Applying Edwin Friedman’s ‘A Failure of Nerve’ to the Contemporary Church

Edwin Friedman (1932-1996) was for more than 30 years a family therapist and rabbi in the Washington, DC, area. He studied Family Systems Theory (FST) at Georgetown University under Dr. Murray Bowen, who pioneered the application of FST to communities larger than nuclear families. As a rabbi, Friedman wrote and lectured on the topic of healthy congregations and ministers through an FST lens.

A Failure of Nerve[1] was published posthumously by Friedman’s family, who were perhaps too reverential towards his rough first draft. The book needs further editing; reading it in its present form is a chore. Here, then, is a brief synopsis of salient points for the contemporary church context.[2]

1. We Live in an Age of Anxiety

Western society suffers from chronic anxiety. Our fear of existential threats increasingly drives us toward risk-aversion instead of adventure, safety instead of exploration. Therefore, social networks like congregations and denominations often descend into emotional regression, not unlike what might happen to a family trying to compensate for an alcoholic father. In response to chronic anxiety, groups compulsively: 

1) react to perceived threats,

2) herd together, 

3) shift blame away from the real cause, and 

4) seek short-term relief that further contributes to long-term harm.[3]

The result for our congregations and denominations is imaginative gridlock.

What does this emotional regression look like in a church setting? Increasingly, the highest priority is keeping everyone happy, rather than staying true to the organisation’s purpose, vision and mission. In other words, instead of following mature leadership, their agenda ends up being determined by the least mature person(s) in the group.

Friedman writes: 

Chronically anxious families will seek out those professionals who promise the most comfort, not those who offer the most opportunities for maturation…The quick-fix attitude, therefore, will affect their choice of physicians, therapists, ministers, and politicians, as they are drawn to the snake oil of quick-fix elixirs that masquerade as technical solutions. (84)

A group of clergy came to me from one of the major religious denominations in our society and said, ‘We are about to start a project that will raise fifty million dollars for our five hundred most troubled ministers. How would you spend it?’ I responded, ‘Why would you put the fifty million into your five hundred most troubled? You will advance your denomination and our society far more if you put it into your five hundred best.’ They answered, ‘But we could never raise the money for that’. (72)

2. The Antidote to Anxiety is Well-Differentiated Leadership

We weren’t made to cower in fear: ’The safest place for ships is in the harbor, but that’s not why ships were built.’ Congregations need leaders who help them resolve to venture out beyond the safety of compulsive risk-aversion. Leadership in an age of anxiety requires:

  1. Differentiation, i.e., the capacity to separate from the herd’s crises and emotions enough to develop clear vision. 
  2. Courage to take a well-defined stand on the basis of virtuous core convictions, and to be exposed and vulnerable.  
  3. Persistence to keep going in spite of the herd’s immaturity, anxiety and inertia. 
  4. Maturity to self-regulate in the face of reactive sabotage. (89) 

In view of these criteria, note the following important corollaries:

  • A leader is not a dictator. He or she is rather someone who can maintain a ‘non-anxious, well-principled presence’. (89) 
  • Leadership isn’t primarily about technique or data. It is, rather, about differentiation, courage, persistence and maturity. For example, the best parents aren’t defined as those who have read the most books on parenting, but by their personas as parents. (112) 
  • Leadership isn’t primarily about empathy.[4] In fact, while empathy is a laudable goal, it is often used as a power tool by the least mature person in the group to leverage the herd to circle around them. In response, ineffective leaders often suffer ‘a failure of nerve’. Instead, calling others to exercise personal responsibility is the priority of the mature leader. (135)

Friedman writes: 

The fact that chronically anxious families will always lack well-differentiated leadership is absolutely universal. (89)

3. Organisations, Like Individuals, Require a Healthy Immune System

Congregations are susceptible to chronic anxiety in much the same way that individuals are susceptible to disease. Whenever a person’s immune system fails to protect the body against a pathogen, the disease takes up residence inside the body and begins to grow. Similarly, when unregulated persons are welcomed into a congregation and then never required to take responsibility for the larger body, such persons may have malignant effects on the body. Empathy won’t change them. To remain in the congregation without harming it, they must be taught that if they want to be part of the community, they must adapt to it rather than it adapting to them. (147) 

Characteristics of such unregulated (i.e., malignant) persons include:

  • They tend to be easily hurt ‘injustice collectors’—slow healers who are given to victim attitudes. 
  • They tend to idolise their leaders until their unrealistic expectations fail, whereupon they are quick to crucify the leader. 
  • They do not see themselves as destructive. The resulting disease is a byproduct of their doing what comes naturally, so they never see how they contribute to the condition they complain about. 
  • Their repertoire of responses is binary, i.e., limited to being ‘on’ or ‘off’. This manifests in linear, black-and-white formulations of life; unconditional, with-us-or-against-us attitudes; and inability to tolerate differences or dissent. 
  • They tend to focus on rules of procedure. 
  • They get stuck on the content of issues rather than being able to view the surrounding emotional processes that are spawning the issues. 
  • They find that light and truth, the elements that are most healthy to other forms of life, are toxic to their nature. They thrive in the darkness of conspiracy. 
  • They tend to interfere in the relationships of others, undermining staff communication and connections. 
  •  They are unforgivingly relentless and totally invulnerable to insight. Unless walled-off or totally defeated, they tend to come back with a vengeance, as when an antibiotic is not taken for the fully prescribed period. (145-46) 

Friedman writes: 

Carried to its ultimate extreme, the herding instinct of the chronically anxious family will eventually lead it to organize itself around the symptomatic member rather than around its (potential) leader. The former will then become the axis around which the family’s entire life revolves, the ‘squeaky wheel’ perpetually getting the ‘grease.’ It is always easier to be the least mature member of a highly mature family than the most mature member of a highly regressed system. (69)

One of the most extraordinary examples of adaptation to immaturity in contemporary American society today is how the word abusive has replaced the words nasty and objectionable. The latter two words suggest that a person has done something distasteful, always a matter of judgment. But the use of the word abusive suggests, instead, that the person who heard or read the objectionable, nasty, or even offensive remark was somehow victimized by dint of the word entering their mind. This confusion of being “hurt” with being damaged makes it seem as though the feelings of the listener or reader were not their own responsibility, or as though they had been helplessly violated by another person’s opinion. If our bodies responded that way to “insults,” we would not make it very far past birth. (70)

It has been my impression that at any gathering, whether it be public or private, those who are quickest to inject words like sensitivityempathyconsensustrustconfidentiality, and togetherness into their arguments have perverted these humanitarian words into power tools to get others to adapt to them. (71)

4. Differentiated Leaders Serve as a Congregation’s Immune System

In response to unregulated persons taking up residence within a congregation, its leader(s) must function as its immune system. Not necessarily by driving out the unregulated persons. Rather, through the leaders’ differentiated, courageous (i.e., non-anxious), persistent and mature presence within the congregation, unregulated people can learn to take responsibility for themselves.[5]

When a group gathers around an unregulated person, the leader must stay in touch with the group, while simultaneously not taking their issues so seriously that he or she is thrown off course. This kind of differentiated leadership can help the group to heal and grow. On the other hand, the leader who focuses primarily upon empathy will be unable to help people take more responsibility for themselves and begin to mature. (157)

Friedman writes: 

The most damaging effect of intense reactivity in any family is on its capacity to produce or support a leader. (64)

It is impossible for leaders to succeed at becoming a well-differentiated, non-anxious presence without triggering reactivity within the group, i.e. sabotage. In response, leaders tend to stop doing all that had contributed to their differentiation. Consequently, this is the moment when a leader is most likely to have a failure of nerve and seek a quick fix. Another way of putting this is that a leader can never assume success because he or she has brought about a change. It is only after having first brought about a change and then subsequently endured the resultant sabotage that the leader can feel truly successful.  (247)

[1] Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (New York: Seabury Press, 2007). 

[2] All references are to the 2007 Seabury Press edition.

[3] See Table 1.

[4]  ‘It is worth remembering how frequently a high threshold for the pain and offense of others is treated as a qualifying mark of biblical leadership. God’s criticisms of poor leaders often focuses on their low pain threshold for the sensitivities, offense, and suffering of others when decisive action needed to be taken for the sake of the integrity of the nation. We can think of Eli’s failure to discipline his sons, Saul’s failure to kill Agag, Aaron’s failure to stand up to the nation in the golden calf incident, etc. Conversely, the actions by which people were set apart or marked out for rule were frequently ones where they exhibited a high pain threshold for the suffering or offense of others when decisive action was needed to maintain the integrity of the people of God (Phinehas killing the Midianite and the Israelite, the Levites slaying 3,000 of their Israelite brethren, Moses killing the Egyptian, etc.). Such leaders were not devoid of pity and concern for the people of God – quite the opposite! – but they had very high pain thresholds when decisive action was required for their health.’ Alastair Roberts, January 14, 2012, ‘Summary of Edwin Friedman’s “A Failure of Nerve”: Part 4’, 14 January 2012. Accessed 5 December 2022. 

[5]  ‘Friedman presents us with important insights for helping people in need in our communities and elsewhere. While his approach might sound cold and callous, I don’t believe that it is. Friedman believes that sensitivity to others and concern for them is very important. His point, however, is that this cannot stop malignant and invasive elements, nor can they produce maturity in others. Consequently, well-meaning approaches driven primarily by empathy risk sustaining and metastasizing the very problems that they seek to address.

            ‘Many approaches to poverty encourage the spread of the characteristics of the un-self-regulated mindset mentioned above. Such approaches are focused upon pathology and weakness. Dysfunctional persons, driven purely by a sense of entitlement, expect society to adapt to them. Sensitive liberals, who have an extremely low pain threshold for people suffering the consequences of their actions, produce a leadership without nerve. Consequently, rather than empowering and encouraging responsibility, and taking an uncompromising line with pathological, parasitic, and malignant elements of society, irresponsibility, dependency, and blame displacement are encouraged. It isn’t hard to see, if you are looking, that, far from fostering responsibility and maturity, such methods lead to its opposite and destroy the immune system and self-regulating capacity of portions of society that most rely upon it (this is why I am always heartened to hear of churches that provide alternatives to welfare, which are geared to empower people to become self-regulating, rather than dependent upon the state).’ Alastair Roberts, January 14, 2012. ‘Summary of Edwin Friedman’s ‘A Failure of Nerve’: Part 4’, 14 January, 2012. Accessed 5 December 2022. 

Friedman’s Table 1. Characteristics of Chronic Anxiety in Families and  American Civilization and their Major Effects on Leadership (91-92)

The Revd Dan Claire is Rector of The Church of the Resurrection, Washington, D.C.