Self-differentiation is a term crafted by family systems thinker Murray Bowen in the early 1960s. In his studies of how families interacted with one another, Bowen noticed that some people were more able to distinguish themselves from their own families, and some less able to do that. Those who could had the ability to make decisions that were independent of the emotional pull of their families. While they were influenced by their emotional ties, they were able to act independently. Self-differentiated people were also able to separate their feelings from their thoughts and actions.
There were degrees of this, Bowen said, with some people being more self-differentiated and some less so. People who are less self-differentiated are likely to value the approval and acceptance of others very highly. They are more likely to “go along with the crowd” rather than question the crowd’s actions or to take a stand against the crowd.
The New Leader is someone who values the opinions and thoughts of others, but can stand outside the circle of affirmation when necessary. The approval and acceptance from others are important, but the need for that does not overwhelm the New Leader’s sense of self, sense of what’s right, and ability to make decisions thoughtfully and for the good.
New Leaders also have the capacity to stay in touch with those who disagree. Staying in touch means that the personal and working relationships continue, even if there is disagreement about an issue. This is essential in a congregational setting where there will be disagreement simply because there are always a variety of opinions, and always competition for resources such as money, volunteer time and energy. Staying in the conversation is important.
New Leaders also understand that drawing boundaries around bad behavior is necessary to have a healthy congregation, even if it means that someone who can’t live with those boundaries may end up leaving, or being asked to leave. Congregations that allow people to behave badly, experience damage in their sense of community and trust that can have long-lasting ramifications. An excellent resource for those wanting to read more about Self-differentiation and leadership in the church is Peter Steinke’s book Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times. This book is very readable and highly recommended.