Leadership Lessons, One Year Later: A Lead-Time Reflection in Three Parts

Part 1: Self-Differentiation Stinks

By Sarah B. Drummond

One year ago this past Sunday, November 13, I quietly marked the anniversary of Andover Newton’s big announcement that the School will relocate and narrow its focus onto ministerial preparation in the historically-congregational way of being church.

That anniversary coincided with a Sunday when ministers throughout the country grappled with the topic of a national election that surprised many and raised fundamental questions about the American experiment. I believe that Andover Newton learned some important lessons during the past year that may be of some use to those leading in organizations affected by election news. Over the next week, I will offer three Lead Time posts on leadership learnings: Self-Differentiation, Crucial Conversations are (Exhausting and) Worth It, and Forcing the Message.

Rabbi Edwin Friedman was best known in ministerial leadership theory for his adaptation of family systems theory, a go-to model for family therapists, to faith community leadership (see A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, Church Publishing 2007). One of the principles Friedman teaches is the importance of the ministerial leader’s “non-anxious presence” to the well-being of the faith community.

When the minister models her capacity to care for herself and her own emotions, boundaries are secure. She models for others that we can be separate-yet-together in ways that are healthy and life-giving, rather than fused and doomed to suffer each others’ imperfections as poignantly as we suffer our own. Sometimes, ministers are seduced into believing that the best thing they can offer a faith community is railing against injustice, especially when they get their egos stroked for losing their cool for a just cause. In the end, however, they only undermine trust in their capacity to hold the space the community needs to process that which is happening around them. Even prophets have to be grownups.

The week before Andover Newton’s announcement last year, I don’t mind saying that I was a nervous wreck. Although I was confident in the decisions the board and administration were making, and fully convinced that the status quo was not sustainable beyond the next year or two, I knew that many would be upset. And I was upset too. With all the efforts in which I had participated to put the School on better footing in the preceding 10+ years, I felt like I had failed, and now the world would know. I went to an acupuncturist to help me calm my nerves, and I was wrapped so tightly in anxiety, shame, and guilt that the needles broke.

Yet I was motivated to pay close attention to my well-being because I knew I’d need to hold my own space, sustaining a permeable membrane between myself and my community. Many times I felt tempted by the siren call of suspending my leadership obligations and allowing my emotions to overtake me, especially when I received feedback that made me wonder if I’d over-corrected. Yet I knew that as much as it hurt hearing that I was coming across at times as cold or unfeeling, the community needed to trust that I was separate enough from the maelstrom to do what needed to be done.

I needed to love the community through a tough time. It helped that I felt the School was doing the right thing, but ultimately defending decisions wasn’t my role. My role was helping the community through to the other side of a transition whose destination isn’t entirely defined. Self-differentiation was my every third thought.

I know that many — if not most — clergy have strong feelings about the elections last week. I can relate to how difficult it is to have feelings without being feelings, the latter resulting in the imposition of our worries on others. A costly truism: the minister’s role is to model separate-from-yet-together-with the community through a non-anxious presence. No self-indulgent exceptions permitted. I know: that stinks and is not fair.

Modeling non-anxiety does not signal that one is okay with the results of last week’s election. Rather, it models faith in the resurrection and trust that new life springs forth, always. We must live and lead as though we actually believe that.

Coming up soon:

Part 2: Crucial Conversations are (Exhausting and) Worth It

Part 3: Forcing the Message

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