Thursday, August 2, 2007

Immunity in Community: The Role of the Leader

In his posthumously published work, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, Edwin Friedman argues that leaders, whether "parents or presidents," serve as the immune system for the family or organization. The function of leaders is to help the body politic preserve its integrity in the face of hostile environments. Critical to this function is the ability to hold people accountable for their behavior, maintain boundaries, and raise the threshold for pain (which is different from harm) in the service of growth.

Sounds to me like the job description for parish priests.

Notice that Friedman doesn't say that the main requirement of effective leadership is the ability to empathize - to "feel" other's pain. In fact, he argues just the opposite: the main requirement is the ability to challenge others, to increase their pain threshold (emotionally speaking, which may manifest somatically) as a means to promote greater individual and corporate integrity. Friedman defines leadership in this way because of his understanding of the nature of threats to personal and social "bodily" integrity.
All entities that are destructive of to other entities share one major characteristic that is totally unresponsive to empathy: they are not capable of self-regulation . . . this fundamental characteristic of regressive entities is the basis for two derivative attributes that all pathogenic forces or entities also have in common, whether they are the cells of an organism, the individuals in an organization, or the members of a family. One attribute is this: all organisms that lack self-regulation will be perpetually invading the space of their neighbors. (Their restlessness seems to give them a resolute stamina that the "good guys" can rarely muster.) The second attribute is: organisms that are unable to self-regulate cannot learn from their experience, which is why the unmotivated are invulnerable to insight. (p. 138)

Friedman points out that humans who are unable to self-regulate always expect others to adapt to them; you know you've met such people when life in the community is organized around them, either to avoid or accommodate them. Every congregation has at least one such person; in fact, most have several. Friedman helpfully lists ten characteristics of these "viral" or "malignant" members of the body who can't seem to help but destroy the integrity of the community if given the chance:
  • They tend to be easily hurt "injustice-collectors," slow healers who are given to victim attitudes . . .
  • They tend to idolize their leaders until their unrealistic expectations fail, whereupon they are quick to crucify their "gods." (There is a parasitic quality to their bonding.)
  • Their intent is often "innocently provocative"; they do not see themselves as bent on destruction. The pathology they promote is rather 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, as with the most primitive forms of life, is limited to being "on" or "off." This manifests itself in their linear, black-and-white formulations of life; their unconditional, with-us-or-against-us attitudes; and their inability to tolerate differences or dissent.
  • They tend to focus on procedure and on rituals, and, as if their heads did not swivel, they get stuck on the content of issues rather than on being able to view the surrounding emotional processes that are spawning the issues.
  • The find that light and truth, the element that is most healthy to other forms of life, is toxic to their nature . . .
  • They seem to be driven by their reptilian brains rather than their cortex and thus manifest three basic characteristics of the reptilian way of life: they have a high degree of reactivity, a narrow range of responses, and of course they are always serious - deadly serious.
  • . . . they tend to ooze into, if not directly interfere in, the relationships of others. Thus they wreck staff communication and connections, and bypass, if not subvert, democratic processes.
  • They tend to be easily stampeded and panicked into group-think, thus fusing with others like them into an undifferentiated mass (like a tumor).
  • They are unforgivingly relentless and totally invulnerable to insight. Unless walled off and totally defeated, they tend to come back with a vengeance, as when an antibiotic is not taken for the fully prescribed period. (pp. 144-146)
Friedman makes another point about such people that is crucial to understand in congregations: These kinds of "organisms" often express themselves with beautiful "values." The problem is not in their beliefs; it is in how they function with those beliefs. (p. 146) They can talk the talk, but they can't walk the walk.

The only way to deal with such people is to make it clear that if they want to be a part of the community, they have to adapt to it, and not the other way around. (p. 147) By adapting to the community, Friedman does not mean rigid conformity, but just the opposite: the ability to be self-differentiated enough to tolerate other people's self-differentiation, which is the only basis for authentic difference-in-community. Anything less tends toward emotional fusion, immaturity, and infantalizing dependency.

Despite their potential to create pathology, pathogens do not have the power to create pathology on their own. There must also be a lack of self-regulation in the host. (p. 150) Leaders must take strong stands to preserve the integrity of their communities, even if that means the "pathogenic" personalities must adapt OR LEAVE. As Friedman emphasizes, the focus here is not on destroying "foreign" invaders, but on preserving the integrity of the body. We are not responsible for how others respond to our self-regulation, but we ARE responsible for our own self-regulation. The problem with "empathic" leaders (especially priests!) is that we often don't know how to set boundaries and then let go of the need to manage the other's reactivity to our challenge.

In most instances, we don't have to "kick out" the pathogenic personalities. If we continue to set boundaries and hold such people accountable consistently over a period of time, they eventually will either adapt or leave of their own accord and look for some new "host" to "invade." But this is hard work for leaders, especially perhaps for priests, who tend toward conflict avoidance. It also can be lonely work. But it is worth it if we love our communities and want to preserve their capacity to be places of life, health and spiritual growth.

Friedman offers some important ideas for practicing leadership in congregations. How might we understand the "Disciplinary Rubrics" on page 409 of the Book of Common Prayer, or Matthew 18:15-18, in light of Friedman's work?


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Brilliant, John. Thank you.

Christopher said...

Fr. John,

My comments are in my latest post.

Fr. John said...

Please do check out Christopher's comments at

Some initial thoughts about the questions I raised at the end of my post: 1) church discipline is about preserving the integrity of the community. This is an important point, reframing discipline as something that fosters maturity rather than simply punishing "bad" people; 2) church discipline should focus on behavior, not beliefs. We tend to focus on content rather than the underlying emotional processes that really poison the health of our communities. Church discipline should attend to emotional process, and not focus on the content of this or that doctrinal controversy. The focus on human sexuality is a red herring in the Anglican Communion today, preventing us from addressing the underlying pathological emotional process.

Lay Psychotherapist said...

Both you and Christopher say important, useful things, and I like the way Christopher quietly integrates the equal importance of lay leadership in his comments in a way that reframes your statement that this type of leadership is a description for a parish priest.

The place where I disagree with Christopher is in his support of the otherness of the priest. I believe the belief and practice of otherness by clergy is one of the principle sources of the consistent psychopathology that one sees among the ordained. I say this as a pastoral psychotherapist (lay Christian) entering my 12th year in private practice.

This belief that priesthood is a way of being, rather than a function exercised as one among the many leadership ministries in the parish contributes to the endemic instances of depression, narcissism, anxiety, schizoid personalities and paranoid processes that one sees in parish clergy. Not just the Episcopal Clergy, of course, I've seen it in Roman Catholic and Orthodox clergy as well.

It's an open question, of course, whether psychopathologic personalities are attracted to holy orders or whether the crazy way the church operates either intensifies potential psychopathology or engenders it.

I wonder, then, if the problem with congregations is weak leadership by the conflict-avoidant priest in the face of destructive congregants or is it canonically helpless congregants in the face of pathological priests.

p.s. If the priesthood is afflicted by an unusually high percentage of pathology, the Episcopate seems even more damaged.

How can the church address the psychopathology in the pews until it addresses the psychopathology in the pulpit.