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

Flip the Script

Written by: on February 21, 2024

The interim pastor told me they behaved similarly to emotionally abused victims he had counseled many times before. Most of the staff and many in the congregation acted like families he had seen where dad had a bad anger problem; when he lost his temper, he became emotionally and verbally abusive. Abused by whom? Their previous pastor. This created a subtle, chronic anxiety in the staff and many members of the congregation. To deal with that anxiety, people learned to avoid annoying him. Those who spoke up or confronted him provoked him to anger; if he got angry, people got emotionally hurt. So everyone learned to calibrate their desires based on his short fuse and kept things to themselves.  Just over six months ago, I became the Senior Pastor of the church family I described. Edwin H. Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix provides profound insights into leadership, especially in my current context. I will explore a few of those insights in this post.

Flipping the ScriptFriedman sets out to reorient our thinking or “Flip the Script” regarding our conceptions of leadership. He contends leadership is more relational and emotional than it is technical or skill-based. Relational and emotional stability in leadership is directly tied to the health of the community. He states:
“Any renaissance, anywhere, whether in a marriage or a business, depends primarily not only on new data and techniques but on the capacity of leaders to separate themselves from the surrounding emotional climate so that they can break through the barriers that are keeping everyone from “going the other way.”[1]

A Community of Chronic Anxiety
Friedman uses The Bowen Family Theory as the foundation for his approach, which identifies that many families, organizations, and even nations today have an emotional system characterized by “chronic anxiety” — a deeply entrenched tension/nervousness/fear that actually serves to unite the whole group.[2]
Chronic anxiety is very present in my current context. Several of the traits Friedman identifies as common in groups characterized by “chronic anxiety” (highly reactive, herding, blame displacement, quick-fix mentality. Issues like music style, preaching style, bible study curriculum, and Christmas decorations that seem to be the source of anxiety I have come to understand are not the source but simply the focus. This is where Friedman brings significant clarity. He contends that the most significant characteristic that leads to and drives debilitating, chronic anxiety in a family or group is the absence of what he calls a “well-differentiated leader.” [3] This church has existed for 60 years, but for the last several years has lacked healthy leadership and has regressed in a season of crisis.
This means my primary focus, if I am to lead this church to health effectively, is to understand what it means to be a well-differentiated leader.

A Differentiated Presence
While Friedman provides several principles to guide a well-differentiated leader, most notable for me is the understanding that differentiation is a goal one pursues and works towards over time. It isn’t a quick fix, contrary to the desire and demands of an anxious society.
Differentiation is the capacity to stand firm in an intense emotional system. Similar to the principles of Leadersmithing, which provides training so leaders can self-regulate, and temper reactions and impulses.[4] Differentiation enables us to resist polarizing forces and be a non-anxious presence in an anxious society. It enables us to recognize where we end and others begin. To have a clearly defined sense of self untethered from the toxic demands of an anxious “family.”


What I distilled from Friedman and the Bowen Family Theory is that differentiation does not imply being cut off from others, or being unapproachable, but rather preserving the integrity of our identity in Christ. When I was installed as the pastor, I unknowingly began to create a sense of differentiation. I described my role as a sheepdog, not a shepherd. The shepherd is Christ; he is our shepherd. I, as the sheepdog, am an extension of his shepherding direction, protection, and authority. With an ear turned and tuned to his voice, I keep my eyes on them and direct where he wants us to go. I work for him. He is my boss. I serve them but do not ultimately answer to them.
In reading someone like Friedman, weighing what he says on the balance with what God shows us in his word is crucial. A Biblical understanding of self and leadership informs us that the integrity of the Church and the individual Christians that constitute the church must have an identity in Christ alone. This allows us to be a well-differentiated presence in the world, which was Christ’s intention and final prayer on the eve of his crucifixion. “I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” Jn. 17:13-16,18
Christ, the very definition of a well-differentiated leader, redeems us and empowers us to be a well-differentiated presence in a chronically anxious world.
[1] Friedman, Edwin H., A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2017), 35-36.
[2] Friedman, Edwin H., A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, 55.
[3] Friedman, Edwin H., A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, 22.
[4] Poole, Eve, Leadersmithing Revealing the Trade Secrets of Leadership (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017),12.
[5] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), John 17:13–16,18.

About the Author

Chad Warren

A husband, father, pastor, teacher, and student seeking to help others flourish.

16 responses to “Flip the Script”

  1. mm Ryan Thorson says:

    Great post Chad! I’m so glad you are leading where you are and am confident that you well bring health and vitality to the church you are leading as you practice being differentiated. I know you’ve only been there for a few months, but what are some of the strengths you see emerging in the church culture that you could potentially leverage to produce antibodies as your church system becomes less chronically anxious?

    • Chad Warren says:


      A couple of strengths I have seen is the presence and potential of other well-differentiated leaders on our team. We have one new leader in a key area that I hired after I was installed. He has the potential for well-differentiated leadership. Another is a woman on the team who had served on staff for several years prior to my arrival but was not empowered to lead. She is now empowered and developing as a well-differentiated leader.

  2. mm Kari says:

    Wow! Chad, you have willingly taken on a very challenging situation. May God continue to give you deep wisdom and compassion as you lead as a differentiated pastor!

    I am wondering what support systems (or other sheepdogs?!) you have in place to tap into during those times of sabotage and congregational discontentment to change?

    • Chad Warren says:

      In my reply to Ryan, I mentioned a couple of other leaders on the team who are developing as well-differentiated leaders. In addition to those mentioned, we have a couple others in key spots who are aware of the chronic anxiety and desire to help us move towards health.

  3. Jeff Styer says:

    Our church just hired a new pastor, we are having an installment service this Sunday. Our previous pastor left at the end of 2020, in the middle of COVID. We hired a transitional pastor that sounds like the pastor you described above. Since his departure, I have sadly heard stories of his anger towards others. Fortunately, the past year we had another transitional pastor that brought a lot of healing to the congregation and I think we are in a better spot. I like your description of being a sheepdog. A dog is definitely differentiated from the sheep, but protects them well. Are you starting to see signs of healing in your church? Is there any resistance to that healing?

    • Chad Warren says:

      Jeff, there are pockets of healing already emerging. So far, there is no resistance to healing, just frustration when I don’t respond to the anxiety with the expected knee-jerk reaction.

  4. Adam Cheney says:

    If I am doing my math right then it seems that you started this pastoral role and our doctoral program at just about the same time. I am sure that has been easy.
    Looking at your current situation, and reflecting on Leadersmithing, I wonder if you have someone whom you are an apprentice to or someone who has walked this path before and is able to help you set up the templates of critical incidents as you navigate this church through this season?

    • Chad Warren says:

      Adam, your math is spot on. I started this doctoral program a few weeks after entering my new role as senior pastor. I have a couple of mentors who have navigated this kind of situation before that are an amazing blessing. I also have a leadership coach who is helping me navigate this season.

  5. Diane Tuttle says:

    Chad, As I was reading your post the thought that kept coming to me is that God really does not want this congregation to be lost so he sent you. That isn’t menat as a “heavy” thought but one that says God will continue to give you the wisdom you need to stay close to Him and maintain your sense of differentiation. Has anything in particular begun to show signs that the congregation is recognizing the shift in leadership? Does your work with this congregation have any connection to your NPO and if so, where is the connection?

    • Chad Warren says:

      Diane, your thought is encouraging. Thank you! I have focused on the health of the staff team first. I have had members of the congregation notice marks of health from the staff, which is a good sign. My NPO deals with human flourishing in a culture that prioritizes rugged individualism. This absolutely relates to my congregation and cultural context in many ways.

  6. Nancy Blackman says:

    I appreciated your takeaway from Friedman’s book — Flip the Script. It’s something I have been doing most of my adult life, having grown up in a household where I walked on eggshells every minute of every day.

    Since you mentioned Friedman’s POV of leaders needing to separate themselves from the emotional climate, what are some things you can do as you navigate your new role? How can you remain a non-anxious presence for your church family, especially after a season with what sounds like a very toxic presence?

    The little I know of you, I would say, your presence alone is very non-anxious, but I know that doesn’t remove what’s going on inside, so my question is more about your inner world.

    Blessings to you!

    • Chad Warren says:

      Nancy, I appreciate your questions. I have actually found the doctoral program is an avenue that helps me separate from the emotional climate. It’s a reminder that there is a broader context to the Kingdom of God and life outside the current anxious triangles in my midst. I think this program helps me normalize as a non-anxious presence.

  7. mm Shela Sullivan says:

    Hi Chad,
    Thank you for your post. It is evident that you deeply engaged with Friedman’s concepts, particularly the idea of chronic anxiety and the importance of well-differentiated leadership. Your recognition of these dynamics in your current context, such as the focus on superficial issues masking deeper anxieties, shows a keen understanding of the material.
    In what ways do you see yourself developing as a well-differentiated leader, and how do you plan to apply these principles in your leadership?

    • Chad Warren says:

      Shela, the specific way I am seeking to develop as a well-differentiated leader at the moment is by making it a priority to work with motivated people instead of spending all my time trying to motivate maligners.

  8. Elysse Burns says:

    Chad, unhealthy church leadership is all too common. This is tragic. I was raised in a pastor’s home, so I would like to thank you for working to cultivate a healthy church culture. I know this is not easy. I appreciated your analogy of the sheep-dog and the shepherd. I have never heard that example before. Since reading Friedman, have you been able to easily recognize emotional triangles within the church?

    • Chad Warren says:

      Elysse, I have identified a couple of emotional triangles. One in particular is very strong. It concerns music, which envokes passion and strong opinions. This particular triangle is sure that if we don’t get the music fixed, we will fail to train our children correctly and ruin the church.

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