Peace-Mongering Middlers: Taking Ed Friedman to the Council of Bishops

Bishop Bruce Ough recently drew on the work of Rabbi Ed Friedman in his opening sermon for the anxiously awaited Council of Bishops meeting happening this week in Chicago.  It is from this gathering that we are expecting the final recommendation following the Commission on a Way Forward concluding its work recently.  He quotes Friedman, out of the new book Canoeing the Mountains, to point out the need to go beyond “imaginative gridlock” and see problems from fresh perspectives.  Certainly this is true.  But Friedman’s relevance to the Council of Bishops runs far deeper.

Edwin Friedman describes the leader of a dysfunctional organization as a “peace-monger.” He goes on to define it thus:

“By that I mean a highly anxious risk-avoider, someone who is more concerned with good feelings than progress, someone whose life revolves around the axis of consensus, a ‘middler,’ someone who is…incapable of taking well-defined stands….someone who functions as if she had been filleted of her backbone, someone who treats conflict or anxiety like mustard gas.”

Friedman concludes, “Such leaders are often ‘nice,’ if not charming.” (1)

In the opening chapter of his classic book A Failure of Nerve, the systems theorist describes four traits of poor leadership he has observed in America’s families and institutions. See if any of these qualities sound familiar:

  • “A regressive, counter-evolutionary trend in which the most dependent members of any organization set their agendas and where adaptation is constantly toward weakness rather than strength, thus leveraging power to the recalcitrant, the passive-aggressive, and the most anxious members of an institution…”
  • “A devaluation of the process of individuation so that leaders tend to rely more on expertise than on their own capacity to be decisive.”
  • “An obsession with data and technique that has become a form of addiction and turns professionals into data junkies and their information into data junkyards.”
  • “A widespread misunderstanding about the relational nature of destructive processes in families and institutions that leads leaders to assume that toxic forces can be regulated through reasonableness, love, insight, role-modeling, inculcation of values, and striving for consensus. It prevents them from taking the kind of stands that set limits to the invasiveness of those who lack self-regulation.” (2)

Bishop Ough laments throughout his sermon that the COB has functioned as a group of leaders rather than a leadership group.  But the answer to this is not as easy as re-framing or re-narrating the problem. At some point, a leader has to own up to their own failures. Jocko WIllink, a retired Navy SEAL and leadership consultant, points out the need for effective leaders to take ownership of their failures in this TED Talk (and the book he co-authored, Extreme Ownership).

As the old expressions says, “a fish stinks from its head.” The Council is as divided as the church, but rather than leading healthy conflict, our bishops function mostly as nice executives who do not want to risk much.  The entire project of the Commission presumes the highest goal of the church is to keep as many constituencies happy rather than lead in a decisive manner. Too many of our Bishops are peace-mongering middlers so obsessed with kindness and consensus that they are unable to take a stand in any direction.

When people ask me what I think will happen in 2019 – as we discussed on the most recent WesleyCast – I tell them I don’t think anything will happen.  This is precisely why.  The cloying language of reframing and imagination simply masks an allergy to confront the brutal facts and name destructive forces. For all the talk of holy conferencing, letting go of one’s own preferences, and other rhetorical narcotics, every indication is that the Bishops are going to propose ‘solutions’ that have already been put forward and rejected by multiple General Conferences.

Talk about needing to get out of imaginative gridlock…

  1. A Failure of Nerve, pp. 13-14.
  2. Ibid., pp. 12-13

4 comments

  1. Well said. They have not given radical, visionary leadership in 50 years, as a body. Why should we expect that now?

  2. There is something organically wrong with our “calling” discernment. We (like most mainline Protestant churches) have an extremely highly educated “workforce.” And yet, it has failed at its singularly most important and frequently trumpeted goal of making disciples of Jesus (for the transformation of the world). Measures are being taken: goal setting, evaluations, transition training, peer groups, coaching and more. These are business practices. The occupants of the COB have “risen” through our broken system. Is the Peter Principle at work? Are the criteria for selection flawed? If a person was leading a healthy growing church, why would they EVER leave to become a Bishop?

  3. Apparently, Wespath is getting ready, anticipating a divide! They have already sent out notice to all of us with investments. They are prepared to take care of all investors/pensioners, they say.

    This book you reference, Edwin Friedman’s ‘Failure of Nerve’ is a book I have presented to bishops who have come to serve among us in our episcopal area.

    For years Friedman has been a favorite author of mine… perhaps the Council of Bishops should read “Friedman’s Fables” as morning and evening devotions when they meet! It might untangle them from the leadership mess they live out!

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