Why do some Christian leaders handle life’s pressures with resilience, while others fail miserably under the same pressures?
Dr. Christopher Howard, an associate professor of business management at Pfeiffer University, examines this question in Be Different: Finding the Resilience to Lead (Kindle Direct Publishing), a new book he has co-authored with Rev. Andrew Gross, the associate pastor at Bethel Christian Fellowship in St. Paul.
Be Different is written in a lively, accessible style. It draws on Howard’s past research into leadership resiliency, and each of its chapter beginnings uses a different episode from a fictional story to introduce and illuminate various concepts. The story recounts what happens after Petr Wolansky, the busy pastor of a prosperous church in suburban Indianapolis, flees home and family in response to personal and ministerial challenges.
Petr’s whereabouts are unknown when the story begins. Jennifer, Petr’s wife, and Alfonso, his friend, know only that Petr has left behind a note threatening to commit suicide two days before his 45th birthday.
“Why was Petr in trouble?” the book asks. “What was he missing that made his trials so hard for him?”
Be Different argues that what was missing (in Petr and others like him) was a biblical differentiation of self, a kind of Christian twist on differentiation, a term that Murray Bowen, the noted therapist, coined about 60 years ago.
In a recent interview, Howard talked a bit more about biblical differentiation of self and how his book can help you realize it. He also touched on other topics, including his research, his working relationship with Gross, and his hopes for Be Different.
Dr. Howard, congratulations on the publication of Be Different. In it, you argue that Christian leaders can handle pressures and (emerge even better) by cultivating a biblical differentiation of self. What does biblical differentiation share in common with Bowen’s differentiation and how is it different?
It shares almost everything in common. Differentiation of self, as it occurs within a person, is viewed as the ability to separate thinking and feeling, particularly in situations in which the tendency for emotionality to override thinking is the greatest (Kerr, 1984; Kerr & Bowen, 1988). Self-differentiation involves being able to possess and identify your own thoughts and feelings and distinguish them from others. It's a process of not losing connection to self while holding a deep connection to others, including those you love but whose views may differ from yours.
In our book, we are simply formulating a new term: biblical differentiation, which, obviously, would only be applicable to those who are Christians or those who believe in the Bible. Biblical differentiation differs from Bowen’s concept mainly in how one becomes differentiated. The process of biblical differentiation deals with three core elements, which are the created self, the re-created self, and the self-in-relation. In the first half of Be Different, we unpack these elements in great detail, and in the book’s fifth chapter, we illustrate how Jesus possessed this differentiation.
The second half of Be Different explains how Christian leaders can cultivate a more biblically differentiated self. Could you give us a sneak peek introduction?
We get very pragmatic in this section, offering research-based advice in several areas. The first area of developmental antecedents is Developmental Assignments; here, we unpack such obstacles to effective leadership as increased responsibility, working with people from other cultures, and major change implementation in your organization. The second area is Developmental Experiences; here, we look at persevering through perceived or real professional barriers. We also explore ways of overcoming such factors as traumatic or negative emotionally laden life experiences, challenging childhood experiences, and personal mistakes. The last two areas are Developmental Training and Developmental Relationships.
Be Different is based on your published research into leadership resiliency. Could you tell us a bit more about what this research entails and how we can learn more about it?
The original research, which was conducted in 2013, can be accessed at http://asbbs.org/files/ASBBS2013V1/PDF/H/Howard_Irving(679-687).pdf It looked at how leaders develop or form, and it examined the link between hardships or obstacles in those who had become leaders and the development of higher levels of resiliency.
Subsequent related research focused on leadership formation in its entirety, informing an article that was published in 2014: https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/MRR-03-2013-0072/full/html
Finally, in 2019, I finished a research project that looked at cross-cultural differences. The study was conducted in the US, India, and Germany. It is in the final stages of being published as well.
What inspired you to take the next step, namely writing Be Different?
Well, this is a longer story, but I will give you the quick version. Andrew Gross was a master’s student in a leadership program at Bethel University that was led by my colleague, Dr. Justin Irving, who assisted me with my research. Andrew came across my research and asked Justin if he could have my contact info to discuss it. Andrew called me, we hit it off and took steps toward this book project. Andrew and I hold similar views on many issues in American churches, including the lack of discipleship and many churchgoers not really seeming to understand their new identity in Christ. We envision working together on more books down the line.
How do you hope your book will be received among Christians and/or in church communities?
Well, I hope it is well received. Any time that you write a “Christian” book, though, some readers will not like the personal theology that inevitably emerges in it. Our hope is that readers don’t simply focus on potential theological differences, but rather, on the main points of biblical differentiation and building resilience. Both Be Different and the research that underlies it are inspired by Romans 5:2-5 and focus on discipleship – just the kind of thing that church groups could study and discuss.
How will Be Different enhance or inform your teaching at Pfeiffer? Could the book become required reading in one of your courses and, if so, which one?
There is no doubt that the research, the book itself, and ongoing work in this area of leadership formation have enhanced and informed my teaching at Pfeiffer. Students will be the first to tell you that what they love and appreciate about my classes is the “real world” knowledge and experiences that I bring to the classroom. Learning isn’t just about existing knowledge but, rather, about engaging with this knowledge and your own experiences to produce wisdom and, perhaps, new knowledge. Certainly, Be Different could be required reading in a Survey of Leadership or a University Seminar course.
Ken Keuffel, who authored this article, has served as Pfeiffer’s Assistant Director of Communications since December 2019. He welcomes story ideas from Pfeiffer’s faculty, staff, students, alumni, and friends. The form for submitting story ideas is at www.pfeiffer.edu/newsform.