Journal of Christian Ministry | Ethnographic and Family Systems Perspectives

Ethnographic and Family Systems Perspectives

Ethnographic and Family Systems Perspectives


Combining Ethnographic and Family Systems Perspectives in DMin Research (JCM, Vol. 4 – 2012)
David Lee Jones, Th.D.
Assistant Professor of Congregational Care
Doctor of Ministry Director
Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Austin, Texas


This paper argues that although the fields of ethnography and Bowen family systems theory are two distinct disciplines, there are core constructs in the field of Bowen family systems theory that resonate with and complement ethnographic “lenses” and practices. I further argue that combining complementary family systems’ “lenses” with ethnographic research can enhance contextual assessments in Doctor of Ministry research projects. Finally, I will select one case study1 from Mary Clark Moschella’s book, Ethnography as a Pastoral Practice: An Introduction, with a view towards articulating how several select core family systems constructs can offer additional and/or alternative assessments and interpretations of the ethnographic data for both understanding the case more deeply and identifying possibilities for future transformation.


In January 2011, Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary rolled out a new Doctor of Ministry curriculum based on longstanding observations by our faculty regarding the over-arching objectives of our program and how we intend to teach students to craft outstanding final doctor of ministry projects.

The first doctoral seminar our students now take is a course entitled: Ministry and Context. This course introduces students to various research tools, practices, perspectives, and “lenses” for mapping and assessing their ecclesial landscape with a view towards identifying possible final project topics or ideas.

One major component of this course is introducing our students to the field of ethnography. Later in my methods class, which immediately follows the context course, students are trained how to view and assess their ecclesial contexts through both family systems and narrative lenses.

Over time, our faculty noticed something that concerned us—our students often arrived in the program with rather fixed ideas of potential final project topics and often thought they already had “the answer” to their context’s problem or “narrative of concern.”2 Somewhat analogous to the tension between exegesis and eisegesis, we want our students to begin first with a thorough analysis of their ecclesial contexts in a way that an exegete begins by first completing a careful exegesis of a biblical text to see what surfaces directly from the text rather than projecting an idea, agenda, or topic onto the text.

Metaphorically speaking, many of our students enter our program “with a great illustration in search of a sermon.” In this initial contextual assessment course, students are discouraged from focusing too narrowly on a project topic prior to doing an in-depth contextual analysis (and prior to taking their required elective courses) and encouraged to first focus on their particular context by employing ethnographic and other qualitative research tools and methods to their setting.