DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

A Dreamer Dreams

Written by: on October 31, 2014

There once was a dreamer that dreamed a dream. This dream occurred several times over the years. Sometimes the setting varied, but there was always a common element. There was water present. At times this meant the setting was a coastal town and other times the water was something to be crossed. In either situation the dreamer was to be the one that gathered the people together to either rescue them or lead them to safety. Interestingly, the boat that carried them was not an ocean liner or even a ferry, but smaller by design, akin to rowboats. Instead of one boat, there were several.

What would Edwin Friedman say to the dreamer from his book, Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix?

The dreamer might begin by not overthinking the situation, such as “how did we get in this place to begin with” or become fixated on accumulating the most up-to-date information on boat building to prevent any possible disasters or challenges. This is an important area for the dreamer to attend to, as it is impossible to acquire all the information or data necessary to insure success or perhaps even eliminate the all risk of failure. There can be a subtle seduction to data information that leaves the dreamer feeling inadequate rather than confident.[1] Not to mention that boat building data is probably not the area that needs all the focus. While boats will sink if there is a hole in the bottom of it, there are other intangibles that the dreamer will need to focus on. Slowly the dreamer is learning the truth of these words, “The data deluge can only be harnessed to the extent that leaders can recognize that not all information is worth gathering, and also to the extent they can develop criteria for discerning what information is important to leadership.”[2]

Discernment is aimed in two directions; it is first aimed at the dreamer in their personal leadership as well as in the direction of the family system or institution of which one is a member. It will require the dreamer to be attentive and aware. “Leaders must not only develop vision, persistence, and stamina, but also understand that the problems they encounter may stem from their own unresolved issues, their organization’s past, sabotage in response to their effective leadership, or a combination of these factors.”[3] In recent years the dreamer has taken time to know the story that has shaped life and relationships resulting in recognizing the dreamer’s story of struggle from a victim to one that stands upright is not yet finished. “The key to that positioning is the leader’s own self-differentiation, by which I mean his or her capacity to be a non-anxious presence, a challenging presence, a well-defined presence, and a paradoxical presence.”[4]

The dreamer has been one that has thought in more linear terms, or perhaps more accurately, the dreamer was taught to think that is how the world works and how one should approach life’s problems. Slowly but with increasing pace over the past few years the dreamer has come to realize that trying harder to receive and maintain the approval of others does nothing except to wear one out. This has been a journey into the inner life by looking at the affect of shame.[5] Significant is the recognition of how fear of failure has plagued the dreamer, as it has plagued others.

There are times when the dreamer looks to find new answers to old problems, but there is also a growing capability to ask new questions.[6] This means that rather than avoid risk, new possibilities are considered. Rather than just bring new innovations to old problems (like church attendance, church involvement or bringing people to Christ) we need to reframe the questions we are asking.[7] This might challenge the recycled church plants or programs that seem to be cooler, hipper versions of the attractional church (not always mind you, but more often than not). This is not an easy path. Friedman reminds us that we desire a quick fix,[8] whether it is at the doctor’s office, for family problems or national politics, economics practices or (especially) the Christian church.

If anything makes the dreamer look in the mirror it is the challenge of a failure of nerve.[9] The dreamer has gained insight by learning about and from psychological assessments. Looking into the mirror has helped the dreamer to see personal tendencies and what they are rooted in. When a failure of nerve is creeping in, it most likely means that one or more of these areas is being neglected: mental, physical, emotional and spiritual health and practices. Not wanting conflict or resistance the dreamer is learning to expect both. Learning to lead when there is conflict without throwing someone under the bus, investing in developing individual strength rather than manipulation are intentions that will no doubt be tested. Sabotage will happen, some will not want to change or put out the effort, they may want the status quo, but the dreamer is aware that sometimes the sabotage comes because one has not been listened to, the pace exceeds their endurance and that as shepherds we cannot judge too quickly (or at all). Perhaps the one thing that Columbus did right was recognize that he needed to sail on and released control, allowing those on the Pinta to figure out if that rudder would be fixed or not.[10] Columbus set the agenda, he was determined to continue, it was up to the others to make up their mind.

There is an undeterred determination in a non-anxious leader. What impact would there have been on the disciples, let alone us if Jesus had chosen a less determined path? How would we have learned what the kingdom of God was all about? “To be a leader, one must both have and embody a vision of where one wants to go.”[11] What direction is the boat headed? In the dreamer’s dream the boat is going north. What does that mean? Is this somehow relevant, “Life has evolved not in terms of the ways the past has an impact on the present, but in terms of the ways the past is present in the present.”[12]

The dreamer yearns to be a well-defined leader. Such a leader, according to Friedman, is self-differentiated, a leadership characteristic that “is most likely to promote the kind of community that preserves the self of its members.”[13] Perhaps it is not safety that the dreamer will provide; perhaps something else will be cultivated and preserved. I wonder what the dreamer will dream tonight.


[1] Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (New York, NY: Seabury Books), 2007, 97. Full quote: “What I am driving at is this: As long as leaders—parents, healers, managers—base their confidence on how much data they have acquired, they are doomed to feeling inadequate, forever.”

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 28.

[4] Ibid., 230.

[5] Ibid., 35. Friedman refers to our efforts to try hard to avoid failure and to try harder when failure results. Jeff VanVonderan in his book, Tired of Trying to Measure Up: Getting Free From the Demands, Expectations, and Intimidation of Well-Meaning People (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 2008), 117 describes our efforts as cycles of trying harder, giving up and hopefully cycling into “rest.”

[6] Friedman, 37.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 87.

[9] Ibid., 163.

[10] Ibid., 191-192.

[11] Ibid., 179.

[12] Ibid., 167.

[13] Ibid., 163.

About the Author


Carol McLaughlin

Carol walks this DMin journey from her locale in Gig Harbor, WA (USA). She is preparing for pastoral ministry in the Presbyterian Church (PC-USA), as well as teaches in the Online Learning Community programs at GFES. Part of the DMin Leadership & Global Perspectives 4 cohort (dminlgp4) her research and dissertation focus is exploring why baby boomers leave the church and what it means for their faith development. The views expressed here are her own.

11 responses to “A Dreamer Dreams”

  1. mm Deve Persad says:

    I’m not sure who the dreamer might be Carol, but it could be me. My parents once bought me a plaque that said “sometimes I like to just sit and dream a little.” That was after a parent-teacher interview that revealed my behaviour in class. A long time has passed, but not much has changed – I’m still susceptible to moments of getting lost in “what if” scenarios. As I get older, I realize that while I rarely have a fear of failure, I am much more resistant to go down roads that look similar to the roads where I’ve experienced hurt or failure before. It is those moments that I realize and value the capacity to serve in leadership with others – whether that’s my wife (at home) or with our leadership team (at church). How would the dreamer handle going through challenging rapids along the journey? What about needing to portage in order to move further along? (feel free to ignore that one, it just popped into my head and seemed both funny and interesting as an extension of your story)

    • Deve…
      I can see you as a dreamer and as one who takes their dream and begins to put it into motion, adapting to the challenges, including portage (brilliant addition and thought). Perhaps that is a crucial aspect that needs to be added, most of the time we cannot carry the vessel by ourselves (unless it is a one person kayak :). As for rapids … my skill level would have to dramatically improve if this were me 😉 (I have no desire to go through rapids!)

      Deve … I am slowly learning to recognize how I respond to certain situations. This past summer I wondered why was I pulling back, I could “feel” that I was withdrawing following a particular experience. It finally hit me that I had run into hidden expectations/rules a couple of times before and this last experience, though different was so similar. I had to make a conscience choice to re-engage. Grateful to recognize it, but also challenging, because it was more about “me” and my response. Happy portaging my friend.

  2. Telile Fikru Badecha says:

    Hi Carol, Great post! I love how you tell the story. You highlighted the importance of discernment, which I believe is a critical quality leaders need to develop. Like you say, discernment helps us identify where the problem we encounter may steam so that we know the right discussion to make. A simple question came to my mind: How do we develop discernment?

    • Telile…
      Your question gets to the heart of the matter. One of the helpful things of seminary and this program is that we are asked to invest in knowing ourselves … in essence to know our stories. We see the movement of God in our lives and we see our tendencies. I think discernment in this area unfolds over time. And I do not think we are fully able to discern apart from the listening insight of others. Clint would probably be a great resource for both of us as Quaker practice has so much vested in this process. 🙂 Learning right with you!

  3. Carol,

    I love your metaphor of the dreamer. I am hoping that there might be times when our good dreams come true. The problem is that sometimes we wake up and it has only been a dream.

    My wife remembers her dreams regularly and in the morning often tells me “in detail” what she has dreamed. The interesting part to me is that her dreams are always so pure and relational. My wife is probably the epitome of “pure in heart.” I wish it were so for me. I do not often remember my dreams, and if I do, they are usually crazy nightmares that I am glad to wake up from. I don’t know exactly why this is; all I do know is that I wish I had my wife’s dreams more than my own.

    I wonder if your dreamer’s dreams will come true. You say, “There are times when the dreamer looks to find new answers to old problems, but there is also a growing capability to ask new questions. This means that rather than avoid risk, new possibilities are considered. Rather than just bring new innovations to old problems (like church attendance, church involvement or bringing people to Christ) we need to reframe the questions we are asking.” Yes, perhaps the answer is that we reframe the questions we are asking. But this will take emotionally intelligent people and leaders to do this. And, as Friedman indicates, this is a hard road to follow. Perhaps that is why so many settle for the status quo.

    God help us to dream big, pure-hearted dreams that will actually be true and lived out. I don’t know if I am an optimist or a pessimist these days — probably somewhere in the middle — but I do know there is hope for change. But as you say it will only come through people who are asking the right questions.

    • Bill…
      I think it is o.k. that you are at times filled with hope and at other times feeling like a pessimist. Because (I could have put that word in CAPS to shout 🙂 you seem to be asking the right questions. It is sort of a liminal space, there is unrest, but perhaps it is a holy unrest. That God is with you in the midst of what you are experiencing and what is developing. Perhaps your dreams will not come during the night hours but in the daylight as you walk, listen and see…

  4. Carol, so true. Often times the failure of nerve has to deal with the fact that we get caught up in all the minutia of the rescue as opposed to simply doing the work that is set before us. There is that subtle seduction of data information that leaves us dreamers feeling inadequate rather than confident and therefore we lose the nerve to do the very thing that is necessary for the leader to accomplish. We teaching in our missions seminars that the most difficult part of developing a missions policy is to start. Before we get started in accomplishing the task we get so bogged down by the information and lack of confidence in the task before us that we never even get started.
    I really like that quote that “life has evolved not in terms of the ways the past has an impact on the present, but in terms of the ways the pass is present in the present.” Isn’t that the baggage that we all carry. Getting rid of the past and listening with new ears to the master may have us stepping out of our boat and walking on water. Great summary of this great book. Thank you Carol for your work here.

    • Thanks Mitch for your reflection. 🙂 I too am seeing how important and “present” that quote is in my life and in my present situations. Learning to see and recognize how the past is present in the present, I think applies not only to me and you, but also to the past that is present in our churches that we might be failing to see. I will continue to learn and glean from Friedman 😉

  5. mm Clint Baldwin says:

    This is a wonderful post…full of mystery and possibility.
    At the end of your post, I want to query something that I really wonder if both “the dreamer” and Friedman means? I understand what is being suggested, but I think there might be a deeper piece available. You write, “The dreamer yearns to be a well-defined leader.” Do they really…does Friedman really want them to be this? Yes, I understand Friedman’s categories of “well-differentiated” and etc., but I consistently feel that there is something deeper to Friedman — he is a rabbi after all. Too “well-defined” reminds me of the inordinate quantification Friedman decries. I wonder if there is something deeper here beyond defining? Sure, well-differentiated — “self-actualized” to use other language — but also I think set-apart. I feel that there is a knownness of the leader acting in integrity, but there is also the sense they will always be charting a new course and one can never be quite sure of what will be coming up next.
    Anyhow, just some musing. Really loved your post.

  6. Clint…
    Thanks for your wonder and recognition. You are right. I desire to be a well-defined leader … to be set apart. Not for acclaim but anointing… to walk with and in integrity, to bear the cross that is given to me … Thank you so much for the musings and insights! Appreciatively….

  7. […] seduction to data information that leaves the dreamer feeling inadequate rather than confident.[1] Not to mention that boat building data is probably not the area that needs all the focus. While […]

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