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

Why Don’t You Just Self-Differentiate?

Written by: on October 30, 2013

Many people are concerned about the faith of the young people in our churches and especially the emerging young adults as they transition into the adult world. I have heard parents say in frustration to youth, “Why don’t you just grow up.” Which is curious, because that is just what they want to do, but do it with fits and starts. I love the title of Eugene Peterson’s book for parents called Growing Up with Your Teenager. Youth grow as parents, church leaders and other influencers grow along with them. For pastors, we want to be about creating an environment where faith can grow. This is not simple. It involves relational connections, emotional binds and structural barriers. Often caring people actually hinder spiritual growth rather than encourage it. They do that by not allowing the young to learn the responsibility they need to grow. Empathy can be one of those barriers.

Edwin Freidman says that actually empathy stalls one’s ability to lead others. It short-circuits the development of responsibility. He argues that the focus on self is necessary in any relationship. To empathize means, “to feel with”. He states that it impedes the ability of a person to make decisions and exist in healthy relationships. Too often there is a “failure of nerve” in leadership because the leader does not want to upset status quo. Freidman is not arguing for selfishness, which has a negative connotation, but the ability of a person to emotionally not be dependent on others.

The ability to differentiate oneself from others is important for development of one’s faith. To come to terms with one’s own beliefs, personal place in the world and a sense or responsibility is essential for anyone’s growth in their faith. No one grows without discomfort and even pain. For those who feel responsible for the development of others, parents, pastors, teachers and friends, the desire to relieve the stress of those we care for is great. But empathy may not be the best approach.

The desire to appear empathetic and unselfish is part of the dilemma of Christian leadership; caring for self=bad, caring for others=good. There was a saying, that I have even used a long time ago. It uses the acronym J.O.Y. It states, Jesus first, others second, yourself last. Which sounds very pious. But in actuality this doesn’t work. It practically has meant, “don’t take care of yourself, be dependent on others, burn out for the sake of the ministry.” This actually can cause one to be emotionally stuck.

The ability to self-differentiate allows a leader, a parent, to lead with courage. By bending to emotionally irresponsible people in the name of empathy leaves the leader ineffective. When a young person is irresponsible, a self-differentiated person does not feel sorry for them, nor do they try to manipulate them and force their will on them. They allow the young person to become responsible for their own actions. A recent example is that one of our college students went to a concert and left her wallet and backpack in the car. The parents have told her many times of the danger of this. The car was broken into and her things were stolen. When the frantic college student called, the parents did not just empathize, they didn’t start yelling, they just stated that facts. The forgetfulness of the young person, the consequence of that irresponsibility and that this was not the end of the world, were communicated. While this may not have been my approach, it illustrates that the parents were not going to be emotionally captive to their daughter’s dilemma.

While Freidman’s argument for empathy is well taken, I think he pushes for self-independence too far. For Christian leaders and parents, there is something greater than differentiation that is necessary for growing in our faith and empowering others to grow in their faith. It is a dependence on God. What Friedman’s philosophy misses for us is the source of our ability to self-differentiate. We find our identity in God. I agree with the thrust of his argument, but I still do not see where this will not lead to subtle arrogance. The body of Christ, the church, are people who find their identity in Christ and do depend on each other to grow. As Wendell Berry states, “There is, in practice, no such thing as autonomy. Practically, there is only a distinction between responsible and irresponsible dependence.”

The importance of responsibility is where Freidman shines. What is important for faith development is learning responsibility. Not just a responsibility to oneself. As quoted by many young adults, “One has to decide for themselves”. This Christian Smith sites is what causes emerging adults to make decisions that lead to some very dark places for themselves.[1] Faith development is a process that goes through stages. Those who desire to influence young people in that development have to allow them to go through it without attempting to control it. Young adults go though one of the most critical transitions from adolescence to adulthood. The complexity of their emergence is heightened by the confusion of the need for independence, but also responsibility. We have to grow up with them, partnering in relationship of trust. As we give them guidance and space to differentiate themselves in their evolving identity, so must we. To try to hold young people captive by our own lack of differentiation will not help. In church leadership overreacting to the behaviors of young people can actually prevent their growth in faith. Transformation comes with wrestling with decisions and painful experiences in an ambiguous new environment. While painful at times to watch, this is how we all grow.


[1] Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood , Davidson, Hilary; Smith, Christian; Christoffersen, Kari; Herzog, Patricia Snell (2011-08-04). (p. 22). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition. Location 445.

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Fred Fay

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