Blessed St. Edwin

Ed Friedman is probably the most comprehensively worshipped authority in the Episcopal Church. Rabbi Friedman was famous for applying the Family Systems Theory of Dr. Murray Bowen to congregational life and leadership. Liberals and Conservatives, Reappraisers and Reasserters may share little else but a reverence for Ed Friedman.

A central concept in Friedman’s opus was “leadership by differentiation of self.” This leadership posture was contrasted by Friedman to leadership by force of personality and persusasion, which he thought produced overdependent followers and a cult like ethos, or leadership through consensus, which he thought empowered the “emotional terrorists” and tended to produce “peace mongers.” (The vintage Friedman terms remind me of the wonderful combination of Sigmund Freud and Henny Youngman that the Rabbi was in person. He wowed his audiences including the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church.)

Leadership through differentiation of self had in Friedman’s teaching two components. One must “define self” while staying “connected and non reactive.” The idea is to say “this is what I believe, this is what I am willing to do or not do” while staying connected and regulating your own emotional reactivity to the others in your emotional system. The system will react with seduction and sabotage to get the well defined leader to “give up self” in exchange for togetherness.

In a very famous methaphor Friedman said that leading change in an emotional system like a familiy or church was to be likened to Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier. As the plane approached the sound barrier it shook violently and most pilots backed off. Yeager had the intuiton that it would be smooth on the other side and poured it on and indeed broke through to smooth supersonic flight. I wonder if Friedman had known how “over-seriously” in his terminology this metaphor would be heard if he would of continued to use it. This misuse of this one image is responsible for much of the spirialing emotional chaos in the Episcopal Church today.

Leaders on all sides of the current controversy have convinced themselves that gritting your teeth and pouring on the gas in the face of the opposition will bring you into smooth skies sooner than later. This is despite numerous wanings in Friedman’s work that being bull headed and cut off from the others in your system is not the same thing as being well defined and connected. Friedman hammered home in all his books and lectures that the hard part was staying connected and especially managing the interior anxiety that staying connected to those you are in conflict with produces. To be able to do this requires a lot of work on your connection and definition within your family of origin. It reqires more than going to a lecture or reading a book and then getting serious about “pushing through.”

I revere Ed Friedman and his ideas as well but I think that many that are using his concepts today to guide their leadership have missed what he said about “nothing be more than 60% right” and his warning about a “too serious hearing” of his theories. Many bishops, clergy and lay leaders are convinced that “we are through the worst of it,” and that the new normal is just around the corner.

Using a Friedman lense I see leaders who are poorly connected to their constituency, (The ECF study documents some of this with its finding tht 60% of surveyed Episcopalians have no ideological positon on the controversy in the church and feel that the issue is being imposed on them to the detriment of congregational life.) acting in such a way as to jack up the chronic anxiety in the system. I see plenty of reactivity and reflexive emotional responses as opposed to principled, well thought out and non reactive responses.

Three predictions based on Bowen and Friedman.

1. Even if the flap over GC 2003 dies down an equally virulent and destructive symptom of chronic anxiety will surface somewhere else in the system over something else almost immediately. (As my dear departed and decidedly New England father used to say to me, “son you worry too much, it is not the things you worry about that happen to you but something totally unexpected and much worse.”)

2. Any split- off groups that result from this conflict will have a difficult time bonding and will be prone to split- off themselves. The more percepitous and reactive the split the more this is likely to be so.

3. The missionary effectiveness of ECUSA and any potential split- offs will be low because the “seriousness” of each will dampen real thinking and creativity.

The Windsor Report is not perfect. After all nothing is more than 60%. In my view the Windsor Report gets 59.9%. It could be used as a way of teaching what taking a stand and defining self without being manipulative or reactive look like. If the Archbishop and the Primates will hold the line but struggle to stay connected and regulate their reactivity they could help the communion make a real breakthrough. (Even if ultimately there is a split this kind of leadership will produce a healthier split.)

In all of this personal, one on one relationships especially with critics will be very important for anyone in a leadership position who has a nobler vision than being bullheaded and out of touch.

©Leander Harding+ 2004

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