Professor Emlyn Ott & Healthy Congregations Equip Leaders

By Margaret Farnham
Professor Emlyn Ott receives support in the Healthy Congregations office from students (from left) Donna Jarrell, Daryl Mowrey, Travis Wilson, Jeff Goggins, Inge Williams, and Mandy Oleson.

Six years ago Emlyn Ott’s first-floor faculty office served as a storehouse for Healthy Congregations’ resource materials. A single work-study student filled orders and answered phone calls amid the stacks, while Dr. Ott plotted a new course for the program that uses Family Systems Theory to help individuals become better leaders.

Since the fall of 2005, Dr. Ott has divided her time between the national program introduced by the Rev. Peter Steinke in the 1990s and her part-time call as assistant professor of ministry and pastoral leadership at Trinity. This year she also took on the role as Trinity’s director of Supervised Clinical Ministry/CPE.

Today Healthy Congregations Inc. has a student staff of six who process workshop materials, answer telephone calls, fill orders, and plan the program’s annual national gathering. Dr. Ott acquired a second office next door to her own, and the students work out of this adjacent room in the seminary’s “west wing.”

“Healthy Congregations could not have survived without a home. Trinity offered that place six years ago, along with the support of its president,” said Dr. Ott.

Its placement on the Trinity campus also introduced the program to a younger audience, something it previously lacked.

Most students at Trinity have heard about Healthy Congregations or Family Systems. Students encounter the concepts during orientation and in courses such as Pastor as Leader. In addition, Dr. Ott invites seniors to be part of a Family of Origin (called FOO) group. These seniors spend the year looking at their own family systems, reading suggested materials, and receiving coaching in small groups. They learn how their families deal with conflict and anxiety, and how that may impact them as a leader.

“Family Systems offers a way to look at relationship patterns and how functioning as a leader is impacted by those patterns. It is another way of looking at a situation; to begin thinking bigger, and not in a cause and effect way,” said Dr. Ott.

The program also brings pastors, business administrators, health care workers, educators and others to Trinity’s campus for Family Systems training in Healthy Congregations workshops and a yearlong leadership series. The series was introduced in 2007 and has welcomed participants from throughout Ohio, West Virginia, Michigan, Indiana and Pennsylvania. These individuals meet one Friday a month during the academic year to learn how the dynamics of Family Systems impacts them and those they direct in the congregation or workplace.

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Healthy Congregations’ central purpose continues to be equipping workshop facilitators, who then conduct six workshops that focus on healthy dynamics in churches and businesses throughout the country. Since its inception, Healthy Congregations has trained 2,650 facilitators representing 24 denominations.

An eight-member board of directors oversees Healthy Congregations and its $150,000 budget. Income is generated through the distribution of workshop materials and tuition for the leadership series.

For Trinity students who have been exposed to Dr. Ott and Healthy Congregations the benefits are many.

“Family Systems helps you understand the dynamics of relationships; it allows you to step back and look at the big picture. It was very helpful at my internship congregation,” said senior Mandy Oleson, who spent her internship year at Zion Lutheran Church in San Antonio, Texas. In situations of potential conflict she found herself continually turning to her Family Systems training.

“Dr. Ott uses the phrase ‘Do your own work.’ She means do your own self work,” said Oleson, who frequently asks herself “what are my triggers” and where can I grow and change in my response to and understanding of a particular situation?

Oleson has worked in the office since her junior year. Her responsibilities this year include production of the Healthy Congregations newsletter.

If students walk away with a renewed knowledge of themselves and their own family systems, Dr. Ott considers her job well done. “Part of the gift of ministry is that we get faced with ourselves all the time. I want them to keep looking fearlessly at themselves and at God,” she said.

It may be difficult to know when Dr. Ott exchanges her teaching hat for her executive director hat, but she is keenly aware of the two.

“A lot of what I teach is related to Healthy Congregations, but I am conscious of not being a one-note teacher. I am a Family Systems thinker, but as a teacher I try to be challenging and broad in perspective and not blindly stuck in the Family Systems world,” she said.

Dr. Ott’s graduate work in counseling was related to the individual, rather than the relationship model central to Healthy Congregations’ teaching, so she draws from both in the classroom. She also loves parish work and frequently refers to her 19 years as a parish pastor in Stillwater, Oklahoma.

“I have to make the decision every year not to go back into the parish. I love the parish,” she said. She completed her doctoral work in an effort to become a better pastor, and now, as a teacher of church leaders, she looks for ways to keep her skills and knowledge of parish ministry current. This year she spent a month of her sabbatical as an interim pastor in northeast Ohio.

“I tell a lot of stories about my own experiences in the congregation; about leadership failures and successes. I needed some new stories,” she said of her recent venture into the parish.

Back in the Healthy Congregations office, the work-study students are busy preparing materials for the leadership series that begins September 30, and the national gathering in Kansas City, Kansas, October 10-12.

Jeff Goggins, a third-year M.Div. student who has worked for Healthy Congregations since he arrived on campus, shares in the handling of finances and inventory.

Said Dr. Ott, “In the beginning I knew I needed some assistance, and it was good to have students exposed to the program.”

“For me it is an opportunity to work more with Family Systems. We are all born into families, and to understand how that impacts us is to have a framework for how to function in whatever system we are in – whether a church or business,” said Goggins.

In a world where financial, political, and social stresses abound, Dr. Ott is more determined than ever to help students become strong and wise leaders through an informed knowledge of themselves and their family systems.