It was a number of years ago now, while watching a parenting video, when the teacher informed me that my first job as a parent was to be in control of myself. Our home was often wrought with anxiety as we navigated layers of challenging circumstances. I remember thinking of my emotional, rambunctious, sometimes rebellious young ones and exclaiming aloud, “Great, how am I supposed to do that?” I was very aware that I often gave my children the power to dictate my emotions. A further realization was that this was also an aspect of my ministry that needed attention. Far too frequently I would answer the question “How are you doing?” with information about how either my kids or my church were doing. Full disclosure: this is still a journey I’m on. For this reason, Edwin Friedman’s book, Failure of Nerve was a welcome read. As an American rabbi, family therapist and even government consultant, Friedman’s work drew on a familiar breadth of locations where what he calls self-differentiated leadership is needed.
“Differentiation is the lifelong process of striving to keep one’s being in balance through the reciprocal external and internal processes of self-definition and self-regulation. It is a concept that can sometimes be difficult to focus on objectively, for differentiation means the capacity to become oneself out of one’s self, with minimum reactivity to the positions or reactivity of others.” In a more pastoral, therapeutic tone, Danny Silk describes those who have achieved this as “[p]owerful people (who) take responsibility for their lives and choices. Powerful people choose who they want to be with, what they are going to pursue in life, and how they are going to get there.” While I find the use of ‘powerful’ as possibly problematic, the underlying spiritual fruit that both are pointing towards is self-control. Friedman explores at length how anxiety is a plague on American culture, as people let go of responsibility/control and leading to weakened leadership at every level of society. Anxiety is symptomatic of letting external circumstances, expectations and information dictate our well being. Such permeation might also be characterized as fear driven living. This plays out in elections as people vote against candidates rather than for candidates.It plays out in parenting as safetyismleads to reducing all physical and emotional risks for children rather than determining to strengthen children for a challenge, nurturing anxiety; and though“every crisis has its own context…a chronically anxious family will focus on the outside agent rather than on its own response. This invades our churches as much as any other space. As chronically anxious people look for an external source, “the clergy of every denomination have been increasingly thrust into a panicky national game of musical chairs, as each minister leaves one disappointed congregation only to be eagerly snatched up by another in the false hope that this new one will be better than the last. The former minister, in the meantime, has now found a new opportunity to be a displacement focus for a congregation that had become disaffected with its previous minister, who is presently about to take the place of the first, the anxiety still unabated and the focused issues still unresolved”. Interrupting this pattern requires intentional leadership.
A leader can shift the culture with an intentional sense of presence through differentiation,“maintaining a non-anxious presence in the face of anxious others.” Whereas one unhealthy adaptation to this social anxiety is tribalism, whereby a leader rallies people around commonality—often nurturing common fears—the differentiated leader will instead model being comfortable in their own skin, thereby inviting others to find rest in the same. Brené Brown suggests that “Daring leaders acknowledge, name, and normalize discord and difference without fueling divisiveness or benefiting from it.” Such leaders resist tribalism and the anxiety that fuels it, by themselves being independent from the rest of the group and thus free to love them, listen to them and question them without fear. Where tribalism might oversimplify contexts and identity, healthy communities reproducing people processing towards self-differentiation will be willing to listen for difficult truth. “Here’s the different question that is at the core of really excellent listening: “What is this person’s purpose, intent, hope in delivering this message? What does this message mean to him?” This is opposed to everyone’s normal question: “What does this message mean to me?” Fear and anxiety keep a leader asking this latter question and then responding in a defensive or oversimplified manner, which in turn nurture fear and anxiety in the speaker. We might find a similar outcome with a leader who is motivated by fear of relational discord and so persistently acquiesces to others. This emerges as much in church or ministry contexts as it does in families. “Preserving community by eliminating self is as counter-productive as trying to prevent the scourge of fire by eliminating air.” In contrast, the benefit of the differentiated leader, who is in control of herself or himself, is thus multi fold as a community can grow in its ability to be hopeful, resilient, genuinely inclusive and willing and able to address complex problems.“[T]he modifying potential of the non-anxious presence” has the capacity for a ripple effect of healing but will require those most likely to neglect themselves to do the hard required toward self differentiation. Challenge accepted.