Chapter 1 of Philip L. Culbertson's Caring for God's People: Counseling and Christian Wholeness gives the reader an overview of Family Systems Theory. The author begins by outlining the huge variety of family types which the caregiver may encounter, from traditional nuclear families to gay and lesbian couples to extended families arranged in many different ways. He also points out that "family" means different things in different cultures, even within the Christian tradition. Culbertson says that Family Systems Theory "is designed to address the effects of living in such complex social units" by focusing on the myriad of emotional effects families have on all their members.
Although there are many different types of family, the author is most concerned with the traditional nuclear family. However, he emphasizes that many of the assumptions made about the nuclear family by the "Christian Right," and by society in general, are wrong. The family is not the basic unit of society (the individual is), and so-called "family values" are not generally agreed upon. The family is primarily to be viewed as an emotional system, though it can also be seen using various metaphors, such as that of a battlefield or the stage of a theater, which may help the caregiver to understand a particular family better. People play particular roles within a family, and some of these are well-known to theorists, including the good child, the clown, the savior, and the lost child. Self-sacrifice is often an important part of the identity of family members, particularly mothers.
Family Systems Theory offers various tools to analyze the ways in which families operate and ascertain what may be going wrong. It can be applied in counseling with individuals, couples, or a whole family. Working with groups is particularly challenging for any caregiver, but Family Systems Theory is a flexible approach which fits many situations, including those in which the group is not a nuclear or even a biological family. Culbertson concludes the following:
Used wisely, Family Systems Theory generates a sense of curiosity and excitement among those involved, causing them to open up so that the pastor may offer new avenues of differentiation, individuation, and Christian wholeness.