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An Essential Attitude For Healthy Leadership
Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A.
What Is Self-Differentiation?
- Number 345
Healthy congregations are continually seeking to improve themselves in many areas.
Congregations recovering from painful incidents in ministry also seek to improve
Whatever the circumstances, congregations which seek healthy growth have many things in
common. One of the most important things needed for this healthy growth is
- "Self-differentiation" is a term used to describe one whose emotional process
is no longer ultimately dependent on anything other than themselves. They are able to live
and function on their own without undue anxiety or over-dependence on others. They are
self-sufficient. Their sense of worth is not dependent on external relationships,
circumstances or occurrences.
- This healthy self-differentiation is characteristic of individuals in healthy churches.
Healthily differentiated individuals can maintain their focus even under stress. They are
not easily "infected" by the pressures of others to shareor
- They no longer become "symptom-bearers" for others issues, problems,
failures or anxieties. Instead, they have a clear understanding that those participating
in the addictive emotional process are trapped and fused in a system which is intended to
weaken, demoralize, devalue and destroy them and the ministries which they value so
- In their book, Family Evaluation, Bowen and Kerr speak of the critical importance
"The highest the level of self-differentiation of people in a family or social
group, the more they can cooperate, look out for one anothers welfare, and stay in
adequate contact during stressful as well as calm periods. The lower the level of
differentiation, the more likely the family, when stressed, will regress to selfish,
aggressive, and avoidance behaviors; cohesiveness, altruism, and cooperativeness will
break down." (Bowen And Kerr, Family Evaluation, New York: Norton and Company,
- Family Origins And Self-Differentiation
- Though one cannot fully know the extent to which differentiation is encouraged by nature
vs. nurture, the "nature" side is perhaps that which is most readily observable.
- The ability to self-differentiate appears to be related to the degree of emotional
separation in a childs family of origin. In families which have low expectations and
pressures for togetherness and fused "love," individuals are able to develop a
healthy relationship which allows the child to think, feel and act without unhealthy,
- Their self-image, Bowen and Kerr note,
"is not formed in reaction to the anxieties and emotional neediness of
others; nor do others define the child through their own emotionally distorted
perceptions" (p. 96).
- In short, the self-differentiated child is not defined through the pressure to gain
approval, love or acceptance from others. Instead, the self-differentiated child is driven
by a consistent and dependable set of beliefs, values and convictions internally
sustained, not externally driven.
- Poorly differentiated families and groups are marked by an anxious sense of needy
togetherness. Each family member is fused to the other by what they think is
"love." This "love" is not love
or at least healthy love. This
fusion pressures un-differentiated members of fused families to function in reaction
to others feelings, pains, anxieties, approval, etc.
- As Bowen and Kerr point out, these emotionally needy people are highly reactive to
others. This reactivity makes it very difficult for these undifferentiated people to
maintain long-term relationships. Since most of their life is spent trying to "find
love," "be loved," or trying to reclaim and/or rescue lost love, they have
little energy for goal-directed pursuits.
Insights For The Church
- Churches recovering from severe trauma or crisis often strive so hard for healing. To
the extent the congregation and its leaders can maintain a healthy self-differentiation,
they will be able to non-anxiously address the challenges which healthy recovery requires.
- Well-differentiated leaders and individuals are able to be able to keep theirand
othersanxious feelings regarding necessary and painful recovery strategies and
interventions from overcoming their reasoned strategies for healing. In this way, healthy
differentiation becomes the basis for a continually growingand renewinghealthy
vision. It confronts obstacles, deals with conflict, and becomes "strong in
heart" to move forward with passion, consistency and effectiveness.
- Less well-differentiated leaders and individuals do not attain such vision. To the
extent that these individuals are not healthily self-differentiated, the congregations
will be doomed to repeatedly re-live the cycle of conflict, trauma, and decline. Because
this trend is characteristic of all social groups this trend is not only predictable. It
- Less well-differentiated individuals need the unhealthy comfort of fused
"togetherness" and "love." As in undifferentiated families,
undifferentiated congregations spend the bulk of their energy on being a
"loving" congregation, trying to "make everyone happy," and avoiding
painful yet inevitable crises so as not to "hurt anyones feelings."
- Undifferentiated congregations, like families, spend so much time focusing on finding
"lost love" that difficult decisions are delayed. Energies are directed toward
self-sabotaging fusion. With little or no energy for vision, the vision is lost. Most
significantly it must be noted that such congregations not only have no healthy positive
vision for ministry. They are vision-resistant and will be until they either become
- Redefining "Love"
- The undifferentiated church is one solidly in the hands of Satan. Striving to solidify
undifferentiated love is simply one of Satans greatest triumphs: redefining
Christian "love" into the most toxic, church-killing emotions possible.
- This toxic definition of love is unmistakable in plateaued, unhealthy, and/or dying
churches. "Loving" churches dont change their hymnals. "Loving"
churches dont challenge tradition. "Loving" churches keep focusing on the
negative upset members. "Loving" churches react to the whining of the
"squeaky wheels." "Loving" churches dont dare look beyond
themselves because they have enough trouble just trying to find "love" within
- Of course, this toxic standard of "love" is rigorously applied to pastors,
staff and leaders as well. Self-differentiated leaders are naturaland
fearedtargets for the undifferentiated. "Change" is seen as
"unloving" and uncaring because it hurts someone or another. Of course, even
slight variations in ministry style and personality are threatening because they go
against the predictable forces of the unhealthy tie that binds our hearts in toxic
- Whats the result? The pastor and other leaders become symptom
bearersscapegoatswho become unfairly blamed for the anxiety. It is this
"tie" that binds the undifferentiated hearts of Christian congregations into the
bondage of being dominated by toxic emotional process.
- Suggestions for freshness and innovation also threaten this unhealthy fused
"love". After all, those who really care want to keep people "happy."
They do everything codependently possible to meet all their needs, soothe them when the
are sad, and read their minds to know when to visit them
and what exactly to say.
The Power Of Fusion
- The power of fusion has important implications for leadership. If "birds of a
feather fly together," these "loving" fused, undifferentiated groups always
prefer their leaders and members to share the same "feathers."
- What is the key characteristic of these "feathers"? The leaders have the same
undifferentiated, "loving" and caring reactive fusion as the followers. The only
difference is that since they are leaders, they will promote this toxic, undifferentiated
fused "love" and caring to whatever extent necessary to make or keep it as the
dominant emotional process of the organization.
- Fused, undifferentiated leaders whom they prefer may be antagonists. They can also be
pastors and other "positive" leaders. The irony is that both are unhealthy. When
undifferentiated "positive" leaders go against undifferentiated antagonists, the
results are predictable. The already unstable, hair-trigger emotional process of the
congregation is pulled. Anxiety and high emotions can go from "normal" to
inexplicably out of control "in the twinkling of an eye."
- Undifferentiated leaders, whether positive or antagonistic, will also experience the
anxious, out-of-control effects of their own lack of self-differentiation. In the
aftermath, the pain of brokenness is nothing short of being profoundly soul-wrenching.
There are only two ways to deal with this pain.
- Dealing With The Pain
- The "easy" way to deal with this pain is to deny or hide the pain. This is
done in many ways. One of these ways is to become fused again with the same or another
"loving" congregation or individuals. This requires continuing to give up
ones self and the realization that ones ministry will never rise above that
which ones undifferentiated emotional process allows. Resultantly, those who take
this "easy" way will, unwittingly, continue to be part of the problem
for the congregations well-being.
- The "hard"but rightway to deal with this pain is to go through
it. This requires experiencing profound brokenness and the therapeutic depression which
inevitably accompanies it. It requires that individuals and congregations make a thorough
and comprehensive examination of every significant thing which has made them the
undifferentiated individuals and organizations they are. This includes an honest appraisal
of their past, the present, their relationships, their conflicts, their fears, their
- This painful self-appraisal is basic to recovery. As it takes shape, it follows a quasi-
"Twelve Step Process" which results in a greater sense of differentiation, a
greater sense of self, and a sense of internally-driven vision which is energized not so
much by external goals, coercion, persuasion.
- This rigorous self-appraisal is driven by a confident, self-differentiated conviction of
what is right for the people of God. It is specifically marked by the willingness to take
risks, the ability to lovingly but directly confront what needs to be addressed. It is
seen in the capacity to "go where no man has gone before." It basks in the core
essence of faith. It believes, as the writer of Hebrews noted, that true faith is the
substance of things not seen
not being fused in some sort of toxic, Satanic notion of
The Most Important Thing
- But the most important thing is not simply addressing the issues. The most important
indicator that healing and self-differentiation is occurring is that one is finally
willing to engage in this rigorous self-appraisal. It is for this reason that even the
best consultations and ministry programming processes can fail.
- Without the rigorous examination of the emotional processes which influence the ministry
and a willingness of a significant and dominant core of the congregation to change
themvirtually no strategy will be effective for ministry renewal.
- Furthermore, to the extent that the undifferentiated emotional process dominates the
ministry, introducing ministry initiatives will result in either at least two
consequences. The first consequence is that new programs will tend to fail due to
indifference and apathy. A second consequence is that these initiatives, if they show
success, may significantly increase the potential for unforeseen and
"unexplained" sudden eruptions of congregational conflict.
- What Can One Do???
4) Recognize The Real Operative Issue Is The Undifferentiated, Congregational Fusion.
- 1) Examine Yourself
- A first step is for the pastor and leaders to begin the process of rigorous
self-examination. This is, of course, an intensely spiritual process. Psalm 51 speaks of
this process. "A broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise."
- 2) Learn About Self-Differentiation.
- A second step is to devour everything possible on self-differentiation. Ministry Health, LLC offers seminars, workshops, and articles on
this topic. The Lombard Mennonite Peace Center also has extraordinary programs in this
regard. Bowen and Kerrs Family Evaluation (though out of print) is an important,
seminal writing of this topic.
- Recovery literature such as that offered by Alcoholics Anonymous, Health
Publications (of Deerfield Beach, Florida), books and articles dealing with
codependency and other topics also address differentiation. Though not always specifically
mentioned as "self-differentiation," the concept is definitely there. For this
reason Ministry Health, LLC has numerous
articles dealing with Adult Children of Alcoholics, family dysfunction, etc.
- 3) Understand And Know What Healthy Differentiation Is.
- Self-differentiated individuals also are able, in their healed state, to rationally
identify those unhealthy emotional "webs" to which they are vulnerable. More
importantly, they are also able to avoid them without guilt, remorse, losing self-esteem,
or feeling somehow inadequate or worthless for having not "caved in" with the
- Ministry Health, LLCs "Checklist For Differentiation"
and "Self-Differentiation: The Final Stage of Recovery" are two key
resources in this regard.
5) Deal With The Real, Operative Issues.
- It is not that it doesnt have the "perfect pastor" (which it expects!).
The issue is also not participation, attendance, not having enough children, not growing,
or the worship service. These are overtand possibly even
superficial"Level One" issues. The real "Level Two" issues which
must be dealt with are covert and foundational. That issue is that the emotional system of
the congregational is poorly differentiated. The congregation is being driven by a
dominant anxiety which implodes toward self-destruction instead of exploding into mission
throughout the world.
6) Keep Yourself Well-Differentiated.
- "It only takes a spark to get a fire going." Isnt that what poorly
differentiated churches needa spark to get the fire going? Instead they are marked
by depression, paranoia, self-defeat and a sense of powerlessness.
- One of the most
effective sparks is the "Healthy Congregations" workshop. Developed by Peter
Steinke and funded by Lutheran Brotherhood, numerous ecclesiastical agencies including Ministry Health, LLC have Steinke-trained leaders to
facilitate this day-and-a-half workshop in the local congregation.
7) Dont Push Too Hard.
- Paul told Timothy, "Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them,
because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers" (I Timothy 4:16)
- Watching ones self may be the most difficult part of ministry. As ones
leadership styles changes from an unhealthily fused "Ill do anything you want
me to do to avoid conflict and keep you happy so we can love Jesus," to a
self-differentiated "I am the Lords servant. May it be to me as God
wills," there will be a noticeable shift by you and others. It is a precarious shift
that is not without its risks. Making this shift can take years or decades. But it must be
done if God-pleasing ministry health is to be realized.
- Pastors of poorly-differentiated organizations need to be able to "dig in their
well-differentiated heals" for as long as it takes. Moses spent forty of his most lackluster, unfruitful
and depressing years of ministry watching the stiff-necked generation of Israelites die
off. As Moses became increasingly self-differentiated, he focused constant, intentional
efforts to develop a continually expanding corps of healthily self-differentiated leaders.
- Though Moses did not himself "reap" the results of these leadership
development efforts, his successor Joshua did. Under Joshuas leadership, an
undifferentiated band of vision-less people of God were transformed into vision-achieving
inheritors of the Promised Land of God.
- Paul also seems to have had this attitude when he addresses what appear to be a highly
anxious, poorly differentiated Corinthian congregation.
"What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you
came to believeas the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed,
Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nro he who waters is
anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The man who plants and the man who waters
have one purpose, and each will be rewarded according to his own labor" (I
Corinthians 3:5-9 NIV).
8) Keep On Keeping On.
- Often it seems that the harder one tries, the more likely the goal they seek evade them.
- Victor Frankl, in his bestseller Man's Search For Meaning, refers to Gordon
Allport's "Principle of Paradoxical Intention."* This principle basically
says that the harder you try, the less likely that the one will gain the desired outcome.
- Leaders certainly ought not misinterpret the "Principle of Paradoxical
Intention" as an excuse for doing something half-heartedly or doing nothing at all.
- On the other hand, it is important that we recognize that it is God who gives the
growth, not us. To believe otherwise may cause one to succumband possibly
reinforcean unhealthy short-term, immediate gratification attitude. This attitude
may not only raise the level of frustration. It may also wreak havoc on faith.
- Gods will for Christian ministry cannot be "pushed" too hard or
even by well-intentioned leadership. Gods leaders must
make their plans
but do so in a way that trusts in God to bless them in His time.
- Frustration runs high in the undifferentiated church. Often it feels as if one is trying
to chop down a tree with the blunt end of an ax. A lot of energy is expended. Very few
results appear. But one must keep on keeping on. If one ceases to do so, one might miss
what Rick Warren calls the "wave" of Gods opportunity for growth.
9) Be A Sower.
Self-Differentiation: The Spiritual Dimension
Self-differentiation also has a spiritual dimension. It is virtually impossible to be
healthily self-differentiated apart from a healthy relationship with God.
Virtually every one of Jesus disciplesexcept perhaps Judaseventually
learned that as they left all to follow Him. Abraham, Moses, Noah, the prophets and every
saint of Scripture also had to learn that regardless of the circumstancesjoyful or
tragic"The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be
praised" (Job 1:21 NIV).
It is this unfailing confidence in Gods immanent presence in the life of the
self-differentiated individual which facilitates self-differentiation. This is what Jesus
meant when He said, "Whoever loses his life for My sake will find it" (Matthew
- An important key in undifferentiated ministries, as all ministries, is to be a sower. Ministry Healths "Five Commandments
For Sowers" is an excellent perspective builder for this Gospel-attitude. Not
allor muchof the seed may grow. But some will, somewhere, somewhere, against
what might seem overwhelming odds. Will it work or will it fail? Who knows! Just do it!
Self-Differentiation: A Core Focus Of Christian Ministry
- If self-differentiation is the believers healthily detached response to
possessions, relationships, and all that characterizes the material, earthly world, then
it stands in the forefront of Christian ministry. It becomes one of the great
themesand challengesof Christian ministry.
- The greatest challenge of self-differentiation is simply to let God choose, develop and
use His people in ways that He has specifically called them. Thats not only the call
to faith. Its also the basis of the development of a faith-driven vision to realize
Gods calling for both Gods and for ones self.
- Whether ones ministry and leadership is well-differentiated or not
well-differentiated, Gods calling for Christian leaders is the same. Stay
differentiated, teach differentiation, and continue to use Gods Word to continually
place the challenge of healthily differentiated personal discipleship for Jesus Christ
- God calls you to the joy of healthy self-differentiation. He also calls you to be the
"salt" of the church for a scriptural-based, Gospel-driven healthy
self-differentiation. Can you heed the calling in the strength that God has given you? We
have His promise,
"Never will I leave you; never will I forsake
you" (Hebrews 13:5 NIV).
- Thomas F. Fischer
- * Frankl, Victor. Man's Search For Meaning. New York: Washington Square
Press, 1998. p. 125.
Index Articles 1-49
Articles 50-99 Articles
100-149 Articles 150-199
200-249 Articles 250-299
Articles 300-349 Articles
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was revised on:
Tuesday, October 05, 2004 11:04:24 PM