Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

“But… if Not”

Written by: on February 20, 2023

Before I can wholeheartedly get into my assessment about this week’s reading, I have to clear the air about my initial reaction to Friedman’s Failure of Nerve.[1]  It took me a few days to figure out how to articulate what wasn’t sitting right with me, and I think it is worth calling out. Friedman’s use of concepts like leaders being plagued with “genetic disabilities” and being “filleted of her backbone” [2] do not put me in a learning mood. It is possible that I am being overly sensitive, but in later parts of his writing, he almost loses me completely when he refers to “sabotage” and “terrorism.” [3] To me he sounds like someone looking for a conspiracy.

I chuckle as I write this, as I recall advice my Mom gave me as a teenager. “It is not always what you say but how you say it.” I have to recognize my own trigger-like responses to these words and remember that when he wrote this work, we had not yet gone through 9/11. Additionally, while mis-informed conspiracy theories were around, they were not having nearly the impact that they are today. Yet it also it highlights the need to understand your audience. It would be a shame for no one to hear his good insights because of some insensitive analogies. I want to make allowances for him in this work, as the points he is making are important. As the well-differentiated leader (let’s call it WDL from here on out) that I aspire to be, I will not get sucked into that emotional rabbit hole and will move on.


Matthew Bardwell’s summarizing video[4] consolidating Friedman’s key theories. He defined the concept of Differentiation as “knowing what we are here to do.” I like the focus that this gives leaders. What is our mission as a leader? What is our mission as a Christian leader?

I had not heard this idea of differentiation in this context before, and it just so happened this week that I was eating dinner with a friend who is a licensed counselor, and I asked her about it. Immediately, she knew what I was talking about. “Oh yeah,” was her response “that is how I survive.” Interesting. Thinking about her and how I have seen her interact with others in different circumstances I asked: “Is it like this: You care about the outcome, but your happiness is not anchored to that person’s decisions?” Yep. That was it.

I like that. I like the freedom that comes along with not being tied to someone else’s bad decisions. It is more than freeing, its empowering. The idea of stepping outside of the emotional triangles at work (and lets be honest, also at home) is really attractive to me.


I stole the title for my post.

I came across a book in researching for my NPO called Religious Freedom in a Secular Age by Michael F. Bird[5]. “But If Not” is the title for the introduction to this work. I have only made it through the prologue and the introduction, yet I know I will keep this for a deeper read because I found just those handful have pages to be stirring and resonant. So, of course, I want to tie it into this week’s reading.

Bird uses the introduction to remind us of the story of Shadrack, Meshach and Abednego in the fiery furnace. If anyone ever a WDL,[6] I think we could say it was these guys. You remember what happens. In their response to Nebuchadnezzar’s demands to bow to his idol, they respond with:

“O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to give you an answer concerning this matter. 17 If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire; and He will deliver us out of your hand, O king. 18 But even if He does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” Daniel 3: 16-18 NASB.

Bird uses this as an example of how we, modern-day Christians living in a “post-Christian” age, need to be anchoring ourselves to Christ even if things do not go the way they ought. He writes “We need to put our faith where our fears are and stay faithful to Christ…”[7] Bird is writing this in the context of how we need to respond to cultural trends that are deviating from our Christian values, and he challenges us to not expect the world to line up with our Christian ideals from some idea of entitlement. I found a corollary between these ideas and the concept of a self-differentiated leader from this week’s reading of A Failure of Nerve.[8]

It is important to acknowledge that not all the situations we are in requiring differentiation are benign budget discussions at Church business meetings. Sometimes they are issues of significant consequence for us and for those we care about. As emotionally intelligent leaders, fully aligned with God, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego model a Christ-centric version of differentiation.


Two More Thoughts:

  • Here is another idea: A half-formed thought… I am going to be on the lookout for how Hollywood does or doesn’t glamorize WDL behaviors. My suspicion is that it reinforces the drama over the well-anchored, emotionally intelligent protagonist.
  • An Ask: As I research my NPO, a question is coming to mind, and I would like to crowdsource a response that can aid my research. Friedman asserts that anxious leaders are the leaders that are poorly differentiated- Is it possible that anxious leaders are more prone to rely on heavy handed dogma and less open to dialogue that challenges that dogma? In other words, is there a link between anxiety and an over-reliance on dogma? Any examples you have or sources that would support/refute that idea would be VERY welcome.

[1] Edwin H. Friedman and Peter Steinke, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (10th Anniversary, Revised Edition) (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2017).

[2] Friedman and Steinke, 27.

[3] Friedman and Steinke, 27.

[4] Matthew Bardwell, “Failure of Nerve Friedman Video,” accessed February 15, 2023, https://www.google.com/search?q=Failure+of+nerve+friedman+video&oq=Failure+of+nerve+friedman+video&aqs=chrome..69i57j33i160l2.9670j0j7&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8#fpstate=ive&vld=cid:ead43de3,vid:RgdcljNV-Ew.

[5] Michael F. Bird, Religious Freedom in a Secular Age: A Christian Case for Liberty, Equality, and Secular Government (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Reflective, 2022).

[6] Even though Shadrack, Meshach and Abednego were not necessarily formal leaders, I believe they were informal leaders and so are entitled to the distinction of WDL.

[7] Bird, xxxii.

[8] Friedman and Steinke, A Failure of Nerve.p xxxii.

About the Author

Jennifer Vernam

8 responses to ““But… if Not””

  1. mm Russell Chun says:

    Hi Jennifer,

    I enjoyed Mathew Bardwell’s video. It covered all the right buzzwords. There is much in Friedman’s book to digest and I like Bardwell’s take.

    WDL’s….Strong leader, independent leader…those words work for me.

    Weak leaders and dogma as a crutch. Like Pharisees? Lack of creativity, lack of initiative…rigid rule followers. I will have to reflect more upon that. I am sure examples abound.


  2. Travis Vaughn says:

    Great post, Jen. I wonder if someone needs to write the book on the Christ-centric well-differentiated leader.
    So funny you mentioned being on the lookout for how Hollywood handles WDL behaviors. While I was reading Friedman, I was thinking to myself about just about every series I’ve watched over the past several years — just how many of them were NOT well-differentiated. But that’s what made them so entertaining – ha! Think of Rami Malek’s character in the series Mr Robot (in my opinion, one of the more creative suspense-thrillers of the 2010’s), or ANY of the “protagonists” in Black Mirror, Narcos, or any critically acclaimed series in recent years.

    I want to ponder your second question more, as I think it is an important one, and my gut-reaction is that I think you are right.

    This doesn’t directly answer the question, but I do think that Pete Scazzero’s super-helpful books (Emotionally Healthy Leader, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, etc.) are great resources for how NOT to lead anxiously. There would also be some tools under “Ignatian Spirituality” that would be helpful, I would think.

  3. mm John Fehlen says:

    “Anchoring ourselves to Christ even if things do not go the way they ought…”

    Wow. I’d like to reverse time, and have that phrase in my pre-pandemic pocket. How many people have we encountered over the last handful of years that, could I say, let go of Christ in order to ensure things go the way they ought?

    Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego could have been our pandemic poster-children. The fires were hot, they trusted God for deliverance, and yet their rescue was not assured.

    “But even if He does not”…boy, that’s a good reminder to us all.

    As for your ASK…you and I may be approaching similar NPO’s…I will be musing on your question and glad to share what comes to the surface. At first blush, I just finished reading our required book “Why We’re Wrong About Nearly Everything.” There’s a couple nuggets on pages 225-227, including a reference to “The Art of Thinking Clearly” by Rolf Dobelli, that may or may not be helpful. I can scan the pages and send them to you if you don’t have the book.

    Grace & Peace,

    • Jennifer Vernam says:

      So many crises I think I could go back to and do with a more “differentiated” approach. I think the area I am most convicted in this space is around my children. As we have cited in other comments around this, there is that call for balance. My kids need to know I am emotionally connected to them, but I also need to give them the freedom to make their mistakes without feeling that my emotional wellness is connected. Right???

      Also, thank you for recommending those two titles: will be working on getting them from Interlibrary Loans. And, the interview will be accompanying me on my next long drive, or walk.

      In Oxford, let’s make a point to compare notes on our NPO… all about the synergy!

  4. mm John Fehlen says:

    A great resource to consider is Mark Sayers “A Non-Anxious Presence: How a Changing and Complex World Will Create a Remnant of Renewed Christian Leaders” (Moody).

    You can find an interview here: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/podcasts/gospelbound/church-needs-non-anxious-leaders/

  5. Scott Dickie says:

    Hi Jen,

    It’s been a while since is read it, but I included the book, ‘Boundaries’ (by Cloud & Townsend) in my blog, and I suspect they have some good thoughts as it relates to your question.

    My own answer: Absolutely….I think Friedman is correctly addressing ONE side of our unhealthy response to anxiety/uncertainty which is to ‘lose ourselves’ and become a frenetic people pleaser etc…

    The other side is to eliminate the cause of anxiety by controlling things (or deluding yourself to think you can control all things). I believe lots of the unhealthy, controlling and even angry (when they can’t control things) leadership that is coming to light in the church is the result of anxious, fearful leaders.

    Still haven’t done enough research to offer you some other books!

  6. mm Tim Clark says:

    Differentiation as “knowing what we are here to do.”

    I love that. It reminds me of Jesus’ answer to His disciples when they were frantically looking for him because people had an agenda for him. “I must go preach the Good news to the other towns, because that is why I was sent”.

    If we lived with a sense of “this, not that, is why we were sent” or “knowing what we are here to do” and had the nerve to act on that, I think leadership would be a lot more effective..

  7. Esther Edwards says:

    Hi, Jen,
    Friedman does successfully use the shock effect. Perhaps it comes from his many years as a family psychologist and rabbi that causes him to see how very systemic and damaging anxiety-ridden leadership can be.

    I must confess, I often parented with a backdrop of fear. Fear of what choices my girls might make that could damage their futures. However, when fear was the backdrop, I often had less ability to listen. The skills that come from coaching well have helped me reduce my own anxiety and lean in to people’s thought processes to a greater extent.

    This leads to the question regarding your NPO of anxiety possibly leading to over-reliance on dogma.
    Your question causes me to ponder the idea of being dogmatic as opposed to pragmatic. Pragmatism is directly related to reality whereas dogmatism is often related to idealism (link below). I have mentioned this book before, but “Worldviews in Conflict: Choosing Christianity in a World of Ideas” by Ronald H. Nash was very helpful for me to simply begin understanding what reasonings other worldviews had. Nash’s preface talks about how Christians can love the challenge of so many areas of growth but often shun the “abundant world of ideas”. He also mentions that the whole realm of religion is highly philosophical, so it certainly lends itself to high levels of thought. Personally, I think dogmatism takes over when we can’t quite articulate why we believe what we believe.

    Another book that might be helpful is “The Future of Christianity” by Alister E. McGrath. McGrath is from Ireland so he gives more of a global thought process to Christianity.

    Thanks for causing me to think deeper!


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