One of the topics that has been of great interest to me as of late is the idea of self-differentiation (differentiation of self). It has great interest to me in interpersonal relationships, and it has been really intriguing to me in terms of church leadership. There are lots of ways to talk about differentiation, but ultimately it is one’s ability to “stand on one’s own two feet”, rather than be emotionally fused, or enmeshed with others (i.e. relationships, families, congregations, church staffs, etc.).

We are all susceptible to being fused with others, but pastoral leadership can have the inherent danger where pastors often get their sense-of-self from others (i.e. congregants, staff, etc.). rather than being differentiated. Pastors receive much validation from activities such as sermons, late night visits, crisis intervention, counseling, etc., and if one isn’t careful, they can soon find themselves dependent upon these activities, and the affirmation they receive from them. How many pastors have preached a sermon, and at the end of the sermon they receive lots of praise, but they spend all day thinking about that one person who was critical of it?

I’m a pastor’s kid, and I have worked in the church for the last 15 years as well, so this is a topic that I am beginning to look more seriously at. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until I began my work as a therapist that I have begun to see more clearly the toxic situation that is set up in many church leadership structures.

A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix by Edwin Friedman is a book that I think all pastors and ministry leaders should read. He talks extensively about differentiation in leaders and I found this one excerpt particularly insightful:

I wrote above that one outstanding characteristic with families that endure and perhaps even grow from crisis is the presence of a well-differentiated leader. Now I want to add that the factor which is almost always present in relationship systems that are deeply disturbed, if not disintegrating, is a conflict of will.

For example, one will find in almost every family experiencing the severest emotional symptoms (such as suicide, schizophrenia, psychosis, anorexia, abuse) and sometimes the most debilitating physical symptoms (such as multiple sclerosis, coronary conditions, persistent gastrointestinal problems, even cancer) a deep, abiding conflict of will within the family–sometimes blatantly contentious and sometimes subtly masked by charm or passive obstinacy. Similarly, such conflict is always present in the failure of teachers, counselors, clergy, and consultants to make headway against the riptide of resistance that run counter to their intent. It goes without saying that when continued efforts by CEO’s, managers, and administrators are producing little or no progress, they are probably swimming against a tide.

How, then, does one go with the flow and still take the lead? Answer: by positioning oneself in such a way that the natural forces of emotional life carry one in the right direction. They key to that positioning is the leader’s own self-differentiation, by which I mean his or her capacity to be a non-anxious presence, a challenging presence, a well-defined presence, and a paradoxical presence. Differentiation is not about being coercive, manipulative, reactive, pursuing or invasive, but being rooted in the leader’s own sense of self rather than focused on that of his or her followers. It is in no way autocratic, narcissistic, or selfish, even though it may be perceived that way by those who are not taking responsibility for their own being. Self-differentiation is not ‘selfish.’  Furthermore, the power inherent in a leader’s presence does not reside in physical or economic strength but in the nature of his or her own being, so that even when leaders are entitled to great power by dint of their office, it is ultimately the nature of their presence that is the source of their real strength. Leaders function as the immune systems of the institutions they lead–not because they ward off enemies, but because they supply the ingredients for the system’s integrity.

Much of what I have said about leadership can be summarized in the following chart:


  • focuses on pathology
  • is obsessed with technique
  • works with symptomatic people
  • betters the condition
  • seeks symptomatic relief
  • is concerned to give insight
  • is stuck on treadmill of trying harder
  • diagnoses others
  • is quick to quit difficult situations
  • is made anxious by reactivity
  • has a reductionist perspective
  • sees problems as the cause of anxiety
  • adapts toward the weak
  • focuses empathically on helpless victims
  • is more likely to create dependent relationships


  • focuses on strength
  • is concerned for one’s own growth
  • works with motivated people
  • matures the system
  • seeks enduring change
  • is concerned to define self (take stands)
  • is fed up with the treadmill
  • looks at one’s own stuckness
  • is challenged by difficult situations
  • recognizes that reactivity and sabotage are evidence of one’s effectiveness
  • has a universal perspective
  • sees problems as the focus of preexisting anxiety
  • adapts toward strength
  • has a challenging attitude that encourages responsibility
  • is more likely to create intimate relationships

….Leadership that is rooted in a sense of presence can also be misconstrued as a justification for passivity–for avoiding getting your feet wet, for just being, ‘nice so everyone will love or respect you.’  It can also lead to mistaken notions that data and method are unimportant, that the bottom line does not matter, or that outcome is irrelevant and the approach, therefore, impractical.  Leadership through self-differentiation is not easy; learning techniques and imbibing data are far easier.  Nor is striving or achieving success as a leader without pain: there is the pain in isolation, the pain of loneliness, the pain of personal attacks, the pain of losing friends.  That’s what leadership is all about. (pp. 230-233)