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

Differentiated, Non-anxious, and Having a High Threshold for Pain

Written by: on November 8, 2018

I first read Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve during my Master’s program, and it was a book that revolutionized my life. In fact, I would not be exaggerating to say that applying the wisdom that Friedman shares may have saved my relationship with my son. As he launched into his university years, I learned about the value of “self-differentiation,”[1] becoming a “non-anxious presence,”[2] and increasing my “threshold for another’s pain”[3]—lessons that equipped me to parent adult children. I am deeply indebted to Friedman for these revelations, which (unsurprisingly) line up perfectly with much of what scripture teaches as well.

Today, I am learning to apply these same leadership principals to Elan, the association that I’ve created to help new missionaries adapt to the field in France. The goal of Elan is to equip missionary to transition to the field through collaboration with French partners, promoting greater effectiveness and sustainability. The challenges that I am facing are 1.) Sending agencies are reluctant to allow their missionaries to be influenced by French partners, fearing they will have to compromise some of their own vision and mission; and 2.) The program is expensive and as of yet, unproven, therefore missionaries are reluctant to participate. In order to see this thing through, I am having to be self-differentiated, non-anxious, and able to tolerate another’s pain. Let me explain.

In Heroic Leadership, Lowney describes “indifference” as one of the key ingredients for Jesuit ingenuity: “Indifference frees Jesuits from the prejudices, attachments, fears, and narrow-mindedness that can block the enthusiastic pursuit of new ideas and opportunities.”[4] Indifference is exactly what Paul was describing when he wrote, “I have experienced times of need and times of abundance. In any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of contentment, whether I go satisfied or hungry, have plenty or nothing.”[5] When I am differentiated, my value is no longer linked to my circumstances or even to the outcomes of my endeavours. I pursue excellence because Christ lives in me, but I have no fear of failure because I am loved and accepted, period. I can speak freedom (and not use manipulation) as I promote the program to missionaries and sending agencies, genuinely seeking the best interest of all parties. I am not dismayed by rejection because my identity is not linked to Elan; neither am I elated by success. My one desire is for God’s will to be accomplished in my life and in the lives of others. That is…IF I am differentiated.

My self-differentiation was recently put to the test, as one of my four Elan participants told me that he did not plan to continue with the program next year. I felt a pang of failure, and was tempted to give up. Then I remembered that God had called me to this work, and that my obedience to God was what really counted, regardless of the choices of others. I was able to listen to the participant’s reasons for quitting, and genuinely wish him well. With my leadership team, we will discern if we should make changes to the program as a result of this feedback, but we will do so calmly and thoughtfully, not reactively. This approach reveals some personal growth in me as a leader, and for that I give God all the glory.

Throughout the establishment and launching of this association, I have felt God calling me to be a “non-anxious” presence. This Christ-like quality is well described by Friedman as a leader who “has clarity about his or her own life goals and therefore someone who is less likely to become lost in the anxious emotional processes swirling about.  I mean someone who can be separate while still remaining connected, and therefore can maintain a modifying non anxious and sometimes challenging presence.”[6] Elan needs to stay connected to the world of missions without getting tugged and swayed by the individual desires of every sending agency.

One agency only wants to work with one denomination, Elan is intentionally non-denominational and works across all denominational lines. Another agency doesn’t put women in leadership positions. Elan is egalitarian and empowers missionaries according to their gifting, not their sex. Some agencies are unwilling to adjust their methods, even if national partners warn them of their weaknesses. Elan works to build collaboration between sending agencies and national partners. It can be tempting to compromise, to give in to anxiety or fear that the organization will fail if it doesn’t comply with the demands of those it aims to serve. But when I have a non-anxious presence, I can stand firm, challenging the status-quo of sending agencies and national partners without getting worked up into a frenzy. I am inspired by Eugene Peterson’s translation of Psalm 119:1: “You’re blessed when you stay on course, walking steadily on the road revealed by God.”[7] Sounds like a non-anxious presence to me.

Interestingly, the most critical quality for me has been my ability to increase my threshold for tolerating another’s pain. Without a high pain tolerance, I am tempted to rush to a solution, and often end up with a “quick-fix” that causes more harm than good. “Focused on symptom relief rather than on fundamental change”[8] leads human beings to seek saviours and magical solutions rather than undergo the transformational processes that will result in better outcomes. Elan invites missionaries to take the narrow path, to go the way of the cross, to pursue the downward journey. If I do not continually increase my threshold for tolerating their pain, I will instead seek to rescue them and deprive them of the experience of resurrection and the bearing of much fruit.

Unfortunately, most sending agencies do not have such pain thresholds. They are seeking to please the missionaries, believing that their coddling will keep missionaries from leaving the field. I’m convinced that allowing missionaries to suffer, to struggle, and to hurt is what produces longevity. Helping a butterfly emerge from its cocoon will kill it—for the struggle to emerge is what builds strength into its wings. In the same way, missionaries need to struggle to transition to the field to produce fruitful and sustainable ministries.

[1] Edwin H. Friedman, Margaret M. Treadwell, and Edward W. Beal, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, 10th anniversary revised edition (New York: Church Publishing, 2017). 25.

[2] Friedman, Treadwell, and Beal. 89.

[3] Friedman, Treadwell, and Beal. 137.

[4] Chris Lowney, Heroic Leadership: Best Practices from a 450-Year-Old Company That Changed the World, Reprint edition (Chicago, Ill: Loyola Press, 2005). 128.

[5] NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2006 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved. Philippians 4:12.

[6] Friedman, Treadwell, and Beal, A Failure of Nerve.

[7] The Message. Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

[8] Friedman, Treadwell, and Beal, A Failure of Nerve. 84.

About the Author

Jennifer Williamson

Jenn Williamson is a wife and mother of two adult sons. Before moving to France in 2010, she was the women's pastor at Life Center Foursquare Church in Spokane, WA. As a missionary with Greater Europe Mission, she is involved in church planting and mentoring emerging leaders. Jenn benefitted from French mentors during her transition to the field, and recognizes that cross-cultural ministry success depends on being well integrated into the host culture. Academic research into missionary sustainability and cultural adaptation confirmed her own experience and gave her the vision to create Elan, an organization aimed at helping missionaries transition to the field in France through the participation of French partners.

5 responses to “Differentiated, Non-anxious, and Having a High Threshold for Pain”

  1. Jay Forseth says:

    Hi Jenn!

    Hunter also talked about “presence” with “faithful presence”. Are these two thoughts connected?

    I was drawn to your highlight regarding the “high threshold of pain” which must be a requirement for Pastors and Missionaries! This is not a mild and cookies ministry that God has called us to, is it? More like sandpaper and blisters (but of course, worth it all for our Savior!)

    Thanks for reminding me that the “quick fix” and alleviating pain is not our goal…

    • Thanks for making me think about Hunter here! Yes, I loved the idea of “faithful presence” and I do think it is connected to being a “non-anxious” presence. It is that steady and faithful soul that is so deeply rooted in Christ it is both empathetic and solid, flexible and stable, connected and differentiated.

  2. Dan Kreiss says:


    The strong connections you made with Friedman’s book and your own context are excellent. It is apparent that this book came to you at a critical moment several years ago that had positive ramifications both for your relationship with your son and your work with Elan. I must admit that I did not recognize the possibilities for personal application but after reading your post see how many of these principles could and should be applied to my own context and life. It is sometimes difficult for me to read a text without immediately considering how I’m going to blog about it instead of pursuing how the text can form my own thinking.

    Now that you are several years in to your application of Friedman’s work I wonder what you see as the next steps for you in becoming a differentiated leader. I know you would say that you had not ‘arrived’ but I wonder what is next because from my perspective you are exhibiting much that demonstrates you as a differentiated leader.

  3. Trisha Welstad says:

    Jenn, I am so glad for the way you have and continue to embed differentiation into your life and work. It is a challenging task that I am recognizing I need a huge dose of in regard to changing relationships with our family, namely having children. Yet, I also see the need for this in ministry settings- especially allowing for other’s pain without curbing them with our help. I have been attempting to teach my leaders to let their teams fail without always stepping in so they learn and take ownership. This is so hard but so good…reminds me of Columbus and the Pinta from Friedman’s book. I would be interested in hearing more about specific ways you hold back from intervening to allow others space when in pain.

  4. Greg says:

    Jenn. It is great to see your vision for helping not only workers but organizations as well. I can hear that frustration in your voice at being able to see a solution and potential for partnership that our single-mindedness fights against. Mark quoted Friedman in stating we only are able to achieve 70% of this kind of leadership. I really took that as a recognition of the journey and what Father has to teach us. Keep fighting the good fight!

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