups where the push for outcomes overrides thoughtful principles and the courage to appropriately question and disagree. There is evidence of system complicity for many caught up in the Driscoll bandwagon due to the failure to reign in impulsive, unwise and eventually corrupt (small c corruption- not illegal) practices of the leader. These anxious processes can happen in any organisation that is under pressure. Rapid success can elevate anxious reactivity as much as deprivation and failure (as seen in the global financial crisis).

Bowen theory’s scale of differentiation (emotional maturity) adds a valuable lens to thinking about people’s capacity to lead without becoming over controlling and needy of applause.  Someone with a higher level of differentiation, who has the good fortune to come from a family without too much reactivity and symptoms of fused relationships, is going to be able to lead from a more solid platform of principles. Dr Michael Kerr in his publication “One family’s Story” expresses the importance of differentiation levels to the way a person leads:

People with a poorly differentiated “self” depend so heavily on the acceptance and approval of others that either they quickly adjust what they think, say, and do to please others or they dogmatically proclaim what others should be like and pressure them to conform. Bullies depend on approval and acceptance as much as chameleons, but bullies push others to agree with them rather than their agreeing with others (Kerr, M. 2003: 7).

All of us have varying degrees of limitation in our level of differentiation and are vulnerable to being part of the same patters described in this blog. An aspect of poor differentiation is pointing the finger of blame rather than looking at lapses in our own functioning. A case example, like Mark Driscoll and his church organisations, is useful for reflecting on our own emotionally driven responses in groups- both in leadership and in relating to leaders.

In finishing this reflection I am struck by Dr Bowen’s efforts to not contribute to his own leadership slipping into a cult of personality – where people follow the leader as a way to steady their own (professional) identity. When Bowen’s conference attendances were growing into the thousands in the early 1980s, he made the decision to change the program format. Rather than inviting other therapists who were receiving a kind of ‘guru” status within the field, he invited established scientists from other disciplines to present alongside Bowen theory scholars. The purpose was to encourage delegates to think for themselves in contrasting Bowen’s theory with the emerging evidence from other sciences. This is leadership that values autonomous thinkers rather than mindless followers.

*There are a range of media and published articles on this case on line. For an example of this data see:

Wikipedia – Mark Driscoll 

This biography references over 132 sources as well as the subject’s published book.


A recent article prompted the writing of this blog:

Relevant Magazine – What Mark Driscoll teaches us about grace and accountability 


For more on Bowen’s concept of Differentiation of Self- M Kerr:

The Bowen Center – Differentiation of Self



Applying a systems lens to a leadership collapse – case example Mark Driscoll is written by Jenny Brown



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