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

Nothing to Fear: Differentiation versus Detachment

Written by: on September 29, 2020

It was a dark and stormy night. (I’ve always wanted to start an essay in the style of Snoopy the dog.) The rain was coming down in buckets. The wind was howling. Lightning was flashing in the sky with the frequency of what I imagine a Justin Timberlake concert to be. Thunder followed quickly in loud and powerful claps that shook the windows in our house.

My wife and I were going through the usual routine of getting the kids to bed. One by one, we made our way into each child’s room to say goodnight. Each child expressed concern about the weather outside. “It’s just a little storm,” we would say. “Nothing to be afraid of.” We turned off their lights and made our way to our own room.

The first cry happened before we were even downstairs. “Mom!” the youngest child exclaimed. “Mom! I’m scared.” My wife called back, “It’s ok. Just close your eyes and go to sleep.” Not surprisingly, that response was insufficient. The cries continued, combined with the sound of little feet making their way down the stairs.

He ended up in our room. “I’m scared. Can I sleep in your bed?” It was my turn to respond. “Son. There’s nothing to be scared of. It’s just a thunderstorm.” I might as well have asked this six-year-old to read a master’s thesis in meteorology and write a two-page summary to prove his understanding of barometric pressure, heat caps, jet streams, atmospheric energy, and other ingredients that make for exciting weather events. No amount of knowledge or assurance was going to settle him down.

After a few more minutes of fruitless negotiating, my wife and I finally relented. He crawled into the bed and made himself comfortable under the covers. No sooner than he was settled heard my wife call out in the darkness. “You guys can come in, too.” And before she finished speaking, our daughter and older son, who had been waiting just outside our door, also found a place in the bed.

My wife and I did not know it at the time, but apparently, this decision and ones like it ultimately broke our children, making them fragile and overwhelmed when faced with situations that are scary. Despite our assurances of having nothing to fear, we unwittingly contributed to society’s development of a culture of fear, as sociologist Frank Furedi describes.

In his book, “How Fear Works: Culture of Fear in the 21st Century,” Furedi articulates the root causes of a culture of fear and our inability to manage fear and uncertainty. In this and other works, Furedi criticizes trends and actions that have produced in the unintended consequence of actually making people more fearful and less equipped to deal with the unknown.

“How Fear Works” is a solid analysis of the problem. Furedi suggests that society needs to reclaim “the values- such as courage, judgement, reasoning, responsibility- that are necessary for the management of fear.”[1] However, Furedi sounds detached from the problem. Like he has taken a look behind the curtain and cares just enough to say something, but stops short of offering any possible solutions. In fact, he says as much. “Those concerned with the corrosive effects of the politicization of fear need to dig deeper.”[2] In other words, “I’ve shown you the problem. Goodnight and good luck.” The problem is, fear is not usually something we merely rationalize our way through.

In his work in family systems and organizational behavior, rabbi and family therapist Edwin Friedman studied the emotional aspects of leadership and relationships. He emphasizes the importance of differentiation in a leader. Differentiation is the ability for one to self-define and self-regulate, to maintain an objectivity, in uncertainty, tension, or times of distress.[3] The difference between detachment and differentiation is engagement. A differentiated leader can stand in the midst of an emotionally charged situation, maintain a sense of self, objectivity, and reason, and still be emotionally present and available to those who are struggling to cope. A detached leader merely analyzes from a distance, describes the problem, and hopes people will figure things out.

In today’s raging storms of global pandemic, economic uncertainty, political division, and racial tensions, it is not helpful to merely expect people to be big boys and girls and ignore their fears or criticize their inability to adequately face them. Leadership is about standing in the gaps of division, fear, and anxiety, offering a calm assuredness that comes from a deeper place of hope and trust.

Detached leaders can analyze, but they do little to affect change. Differentiated leaders maintain objectively and can operate in an emotionally charged situation, recognizing where fear is driving the bus and as well as the contributing factors, then invite people to a better way. They operate from a place of ultimate hope, which, ironically, is the same place the detached leader comes from. Even Furedi acknowledges that fear does not win in the end. He writes, “(Precautionary culture) lacks the ability to engage with people’s idealism or their aspiration for hope. Which is why the current state of the culture of fear cannot indefinitely endure.”[4]

Furedi’s worldview places his hope in humans to figure this out. Perhaps we will, but I believe it will be with the help of a higher power. Scripture reminds us, “God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love, and of self-discipline.”[5] This power is the power to overcome all fear, but it is most effectively shown not in the ones who merely talk about how wrong we all are to fear, but in the ones who help us harness the energy of our fears into something positive, productive, and life-giving.

Today, none of my children are afraid of thunderstorms, or the dark, or of things that go bump in the night. They have grown up. They have other fears and none of them are perfect, but I believe they also have the resources to face those fears. Perhaps what society needs more than anything are those self-aware, non-anxious leaders who willingly offer space for those who are scared to settle in and calm down a bit so that we might grow out of the place we are and into the place of hope and comfort God desires for us.

[1] Frank Furedi, “How Fear Works: Culture of Fear in the 21st Century,” (New York: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2019,) 33.

[2] Ibid, 259.

[3] Edwin Friedman, “A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix,” (New York: Church Publishing, 2017,) 194.

[4] Furedi, 259-60.

[5] 2 Timothy 1:7, NIV.

About the Author


John McLarty

Husband. Dad. Pastor. Play a little golf.

12 responses to “Nothing to Fear: Differentiation versus Detachment”

  1. mm Darcy Hansen says:

    I appreciate how you pulled out the importance of spiritual, emotional, and physical maturity. It seems culturally, and even generationally, we are stunted in those areas. Such maturity comes through successfully navigating stressors in life, and then seeing God show up, coming out on the other side of a scary situation, etc. How do you help move your community through the countless stressors when surrounded by a culture of fear? What would it look like to intentionally provide different stressors to develop resiliency? Does your community have a practice of “remembering” that helps ground them in God’s faithfulness?

    • mm John McLarty says:

      My community has a long and proud history and thinks it remembers all kinds of things, but sadly, has no intentional practice of remembering. The consequence is that we whitewash the history and miss the growth opportunity that comes from celebrating our struggles, what we’ve overcome together, and where we repented of our sins. I think one aspect of “facing our fears” is having the courage to acknowledge past pain. The challenge is that it takes a fierce amount of self-awareness and self-confidence to do that without getting defensive. Any recommendations?

      • mm Darcy Hansen says:

        A quick google search reveals a number of different ways a community can “remember” particular events and see God’s faithfulness in and through them: candle lighting ceremony, plant a tree, make a donation to a particular organization, gather for a meal, wear a physical reminder (ribbon, pin, etc). write letters/poems, create a piece of art, etc. Looking back helps us remember that most of the things we feared actually didn’t happen. It also helps us try and remember correctly the events that transpired- having a communal perspective helps bring about a truer picture. I think any of these ideas can be done for thanksgiving, lament, repentance, or honoring. Your liturgy helps facilitate these practices in a natural way- adding a more tangible and embodied experience may give the liturgical words more depth. I have no doubt in your ability to lead others through such experiences. You set the tone as a leader. If model a non-defensive posture, most would follow suit. It would be interesting to see how the practice of remembering eases fear of the present and future.

  2. mm Dylan Branson says:

    I appreciate the difference between a differentiated leader and a detached leader. I would say that the latter is more common than the former and add to this the role of the “over involved leader”. I’m thinking about the leaders who perpetuate the culture of fear by actively bringing it up time and again and feeding into it. We see the extremes too often with very little acknowledgement of the middle ground. If anything, I think we start on one side of the extremes – either detached or over-involved – and then swing to the other side in the face of a leadership crisis. Maybe once we’ve experienced the extremes, it’s easier or more likely that we can actively learn to be differentiated.

    If your leadership experience, when have you seen yourself inhabit these three roles?

    • mm John McLarty says:

      In my time as a church planter, I can definitely recall many instances of over-involvement and micro-managing. I learned over time that as the founding pastor, the congregation really took its cues from me as to various challenges. Learning how to be more differentiated was a big key to moving us past our anxiety and fear. I can recall another experience where the church was undergoing a complete overhaul and my differentiated posture was misinterpreted as detachment as beloved long-time staff were being transitioned out. I actually failed in that moment of making the appropriate emotional connection to the pain and loss people were feeling, even though the decisions we were making were the right ones. What about you? Any shining moments?

  3. mm Greg Reich says:

    Thanks for bringing up the difference between a differentiated leader and one who detached. Being a differentiated leader takes a great level of confidence and restraint. BUT, I can say from experience that detachment is much easier. Sometimes it becomes an act of desperation and survival. At times detachment could be caused by educational arrogance. The book Dangerous Calling shows that there is a growing number of pastors who see their spiritual struggles at a higher level than their congregation. It also points out that some pastors don’t feel the same need as their congregation does. In other words they are detached. Looking at fellow ministers do you see a propensity toward a detached leadership trend?

    • mm John McLarty says:

      My motivation for the post was the feeling that the author was writing from a more detached stance. He brings forth lots of analysis, but not much in the way of suggested action or direction for leadership. In that way, for me he was the embodiment of the educational arrogance. In the church, I think there are definitely times when the leader feels detached from the challenges and struggles of the congregants, either in not connecting with their pain or in believing his/her own pain to be greater because of some perceived spiritual element. Either way, it perpetuates the “pedestal element” many pastors complain (brag?) about and keeps them from forming real connection with the people they serve. Any suggestions?

      • mm Greg Reich says:

        There are two things that have knocked me off the pedestal. One was a lack of character that no matter how hard I tried to hide it, it will eventually popped to the service. It was like holding an inflated beach ball underwater. No matter how hard you try to keep the ball from rising to the surface it eventually will. The other was Paul Tripps book Dangerous Calling where he confronts the pedestal mindset. I believe it is a must read for all leaders whether in ministry or not. The book by McIntosh and Rima called Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership is another must read in my opinion.

  4. mm Shawn Cramer says:

    It seems our whole group is keying in on concept of the self-differentiated leader and non-anxious presence. Had you been exposed to that language before? Regardless, how does it continue to shape your leadership framework, especially surrounded by a culture of fear and anxiety?

    • mm John McLarty says:

      I’ve had the concept with me for quite a while. I wrote in another reply that in my time as a church planter, I saw very clearly how the congregation would take its cues from me and how learning how to respond in a more differentiated way helped to keep the anxiety and fear at a manageable level. I often had to explain exactly what I was doing or how I was doing it so that the congregation would see it as a practice we could all develop. I often talked about Jesus asleep in the boat during the storm- was he asleep because he didn’t know or care about his disciples’ fears? I don’t think so. He was operating from a different place, a place that we have access to if we seek it. This is still my goal, but it is getting harder and people seem less patient and willing to try it.

  5. mm Jer Swigart says:

    I love the 1 Timothy passage and agree so much in your assertion that the intervention of a higher power is the way toward overcoming fear. But what do you think this actually looks like?

    If I believe that God is powerful, will that minimize my experince of fear?
    If I witness what I interpret to be God’s power and presence, will I become less afraid in the future?

    Help me think about this more practically, John. How does the knoweldge and expereince of God diminish my experience of fear and replace it with the certainty of power?

    • mm John McLarty says:

      I replied to another comment with the illustration of Jesus asleep in the boat during a storm. Is his ability to sleep reveal his detachment- that he doesn’t know or care about the disciples’ fear? Or is it the spirit of power, love, and self-discipline that assures him in that moment that everything will be ok? (Or maybe he’s just bone-tired and we read more into the story than there is!) My hope lies in this: Jesus models a way to live that operates out of a core belief that God is in control and the problems of this world are not stronger than God, and Christ-followers are called to operate out of core belief that we can live and love like Jesus. If only we could actually do that…

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