Energy, Vision, and Naiveté

Energy, Vision, and Naiveté

In my mid-30s, I was invited to become the senior pastor of a large suburban church north of Atlanta, Georgia. In many ways it was the opportunity I had been preparing for since my seminary and grad school days.

I was full of energy, vision, and naiveté.

Jim JohnsonAfter spending a year getting to know the people and the state of the church, it was clear to me that the church was stagnant and not prepared structurally to succeed in its mission for the coming years.

To revitalize it, I led the church to reframe its mission and governing structure so that it would be more nimble to deal with the changing times. So far, so good. Then, I dared to tip a sacred cow. While we left the traditional service in place, we launched a contemporary worship service that would resonate more with those in our community who were outside the church but were looking in with interest.

The early returns were positive as many new people were attracted to the contemporary service. The church was growing again, and a renewed spirit of hope and fulfillment was pervasive—except where it wasn’t. The traditional service was declining. What I know now, but clearly didn’t know then, is that anytime you try to transition a church, or any other organization, you create friction. And where there is friction, heat begins to rise. And where there is heat, smoke will soon appear. And where there is smoke, well, that means a fire is smoldering!

Soon, critical notes appeared in my inbox. People were highly emotional and vocal in their criticism in church meetings. People made numerous accusations that I didn’t care about older members of our congregation and others called for my resignation. Frankly, it was hard for me to process. The church was growing again. All the key indicators for success in the church were going up and to the right.

But I had a significant group of people who were, to use a biblical reference, calling for my head on a platter.

It became uncomfortably obvious to me that as a leader I had bitten off way more than I could chew. I don’t remember who—I wish I did—but an acquaintance recommended the book Generation to Generation by Ed Friedman. “It might help you lead through this transition,” they’d said. When I received the book, I skipped the foundational chapters and went straight to the one devoted to leadership. I soon learned that the changes I had introduced had injected a significant amount of anxiety into what Friedman referred to as the family system of the church.

This anxiety sparked a wide variety of emotion-driven responses from the members of the church who most acutely felt the disequilibrium brought on by the changes. To lead through—or just survive—these emotional responses, Friedman recommended three things:

  1. Differentiate yourself by defining your sense of vision, convictions, and values,
  2. Remain non-anxious, i.e., don’t react emotionally to other people’s emotional reactions and remain as calm as possible, and
  3. Reach out to your detractors and seek to remain relationally connected to them without giving up your identity or vision.

With only a modicum of psychological understanding, I decided to give Friedman’s strategy a try. The supreme test came not long after. The 12 previous chairmen of the church’s board called me to an evening meeting. In my naiveté, I thought they simply wanted to hear how the new changes were impacting the growth and well-being of the church.

To the contrary, they wanted to meet to discern whether I should continue in the role of senior pastor. Some asked questions out of curiosity, others asked pointed questions. And a few grilled me. All the while, I tried to apply Friedman’s wisdom. I remained as calm as possible even in the tensest moments, refusing to react personally and emotionally to their queries. At every opportunity I reiterated who I am and recast my vision of where the church should go. A couple of times I found a way to interject a little humor into the conversation and did my best to connect relationally to them.

When all their questions had been addressed, they told me they were going to go around the room one by one and give me a thumbs up or thumbs down as to whether I should remain as their pastor. Gulp. And one by one, 11 of the 12 gave me a thumbs up.

That moment was a turning point in my leadership and many of those men would become my closest friends and biggest advocates over the next ten years. I’m fully convinced that applying Friedman’s three principles in that transitional process is what enabled me not only to remain sane (and employed) but also to have a season of successful leadership at the church.

That experience compelled me to study and read more about Friedman’s theory. Doing so has helped me continue to grow and mature as a leader over the past 30 years. Because it has made such a significant difference in my life, I am always eager to share it with other leaders I meet. But frankly, it’s been a challenge to communicate it clearly to others because Friedman’s approach is based on a psychological theory of human behavior, and the vocabulary he uses is not readily accessible for the average person. Leadership by the differentiation of self is not a “hooky” description—a lot of folks have difficulty even pronouncing the word differentiation.

Out of frustration, I thought seriously about writing a book which would lay out Friedman’s leadership theory in a more accessible way.

As I began my preliminary research, I found Bob Duggan’s and Bridgette Theurer’s book Resilient Leadership 2.0.

It took me only a couple of chapters to realize they had written the book I’d been searching for. Bob and Bridgette translate the best of Friedman’s leadership thoughts into accessible and easy to remember principles and concepts. And that’s why I became a certified Resilient Leadership coach and trainer.

If you are facing challenges brought on by crisis, conflict, or change, Resilient Leadership principles will help you manage the emotional dynamics of your organization by learning to manage your own. And as a result, your leadership effectiveness and credibility will increase!

Jim Johnson

Jim Johnson
If you’d like more information, encouragement, or coaching, explore the Resilient Leadership website, or you can reach Jim at
Senior Pastor — Preston Trail Community Church

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