“So, should we help them or not?” A Church Board member charged with discerning requests and disbursing a benevolence fund to meet legitimate needs waited for the other six members of the Board to respond on the Zoom meeting. A family who previously sought financial help from the church recently submitted another request. A job loss and mounting medical bills led to an urgent plea for assistance. The ensuing conversation from a week ago illustrates a significant theme in Edwin Freidman’s book “A Failure of Nerve.” He asserts the need for application of his leadership principles from small organizations like the family to large organizations like the government, and everything in between, like the church.
Based mainly on work in family systems theory, Friedman claims to diagnose the problem and prescribe the cure for ineffective leadership and change within all organizational systems. Self-knowledge and self-control serve as critical characteristics of the leader who will effect change for the better. He calls those characteristics self-differentiation. In contrast, ineffective leaders lack self-differentiation, i.e. nerve, and concern themselves with good feelings over progress and cave to anxiety, producing tentativeness rather than decisive action.
Back on the Zoom call, opinions abounded. The majority view vocalized the recurrence of requests from the same family as a sign of dysfunction that the church should not support. One member in the minority opinion recommended the desire to meet the need. Previous discussions signaled the group that a decision contrary to that one person’s endorsement would result in lengthy Bible references about helping the poor and the need for compassion. The group consensus shifted, resulting in a vote to help the family another time despite no clear path forward for them to establish self-sufficiency. The general guidelines of the benevolence fund call for short-term help allowing for a return to self-support.
What just happened? Did a biblical argument result in appropriate help, or did the influence of one unhealthy person cause several others to acquiesce? I believe the majority opinion members of the Board relented due to the anticipated resistance and pain of the member who gives guilt-inducing spiritual support for his opinions. Edwin Friedman may well call it choosing “empathy over responsibility.” In a later chapter on the topic, Friedman claims an over-emphasis on empathy becomes a tool in the hands of weak or immature, sounding spiritually noble but resulting in avoidance of personal responsibility and growth toward relational health. How can anyone stand against helping people? However, is it legitimate help, or is it enablement of patterns that require change and growth, not concession?
An enduring question of application emerges from a need for a clearer and objective way to gauge healthy compassion versus unhealthy enablement. A benevolence fund serves as a low-level example, albeit a recent example. I participated in that Zoom call and chose not to offer an opinion. I deemed the decision as minor. I also recall other occasions when I yielded positions on minor issues simply because I did not want to deal with anticipated response of someone of a different view. If I could ask Friedman a question, it would be, “should we pick and choose our battles in regarding self-differentiation, or is it needed at all times with issues large and small?” Sometimes it does not seem to be worth the trouble. I suspect Friedman would argue that each opportunity helps create a culture of some type, healthy or unhealthy.
As a lead pastor, I carry forward from the reading a corporate concern related to leading a congregation toward personal responsibility rather than immaturity. Empathy exists as a standard expectation within the role of the clergy, while Friedman’s call to self-differentiation often gets perceived as uncaring when put into practice. Over the years, I have heard the assertion, “we just want to be heard.” Through experience, I understand that often means “we feel heard if what we want becomes a reality.” Pastoral ministry can quickly morph into people-pleasing. The evaluation of the effectiveness of a pastor’s ministry can be concentrated on the overall satisfaction level of the constituency. Friedman’s call to know yourself, your mission, and your vision offer a needed balance to the reality of people to whom you minister. The need for self-differentiation requires regular time away from the day-to-day demands of ministry to reflect on God’s mission for the church and my part in leading that mission within my responsibility.
The next time a dynamic like the one described above unfolds on a low-level issue, I plan to enter the discussion. Is it worth it? You never know until you know.
 Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (New York: Church Publishing, 2017),