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Does Self-differentiation free you to be the person God has called you to be?

A person posing for the cameraPeople of Hope:

At our most recent council meeting, I shared with the council members one of the “bread and butter” concepts we learn in seminary: self-differentiation. When I learned about self-differentiation in seminary, I thought it was a high-flutin’ idea that would gather dust on my church office shelf. That couldn’t be further from the truth! As a leader in the church, self-differentiation is probably the most helpful tool I have ever learned.

How I articulate self-differentiation is: “No matter what you do or say to me, I am kind and loving to you” (not to YOU specifically, People of Hope, but to people in general). Because no one else chooses for me what I say and do. Even if you try to provoke me. Even if I think you’re wrong. Even if you do something hateful, unjust, or disrespectful. Self-differentiation allows me to act with integrity no matter what you say or do. In fact, what others say and do has no bearing on how I treat them.

Some of my past pastoral relationships helped bring this into relief. On a regular basis in both of my previous calls, people who were struggling with a variety of life circumstances would come to me to register complaints. As a young pastor, when people would come to register their complaints, my instinct was to defend myself or the church. My instinct was to show the person how wrong they were and how right I was. My instinct was to respond emotionally to the person in front of me. I recall a particular time when I finally, finally understood self-differentiation.

It was the summer of 2015, and a young man had come to my office to register a complaint about the heat respite program at Grace. Because I happened to be free to talk with him around lunchtime, I asked if he would like to go into the fellowship hall and sit down together to eat lunch and talk. He agreed. We got our food, and through bites, I asked him, “What’s going on?” He told me that the church wasn’t doing anything good for the people there. He noted the various things we did not provide him or others. He spoke about the problems in our program. He said, through bites of food, “You don’t do anything for us.” I looked around the room where 200 people experiencing homelessness were eating lunch. I thought about the water room where 30 ministry partners, mostly congregations, had donated thousands of bottles of water. I silently checked off in my head the various ways we had helped people with clothing, shoes, hygiene products and also computer time, stamps, help with getting state ID and birth certificates, letting people use the phone and providing bus tickets so people could get to job interviews and medical appointments. This young man was angry—but not about Grace or the heat respite program. So I apologized for the shortcomings of the program, asked him what he thought would make it better, and after a bit of conversation, received his thanks for the lunch.

According to Edwin Friedman who wrote Failure of Nerve, differentiation “is the capacity to take a stand in an intense emotional system.” When others are anxious, the self-differentiated leader remains connected to those who are anxious but doesn’t react to them. The self-differentiated person remains non-anxious, not just non-anxious-looking but actually non-anxious. The self-differentiated leader doesn’t get pulled into the “drama” of any church family, workplace, or system. In doing so, the self-differentiated leader loves the people in front of them no matter what anxiety they may be carrying with them.

I have gratefully received words of thanks for the joy I share here at Esperanza. Beyond the presence of the Holy Spirit in my life and the opportunity to serve others, self-differentiation is my next best source of my joy.

Please let me know if you would like to talk about this—or anything else! I’d be delighted.

With joy,

Pastor Sarah