The Psychiatrist, the Rabbi, and the Christian: A Review of Joe Rigney’s Leadership and Emotional Sabotage

By Joe Holland    |    March 14, 2024


For eighty years, Christian leaders have consulted the work of two non-Christian thinkers—Murray Bowen and Ed Friedman—in an attempt to understand the emotional dynamics at play in groups of people and how leaders can exercise courage in the midst of organizational crises and sabotage. Bowen and Friedman’s concepts offer secular descriptions of challenges that Christians and pastors regularly run across in families and congregations. Such quandaries include:

There are certainly others. However, these challenges (and more) are the reasons that Bowen and Friedman’s works, especially Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve, continue to find their way into the libraries of Christian pastors and leaders.

That has left Christian leaders and pastors with a singular question: How do you solve a problem like Ed Friedman?

Solving the Friedman Problem

It is a question that many pastors have tried to answer. And it is a problem that Joe Rigney has successfully answered with his newest book, Leadership and Emotional Sabotage, published by Canon Press (2024, 108 pages). I can personally testify that Friedman poses problems for pastors. Like Rigney, I first picked up a copy of A Failure of Nerve in the early 2010s. I was slogging away as a pastor in a new church plant, trying to make sense of congregational dynamics that seemed to defy much of what I had been taught in seminary. When I read Friedman’s work, I was struck with the same tension that Rigney describes in his introduction, that many of Friedman’s principles were surprisingly applicable to congregational leadership while at the same time, as Rigney relates, “[H]is theology and anthropology are lacking in some significant ways. He advocates a form of process theology, and his commitment to evolutionary biology is apparent throughout the book. As a result, readers have to wade through piles of dodgy theology and evolutionary gobbledygook in order to get the good stuff. What’s more, Friedman tends to operate with a specialized clinical vocabulary that often requires translation into more biblical language” (pp. 4–5). I’ll add at least two more problems to the problems that Rigney notes. First, Friedman died before finishing A Failure of Nerve. His unexpected death compounded the problems with the unfinished book in that Friedman’s writing style was such that he worked on all the chapters simultaneously rather than writing one at a time in serial fashion. Friedman’s death left A Failure of Nerve as a wholly incomplete work, especially the second half. The second problem is that there has yet to be a successful translation attempt of Friedman’s most poignant thinking into a thorough-going Reformed Protestant theology applicable to pastors and congregations.1

As a standalone work, Rigney’s book is excellent. It might be open to the critique of being too short or too simplistic. But these are due, I suspect, to editorial decisions and to Rigney’s desire to reach a broader audience (both decisions I applaud). What makes Rigney’s work commendable and worth your time is that he has done what no one else has been able to do: take the good from Friedman, jettison the ridiculous, translate it into thoroughly biblical language, and make it applicable for Christians in their families, churches, and in the world.

But before I get to Rigney’s work—to show its underlying value—it is important to trace the history of these concepts of how emotional factors function in relational systems through Friedman and his predecessor, Murray Bowen.

Murray Bowen, the Psychiatrist

Many of the concepts that Rigney recovers from Friedman are not originally Friedman’s concepts. They came from a clinical psychiatrist named Murray Bowen (1913–1990). Bowen started out as an Army surgeon. Though he was accepted into a surgical fellowship at the Mayo Clinic following his military service, he turned it down. As he worked with soldiers, his interest in surgery moved to psychiatry. So, instead of working as a surgical fellow at the Mayo Clinic, Bowen chose to pursue a fellowship at the Menninger Foundation and, later, at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

Most of Bowen’s work was done with the families of children diagnosed with schizophrenia who were in an inpatient care facility. From his work at both Menninger and NIMH, Bowen began to develop a theory for caring for families of mentally ill family members. The prevailing medical thinking at the time was that the clinical focus should be solely on the patient. What Bowen began to see was that behind the patient’s symptoms was a family system of interlocking relationships. Bowen also noted that this system was an emotional system that, at times, described how families function better than just looking at the traditional familial hierarchy (father, mother, siblings, etc.). Bowen began to develop his clinical practice in light of treating the emotional system rather than solely focusing on the individual patient. Out of this, he developed eight principles2 which he summarized as,

  1. Differentiation of Self
  2. Triangles
  3. Nuclear Family Emotional Process
  4. Family Projection Process
  5. Multi-Generational Transmission Process
  6. Sibling Position
  7. Emotional Cutoff
  8. Societal Emotional Process

Bowen was a true believer in how his system could help families. In true Evan Kane fashion, he demonstrated his principles in an unexpected way by presenting an academic paper citing his experience in his own family of origin as a case study.3 To illustrate this, imagine an ETS presenter pivoting a month before he was to deliver his paper on the topic of sanctification and instead presenting how he learned about sanctification growing up in his home as a kid. Bowen not only developed a new view, but he also applied it to his own life. Both Bowen’s new insights and personal passion for his academic work helped establish his theory—named Bowen Family Systems Theory, Family Systems Theory, or just Systems Theory—as a significant and novel departure from the prevailing canon of clinical psychiatry and family therapy.

Ed Friedman, the Rabbi

One person who benefited from Bowen’s work was Ed Friedman. Friedman was a rabbi, a family therapist, and a leadership consultant working with synagogues and churches. Friedman found Bowen’s work through his work in family therapy. Murray and Friedman knew each other and exchanged correspondence, especially as Friedman began to expand on Bowen’s work. There were at least three ways that Friedman extended Bowen’s work, which gets us closer to Rigney’s book.

First, Friedman had at least one significant disagreement with Bowen. Friedman believed that people in emotional systems can be malevolent (sincerely or insincerely). Bowen was unwilling to apply the labels of evil or malevolent to people. My hunch is that this departure from Bowen’s work was partly due to Friedman’s Jewish faith. As Rigney notes, “Friedman was a Jewish rabbi, and in some respects, his mind ran in biblical ruts” (p. 4). It would be difficult for someone who studied and taught the Old Testament not to believe in the existence of evil people and bad players in emotional systems. This allowed Friedman to develop the concept of sabotage within relational systems, something absent from Bowen’s work4 and a key insight of Rigney’s book.

Rigney is taking truths about how communities relate in emotional systems and showing how leaders in different spheres can honor Christ with these truths. ”

—Joe Holland

Second, Friedman’s work with synagogues and churches led to another application of Bowen’s work. Friedman noticed that congregations functioned more like families than they did commercial or civic organizations. This allowed him to start to think through how anxiety might affect the relationships (emotional system) in a synagogue or church. Where Bowen limited his scope to families in clinical settings, Friedman broadened Bowen’s concepts to churches, organizations, and society. This is especially insightful for pastors who tend to view their congregations in terms of organizational charts. An organizational chart is wholly deficient for describing how a congregation might function, how anxiety might be expressed among congregants, or how pastors might need to adjust their pastoring based on the relationships present in congregations. Along these lines, Friedman also noted that congregations were multi-generational. Not only are there often several familial generations present in a congregation (grandparents, parents, and children), but any congregation that stays around long enough to see a few funerals becomes multi-generational in the sense that the legacies of long-deceased members still exercise influence on a congregation, sometimes decades later. Most of these insights Friedman put down in his book, Generation to Generation.

The third way that Friedman extended Bowen’s work was in the area of leadership. Friedman had a keen interest in the effects of anxiety on emotional systems as they relate to leaders in families, congregations, and the world. As a family therapist (who followed Bowen Family Systems Theory) and as a leadership consultant who consulted with many synagogues and churches, Friedman spent his professional career developing the leadership aspect of Systems Theory with the ample anecdotal evidence he gathered from his clients.5 Friedman was working on a book on leadership when he died, the book that we all now know as A Failure of Nerve.

Joe Rigney, the Christian

So, why all this backstory? If you treat Rigney’s short book as a standalone piece on leadership in the home, church, and world, it is still immensely profitable and worth reading. But there is extended value to what Rigney does in Leadership and Emotional Sabotage if you are familiar with the works that preceded it. For much like Friedman extended Bowen’s work, Rigney is extending the work of both authors. And though neither Bowen nor Friedman were Christians, Rigney knows that all truth is God’s truth. He isn’t dabbling in psychiatry or peddling warmed-over “Judeo-Christian” leadership principles. Rigney is taking truths about how communities relate in emotional systems6 and showing how leaders in different spheres can honor Christ with these truths.

Rigney does this by breaking his book into two parts. Out of all the good principles from Friedman, Rigney picks a few, but not all.7 He chooses emotional systems, chronic anxiety, triangulation,8 herding, the well-differentiated leader, empathy, and sabotage. In part one (chapters one through three), he describes how these principles should be understood in biblical language and shows us how they are present in the biblical narrative. Part one is a master class on how to be both brief and concise and how to develop an argument that leads naturally to clear application. Part two (chapters four through six) is an application of these principles to the three primary spheres that Christian leaders find themselves in—home, church, and society.

In chapter one, Rigney draws on the Bible, Shakespeare, and Homer to show how the anxiety present in society is not just a general crisis but a crisis of degree. This is an important first step in accommodating Friedman’s thinking to biblical truth. By degree, Rigney includes both hierarchy and biblically defined spheres. He posits that “we are in a Crisis of Degree, [and] we should expect to see

  1. a breakdown of authority across the various spheres of society;
  2. a cascade of bitter rivalries and envy, mirror images of each other; and
  3. multiplying accusations, blame-shifting, and scapegoating” (p. 18).

Rigney closes the chapter by showing how these principles were active in mankind’s fall in the garden. By tying all of these truths together with the fall narrative, Rigney is able to provide a specific example and show how those implications of the fall extend into fallen creation.

In chapter two, Rigney builds on the concept of his crisis of degree. If we are in a crisis of degree, how can a leader lead through it? Friedman tries to answer this question with therapeutic language, building the idea of what he calls a “self/well-differentiated leader.” But as we’ve already covered, Friedman’s thoughts are woefully skewed by unbiblical thinking and clinical jargon. Rigney rightly expands on Friedman’s flawed terminology by translating Friedman’s thinking into appropriate biblical categories. And this translation work is a grounding concept for this book on leadership. A Christian leader must be sober-minded, a tragically neglected virtue for Christian leaders.9 By recovering a focus on sober-mindedness as a requisite for Christian leaders, Rigney shows how leaders can lead courageously and biblically in communities that show high levels of emotional turmoil.

In chapter three, Rigney describes the concept of sabotage. Friedman notes that when leaders decide that something needs to change and begin to take steps to fortify their leadership, it is at that point they should expect sabotage. This is an important principle for anyone who reads this book and thinks, “Rigney is describing me. I need to repent and grow in biblical leadership.” One in this position might be tempted to think, “Everything is going to get better now.” Unfortunately, that is usually not the case. As growing leaders begin to exercise renewed biblical leadership, the pushback is often negative and pronounced at first. How can a leader lead through this? Rigney gives a thoroughgoing response in chapter three before leaving behind the principle portion of the book and introducing the practical application that takes up the second half of his work.

Chapters four through six apply chapters one through three as they relate to the home, church, and world. Rather than detail these chapters, I’ll simply say that Rigney’s application flows easily from his principles. Pastors too often will give a book to a parishioner only to have that parishioner come back and say, “Those were profound ideas. Now what?” This is not that kind of book—principle-rich, application-poor. Both lay Christians and pastors will see the immediate applicability of Leadership and Emotional Sabotage.

In closing, I heartily recommend Rigney’s work. If you don’t care a bit about how these ideas have progressed from Bowen to Friedman to Rigney over the past eighty years, you can pick up the book, read it in a day, and leave better equipped to lead wherever God has placed you. But more than a standalone helpful book, Rigney’s Leadership and Emotional Sabotage unearths biblical truths that have been buried for too long and shows how a Christian can take God’s general truths, truths that non-Christians have observed in God’s world, and make the biblical majesty of those truths shine for God’s glory and the benefit of the church.

  1. On my shelf, I have a DMin dissertation that is a decent attempt at this from an RTS student but not fit for broad publication. There is also Bolsinger’s work, Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory, which is an inadequate attempt due to its over-reliance on conforming to the leadership genre of writing, in the author’s choice of Friedman’s weird fascination with sixteenth-century explorers as the important concept to draw from his work, and in its lack of solid Reformed theology.
  2. He originally developed six principles, published in 1966, and later added another two in the 1970s. See Michael Kerr and Murray Bowen, Family Evaluation, (New York: Norton, 1978), 13.
  3. Murray Bowen, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, (Lanham: Rowan & Littlefield, 2004), 468.
  4. This episode of the Non-Anxious Leader Podcast describes the difference between Bowen and Friedman on ill-intent and sabotage.
  5. Friedman took his anecdotal evidence and turned it into a book of leadership fables, aptly titled Friedman’s Fables.
  6. Emotions are notoriously understudied in Christian theology. For an excellent theological work on Christian emotions, see B.B. Warfield’s The Emotional Life of Our Lord. For an example of how a biblical emotion can be applied in a distinctively Christian way, see David Powlison’s Good and Angry.
  7. That Rigney didn’t write a longer adaptation of A Failure of Nerve means that there is more work to be done. I’d especially like to see a book written on why data-driven and technique-based approaches to leadership challenges don’t work.
  8. Rigney doesn’t mention FST triangles by name, but it is the theory behind how he describes responding to slander on p. 78.
  9. This is interesting considering how often sober-mindedness is mentioned in the New Testament: 1 Timothy 3:2; 3:11; 2 Timothy 4:5; Titus 2:2; 1 Peter 1:13; 4:7; 5:8.
Joe Holland

Joe Holland is professor of Christian ministry and academic dean for Grimké College. He also serves as managing editor for Grimké Seminary and College.

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