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

Not just an anxiety, but a chronic anxiety~

Written by: on October 7, 2021

Edwin H. Friedman, in his book A Failure of Nerve, focuses on discussing the root causes and underlying mechanics of ‘failure of nerve’ in leaders. He approached leadership from a different direction of perspective and explained that “leadership is essentially an emotional process rather than a cognitive phenomenon.”[1] While many leadership books discourses on building skill sets, techniques, and leadership characteristics, Friedman expounds on the foundation of a leader’s presence. Throughout the book, Friedman reinforces the importance of a well-differentiated leader who can navigate many institutions’ functioning and survival climates. This book presents a clear vision for establishing a well-differentiated leadership by discussing unhealthy emotional systems and intricate connections of the past within families and organizations.

The book discusses many vital elements of well-differentiation of leadership. One of the critical things I began to reflect on was the idea of chronic anxiety in a system. Friedman writes, “Chronic anxiety is systematic; it is deeper and more embracing than community nervousness. Rather than something that resides within the psyche of each one, it is something that can envelop, if not connect, people. It is a regressive emotional process that is quite different from the more familiar, acute anxiety we experience over specific concerns.”[2] This type of chronic anxiety is prevalent in all organizations and societies because anxiety is tied to human relationships. One of the chronic symptoms of our generation is that anxiety is highlighted at all levels of society and age groups. The prevalent anxieties within individuals, married couples, families, corporate organizations, and churches are evident, genuinely systematic.

One of the chronic anxieties that I saw growing up in an KAIC (Korean American immigrant church) was the constant introduction of programs and failures of programs to revitalize the church. The church leadership often brought in guest speakers and a particular program that would help the church jump to another level of growth. People tend to like it in the beginning stage, and it seems to be working because it is new, but over time it faded away as people who participated in the program were somewhat left disappointed and unchanged. The author’s illustrations reminded me of many past experiences where leadership led out of anxiety and uncertainty. Friedman’s insightful perspective on defining chronic anxiety is crucial for a leader to understand and help others grow, whether an individual, a family, or an organization. Jesus embodies this kind of leadership where the peace of God is revealed as Jesus abides through the storms of frantic chronic nervousness. Unhealthy leaders will continue to fail in perceiving and, owing to their chronic anxieties within their team and organization, will continue to search for better programs. But a more well-differentiated and healthy leadership will identify and work with real issues that are causing those problematic anxieties within the team and organization. Jesus not only drew closer to the epicenter of anxiety, but he was also able to bring an overflow of calming presence and lead His disciples out of the storms.



[1] Edwin H. Friedman and Peter Steinke, A Failure of Nerve, Revised Edition: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. 10th Anniversary edition. (New York: Church Publishing, 2017), 14.


[2] Friedman and Steinke, A Failure of Nerve, 65.

About the Author


Jonathan Lee

President of Streamside Ministry Lead Pastor of EM @ San Jose Korean Presbyterian Church in Sunnyvale, CA

15 responses to “Not just an anxiety, but a chronic anxiety~”

  1. mm Eric Basye says:

    Great post and reflections, Jonathan.

    I found your thoughts regarding past experiences with leadership leading out of a place of anxiety as very interesting. I wonder if there is an added stress in being immigrants to the US? I can only imagine that adds a new level of stress, and potentially anxiety. I look forward to how you will lead and adapt from these experiences.

    The author’s illustrations reminded me of many past experiences where leadership led out of anxiety and uncertainty.

    • mm Jonathan Lee says:

      Hi Eric,

      From my experience and in my opinion, the immigrants live with a greater anxiety level because of their need and longing for success. Usually the 1st generation of immigrants came to America dreaming a certain success and their own definition of reaching the American dream whether that is financial, educational, or family success. There is a greater anxiety embedded in the family system where they cling onto that passed on dream for success. Many of the immigrants are starting off from a unstable and shaky platform because they don’t speak the language and they don’t have enough understanding of American social structures.

  2. Johnathan, excellent summary and reflection. The picture you painted of the KAIC you attended was relatable – addressing symptoms and not real issues. What would you say were the real issues this particular church was avoiding?

    • mm Jonathan Lee says:

      Hi Michael,

      I’ve experienced many different kinds of underlying issues in KAIC churches I’ve served over the years. This particular church at the time was a small congregation in size and now that I reflect back, I think the senior pastor wrestled with having confidence and competancy as a minister. The long years of ministry and lack of spiritual and physcial growth brought lack of faith in bringing change. So it was the pastor who would introduce and run different programs, but it was the pastor who didn’t believe in any change as an outcome from the programs.

  3. mm Roy Gruber says:

    Jonathan, thanks for sharing personal reflections of efforts that started well but ended in disappointment. I wonder how much those disappointing experiences create a growing sense of anxiety within a congregation as people worry that the next effort will be more of the same that begins well but ends poorly. If it is so, leaders need to think carefully about what comes next since another disappointment only adds to the anxiety and makes another effort more challenging than the last one. I hope Friedman’s work helps your ministry to thrive!

  4. Kayli Hillebrand says:

    Thank you for your reflection, Jonathan. I was thinking this week that this book will contribute well towards your NPO and the work you are focused on. It would be interesting to see if there is any survey of chronic anxiety and similar experiences you’ve had in the KAIC across other denominations.

  5. mm Henry Gwani says:

    Jonathan, I like how you compare leading out of “anxiety and uncertainty” with following Jesus’ model of bringing a calming presence to whatever situation we’re called to provide leadership to. I think this calls for a life given to meditation, prayer, study and other crucial spiritual disciplines, especially in these days when many feel overwhelmed by the moral, family, economic, political and spiritual crises that surround us.

  6. mm Nicole Richardson says:

    Jonathan, thank you for your focus on chronic anxiety in systems. It is definitely different than a acute episode that causes momentary emotional response.
    Roy asked a good question about how disappointment may contribute to the anxiety. I would elaborate the question to ask about if you can see Friedmans point of how the system needing a quick fix revealed the chronic anxiety? Friedman talks about how systems will avoid longer pain experience and that is why they long for the quick fix. What is the deeper pain that was present? In what ways do you see your self-differentiation transforming from Friedmans point of view?
    Like you, I recognize that power in employing practice of a non-anxious presence…may God grant it 🙂

    • mm Jonathan Lee says:

      Hi Nicole,

      I think people bring who they are into the church. This is especially true to lot of KAIC settings. Many immigrants bring in their frustrations, anger, and disappointments into their relationships with pastors and church family members. I think people naturally look for quick fixes and desire to cling onto leaders who can fix the problems quickly. But, the reality of life is that not all problems can be fixed and be solved. More and more I see that pastors are called to shepherd Jesus’ sheeps that Jesus brings into the flock.

      • mm Nicole Richardson says:

        Jonathon, how do you respond in that tension between people’s hunger for a quick fix and your knowledge that the quick fix isn’t helpful?

  7. mm Denise Johnson says:

    Jonathan, I appreciate your summary and reflections. I am particularly challenged by your connections to the life of Jesus. As Nicole points out, it seems like your childhood church embraced the quick-fix mentality that Friedman highlighted. I am curious about how your church might have employed and embraced a more self-differentiated leadership. I have had minimal engagement with an Asian culture (I was supported by a Chinese American Church), but I am aware that their interpretation and expression of proximity and emotion varies from say a more expressive southern European culture. I would be very interested to hearing more from you about how you anticipate a book like “Failure of Nerve” could be adapted to an Asian culture.

    • mm Jonathan Lee says:

      Hi Denise,

      Growing up as Korean American, I get to see the contrast between the western culture and asian culture. Generally speaking, Korean immigrant church culture and many Asian church culture is rooted in conservative fundamentalism. There is a lot of emphasis on focusing on prayer and obedience that needs to be detached from how we feel and think. I think American culture trains a person to be elaborate, descriptive, independent, challening, and expressive in our thoughts while Asian culture trains a person to be quiet, reserved, less expressive, and obedient to authority. From Friedman’s book, Asian church can teach and learn to pay more attention to who they are inside and grow to be differenciated. Rather than cultivating a church culture to just believe, pray more, and serve more means good faith, it needs to focus more on cultivating the Christlike identity formation.

  8. mm Troy Rappold says:

    Jonathan: Great thoughts in this essay. The idea of Chronic anxiety in the system also peaked my interest. I had so much worry when I was in the business world–a fear of making a mistake, of being sued, of losing money. It kept me on my toes, but I remember thinking there has to be a better way. Friedman points to the better way. I wish I read this book when it came out 12 years ago.

  9. Elmarie Parker says:

    Hi Jonathan. I join Henri and Denise in feeling appreciation for the links you made to Jesus’ ministry in the storms of chronic anxiety he faced with his first followers. I immediately thought of the scene where they are caught in one of the vicious storms that can whip across the Sea of Galilee, and Jesus is sleeping…that’s a pretty non-anxious presence :). Similar to Michael, I also wondered what the congregations you mentioned were most anxious over or trying to avoid–the real issues? What next steps in your own leadership are you hoping to take, informed now by Friedman’s insights, as you seek to address real issues in your current congregational setting?

    • mm Jonathan Lee says:

      Hi Elmarie,

      I think I have grown a bit in the area of anxiety. People around me are telling me they like how I bring a more calm and peaceful atmosphere when I am with them. I believe that is one area of growth I have experienced in the past six years. To leave somewhat settled and comforted life in Southern California to follow God’s new calling to settle into bay area was definitely a challenging and anxious time. But, I am learning to trust God more and I desire to have a greater leadership influence in modeling a life that trusts God. I want my congregations to understand a life of complete surrender and letting Christ be the King is the abundant life that Jesus promised as a Shepherd King~

Leave a Reply