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Self-Differentiation:
An Essential Attitude For Healthy Leadership

Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A.

Number 345

Healthy congregations are continually seeking to improve themselves in many areas. Congregations recovering from painful incidents in ministry also seek to improve themselves.

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.

What Is Self-Differentiation?

"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 share—or absorb—their anxiety.
 
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 greatly.
 
In their book, Family Evaluation, Bowen and Kerr speak of the critical importance of self-differentiation.

"The highest the level of self-differentiation of people in a family or social group, the more they can cooperate, look out for one another’s 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, p. 93.)

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 child’s 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, anxious pressures.
 
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 their—and others’—anxious 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 growing—and renewing—healthy 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 is inevitable.
 
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 anyone’s 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 self-differentiated…or die.
Redefining "Love"
The undifferentiated church is one solidly in the hands of Satan. Striving to solidify undifferentiated love is simply one of Satan’s 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 don’t change their hymnals. "Loving" churches don’t challenge tradition. "Loving" churches keep focusing on the negative upset members. "Loving" churches react to the whining of the "squeaky wheels." "Loving" churches don’t dare look beyond themselves because they have enough trouble just trying to find "love" within themselves.
 
Of course, this toxic standard of "love" is rigorously applied to pastors, staff and leaders as well. Self-differentiated leaders are natural—and feared—targets 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 "love."
 
What’s the result? The pastor and other leaders become symptom bearers—scapegoats—who 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 one’s self and the realization that one’s ministry will never rise above that which one’s undifferentiated emotional process allows. Resultantly, those who take this "easy" way will, unwittingly, continue to be part of the problem…not the solution…for the congregation’s well-being.
 
The "hard"—but right—way 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 issues, etc.
 
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 "love."

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 them—virtually 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???
1) Examine Yourself…Rigorously!
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 Kerr’s 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 crowd.
 
Ministry Health, LLC’s "Checklist For Differentiation" and "Self-Differentiation: The Final Stage of Recovery" are two key resources in this regard.
4) Recognize The Real Operative Issue Is The Undifferentiated, Congregational Fusion.
It is not that it doesn’t 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 overt—and 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.
5) Deal With The Real, Operative Issues.
"It only takes a spark to get a fire going." Isn’t that what poorly differentiated churches need—a 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.
6) Keep Yourself Well-Differentiated.
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) NIV.
 
Watching one’s self may be the most difficult part of ministry. As one’s leadership styles changes from an unhealthily fused "I’ll 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 Lord’s 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 Joshua’s 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 believe—as 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).

7) Don’t Push Too Hard.
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 succumb—and possibly reinforce—an unhealthy short-term, immediate gratification attitude. This attitude may not only raise the level of frustration. It may also wreak havoc on faith.
 
God’s will for Christian ministry cannot be "pushed" too hard or insensitively coerced…even by well-intentioned leadership. God’s leaders must make their plans…but do so in a way that trusts in God to bless them in His time.
8) Keep On Keeping On.
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 God’s opportunity for growth.

9) Be A Sower.

An important key in undifferentiated ministries, as all ministries, is to be a sower. Ministry Health’s "Five Commandments For Sowers" is an excellent perspective builder for this Gospel-attitude. Not all—or much—of 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: 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’ disciples—except perhaps Judas—eventually 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 circumstances—joyful 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 God’s 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 10:39 NIV).

Self-Differentiation: A Core Focus Of Christian Ministry

If self-differentiation is the believer’s 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 themes—and challenges—of 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. That’s not only the call to faith. It’s also the basis of the development of a faith-driven vision to realize God’s calling for both God’s and for one’s self.
 
Whether one’s ministry and leadership is well-differentiated or not well-differentiated, God’s calling for Christian leaders is the same. Stay differentiated, teach differentiation, and continue to use God’s Word to continually place the challenge of healthily differentiated personal discipleship for Jesus Christ before them.
 
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.

Topical Index    Articles 1-49    Articles 50-99   Articles 100-149   Articles 150-199   
 Articles 200-249    Articles 250-299   Articles 300-349   Articles 350-399 

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This page was revised on: Tuesday, October 05, 2004 11:04:24 PM