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

A Failure of Nerve

Written by: on October 31, 2013

Sam Houston and Edwin Friedman

There is a sense that the world faces a crisis of leadership.  Europe is embroiled in a seemingly intractable economic crisis, much of their own doing.  The US struggles with the continual threat of government shutdown.  The millennial generation’s response seems just as dysfunctional in this liquid world as popularly anarchistic groups such as Wikileaks and Anonymous seek to tear down, instead of filling the void.  In my context, Spain, the idea of leadership is almost universally loathed and avoided.

Reading through Edwin H Friedman’s meditation on leadership, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, I detect an almost nostalgic longing for the great mythical heroes of the American past: the conquistadors, explorers, pioneers, rebels, and other boundary breakers who set their own course.  There is a sense that leaders are not like they used to be.  Singer/songwriter Owen Temple makes this observation in his song “Old Sam” about Texas icon Sam Houston:

“Timber Ridge, Virginia is a mighty fine place
From that soil sprung a leader of the human race
He had eyes full of thunderstorms and hair like gold
He was seven foot tall when he was six years old- Old Sam, Big Sam”

However, Friedman chooses not to wallow in nostalgia, but instead create an emotional/psychological profile of our society and how it creates an almost parasitic atmosphere of anxiety that stunts growth, creativity, innovation, and true leadership.  In short, Friedman asserts: “I believe there exists throughout America today a rampant sabotaging of leaders who try to stand tall amid the raging anxiety storms of our time (loc 115).”  For Friedman our society has stagnated (and on a micro level organizations, churches, and families have as well) from a failure to break through emotional boundaries that assert power over us through a powerful, systemic emotional control of anxiety.  We have become emotionally and imaginatively gridlocked.  He particularly sees this society of anxiety portrayed in a “compulsive search for safety and certainty (loc 1030).” More specifically, this orientation manifests itself in the need for quick fixes, a constant striving for answers to problems, denial, a fascination with data and technique, and fostering empathy before responsibility.

Friedman further asserts that these are essentially organic, emotional dysfunctions that then turn around to sabotage true leadership negatively and reactively.  Through his metaphor of a family, we see the emotionally reactive and destructive nature of a society ensnared and frozen in anxiety, unable to move forward… a society of mutual enablers.  This rings true in Spain, where leadership has become the distant and corrupt father, while those protesting on the streets take on the reactive role of the rebellious teenager who wants to burn it all down.  Instead of bravely charting a new course for the nation, everyone is embroiled in a battle to protect their piece of the pie.  Anxiety ensues.

Friedman’s solution is of course found in the title.  To break through the gridlock we need leaders with the nerve to stand up and set a new course, they must take responsibility for their own mission and vision, often in the face of offending others, and create new maps and paradigms.  In a sense, they must by being emotionally mature and develop, become the emotional antidote to the cancer of anxiety, allowing others to break through their own gridlocked emotional barriers.  Here Friedman centers on the idea of being self-ish, and truly self-differentiated.  That is, seeing one’s individuality and integrity in a healthy light apart (yet also attached) from family, society, and organization.  It is understanding the Trinitarian framework of unity and diversity, the one and the many, that togetherness does not subsume the individual, but that healthy individuality and community apart from emotional dependency and reactivity.  This allows for good leadership, (and good leadership creates this context as well) which in turn creates an environment for breaking through the old barriers and freeing the anxious to be able to reframe the questions of fear to ones of new possibilities, all the while dealing with immense opposition. Friedman concludes that a gridlocked organizations need a leader with the nerve to emotionally shake people from their anxiety, and recapture a sense of adventure as opposed to fear.  Here societies, families, and organizations can once again flourish.

Church and Mission

There is much that rings true about Friedman’s thesis.  In a sense, Jesus models this kind of leadership, calling an entire people out of dependency to the liberating power of the cross.  William Carey started the modern Protestant missions movement by having the nerve to call a staid church to the Great Commission, and moved his family to India.

We have all seen how Christian organizations and churches exhibit the dysfunctional anxiety that paralyzes.  Moreover, the crisis of Christianity in the West seems to be at an all-time high.  Many denominations and churches are facing organizational death in the face, all the while maintaining an almost psychotic stance of denial, rooted in fear for their own safety and comfort, instead of seeking the new paradigm.  These churches and organizations have in fact lost their nerve and sense of adventure.  Some even carry a sense of historical Western guilt that paralyzes them because they don’t want to offend.

Could mission help us in the West recapture our nerve and sense of adventure, thus reigniting a vibrant and healthy face among us?  Emil Brunner is oft quoted as saying, “the church exists by mission as fire exists by burning.”  Anglican church planter Dr. Martin Robinson asserts that “the church is what happens when the followers of Jesus meet together to engage purposefully in mission (Robinson, 14).”  Furthermore, missiologist Wilbert Shenk has stressed that the church finds its meaning in seeking out the frontiers of faith, and adventurously breaking through those frontiers. (Shenk in Changing Frontiers of Mission).  Could it be that the antidote for staid churches who can only worry about preserving their structure and past, are brave leaders with nerve and self-differentiation, unafraid of offending the anxious, whom can re-create the paradigm of a spirit of adventure, vibrancy, and mission.

Quite possibly we need a new set of leaders who look more like Sam Houston, than the church lady.  We need leaders willing to search out new frontiers and adventures in mission.

Robinson, Martin. Planting Mission-shaped Churches Today. Oxford: Monarch, 2006.

Shenk, Wilbert R. Changing Frontiers of Mission. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1999.

About the Author

Garrick Roegner

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