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Differentiation & Leadership: Differentiation 101

I have been teaching a series at our leader’s meetings focusing on the concept of Self-Determination or Differentiation. When I was in Graduate School Bowenian Therapy was one of the first models we were taught. It has a perspective that has extraordinary relevance for the recent issues we face in our churches.

Differentiation is first and foremost about anxiety. It’s about how we over-blend or disconnect from people. The more anxiety others trigger in us the more we make them the problem! But they are infecting us with what’s already in us. A healthy sense of differentiation allows us to lean into the relationship without losing self. We really can’t love or serve if we are too preoccupied with what’s going to happen to our self. In terms of theory, differentiation has a few basic concepts:

  1. A focus on the emotional process rather than the symptoms.

  2. Seeing effects as parts of structures rather than the result of lineal cause.

  3. Eliminating symptoms by modifying structure rather than changing the individual part.

  4. Predicting the functioning of a part or individual based on its position in the system.


We will explore these concepts throughout the series.


A few core concepts…


Differentiation is about how we bind anxiety. Humans can become overwhelmed and need a release valve, or we collapse or shut down. We bind anxiety in different ways triangles, cutoffs, family projection:


Triangles we bind our anxiety using a third issue or person that we have big feelings around. Examples of binding anxiety include:

· Gossip

· Bigotry or Discrimination

· Hazing, teasing, bullying

· Injustice, favoritism, elitism


Believe it or not we lose self when we triangulate ourselves against other people. We become “wound-mates” with others and commiserate about “the problem”. When we make another person the problem it usually affects our ability to solve it. The term wound-mates applies to folks who have little self and create a bond built around brokenness. The relationships we create become bound by the glue we use to connect them. Be very careful about the glue you use to hold your relationships together. If the glue is based on the list stated above, you’re in trouble.


Paul blocks making any person a third thing as we see particularly in Galatians regarding circumcision. Paul is not okay with undue pressure being placed on people who are different from the traditional worshiper. In other words, Paul is saying, “You don’t get to come into the Kingdom and use your brother or sister as a place to bind your anxiety”.


Cutoff is another area that ails relationships. In the age of “Cancel Culture” we see quite a bit of cutoff in relationships. During the recent election season, we witnessed countless examples of disconnect and cutoff. Cutoff is most apparent in family systems wherein people have been estranged from relatives for years. Paul blocks canceling relationships in the church and instead calls us to be ministers of reconciliation.


Family Projection is where we have grief or wounds that we place onto the next generation and call it loyalty. Those issues become legacy burdens for the next generation. Paul blocks the Jews from transferring those legacy burdens onto the Gentiles. This is important because in order for the next generation to be able to mature, they need a sense of self that is not encumbered by unhealthy loyalties to the previous generation.


How do we understand this biblically? In the next blog we will explore how Paul addresses this tension in his letter to Corinth.

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