The key to effective leadership in an age of anxiety is the ability to be a non-anxious presence.
Religious Church Leadership
||12 publishers interested
Mainline churches are stuck and their leaders, clergy and lay, don’t know what to do. For decades leaders have been throwing everything at the problem. Church growth programs, emphases on different leadership styles and even denominational branding efforts have done little to stem the decline. Their lack of success only increases the anxiety of local church and denominational leaders.
The key to leadership in an age of anxiety is the ability to be a non-anxious presence.
This is not a technique. It is a way of being. It is deceptively simple, but tremendously difficult. Yet, if one is willing to take the journey, one can lead change in even the most challenging contexts.
This book is based on the concept of leadership through self-differentiation, developed by Edwin Friedman in his 1985 book, Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue. Friedman defines it this way:
“The basic concept of leadership through self-differentiation is this. If a leader will take primary responsibility for his or her own goals and self, while staying in touch with the rest of the organism, there is more than a reasonable chance that the body will follow. There may be initial resistance but, if the leader can stay in touch with the resisters, the body will usually go along.” (Generation to Generation, p. 229)
This book will help church leaders who are willing to learn more about themselves and their family of origin so they can be a non-anxious presence. It will resonate with those who have tried everything else and realize that they cannot change others, but can only change themselves. It makes Friedman’s concepts accessible and practical through the use examples from personal experience.
I wrote this book because this material has helped me as a pastoral and organizational leader more than anything else in my 26 years of ministry. It enabled me to lead significant change in the local church, a regional ministry and a denominational professional association. I have mentored and coached pastoral leaders to help them to do the same. It remains a hidden gem, yet is needed more than ever.
When a reader completes this book she or he will understand:
- The process that keeps churches anxious and stuck.
- How leadership through self-differentiation gets churches unstuck.
- How to develop as a non-anxious presence so one who can lead through self-differentiation.
- An Anxious Society: makes the case that we are living in chronically anxious society.
- The Chronically Anxious Church: defines what this is and its five characteristics.
- Why Vision Matters: connects the importance of a leader’s vision to leadership through self-differentiation.
- Leadership through Self-Differentiation: breaks this concept down into detail so the reader can begin to envision how to live into this concept.
- Unlocking Emotional Triangles: explains how triangles work, keep a church stuck and how one can unlock them to get a church moving.
- Dealing with Stress: shows that stress is inevitable, but leadership through self-differentiation is the least stressful way to lead.
- Dealing with Crisis: defines the two types of crises, why crisis is inevitable and how to lead through the moment of truth to bring change.
- The Necessity of Self-Regulation: shows that leadership is primarily about managing one’s own reactivity to the anxiety in the system and how one can do this.
- Managing Self: describes the difference between presence and technique and how to use the former to lead change.
- Managing Relationship Systems: how to apply leadership through self-differentiation to help others bring about personal and corporate change.
- Summary/Next Steps: helps the reader develop a plan to lead through self-differentiation.
Bishop Peggy Johnson, who oversees the Philadelphia Episcopal Area of The United Methodist Church, has read the ten chapter manuscript and wrote, “I like what I see....practical, a good readable style, very church-oriented and yet using a systems approach in a very specific context that pastors can go for. Keep it up. I think you are on to something.”
Anxious Church, Anxious People is for clergy and lay leadership who know what needs to happen in the local church, but can’t get it done. They have tried various initiatives and have met resistance and anxiety. The congregation they lead has experienced a decades-long decline and its anxiety is focused on dwindling attendance, lack of financial resources and waning relevance.
In particular, this book will help leaders in the small congregation. According to the United Methodist General Council on Finance and Administration, 55.6% of United Methodist Churches had 2015 worship attendance of less than 50 persons. Further, 78.5% had less than 100. The death of many of these churches is inevitable. However, for others, it is not too late. Leadership that can get them unstuck can be the difference between a slow death and revitalization.
The concept of leadership through self-differentiation is rooted in an understanding of family process. While all congregations exhibit the characteristics of family systems, Small congregations, in particular, behave like families. This means the potential to lead positive change is great.
I have been teaching online through BeADisciple.com since 2013. The overwhelming majority of students come from small churches. These students are pastors, Certified Lay Ministers and Lay Servants. They are passionate about their faith, their role as leaders and hungry to learn. More than anything, they want to see the churches they lead adapt to the ministry needs of the 21st century.
The approach of leadership through self-differentiation is a revelation to leaders who encounter it for the first time. One student in “The Non-Anxious Leader,” a course I teach through BeADisciple.com, wrote on the course evaluation, “…the benefit to the student in learning how to become a non-anxious leader in the family and in the church (which is also applicable to the job) is well worth the time invested. This should be a required course for clergy, certified lay ministers, and others in leadership positions in the church."
I will promote Anxious Church, Anxious People, through a variety of platforms which I own or to which I’m connected:
- My own platform, which is www.christian-leaders.com. I started this blog in September, 2016 and have grown from 0 to 122 subscribers. I continue to post regularly and build the subscriber base.
- My blog is also featured in the “Best of the Blogs” section on www.um-insight.net, which has over 6000 subscribers.
- BeADiscple.com, which has served over 7,000 students. I have been teaching online courses for the past four years, primarily through the Certificate for Congregational Leadership (CCL) program. I developed the CCL to serve part-time local pastors and Certified Lay Ministers. Seventy persons from across the nation have taken at least one course from me. Thirty-three have taken at least two courses with 18 of those having taken at least five courses. This represents a very high level of engagement.
- Personal Facebook page with 1669 Friends.
- Network of United Methodist Camp & Retreat Leaders, all of whom are active in United Methodist churches. I am well-known in this network, as I served as Vice-Chair, then Chair of the board of directors from 2011-2015.
- The PDC email list of 4000+ through which I can provide information about the book and related educational offerings.
My promotion plan is, as follows:
- Launch the book at a PDC related event. Bishop Johnson has indicated there are a variety of leadership opportunities in the Philadelphia Episcopal Area at which I could keynote and launch the book.
- Use the book as a required text in Center for Clergy Excellence (CCE) programs, where I am Minister-in-Residence. Leadership through self-differentiation is a keystone concept in CCE programs. Using the book in this way will develop “social proof” as both clergy and lay leadership benefit from its use.
- Approach participants who have already taken Center for Clergy Excellence programs to offer book bonuses to purchase books in bulk, then get a free workshop for leaders in their church.
- Use the social proof developed in my own annual conference to offer workshops and speaking engagements in other annual conferences. This will be done in two different ways:
- Ask for: ”Bishop to Bishop” referrals from Bishop Johnson to:
- Refer the book to her episcopal colleagues.
- Encourage the opportunity for me to offer workshops or do speaking engagements in other annual conferences.
- Offer workshops through United Methodist camps & retreats. Since I know many camp and retreat executives across the U.S., I can market Non-Anxious Leadership workshops with book as the required text.
- Use this book as a required text in the aforementioned course “The Non-Anxious Leader,” through BeADisciple.com.
Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue by Edwin Friedman
This is the seminal work on how to lead through self-differentiation. It applies family systems theory, as developed by Murray Bowen, to religious systems. Friedman not only teaches the basics of the idea of family and understanding family process for families of origin, he also shows how congregations function as family systems. Finally, Friedman defines leadership through self-differentiation, then shows how a pastoral leader can apply these concepts to the understanding and leading the congregational system.
I wrote Anxious Church, Anxious People to make the application of family systems theory to congregational leadership easier to understand. My experience teaching this material for the past 20 years is that many people find Generation to Generation hard to understand without guidance. This book is more focused on practical application and less focused on theory. It provides enough theory to make it understandable but not so much that the reader gets bogged down.
A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix
Friedman’s second book was unfinished when he died. Originally released in limited form, it was completed by family and colleagues from the Center for Family Process, which Friedman founded. Friedman shows that we are living in a chronically anxious society and that we need leaders who seek safety over adventure. He describes how the principles of family process play out in American society. He makes the case that leadership is not about getting the right data or having the right technique. Rather, like Generation to Generation, he argues that leadership through self-differentiation is the key. His main point is that, in doing this, leaders will ultimately face sabotage from the systems they lead. It is precisely in this moment that they need to persist and remain a non-anxious presence. But, in most cases leaders have a failure of nerve. He uses examples from his own life to describe how to avoid this failure of nerve.
Anxious Church, Anxious People applies Friedman’s principles to leadership in a chronically anxious church. Where Friedman describes the problem with a chronically anxious society, this book helps people determine if the church they lead is anxious and stuck. It also uses specific examples of how leadership through self-differentiation gets churches unstuck by unlocking emotional triangles. It enables church leaders to see that it is their non-anxious presence, more than anything, that is the key to leading change. Further, it shows how this comes more from understanding one’s functioning in one’s own family of origin and not from finding the right leadership style. Finally, it shows how doing this can reduce stress, increase one’s ability to regulate reactivity and remain a non-anxious presence in the face of sabotage.
Leadership Pain: The Classroom for Growth, by Samuel Chand (2015)
Chand focuses on an important family systems concept, which is increasing one’s tolerance for pain. But in this case, it is the leader’s tolerance for the pain that comes from growth. He argues that growth is not possible without pain. He describes the different forms of pain encountered by the leader and identifies methods for dealing with this pain. In some cases this is avoidance, in others relief and in others to embrace it as a part of the growth process. Thus, the higher the leader’s pain tolerance, the more the leader will grow.
Anxious Church, Anxious People does not disagree with Chand’s contention that growth, by definition, requires pain. However, it differs in two ways. First, the focus is on how members of the congregational system avoid pain, due to their own anxiety, which keeps the congregation stuck. Second, it shows that, more than needing to tolerate one’s own pain, the leader needs to increase her threshold for the pain of others. This takes Chand’s argument and flips it, showing that the leader must allow others to go through pain for the congregational system to change, and thus, grow.
Who Moved My Pulpit?: Leading Change in the Church by Thom S. Rainer.
Rainer is a well-established church leadership expert who rightly shows that conflict is a natural component of change. Likewise, he identifies positive leadership as the key component of healthy change in the church. He uses a typology of five kinds of resistors to change in the church: the deniers, the entitled, the blamers, the critics, and the confused. For Rainer, the important components of change are getting the congregation to face reality, communicating a sense of urgency and providing a hopeful vision of the future.
While Rainer’s book approaches change through the lens of what the leader must do, Anxious Church, Anxious People emphasizes who the leader must be, a non-anxious presence. Rainer’s recommendations are not off-base. However, if the leader is not able to remain a non-anxious presence through the sabotage and conflict that result from efforts to lead change, the congregation will remain stuck. This book emphasizes presence over technique, systems thinking over individual personalities and the need for self-regulation over communication. Vision is important, but responding to anxiety is critical.
Chapter 1 - A Chronically Anxious Society
We live in a chronically anxious society.
I knew this in my gut.
I have been a camp director for 17 years. Since 9/11, I have seen parents become more and more anxious about sending their kids to overnight camp. We don’t allow cell phones and the kids don’t have time to call home. So for six days and five nights, parents have to trust us to care for their kids. This is hard to do for many parents who are used to constant communication with their kids.
When I read Edwin Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, the fact that we live in a chronically anxious society became a conscious reality for me. There are two indicators that make me believe this. We choose safety over adventure and we blame others for our problems.
We seek safety over adventure
On December 20, 2014, Rafi and Dvora Meitiv, ages 10 and 6, respectively, were picked up by county police for walking without adult supervision. They were about halfway through the one-mile walk from Woodside Park to their Silver Spring, Maryland home. Their parents, Alexander and Danielle Meitiv, are so-called "Free-Range" parents. They believe that Americans have become so overprotective of children that it inhibits responsibility and self-reliance.
The Meitiv children had been practicing walking alone for progressively longer distances. But on a day when they were to have their "big adventure," walking home alone from the park, someone called the police to report that the two children were walking alone. Their parents were charged with child neglect, but were ultimately cleared.
Friedman says that one of the biggest indicators of a chronically anxious society is that it chooses safety over adventure. I’m all for safety. We’ve had some great advances in the last several decades. Seat belt use, anti-lock brakes and air bags have made car travel significantly safer. Helmut use has reduced injuries from bicycling, skateboarding, skiing and water-skiing. Computerization has made the commercial airplane one of the safest forms of travel. The age-adjusted death rate in America dropped 15.98% in the first decade of this century, mainly due to public health prevention efforts like vaccinations, auto safety, tobacco education, disease prevention and maternal/infant health improvement.
Improving safety is a good thing. But you know that our society has gone too far when we become fearful of just about everything.
OK…I exaggerate. But here’s an example. For nearly 2000 years, Christians have been celebrating communion without using hand-sanitizer. Priests and pastors have been handing out bread to congregants for a long time without recipients knowing when they last washed their hands. As far as we can tell, most everyone who came away from the communion table was unharmed (perhaps the bubonic plague period was an exception).
In most churches today, hand-sanitizer has become a sacred element. Some, if not many, congregants may get squeamish or nervous if they notice that the celebrant has not “sanitized” prior to the ritual. I’m not going to fight the system on this one, but it’s unnecessary, perhaps even harmful. It’s symptomatic of our anxious society. Public health experts tell us washing our hands with soap and water is the best way to keep safe from germs. Yet, our fear has some of us overusing hand-sanitizer even though it increases the risk of germ resistance to antibiotics and can lower our immune systems. The use of sanitizer is a symptom of a larger problem. It seems like we have become a society that is afraid of everything.
How does this affect leaders? We end up with leaders who want to play it safe. Whether politicians, church leaders or corporate executives we have created a society where we punish those who take risks. Why? Because our anxiety, our desire for safety, makes us afraid to fail. Seth Godin once wrote that anxiety is experiencing failure in advance. When we are a people who are constantly experiencing failure before it happens, we seldom take the kinds of risks that will move us forward or find solutions to our biggest problems.
Another indicator of a chronically anxious society is that we blame others for our problems. In a chronically anxious society, we not only seek safety over adventure, but we also have a hard time taking responsibility for our own functioning. Here some examples. I will try to make everybody angry.
- We blame China or Mexico or the American companies that move factories overseas for our country’s economic problems.
- We blame terrorists for making us feel unsafe.
- We blame the police for making us feel unsafe.
- We blame the proliferation of guns for making us feel unsafe.
- We blame government intrusion on the ability to arm ourselves for making us feel unsafe.
- We blame big government for intruding in our lives.
- We blame the lack of government intervention for keeping us economically oppressed.
- We blame our elected officials for not getting anything done.
- We blame the school system when our kids don’t learn.
- We blame parents when our students don’t learn.
- We blame liberals for promoting moral decay.
- We blame conservatives for sustaining a white-dominated culture.
Need I go on?
We are living in a country of victims where everybody is looking for someone to blame for their situation. I realize not everybody is this way, but the political rhetoric today resonates more with those who feel victimized than with people willing to take responsibility for their own condition.
What can we do about this? We can take responsibility for our own position by working toward self-differentiation. Self-differentiation is central to the family systems approach to leadership, as explained in Edwin Friedman's book, Generation to Generation. It is defined as taking responsibility for one's own goals and values amidst surrounding togetherness pressures. We'll unpack this in great detail throughout this book. For now, it's important to understand that family systems theory teaches that the most significant factor in how someone fares under hostile conditions is their own response. Self-differentiation is the key to that response. This book will not only help you to understand what self-differentiation is, but it will also teach you how to apply it in your family, church or organization. It will help you to be an effective leader.
Raising a family these days can feel like the conditions are hostile. A job loss is a hostile condition. Racism and sexism are hostile conditions. Discrimination of any kind is a hostile condition. When we think of all the things we want to blame for making our life difficult we could describe them as hostile conditions. We may have no control over many of the causes or manifestations of these conditions. But we can control how we respond. Blaming is a manifestation of anxiety. Instead of taking responsibility for ourselves, we blame others. When we do that, we’ve made it nearly impossible for us to change our situation for the better. On the other hand, when we take responsibility for our own condition, we have a chance.
My father was born in Seattle, Washington in 1921. He was 21 years-old when President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. EO9066 authorized the Secretary of War to declare certain areas of the U.S. west coast as military zones, which enabled the relocation of about 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry to internment camps in the interior west. Over 70,000 of the evacuees were American citizens, including my father and his four sisters.
My father and his family ended up at Minidoka Concentration Camp near Twin Falls, Idaho. He and other young men were sent out to surrounding potato farms to work on the harvest at below market labor rates. He managed an all-Nissei (second generation Japanese-American), 17-piece swing band. On weekends they would play at weddings and high school dances where people hurled racial epithets, but enjoyed dancing to the music.
When the potato harvest ended and everyone went back to Minidoka, my father went to Salt Lake City. It’s a bit of a mystery as to how this actually happened, but needless to say, security was not that great because nobody came after him.
He found a New Deal program where he learned to weld. A man advised him to go east where he would be safe from further internment. He went to Chicago and got a job with the Pullman Car Company which was manufacturing tanks as part of the war effort. He was fired when it was discovered that he was Japanese-American.
Here’s the point. My father had every right to blame FDR, and America in general, for his condition. He had nothing to do with Pearl Harbor and certainly did not deserve to be taken from his home to a camp in Idaho. But blame would have done him no good. It would make him a victim, but would not fundamentally change his condition. Instead, he did what he could to survive. It did not involve seeking safety. It required adventure, risk and a willingness to fail. But in his mind, this was far better than accepting things the way they were. When he had the opportunity to enlist in the U.S. Army, he did. He saw it as a way to prove his loyalty as an American, as well as a way to improve his life.
He used to tell us a story about his trip to basic training at Camp Blanding, Florida. The bus he was on stopped somewhere in the Deep South. When he went to the restroom he encountered two signs: “White” and “Colored.” He went toward the colored bathroom.
A white man stopped him and asked, “Where are you going?”
He replied, “To the bathroom.”
The man said, “You’re not colored, you’re white.”
Everything he had experienced in the last several years told him he was not white. But this was the Jim Crow south and the rules were different.
My father used to finish this story by saying, “No matter how bad we had it, we never had it as bad as Black people.”
Which leads me to a more familiar example of taking responsibility for one’s own condition, as well as being a self-differentiated leader: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Friedman's definition of leadership through self-differentiation is this:
“The basic concept of leadership through self-differentiation is this. If a leader will take primary responsibility for his or her own goals and self, while staying in touch with the rest of the organism, there is more than a reasonable chance that the body will follow. There may be initial resistance but, if the leader can stay in touch with the resisters, the body will usually go along. (Generation to Generation, p. 229)
Dr. King did not focus his attention on blaming white people. He certainly called out racism for what it was. But his message was one of love and hope. He self-defined. He led by sharing what he believed and asked others to join in. He did not condemn his oppressors, but showed the willingness to stay engaged through peaceful means.
Here are some of his self-defining statements (from goodreads.com):
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
“I have decided to stick to love...Hate is too great a burden to bear.”
“As my sufferings mounted I soon realized that there were two ways in which I could respond to my situation -- either to react with bitterness or seek to transform the suffering into a creative force. I decided to follow the latter course.”
“I'm concerned about a better world. I'm concerned about justice; I'm concerned about brotherhood; I'm concerned about truth. And when one is concerned about that, he can never advocate violence. For through violence you may murder a murderer, but you can't murder murder. Through violence you may murder a liar, but you can't establish truth. Through violence you may murder a hater, but you can't murder hate through violence. Darkness cannot put out darkness; only light can do that.”
Note the tone of Dr. King’s statements. Non-anxious, but passionate. Pointed, but not blaming. He was anything but a victim.
Back to the focus of this chapter. We live in a chronically anxious society. Who will seek adventure over safety? Who is willing to be self-defined, instead of playing the victim? I believe our future depends on people who can do this. It depends on people who can be self-differentiated in an anxious society and an anxious church.
Chapter 2 - The Chronically Anxious Church
If we live in a chronically anxious society, it's not surprising that many Christians worship in a chronically anxious church. Mainline protestantism has experienced a steady decline in membership and attendance over the last few decades. One clergy colleague said to me, "When people come to church on Sunday morning they are filled with anxiety by the empty pews that they see. They may not think about it during the week, but they are reminded as soon as they enter on Sunday. We used to preach into the anxiety in their lives. Now it seems like we need to preach into their anxiety over the church."
This kind of anxiety can be evident in any church that has experienced decline. A chronically anxious church is different. It has particular kinds of dysfunction that make it exceptionally difficult for leaders to effect positive change. Friedman identified five characteristics of a chronically anxious system: reactivity, herding, blame displacement, a quick-fix mentality and a lack of well-differentiated leadership. Let's examine what these characteristics look like in the chronically anxious church.
* * *
Reactivity is different than disagreement. The latter is natural and, when done properly, is healthy for any family or organization. What makes reactivity different is an intensity that is fueled by anxiety. For example, if a church council is considering a big decision, it is entirely appropriate for someone to say, “I just don’t agree with what was just said. I believe that...” On the other hand, someone might say, rather intensely, “That’s just wrong. You all know better than that. If we do that, we’ll all be sorry. We just don’t have a chance with all the things that are going on out there.” If you are more likely to hear the latter than the former, you are probably in an anxious church.
One clue to identifying reactivity is the lack of “I” statements. When people use “you” and “we” it’s a sign that they are refusing to take responsibility for the issue. “I” statements take responsibility for self. “You” statements often infer blame. When used in a reactive way, they are blaming others for one’s own condition. When people feel blamed they can get defensive and resentful, heightening the anxiety in the interaction. And, as John A. Johnson points out in his Psychology Today article, “Are ‘I’ Statements Better than ‘You’ Statements?,” even certain I statements can feel like blaming. Johnson unpacks one of the accepted approaches to using “I” statements developed by Thomas Gordon.
“As I studied what Gordon and his colleagues wrote about I-Statements, I noticed an interesting paradox. The Gordon model claims that effective I-Statements contain three essential components:
1. A brief, non-blameful description of the BEHAVIOR you find unacceptable.
2. Your FEELINGS.
3. The tangible and concrete EFFECT of the behavior on you.
Here is one of the examples used to demonstrate the three essential components: ‘I feel very upset [FEELINGS] when you’re not here at 8:30 a.m. to answer the phone [BEHAVIOR] because that means I have to leave my work to cover for you [EFFECT].”
The paradox lies in the assertion that the person using the I-Statement is allegedly not blaming the other person’s behavior for his or her unhappiness, but at the same time is saying that the behavior is causing an undesirable, unacceptable effect on the speaker. As I wrote in another article on blame, blaming is the act of claiming that someone’s behavior is the cause of my unhappiness. So, despite taking some of the focus off of the other person by saying “I feel very upset” instead of “Your tardiness is upsetting me,” in the end the speaker is still blaming the receptionist’s tardiness for his or her upset feelings. So, it seems to me that I-Statements with all three essential components cannot be non-blameful.”
Johnson’s point is that even most “I” statements can come across as blaming. One thing an “I” statement may tell you is that the speaker is self-aware enough to try to blame you for his condition in a non-threatening way. Ironically, Johnson gives an example of an “I” statement that really does take responsibility for one’s own feelings, without blaming, but he seems to do it with tongue-in-cheek.
“If an I-Statement were truly non-blameful, it would look more like this: ‘When I am the only one here and I have to cover the phone, I get really upset. But, hey, that’s my problem. I am telling myself that it is a horrible thing to be answering the phone instead of doing other work, but this is just irrational, limiting self-talk. I am ‘awfulizing’-magnifying the problem beyond all proportion. I need to take responsibility for my own feelings by monitoring and adjusting my self-talk.”
While Johnson may be kidding, this is exactly what leadership through self-differentiation looks like. It is non-anxious. Non-blaming and takes responsibility for self while staying emotionally connected. We will look at why this works in greater depth. For now, understand that blaming another for one’s own condition is a characteristic of reactivity.
“We” statements imply that we all need to fall in line or else. Remember that self-differentiation is defined as the ability to define one’s own goals and values in the midst of surrounding togetherness pressures. “We” statements epitomize surrounding togetherness pressures. When I say, “We need to offer a contemporary service,” it means that I know best and you need to go along. “We” statements invite you to agree or keep quiet. They create surrounding togetherness pressure. If I say, “I believe offering a contemporary service would be a great idea,” then I’m taking responsibility for my own position without requiring you to agree with me. That’s leadership through self-differentiation.
“We” statements, like “I” statements, can also be a “You” statement in disguise. When someone says to you, “We need to do something about the music in this church,” they might really be saying that YOU need to do something. It is a refusal to take responsibility and an attempt to put the responsibility on you.
Finally, pointing to external circumstances as an insurmountable obstacle is, by its very nature, not taking responsibility for the problem. Blaming outside forces may be an accurate assessment of what is causing the problem, but it abandons any personal responsibility. For example, when someone says about the flourishing new church down the street, “I don’t know why the denomination let them start a new church right down the street. We’re never going to grow now,” this not only creates anxiety, but it also fosters a sense of helplessness, making the assertion true. With this kind of anxiety, it was likely they were never going to grow anyway.
The common element in all of these statements is the refusal take responsibility and/or the blaming of another for one’s own condition. This is both a sign of reactivity and fuel for the anxiety in the system. At the root of the response is anxiety, which is not always evident. A reactive response can be said in a calm manner, but it is reactive just the same. However, it’s not unusual for the reactive response to be anything but calm, which makes it easier to identify. When one is spewing anxiety at everyone around them, it’s a pretty good indication of a reactive response.
Reactivity can also take a different and more pernicious form called adaptive behavior. Adaptive behavior is the opposite of self-definition. It allows the other, whether an individual or a group, to define one’s position. In the case of a church decision, the adaptive response would be to go along with whatever is decided. There is still anxiety. In the adaptive person, the anxiety is stuffed so as not to disturb the situation. But the anxiety can’t be stuffed forever.
The anxiety in an adaptive person will ultimately be released in any of three ways. One is through an eruption of anxious reactivity. Like a volcano, all the anxiety comes spewing out with intense emotions of anger and blaming. The second is through passive aggressive behavior. There is apparent agreement with the other, but one actually doesn’t go along and may actually subvert what is agreed to. Finally, there is triangling. A triangle occurs when two persons experience discomfort in their relationship and focus on a third person or issue to stabilize their relationship. For now, it’s helpful to understand that adaptive behavior can take the form of a triangle. When a relationship gets uncomfortable, one of the persons can agree with the other, rather than saying how they feel. This is the adaptive behavior because they are “adapting” to the other person rather than dealing with the discomfort by taking a stand. If they release one’s discomfort by exp
ressing it to a third person, that is triangling. Triangles are one of the most important, and difficult, concepts in family systems theory. We will go into great depth about triangles in chapter 5.
These three forms of anxiety release are not mutually exclusive. One can be passive aggressive for a time, then erupt. Or one can be passive aggressive AND form a triangle. Doesn’t that sound like fun? One can form a triangle, but that won’t necessarily prevent an anxiety eruption.
What makes adaptive behavior more pernicious is that it is harder to identify. Eruptions can be few and far between. Passive aggressive behavior is not always evident. Triangles, and the secretive behavior that can accompany them, are not always evident either. That being said, the best clue to adaptive behavior is when a person rarely, if ever, defines his own position. In a system, whether family, church or organization, if a person always goes along with what others say without ever expressing his own beliefs, then it is likely adaptive behavior.
Reactivity, whether adaptive or reactive, is the first sign of a chronically anxious family, church or organization.
* * *
Friedman defines self-differentiation as:
“The capacity of a family member to define his or her own life’s goals and values apart from surrounding togetherness pressures.” ( p. 27)
Surrounding togetherness pressures are the forces that create herding in families, churches and organizations. They are a by-product of reactivity in chronically anxious systems. Defining one’s own goals and values is being able to take a stand while staying emotionally connected with others, even in the midst of those pressures.
The easiest place to see surrounding togetherness pressures is to observe how families handle holidays. Chronically anxious families have an unseen force that dictates what will happen and that everyone must comply. If a member of the family decides to go her own way, then there is pushback and an escalation of anxiety. On the other hand, in less anxious families, people feel more free to self-define. To say, for example, “I’m going to spend Christmas with my spouse’s family this year.” Anyone who has had a significant other or spouse has likely dealt with surrounding togetherness pressures.
Herding, by its very nature, is against self-differentiation. It discourages persons from defining their own position. When one does try to define a position, there is a reactive response. For example, I was once in a church where the meat-slicer was no longer needed for the roast beef dinner. They used to cook the meat in the church kitchen, but a church member who owned a restaurant had volunteered to cook and slice the roast beef, then deliver it to the church. Word got around that younger members of the church, who were in their 40’s and 50’s, decided that the meat-slicer could be moved into the closet for the dinner so there would be more counter space in the kitchen. The following note was mysteriously taped to the meat-slicer:
“By order of the Kitchen Committee, the meat-slicer shall not be moved.”
The meat-slicer stayed in the kitchen for the roast beef dinner.
There is a circular nature to herding. Surrounding togetherness pressures result from reactivity. The anxious nature of the system causes people to fear taking emotional stands. That is, people are afraid to say, “This is what I believe” when it disagrees with the surrounding togetherness pressures. So everyone falls in line. The more surrounding togetherness pressures grow, the more anxious, that is reactive, the system becomes. The more reactive the system becomes, the more pressure there is to conform and not self-define.
This circular nature results in the system adapting to the least mature member. In a chronically anxious system there are few self-differentiated persons and, because of this, the squeaky wheel gets the oil. In a family, this might be the alcoholic, the philanderer, the delinquent, the hothead, etc. The common element is the reactive or adaptive response of others in the system. There is yelling, nagging or lecturing (reactivity), neither of which are helpful and are more likely to cause the least mature member to be resentful and feel more justified in acting out. Or there is enabling behavior (adaptivity) which, instead of calling the least mature to be accountable, actually facilitates their acting out. This perpetuates immature behavior. In either case, anxiety is pervasive and surrounding togetherness pressures cause people to conform.
A chronically anxious church will exhibit herding behavior which includes adaptation to the least mature member or members. There is typically a person or group that is throwing a fit, sulking or feeling hurt. This makes everyone else feel anxious and promotes reactive behavior. Sometimes this can result in heated battles (reactivity). I have more often seen that others, including the pastor and church leaders are afraid to self-define (adaptivity), so they go along.
The actual issue that causes the problem will vary all over the map. It can be the color of the carpet, how often the pastor takes off or whether the family that volunteers to clean the church should provide the toilet paper at their own expense. The possible issues are infinite, but the process is the same. The most immature, that is least self-differentiated, rule, either overtly or covertly. If self-differentiated persons take responsibility for their own condition, the most immature do exactly the opposite, blaming others and refusing to take responsibility. Everyone feels anxious and everyone must go along. That is herding.
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Blame displacement is blaming outside forces for one's own condition. It avoids taking responsibility for one's own well-being and destiny. Blame displacement results in feeling victimized and helpless. It is the opposite of looking inward for emotional resources to respond to challenge.
For example, a family might focus on the prevalence of sex and violence in the media. They rant and rave about Hollywood producers and their lack of morals. They get irate over lyrics in popular music. They rant because prime time TV contains sexually explicit topics and images. The focus is on what is wrong with external conditions and it leads to a sense of helplessness.
The family's response is likely to "hunker down" and try to provide a protective shield around their children. The parents screen every song, video game, TV show and movie to keep their kids from exposure to any debauchery. They ensure that their kids' smartphones are void of any explicit material or risky apps.
The parents may be correct in their assessment, according to their own values. What they find in the media may truly offend their values. But the problem is blame displacement. It puts the focus on the outside forces instead of on their own response.
There is nothing wrong with restricting a child's media consumption. It's certainly within the purview of parenting. But the external focus diminishes their own resources and, worse yet, teaches their children to feel victimized. Let's look at two different responses.
The blame displacement response would typically elicit statements like, "The media is corrupt and their agenda is to bring children over to their side. It's my job to protect you from this kind of evil." The focus is on the outside force and not one's own resources to respond. A self-differentiated response would be, "I don't like what I see in the media. It goes against my values and the values I'm trying to raise you with." The difference is the defining of self and taking responsibility for one's own condition.
Let's say that in either case the parent is restricting media consumption. This is well and good, but eventually there will be a "breach," for example during prime time TV, when something shows up that they couldn't filter. Examining responses to thIs "breach" helps to further understand blame displacement. An external focus would be, "I can't believe they let that kind of smut on TV at 8:00pm! They are trying to pollute your minds!" A self-differentiated response would be, "I'm very disappointed that this is shown at 8:00pm. Then, to the child, "I think we should discuss what we just saw and why it concerns me." Which child do you think will be better prepared to deal with challenge in life?
The chronically anxious church also has an external focus on its problems. You will hear statements such as:
"If we didn't have to pay to support our denominational structure, we wouldn't have money problems."
"If the soccer leagues wouldn't schedule games on Sundays we'd have more young families."
"That non-denominational church down the street is taking all our members."
The chronically anxious church has an outward focus on its problems (blame displacement) and an inward focus on care and concern. Members complain about outside factors and will focus their resources on taking care of those already in the church. They take responsibility for each other, but not for the church's problems. This perpetuates a feeling of being victimized and feeling helpless.
On the other hand, a spiritually healthy church has an inward focus on spiritual and emotional resources and an outward focus on care and concern for those in need. They take responsibility for their relationship with God and for their own spiritual growth. They take responsibility, individually and collectively, for how they respond to the inevitable challenges that the church will face. Likewise, because they trust in the spiritual and emotional resources that come from God, they feel led to reach out and serve those in need in the community. They don't do this to get new members or to solve their problems. They do this as an expression of who they are. They don't feel like victims or feel helpless. They feel empowered by God.
What kind of church are you leading?