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

The Nerve of Failure

Written by: on February 20, 2023

Every once and awhile a book surfaces “for such a time as this.” The content is a prophetic punch in the face. Such is the case with “A Failure of Nerve” by Edwin H. Friedman.

I remember feeling this many years ago with Mark Senter’s “The Coming Revolution in Youth Ministry”[1] and more recently with “The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy” by William Strauss and Neil Howe. [2]  These, and a small handful of others, feel ripped from the headlines, while also being timeless and enduring. If you could see the margin notes in my copy of Friedman, you would find multiple scribbles with exclamation points attached:  “Dang!, Wow!, Yep!” That’s Right!”

This book is a relevant and transformative gift for, as Friedman says, “parents to presidents.” And to that I will add “pastors.”

Pastoral leaders are anxious. This is of particular interest to my NPO that posits that “Lead Pastors within the U.S. Foursquare Church are struggling to sustain joy in their ministry context.”  My early work with stakeholders offers a number of possible contributing factors:  undue expectations and anxiety, faulty models of spiritual leadership, deficiency of identity, inadequate space for vulnerability, as well as an underdeveloped theology of suffering. Friedman touched on a number of these factors, with great clarity and intellectual prowess. His thesis is such: “the climate of contemporary America has become so chronically anxious that our society has gone into an emotional regression that is toxic to well-defined leadership” (Friedman, 59).

You can say that again, Edwin.

I find it interestingly refreshing that Friedman denotes that society is regressing (not the leader), and that regression is toxic (not the leader). That’s not to say that leaders don’t at times regress or become toxic, but, come on, do leaders have to be everyones punching bags, all the time? I don’t think so. Again, this is not a “hall pass” for bad leaders, but rather, a sober understanding that leaders are not “the root of all evil” like a cynical society would want us to believe.

Allow me to deeply personalize this by highlighting two fallacies that Friedman brought to the surface:  the fallacy of empathy and the fallacy of self (ie: narcissism), and how each ministered directly to me. In each case, I was, admittedly, moved to tears because something shifted in my heart as Friedman addressed these fallacies.


I’m not a huge Brene’ Brown fan. Go ahead, crucify me. I know she is popular, brilliant, and contributes widely to society. I don’t hate her, OK. I just didn’t jump onto the Brene’ bandwagon like so many…and I don’t fault those that have. I believe myself to be a fairly empathic person, and encourage others to be so as well, so that’s not my rub. I don’t know that I could have clearly articulated it until reading Friedman, who desires to “pierce the general illusions of empathy which so disorient American society today and give[s] license to undercutting well-defined leadership everywhere” (Friedman, 142).

Ouch. However, in his own words “[You] may have been hurt, but not damaged.” This is so important. We are living in an era of “everybody gets a trophy,” “that’s my truth,” and “you hurt my feelings” and it is inducing a failure of nerve among leadership.

Myself included.

Recently, I commented to someone that I trust: “I’m getting tired of speaking truth and making bold biblical statements, for fear of getting my head chopped off.” I went on to muse on how to say a particular something in a way that the least amount of people will get ticked off. Now, to be fair, I’m all for tact, graciousness, and not provoking for “provoking sake.” I don’t have a death wish. I like being liked. But I was challenged (and freed) by Friedman’s assertion that “empathy may be a luxury afforded to only those who do not have to make tough decisions. For ‘tough decisions’ are decisions the consequence of which will be painful to others (although not harmful to others…) (Friedman, 146).


In 2016 I was given a 9-week sabbatical from my Lead Pastor responsibilities. Actually it was cut short to 7.5 weeks, because the proverbial “sh*t hit the fan.” I’ll keep the specific details to a minimum due to the public nature of this blog. But suffice it to say, an executive-level pastor asked to meet before the conclusion of my sabbatical in order to resign, and fired a shot over the bow in response to my question of “Why?”

“You are a Narcissist.” he said.

He didn’t believe that I should have taken a sabbatical, nor that I should have been as vulnerable as I had been regarding burnout and depression. He saw it, and my overall leadership demeanor, as selfish.

I had the nerve to show weakness and failure.

For over seven years now, I have been wearing that smear around, like a scarlet letter. Close friends and my wife have tried to get me to shake it, but to no avail. I assumed the resigned pastor was right and that I was wrong…deeply and irrevocably wrong. Until I found myself weeping in chapter 5 of “A Failure of Nerve.” Now, let’s be clear: from time to time I CAN be a selfish stinker. Just ask my wife. But the label of narcissist that had been slapped upon me with such vitriol was not mine to wear any longer. Friedman asks, “How are parents and presidents [and again I add pastors] to value, indeed treasure and preserve, self without worrying that they are being narcissistic or autocratic?” (Friedman, 186).

You can ask that again, Edwin.

P.S. I don’t think I’m being selfish or narcissistic in wanting to recoup that final week of my sabbatical. Perhaps I’ll tack it onto Oxford. Cheers!


[1]. Senter, Mark. The Coming Revolution in Youth Ministry. Wheaton, Ill: Victor Books, 1992.

[2]. Strauss, William., and Neil. Howe. The Fourth Turning : an American Prophecy. First trade paperback edition. New York: Broadway Books, 1998.



About the Author


John Fehlen

John Fehlen is currently the Lead Pastor of West Salem Foursquare Church. Prior to that he served at churches in Washington and California. A graduate of Life Pacific University in San Dimas, CA in Pastoral Ministry, and Vanguard University in Costa Mesa, CA with a Masters in Leadership and Spirituality. He and his wife Denise have four grown children and four grandchildren. John is the author of "Don't Give Up: Encouragement for Weary Souls in Challenging Times," a book for pastoral leaders, a children's book called "The Way I See You," and the forthcoming "Leave A Mark: The Jouney of Intentional Parenting." You can connect with John on Instagram (@johnfehlen) as well as at johnfehlen.substack.com.

9 responses to “The Nerve of Failure”

  1. Jennifer Vernam says:

    Thanks for this post, John, and for your consistent authenticity. How great that the assigned reading is helping you disarm that bombshell you received so many years ago.
    In your reflection on this read, as well as in my own, I hear a real need for balance in these concepts for example:
    – grace and empathy while making the tough decisions
    – taking care of self while not slipping into narcissism
    This is a struggle for all of us; one we need to manage. What would you tell the ‘you’ from 7 years ago based on this read?

    • mm John Fehlen says:

      Jennifer, life is so full of opportunities to look back, reflect, adjust and move forward. I’m thankful for the grace of God (and loving friends) that allows for this in my life and ministry.

      A key word you mentioned in your reply to me is this: “balance.” I would tattoo that word somewhere on my body that I can see often. Balance. I don’t need to swing one way or another and get stuck there. I can care for myself, while also pouring myself out for the church. I can make important decisions that may rub some wrongly, with love, care and empathy. Balance.

      Always appreciate your questions and insights.

  2. mm Russell Chun says:

    Brilliant. As always.

    When I read Friedman’s statement, “Empathy has become a power tool in the hands of the weak to sabotage the strong, p. 26. ” I burst out laughing. (I was laughing at myself by the way).

    I just don’t rate high on the empathetic meter.

    I love that the cohort (why do we use a Roman military term by the way to describe ourselves?) is filled with sensitive and support people. This has been an exception rather than the rule for me, and I have benefitted from it. Healing and growing.

    Narcissistic? Hmmm…that stings…to lay one on the side of that… I was told that I had a Santa Claus ministry to the orphanage we worked at. Sigh…

    I suppose there was some truth to that. We had awesome Christmas celebrations, but what about the two teen suicide services I did and the service for the child that could have been saved, but wasn’t because of Hungarian bureaucracy.

    The comment came from someone who was hurting because of the death of that child, so I forgive him…but the comment still stings.

    When I reflect on empathy, I draw back from the vulnerability that it exposes me to. The sense of grief and loss of comrades and those who gave their lives for something bigger than themselves.

    Nope….I need to leave empathy to those better equipped to deal with it.


    • mm John Fehlen says:

      You referenced “gifts” and “Christmas” and it brought to mind the possibility that some times there are gifts we get at Christmas that receive with:

      • excitement
      • mixed emotions
      • distain
      • etc. etc.

      I think of the various sweaters I’ve gotten over the years, that I smiled, said thank you, and then put them into a closet until it was safe to drop them off at the Goodwill.

      All that to say: Empathy is a gift. So is leadership. How we use them requires discernment and sensitivity of the Spirit.

  3. Travis Vaughn says:

    John, I’m curious — do you believe there is something unique to the “why” behind your NPO — that lead pastors in Foursquare Churches are failing to sustain joy? Something that seems to be affecting leaders in your denomination but maybe not as much, or just differently, in other denominations? I know you are going to be conducting research, but I wonder if you have a suspicion of why (and whether or not that suspicion will be confirmed in your final project). In reading the rest of your blog post, I wonder — and perhaps since your truncated sabbatical in 2016 — if you find yourself leaning less on consensus building, technique, or know-how, and more on decisiveness in your leadership. Really enjoyed your post. Even if you aren’t a Brene Brown fan. (I’ve only read one of her books, but I did see her famous Ted Talk.)

    • mm John Fehlen says:

      Travis, for the purposes of my NPO, I opted to really narrow it down to “Foursquare” in order to focus my scope and have a better shot at research. However I have a strong sense it’s not limited to our denomination (duh!). I’m anxious to hone my NPO statement more and more in this season, because I still don’t totally feel like I’ve “nailed it.”

      Now, as to the truncated sabbatical…that’s been a journey of self-discovery. I would hazard a bet that I have actually become less decisive, and more collaborative/consensus building. That’s a shifting thing, however, pre/post pandemic. I’ve had to be more decisive in the pandemic, but now am returning to a more collaborative demeanor. Even after writing that whole paragraph, I think I need to spend some time wrestling a bit more with your question. Might be time to grab my journal and work it out!

  4. mm Tim Clark says:

    I appreciate your pointing to Friedman’s explanation of the difference between hurting and harming. I’ve found in leadership the need to often make decisions that people don’t like, and may feel hurt over, but that don’t harm them. But it takes guts…nerve… to do so.

    And John, you are not a narcissist (I’d know); sabotage has happened and will keep happening as you seek to live a non-anxious differentiated life and lead with conviction. Lead on, my friend!

  5. John, wow thanks for the personal reflection. Also nine weeks is not really that long of a sabbatical. I question very deeply the motivations of being called back 1.5 weeks early but I digress from my topical analysis of this very deep personal reflection.

    I am glad you were able to pull so much out of this book and it spoke to you well. All it took was to have experienced something so profound in your life that it brought you to tears. You quote Friedman’s approach to his analysis using generalities and broad strokes. That is my main complaint against this chapter is I feel it takes the worst case scenario and lambasts us all with its thesis.

    I think it’s unfair and while you were able to draw out deeper meaning from it, it had the opposite effect on me, it pushed me away.

  6. Adam Harris says:

    Appreciate your posts and interested in hearing more about your NPO, maybe in Oxford while you finish out your sabbatical!

    Wow, my friend, glad I’m not the only one this book hit between the eyes. A lot of moments of prayer and reflection for me as well while reading Friedman. It is quite the balancing game when it comes to the “fallacy of empathy”. Caring for people while also making hard decisions like in your quote. For ‘tough decisions’ are decisions the consequence of which will be painful to others (although not harmful to others…).

    One quote that has always stayed with me from Andy Stanley is “Always sacrifice the one for the many”. It was a play off of “leaving the 99 for the 1”, but he said when it comes to leadership you always sacrifice the one for the sake of the many no matter how hard it is. This is a tough one and I still wait too long sometimes to confront issues, “hoping they will go away”, they don’t.

    I don’t think that is where you were going with your posts, but it sparked those ideas. Very much appreciate your honesty and years of ministry. Hope you get your sabbatical time. Also thanks for the heads up on the call the other day! No telling what my youngest would have said with the mic on!

Leave a Reply