By Israel Galindo
Functioning at a high level of differentiation is the golden fleece for most congregational leaders who are students of Bowen Family Systems Theory. Especially in times of acute systemic anxiety and symptomatic reactivity, effective leaders will work on focusing on the repertoire that will help them navigate the storm. In no particular order, here’s a six-action repertoire differentiated leaders tend to follow:
- Monitoring their own internal emotional process. Differentiated leaders are self-aware of the experience of their feelings, of how anxiety is being processed physically and emotionally, and awareness of the role family of origin dynamics are coming into play in the situation.
- Observing their functioning. Differentiated leaders are centered, clear, and responsive (emotionally present). They know the cues for when reactivity patterns start kicking in. For example, over-functioning or under-functioning at work and at home, obsessing over issues, fantasizing, or distancing.
- Regulating their anxiety. If reactivity patterns begin to manifest (e.g., psychosomatic symptomology), differentiated leaders work on regulating the experience of anxiety and moderate reactivity patterns.
Avoiding reactivity. No matter how much they want to, differentiated leaders don’t call that acting out deacon a jerk or tender their resignation letter when frustrated.
Getting clarity about their guiding principles and values. Differentiated leaders recall and rehearse their values, goals, principles, and vision (“Remind me again, why did I take this job?”).
Seeking out resources. Differentiated leaders are not afraid of asking for help. They avail themselves of their coach or therapist, a spiritual friend, or support group. They don’t seek advice about what to do or how to think, but use these resources to navigate through the emotional process in the midst of crises, acute anxiety, or reactivity.
It may help to write down “The Repertoire” and keep it in your wallet or tape it to your desk at the church office as a reminder for when acute anxiety bubbles up in the system. Acute anxiety will tend to focus on the person in the position of leadership (that’s you), so it will feel personal. The common reaction is to feel under attack or betrayed. When that happens, our most important resource goes out the window: our capacity to think through the problem and realistically assess what is going on in the system. When your brains shuts down in the midst of anxiety, pull out the list to reengage that frontal lobe.
Three Responses to Differentiation
Assuming we’ve followed “The Repertoire” successfully and have managed to differentiate from out of our position of leadership in the system, we need to also take into consideration its aftermath. Experienced differentiated leaders know enough not to expect anyone to say “Thank you!” But there are three other predictable responses to a leader’s act of self-differentiation in the midst of an anxious system:
Those who have the capacity will be able to self-regulate and also begin to self-differentiate. That deacon you wanted to call a jerk may now be saying, “Wow, I don’t know what happened to me. I got caught up in something and went crazy for a moment there.” These people are now resources for you and the system.
A second group of persons will tend to fuse with you. A self-differentiated leader is “attractive,” even to those who lack a capacity for self-definition. Fusion can be seductive. It feels great to have a room full of people nod at your every word and eagerly agree with your every opinion. However, this group of people are not a resource to the system—the next loudest voice can just as easily redirect their passions.
The third group of persons will be the ones who will withdraw or cut off from you. Clarity about one’s stance will feel like a line drawn on the sand to some folks. Self-definition demands a response and responsibility on the part of others. For those who lack resilience in thinking, or who are too insecure or too rigid in their beliefs, cutting off may be their only repertoire for dealing with challenge.
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. Formerly, he was Dean at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban).