Your Church Is Like a Family

By LeRoy Lawson

Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue
Edwin H. Friedman
New York: The Guilford Press, 1985

A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix
Edwin H. Friedman
New York: Seabury Books, 2007

Friedman’s Fables
Edwin H. Friedman
New York: The Guilford Press, 1990

Where was Edwin Friedman’s Generation to Generation when I needed it? It’s out of print now, published in 1985, but fortunately still available in used books at I would have missed this one if it hadn’t been for a highly regarded minister friend who said, “This is a must-read.”

08_FMB_Lawson_JNHe said it revolutionized his pastoral counseling and his view of church leadership. It didn’t do that for me. Rather, it confirmed some of my longstanding convictions, the primary one being that churches (Rabbi Friedman would add synagogues, other organizations of all kinds) function like families, with all the blessings, privileges, frustrations, hidden emotional agendas, and intergenerational complications appertaining thereto.

Friedman’s major sections deal with family theory (understanding how families function), individual families within the congregation, the congregation itself as a family system, and the personal family of the clergy member (whether priest, rabbi, or minister). While his writing verges on the academic and cannot be skimmed through, each successive chapter repeats basic premises and offers enough case studies that after awhile there comes an “aha!” moment.

He offers practical suggestions to keep leaders from being captured by their followers, family members (of every generation) from manipulating or abusing one another, everyone from thinking the real issue is the so-called “reasonable” or stated one rather than the emotional or hidden one.

There are dysfunctional families. There are also dysfunctional churches. The dynamics, he cogently argues, are the same.

My long-favorite metaphor for the church is “the family of God.” Not that our behavior in church is always godlike. It isn’t. But it’s always like family.

Reading this book is like conversing with an intelligent, perceptive, unpredictable friend. Some of Rabbi Friedman’s counseling techniques—such as repeating information gained in the counselor’s office to the person the counselee has been critical of—strike me as extreme. As he recounts the incidents, though, his “tattling” seems to work. He’s not proposing we break confidences. He’s shifting the responsibility off the shoulders of the counselor and onto the offending and offended persons, often with positive effects.

His techniques are not for the timid, certainly not for what he calls the “undifferentiated” leader—the leader whose ego is so involved in and dependent on his congregation or family members that he cannot act independently, even when not to do so is endangering relationships and himself/herself. The antidote to such ineffectiveness, in addition to becoming a more independent personality, is to move into a less anxious mode, even while being more “present” to members of the congregation and family. A tall order, yet exactly the right prescription.

I’m going to read this book again, taking better notes next time. A few more sessions with this family counselor will make a better leader (and father/husband/grandfather) out of me.


Full of Insight

Well, Generation to Generation didn’t satisfy. Not because it isn’t a good book, but because it is such a good book. I wanted to read more by this wise man, so I turned to A Failure of Nerve. It is one of the most insightful books on leadership I have read.

It doesn’t differ all that much from the first one. Same themes, same warnings, same call to decisiveness and healthy self-differentiation, but with reflections written after 10 more years of thinking about the subject.

The author was an ordained Jewish rabbi and family therapist who worked in Washington, D.C., for 35 years. He founded Bethesda Jewish Congregation. Ah, how like churches are such synagogues.

Friedman’s family and friends completed A Failure of Nerve, most of which he wrote before his 1996 death. Once again he calls for separating oneself from the emotional miasma encircling all leaders; being certain of one’s values and vision; taking risks and being vulnerable; and expecting resistance and even sabotage from opponents (and the more successfully objectives are met, the fiercer that resistance and sabotage will be).

Several years ago I retired after a 20-year pastorate, and then retired again after 13 years as a small university president. Reading the author’s analysis of the leadership challenges in family, congregation, corporation, and university brings back memory upon memory. The man has been there. He feels our pain.

He describes the failure of nerve in America that undercuts leaders “who try to stand tall amidst the raging anxiety-storms of our time. It is a highly reactive atmosphere pervading all the institutions of our society—a regressive mood that contaminates the decision-making processes of government and corporations at the highest level, and, on the local level, seeps down into the deliberations of neighborhood church, synagogue, hospital, library, and school boards.”

Sabotage is inevitable, “not merely something to be avoided or wished away; instead, it comes with the territory of leading, whether the ‘territory’ is a family or an organization.”

The effective leader is “someone who can manage his or her own reactivity to the automatic reactivity of others, and therefore be able to take stands at the risk of displeasing.”

What the real leader needs, then, is not more information; too much of it can paralyze. Friedman’s ideal leader shuns the quick fix, provides calmness, clarity, and decisiveness. He exhibits stamina for the long haul, and accepts personal responsibility and rejects blame placing. “The emphasis here will be on strength, not pathology, on challenge, not comfort, on self-differentiation, not herding for togetherness. This is a difficult perspective to maintain in a ‘seatbelt society’ more oriented toward safety than adventure.”

As I said, these are familiar words to one who has read Generation to Generation. But they bear repeating, if only because these qualities seem so rare in our culture of anxiety.


Full of Delight

And now for dessert.

After the solid meat of Generation to Generation and A Failure of Nerve, we turn for a refreshing repast of parables to Friedman’s Fables. Here are the same lessons, but offered in digestible, delightful morsels that leave a pleasing—even if provocative—aftertaste. If you didn’t understand the Rabbi’s message in the other volumes, you will here, if only because of the helpful study guide sold with it.

I’m glad I read the books in this order, and without the discussion questions. Fables would have left me puzzled, the morals often not obvious. With the background of the earlier reading, though, they are immediately apparent.

And what are the morals? Here are a few:

“The Bridge” — When things start going really well, watch out.

“The Friendly Forest” — Reasonableness is the natural manure of terrorism.

“Round in Circles” — The most difficult habit to break is breaking the habit of others.

“Raising Cain” — The Apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

“The Power of Belief” — The way to cure an ostrich is to make him afraid of the dark.

“Attachment” — The umbilical cord is infinitely elastic.

Jesus taught in parables in which everyday incidents are fraught with eternal truth. Dr. Friedman’ simple stories have similar power.

Twenty-four fables are here, all helpful.

Enjoy your dessert.


LeRoy Lawson serves as international consultant with CMF International and professor of Christian ministries at Emmanuel Christian Seminary. He also serves as a CHRISTIAN STANDARD contributing editor and member of Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee.

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