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

The Mom on the Phone

Written by: on November 8, 2018

As I was sitting at my desk reading through Edwin Friedman’s book, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, I got a phone call from a young mom in our church.  She was calling in distress, wondering what to do.

The small group that she is a part of is full of parents with young children.  They meet once a month for fellowship, a light Bible study, and friendship among people at the same stage of life.  Recently, a new couple has taken on leadership for the group, and has started making changes.  An email was sent with an extensive homework assignment for everyone in the group to complete, rather than simply showing up on the day of the meeting.  Instead of having each parent keep an eye on their own kids, a babysitter was hired, but the costs seemed to add up.

The mom on the phone was worried because the parents in this group have so little time to spare, they feel stretched financially, and the group was meant to be a place for joy, but it was starting to feel like a “task”.

As a pastor and leader, my natural instinct is always to help.  To be available.  To step in and find a way to make things better.  However, Friedman explores the way that leaders must be “self-differentiated” enough, that is, to have a secure enough sense of themselves apart from the group or the ministry or the relationship, to see clearly and to act in healthy ways.  Sometimes, this will mean not jumping into the fray in the way that I instinctively want to.

Edwin Friedman is well known for his idea of “emotional triangles”, where a leader can get drawn into a conflict or tension between two other people.  He writes, “almost every issue of leadership and the difficulties that accompany it can be framed in terms of emotional triangles, including motivation, clarity, decision-making, resistance to change, imaginative gridlock, and a failure of nerve.”[1]

To “get triangled” means to be brought into an unhealthy relationship with two other partners.  In the work-place, this often shows up as one staff member complaining about another to their boss.  The boss is being drawn into a dispute between the other two, and this can either be healthy or un-healthy.  The determining factor will the health of the boss herself. If she is a self-differentiated person, able to have her presence in the organization felt, but without fear or neediness, then she will be effective.  However, if that same boss has in herself doubts, worries about her abilities, or a need to be needed, then she will be likely to participate in an un-healthy triangle.

Friedman writes, “The way out, rather, requires shifting our orientation to the way we think about relationships, from one that focuses on techniques that motivate others to one that focuses on the leader’s own presence and being.”[2]

The quick fix would say: just step in and solve the problem for these people.  And sometimes, there may be a place for that (let’s be serious!). But, over time, where a boss or a pastor or a leader or a parent is seen as the necessary one, or the savior, it will lead to more problems, more work, and more stress.

The key, according to Friedman, is for a leader in any setting to be comfortable, confident and content with who they are, and from that place of emotional maturity and strength, to be the centering force for others.

One reviewer describes it this way, writing, “The real problem of leadership is a failure of nerve. Leaders fail not because they lack information, skill, or technique, but because they lack the nerve and presence to stand firm in the midst of other people’s emotional anxiety and reactivity.”[3]

So, this brings us back to the mom on the phone.  She was calling with a real dilemma and it is very appropriate that she should call her pastor to talk about it.  The question is, what is the appropriate response by me to this issue that has come up between her and the leaders in her group.

I started by just listening to her as she described the problem, asking questions and clarifying what was going on.  From there, I affirmed her in reaching out to me directly to ask about this, and I encouraged her to reach back out to her group to share some of her concerns.  She agreed that she would continue to be part of the group, and that she would encourage others to also attend.  Making that commitment means that she is able to be part of the discussions and finding a solution, rather than quitting, or holding the process hostage.

My role with these groups is to be the “leader of leaders”, so I meet monthly with all of the small group leaders and help mentor them as they lead their groups.  This means that I am not directly in charge of all of these groups and their dynamics.  So, I will be eager to hear how their next meeting goes, and then, as part of my direct role, I will talk with the leaders about how to manage change within their groups, how to listen well, and how to adapt to the needs of the people involved.

As a pastor, I never stand fully apart from my people, as if I were aloof or uninterested.  But at the same time, I seek not to be fully enmeshed with them either.  This is an ongoing struggle, because I can see all the ways that I could “fix” this situation more quickly than anyone else.  But the longer-term goal is to have everyone involved continue growing up in their faith and in their relationships with each other.  So, we keep moving forward, even thought it takes a lifetime.


[1]Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (New York: Seabury Books, 2007), 206.

[2]Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (New York: Seabury Books, 2007), 4.

[3]Bob Thune, “Blog,”, June 6, 2006, Bob Thune, June 6, 2016 blog


About the Author

Dave Watermulder

6 responses to “The Mom on the Phone”

  1. Way to go Dave, way to not get sucked into an unhealthy emotional triangle…It sounds like you ended up handling the mom on the phone beautifully and without your “nerve failing”. Interestingly, the concept of emotional triangles is new to most people, but I work with people every day who are dealing with the negative effects of emotional triangles and have immense anxiety as a result. I agree with Friedman in that if we could better regulate our own anxiety, we would all be better leaders.

    By the way…I noticed you made the boss in your example a female…way to be gender-sensitive 🙂

  2. mm Dan Kreiss says:


    Your own experience this week with the situation in the small group was a great means of immediate application of the text. Do you think the reading helped you come to that point or would you have handled the situation similarly, being already differentiated? How might you also help the new leaders of the small group develop as differentiated leaders so that they do not respond to the questions of the group with feelings of anxiety and/or feeling attacked?

    • Dave Watermulder says:

      Thanks, Dan,
      I do think the reading this week helped me to respond differently to this situation. I “know” that I shouldn’t get sucked into these kinds of things, but I also know that my instinct is to jump right into it all. So yes, reading this was a helpful reminder. I read Friedman in seminary, and I think he is still taught pretty widely, so I assume younger leaders are also getting some of this…

  3. Dave,

    This is a great practical case study in differentiating and being a non-anxious presence to empower leadership in others.

    Your description of triangulation is good. You mentioned “the need to be needed” is a quality that often sucks us into these triangles. As pastors, this is something that seems so intuitive – we are there to help, and often our own lack of self-esteem and needing to feel like we are ‘doing our jobs’ drags us into this dysfunction. Learning to differentiate ourselves and stay outside that triangle is key.

    Thanks for your post this week.

  4. Dave Watermulder says:

    Yup. I think it was Stanley Hauerwas who said that pastors often get reduced to a “quivering mass of availability”.

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