Edwin Friedman on Herding Families, Communities, & Congregations

by Drew 5 Comments

failure of nerveI’m a big fan of Edwin Friedman, a Rabbi, therapist, and leadership consultant best known as one of the fathers of Family Systems Theory.  Friedman built on the work of folks like Murray Bowen and applied it especially to congregational life in his classic Generation to Generation.

My favorite of his works is A Failure of Nerve, in which he applies his systems principles to leadership.  We discussed some of Friedman’s chief ideas on a recent WesleyCast episode (also available via iTunes).  Especially interesting to me of late are Friedman’s ideas about what he calls “herding.”

Friedman argues that, evolutionarily, progress depends on a careful balance between togetherness and individuality.  Anxiety in a system (read: a family, a company, a community, a church) causes a “herding instinct” that is anti-progress because it seeks to “smother” those forces of individuality.  Here are some nuggets I found particularly insightful, drawn from pp. 67-69.

  • “In the herding family, dissent is discouraged, feelings are more important than ideas, peace will be valued over progress, comfort over novelty.”
  • “…the herding family will wind up adopting an appeasement strategy toward its most troublesome members while sabotaging those with the most strength to stand up to the troublemakers.”
  • “…so rather than take stands with the most disturbed members and support those who stand tall, the herding family will adapt to the symptom-bearer…and at the same time undercut anyone who attempts to define himself or herself against the forces of togetherness.”

For Friedman, this herding mentality that results from anxiety is a textbook example of why societies, families, synagogues, and other institutions regress.  You might recognize this phenomenon if you’ve known someone who was the first in their family to go to college and did so against their family’s wishes, or observed how whole families will enable an addict rather than stand up to their dysfunction.

We see this kind of behavior in many anxious churches, where a herding congregation would rather continue to live with and tolerate toxic behavior from, say, a leading family’s son, because they are too afraid to take a stand against that person, even though his actions are harmful to the whole system.  Thus, in Friedman’s terms, they adapt to the dysfunction rather than stand up to it – and shut down or even shun anyone who would stand up to the origin of the dysfunction.

Do you see this played out in your family, your community, or in your church?

Tolle lege. Take up and read.  Give Friedman a hearing. No matter your profession, you’ll be glad you did.

Comments ( 5 )

  1. ReplyRussell Brownworth
    "Adapting to the dysfunction" may be the chief reason small churches stay small.
    • ReplyDrew
      Yes - a point well made, Russell. Thanks for reading and commenting.
      • ReplyRBrownworth@gmail.com
        Drew, if you don't stop recommending books you are either going to have to pay my Amazon bill, or explain to Elizabeth that it's all your fault I spend so much. Thanks for the heads-up on Friedman!
  2. ReplyPastor Jeremy Vickers
    Brilliant book and amazing author.
  3. ReplyPJ
    Herding occurs because the head shepherd, the pastor, has no nerve.....they are seduced into being liked, loved and wanted when the toxic folks feed them their "nice" cookies. Courage is not only recognizing dysfunction, it's doing something about it that moves the mission forward.

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