The Failure of “Niceness”
I happened to be sitting in a restaurant in Sacramento, California with a man by the name of Paul Borden. Paul Borden was a church health and growth consultant who’s name and work was rapidly spreading across The Wesleyan Church denominiation. His work with churches was fast, furious, and produced direct change in the health and growth reality of many churches. Paul wrote a couple books and developed several resources as he worked with several key denominations across the country.
But what caught my greatest attention during that meeting was Paul’s overall assessment of The Wesleyan Church denomination. After working with five of our districts Paul made the two observations that created a great tension. First, our pastors were more passionate and good-hearted than any other group of pastors he had ever worked with, and secondly our pastors were fundamentally less effective than any other pastors he had ever worked with in his denominational consulting run. He also observed that we were a particularly financially poor denomination, but because of the passion and good-heartedness of our pastors he could scale his fees down to be able to help us.
I am not sure if it was Paul’s words or my thoughts, but it was in that conversation at the restaurant I realized we as a denomination had a “niceness” problem in our ranks. From the description that Paul repeatedly gave of his interactions and weekend consultations, you could say that our pastors “loved” God and people “so much” that they were not willing to address conflict, stir the pot, and lead change when conflict, stirring, and change were needed. We as a denomination we were in a “rut” that we continued to dig deeper when it came to the health and growth of our churches.
Obviously this “rut” is the exact “rut” that Edwin H. Friedman writes about in his book, “A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.” In Friedman’s own words he writes, “It will be the thesis of this work that leadership in America is stuck in the rut of trying harder and harder without obtaining significantly new results. The rut runs deep, affecting all the institutions of our society irrespective of size or purpose.” Friedman goes on to say “… America’s leadership rut has both a conceptual and an emotional dimension that reinforce one another. … I have watched families and institutions recycle their problems for several generations, despite enormous efforts to be innovative.”
As I read these words over the past week I started to wonder if I was reading a book by Paul Borden or by Edwin Friedman. The same primary issue in the institutions of America that were being diagnosed by Friedman and Borden and the same need for real, fundamental, causational change must occur.
It was in Friedman’s ultimate diagnosing of America’s problem of orientation toward leadership that made the most direct connections with Paul Borden and his consulting process with The Wesleyan Church.
Friedman summarized the problem into five leadership characteristics that create the rut, impeding the natural process that leads to true organizational health and growth. These same five characteristics are at the heart of what Paul Borden’s consulting services addressed in the churches and pastors he worked with in The Wesleyan Church.
The first characteristic is “reactivity.” Friedman writes that this regressive leadership characteristic puts a “ceiling” on an organization and limits the talent, skill, personality, opportunities and capacities of an organization. For The Wesleyan Church, Borden observed this by the desire within the pastors he worked with in keeping with the status quo.
The second characteristic is “herding.” Herding deepens the rut by not utilizing the best and brightest people and ideas in a room, but rather choosing and selecting average to poor talent and skills in efforts to keep everyone together versus letting the “best cream rise.” Borden saw this herding principle in so many of our churches. There were great people in many of the churches that were not being utilized and empowered because of the conflict it could produce leaving lesser-gifted people (for a particular role) leading the way.
The characteristic of “blame displacement” aborts a natural growth-producing response to challenge according to Friedman. This third regressive characteristics is evidenced when problems rise and blame and rationalization are the response as opposed to seeing problems as opportunities to learn, grow, and work together. Borden believed and heard many pastors who were aware of the health and growth issues at a church, knew why the issues existed, and knew the fundamental cause of the issues but the ultimate response was of despair and helplessness that just blamed the problems of the church on the issues as reality as opposed to opportunity.
Fourthly, the characteristic of “a quick-fix mentality” that does not honestly address the fullness of the problems that need to be addressed and more importantly does not allow for the time it will actually take to identify, address, and change, deepens the rut yet again. Borden would say that many of our churches are program-driven. They are looking for the next resource, campaign, or external initiative that will help them move towards health and growth. This quick-fix or band-aid on a broken bone mentality only perpetuates and propagates a rut of disillusionment and un-health.
Lastly, Friedman summarizes all of these regressive characteristics of leadership as “the failure of nerve of leadership” due to the “nerve” it takes to go against the regressive tendencies and create institutional and organizational culture that can flourish. The rut must be avoided and leadership with “nerve” is needed.
Unfortunately I believe that is were “niceness” enters the picture in The Wesleyan Church. Many of our churches have ended up in the rut of reactivity, herding, blame and displacement, a quick-fix mentality, and ultimate a failure of nerve of leadership. And while the nerve is what is needed, I believe it is “a failure of niceness” that is our real, fundamental, and causational problem that Paul Borden has helped us address.
 Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (New York: SEABURY BOOKS, 2007), 3.
 Ibid., Friedman, 3.
 Ibid., Friedman, 61.