An Appreciation of Edwin Friedman, by Rev. William McD. Tully

A turning point in my ministry was the day in late 1981 that I asked the late Edwin Friedman for some pastoral supervision. In those days, he was only talking about his book Generation to Generation, for which a whole generation have come to know him. But what he had to say about emotional process and a dizzying variety of subjects changed my way of thinking and working.

My parents told me, “You can be anything you set out to be.”

When Ed Friedman came along in my life, he said, “Be who you are,” or to use his exact words, “Define the hell out of yourself.”

My parents’ belief in me enabled me to find my work and to be offered a chance to lead. Ed’s mentorship made real leadership possible.

Ed had an arresting way of telling the truth that got my attention, and I know I wasn’t alone. The first time I chanced to hear him (an informal talk with questions and answers at a clergy meeting), he came on as something of a nebbish and said quietly, “There are two things I’d like to start with. One is that if you are leader, expect sabotage. The other is that only about 75% of what I’m about to say is true.”

I always find a combination of authority and modesty to be compelling. There I was, reluctant to be at a meeting where, by long experience, I knew to expect little but mediocrity – and I heard a word of truth.

Ed always said that he had worked in Washington in the three main human systems – politics, religion and psychotherapy – and that after thirty years he had seen little change. I guess it was a way of helping us be realistic and not idealistic about our work, but there was something about the way he loved congregational ministry that made me think that change is in fact possible in and through those systems.

When he died suddenly nearly three years ago, he was working on a book about leadership. He knew, and many of his eager and attentive students knew, that he had something deeper to say than the flashy, thin treatises that line the business, self-help and political sections at Barnes and Noble. But his utterly original world of ideas and experiences meant that it would have been a struggle to sell to a mass market. We’ll never know if you had to be there with Ed to get it, or whether a larger culture could thrill to his insights.

As a rabbi, he had been drawn to civil rights work in the Johnson administration. He worked in a reform congregation and then founded his own synagogue before turning to family therapy. He became a disciple of Murray Bowen, and he took Bowen’s self-differentiation scale and generational transmission of emotional process and creatively applied them to religious systems.

Though I first sought him for what I thought would be conventional supervision, I soon found that there was little conventional about Ed. Immediately he got me thinking about the futility – and omnipresence – of the triangle in human relations. He disciplined me to see the interlocking triangles of my own family of origin, the families of my congregation, and the congregation as a family system.

As a Christian, my debt to my Jewish mentor was that he gave me a systematic way to think psychologically, but in a way that was really more applicable to my real work, and more compatible with the Biblical tradition, than the so-called pastoral counseling movement which had so heavily influenced my seminary teachers and me in the 70’s.

Ed could be at his fascinating best when he brought his unique systematic thinking to pastoral and church managerial crises. He never failed to surprise, enlighten and, in his own way, entertain. He was a real pastor to some, giving out his home phone to a diverse collection of religious leaders who could, and did, call at all hours in need of a saving word.

In fact, after one particularly spectacular clergy conference in the South, a grateful minister had had some bumper stickers made. A colleague of Ed’s nearly drove off the road when he spotted one. He called Ed, and I’ve never seen him more childishly delighted than when he told a few of us what it said: “Jesus saved my soul. Rabbi Friedman saved my ass.”

I never felt “saved” by the Friedman system or mystique, but I felt enormously empowered and given courage by his take on leadership by self-definition. My vision of the parish is one of pushing for diversity of styles, opinions, theologies and attractions, not settling for the genteel sectarianism that has so characterized my own denomination. That is often mystifying for both leader and congregant. Ed helped me define myself in such a way that I could remain connected to people whether we agreed or not. When the unconscious contract is that members choose congregations and leaders based on agreement, that is a saving insight. Maybe my rabbi really did “save” me.

The Rev. William McD. Tully is rector of St. Bartholomew’s Church in New York City.

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