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

The Journey of an Adventurer

Written by: on October 7, 2021

Edwin Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve outlines the various systems of society, their engagement, functionality and dysfunctionality. Particularly in relationship to the tension between the expression of self and the harmony in the community. His diverse background of experiences provides for a comprehensive look at the role of leadership in the development of mature followers and healthy communities.
My engagement with this work took me on a journey through my professional career and my on personal growth markers. I found myself putting new terms and definitions to my own experiences. It also highlighted my greatest disappointments in ministry.
I realized that I was given a great gift in my first job after graduation. Most people thought that I had been thrown into the lion’s den and it was a kind of baptism by fire. Although the environment itself was riddle with challenges and obstacles, the gift was the leaders that I worked under. These self-differentiating individuals provided numerous opportunities for me to grow, mature and overcome the challenges. They resourced my strengths so that I was free to creatively engage with the challenges and crises. The fact that the environment itself could be physically dangerous never seem to unnerve my sense of calm because I had a larger picture of the situation thanks to these leaders’ reflective response to my inquiries and their confidence in my ability to handle whatever happened. This experience set me on a path to pilot many projects that I am sure that I would not have had the emotional core or the maturation to handle otherwise.
A number of years later I had the opportunity to partner with two other individuals to create a parenting education program in conjunction with the Elementary Counseling program we were piloting. Although, we weren’t focusing on any particular approach. I see now that we utilized many of the concepts Friedman describes. There was a focus on empowering the individuals who were present to engage in choices that enabled the to take ownership of themselves. They began to identify and own their behaviors, emotions and the impact they have on a given situation. I was often amazed by the transformation. The web of their relationships was be redefined as one person made steady consistent healthier choices for themselves. The individual’s ownership of self defused the once emotionally tense relationships. This in turn created an environment for other members to make similar choices because it became the least painful direction.
When my adventure took me overseas in a ministry role, I found myself under a poorly differentiated leadership. I was often confused and disoriented, all the while feeling like I had lost a piece of my core. The leadership has been unclear as to their role, purpose and direction, as well as personally disconnected. I have been shocked by the amount of triangulation under the pretext of caring. The protection of the system over personal accountability. The ever-present need to “share” insight into situations, from a distance over being present, empowering and reflective. This definitely caught me off guard.
However, this situation has cause me to persevere into a new understanding of myself. I have a clear sense of my own personal boundaries. I am aware that I often have to choose to be present and to engage in challenging conversations. It is essential for me to own my feelings and to present them in a manner that expresses my intent yet honors the others in the group. In some ways it would be easier to move on but as Friedman says, cutting oneself off from a relationship system does not result in healing. Therefore, I will continue to show up, contribute, persevere, and focus on my growth. Maybe one day I will be the one that shifts the web of relationship to a healthy place.

About the Author


Denise Johnson

Special Education teacher K-12, School Counselor K-12, Overseas field worker in Poland,

5 responses to “The Journey of an Adventurer”

  1. Kayli Hillebrand says:

    Denise, I appreciate your candor about the gifts and disappointments that have come through your journey in ministry. I too feel blessed that some of my earliest mentors and bosses were ones that modeled much of the health Friedman talks about. Learning early how to care for others, cultivate health in the area you lead, and growing in self-awareness have been guideposts for me to recognize when I’m not in the best environment or need to rework something in myself. I applaud you for your dedication to the hard conversations and perseverance in the midst of the challenges that are ongoing.

  2. mm Roy Gruber says:

    Denise, thanks for sharing the highs and lows of your experience as it relates to Friedman’s diagnosis of good and bad leadership. I share your appreciation of serving under self-differentiated leadership when you began in ministry. I often wonder how different my experience would be if I had not served with a positive example and environment as I did. I am sorry to hear about the unhealthy dynamic of your current assignment. May God give you the strength to endure and be a force for positive change.

  3. mm Nicole Richardson says:

    Denise, As always I appreciate your vulnerability in sharing your personal journey. I resonate with your struggle of working with those who are masters of triangulation.
    You mention it was an “environment itself was riddle with challenges and obstacles”. I am hearing that you made some connections to those obstacles in what Friedman was talking about. I’d love to hear what those were and how they resonated for you in reading Friedman.
    I’d also be very interested in the ways you have grown as a self-differentiated leader. What elements of Friedmans argument of emotional barriers of data, empathy, and hyper focus on togetherness have impact on your understanding of your experience?
    Thank you for sharing your intentionality in sharing your voice while honoring others. It too is a hope of mine that I do the same.

  4. mm Troy Rappold says:

    Thank you for the thoughtful essay, Denise. I can relate well to your thoughts about “showing up” when a leader needs to and own your own feelings. It is easy to not stir the pot and hope things won’t escalate when a problem arises. I wish I had the gift of working with gifted leaders who were well-differentiated just after I graduate from school.

  5. Elmarie Parker says:

    Denise, thank you for sharing some of your ministry journey–both the gifts of receiving healthy, differentiated mentoring and the challenges of being in triangulated emotional contexts. You mentioned wanting to continue your own growth; I’m curious if in reading Friedman you added any helpful tools or insights to your repertoire for navigating some of the present challenges you are facing?

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