Generation to Generation Book Review

Edwin H. Friedman. Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue. New York: Guilford Press, 1985.
Edwin Friedman was born in New York in 1932 and was raised on the Upper West Side. He did his undergraduate work at Bucknell and earned his doctorate from Hebrew Union College. He spend more than 30 years as a Jewish Rabbi and was a prominent voice on religion, politics and psychotherapy. He worked in the Johnson White House as a community relations expert. Friedman died of a heart attack in 1996. His book A Failure of Nerve has been reprinted and has become a very influential leadership manual.
In his book Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue, Edwin Friedman explains that his family therapy approach to pastoral counseling is based not in the psychodynamics of the individual family members, but in the family dynamic itself. His assertion is that conflicts and anxieties are not due chiefly to our personality or psychological makeup, but to our relational networks and how we are positioned and functioning within those systems. So in counseling, when treating a patient in isolation from the other parts of the system, we are treating the symptom and not the problem. Effective treatment will focus on the whole system and treatment is sometimes not focused on the one who presents as symptomatic. If counseling focuses on the symptom itself, it is generally not dealing with the underlying emotional processes which serve as the social infrastructure. If change is made on the system level, the symptoms will likely abate. The book is replete with helpful case studies, transcripts of counseling sessions and real examples from his counseling practice which help to tease out some of the particularly complicated methods he recommends. The last section seeks to apply the systems approach to congregations and clergy. He focused on emotional processes often returning to the value of the non-anxious presence.
This is perhaps the finest work on pastoral counseling I’ve read to date. It’s an incredibly complex method that works differently in each context, but seems to really hold up throughout. The most helpful part of the book, in my opinion, is the constant presence of case studies, real examples, and actual session transcripts which serve to illustrate and further one’s understanding of the method. Each chapter deals with a different type of counseling situation/issue. But each has several examples from which to easily draw lines to current issues in one’s parish or past ministry experience. This is the kind of book that can be read once, and then used constantly as a reference for any who are involved in pastoral counseling long term.
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  • Tim, interesting that we just discussed this book in my DMin class. Family systems theory has been used fairly extensively in relation to church leadership (either seeing parishoners as extensions of family systems or seeing versions of family systems within the congregation). Such an approach proves particularly helpful in understanding church conflict.

    FYI, can you email me at NTS ASAP? I would like to discuss your participating in a panel discussion this coming Tuesday Jan 12th.

  • One other thought. Some people tend to get "lost" in family systems, a great complimentary book that goes well with Friedman is Donald Capps book Giving Counsel which provides similar information on family systems but also provides a way to provide agency in the midst of complex relations by stressing the role of narrative to empower poeple often overwhelmed by their situation.