Leadership and Emotional Sabotage

Michael Clary

How Christian Leaders Can Keep Their Heads When Everyone Else Is Losing Theirs

The late Edwin Friedman was an ordained rabbi, family therapist, and leadership consultant. His most popular book, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, was posthumously published in 1997. Even though Friedman was not a Christian, A Failure of Nerve has nevertheless gained a sort of cult following in Christian leadership circles over the last decade due to its applicability to modern challenges.

I was first exposed to Friedman’s book in 2021 during a leadership crisis in my own church. It was unlike anything I’d ever read. As I progressed through its pages, I began to recognize the biblical truth behind what Friedman described from his secular, psychological perspective. I found his insights profoundly helpful. Why? 

Unlike other books on leadership principles, Friedman’s approach to leadership doesn’t focus on techniques or productivity hacks but on relationships and group dynamics. In particular, he shows how leaders often unintentionally allow themselves to be manipulated by highly anxious and immature people. Since this book was first published in 1997, this phenomenon has only increased and grown more obvious. However, I hesitated to recommend the book because of its reliance on secular, evolutionary psychology.

Enter Joe Rigney. His short but excellent book, Leadership and Emotional Sabotage: Resisting the Anxiety that Will Wreck Your Family, Destroy Your Church, and Ruin the World,  demonstrates how Friedman’s insights track with biblical principles. Perhaps the most important one of these principles that Friedman identifies is how “chronic anxiety” is a fundamental problem in our society–and by extension, our churches. This underlying chronic anxiety that many (not all) people experience often causes them to emotionally sabotage leaders who strive to guide their followers with boldness and clarity.

Pastors and church leaders routinely face emotional blackmail, manipulation, and angry hordes, even in their own churches, which has no doubt contributed to the recent wave of pastoral resignations. For example, when a leader makes a faithful yet unpopular ministry decision, his inbox is often filled with angry emails about his “hurtful” actions. When these attacks begin, pastors can sense that something unusual is going on but are unable to describe what exactly is animating the unrest. Rigney picks up on Friedman’s concept of chronic anxiety and reapplies it today to situations just like the ones I’ve described above under the banner of “emotional sabotage.” 

Rigney’s book demonstrates the need for leaders to be sober-minded in order to step out of the reactive stream of passion from anxious people and to do the right thing–even when the right thing angers emotionally reactive followers.

I have observed emotional sabotage many times in my ministry, but I couldn’t properly label it. While Friedman provided the basic observations and categories in Failure of Nerve, Rigney shows where Friedman’s insights aligns with Scripture, and provides both the biblical support and practical application that Christian leaders so desperately need in our therapeutic and hyper-emotional age. 

Six Strengths of Leadership and Emotional Sabotage 

Of the book’s many strengths, I’ll briefly highlight six. 

First, Rigney has a unique gift of capturing abstract concepts with pithy, memorable labels. One example is the book’s title, which includes the phrase “emotional sabotage.” This is an apt label for an experience every leader can relate to. Other examples include “social stampedes,” “steering,” and “the sin of empathy.” These phrases provoke critical thinking in a clear, enjoyable way for the reader. Forewarned is forearmed, and every Christian leader should add these categories to their toolbox so they can better understand, and explain, what is happening when emotions run high among their flock. 

Second, the book is short. Clocking in at only six chapters, Rigney gets right to the point, making it quite accessible for busy leaders. Additionally, the book’s organization is simple and straightforward. It opens with a description of our society’s “chronic anxiety” (chapter one), the prescribed antidote for leaders to “be sober-minded or else” (chapter 2), a warning about the reactive sabotage that will inevitably occur with those they lead (chapter 3), followed by three chapters that apply these concepts in the home, the church, and in society (chapter 4-6). 

Third, it’s relatable. Rigney does not get bogged down in lengthy, complicated explanations of human psychology (as Friedman does), but focuses on everyday challenges common for Christian leaders. Most will, I suspect, immediately resonate with the examples Rigney provides. At several points while reading his book, a smile of familiarity crept across my face as I thought: “I’ve seen this so many times!”

Fourth, it’s timely. As a pastor, I’ve faced multiple leadership challenges in recent years that made me think I was losing my mind. Just about every pastor I’ve talked to of late seems to alternate between days when he thinks he is going crazy and days when he thinks everyone else is going crazy! Rigney explains why this is happening and what to do about it. 

Fifth, it’s practical. Most leadership books focus on techniques and tools. Rigney focuses on people and relationships, the one thing all leadership has in common. Anxious people tend to “scapegoat” the leader for the problems that arise within the organization. One of a leader’s greatest challenge is not merely his ability to get things done and solve problems, but how he handles other peoples’ attempts to soothe their own anxiety by sabotaging his leadership. How he handles those situations is vital. Thus, antifragile leadership must begin with one’s own character, walk with God, sober-mindedness, self-control, and fruit of the Spirit.

Sixth, it’s biblical. Leadership and Emotional Sabotage isn’t a warmed-over secular leadership book laced with bible verses. Although Rigney’s starting point is Friedman’s work, he deals directly with biblical passages in both his diagnosis of leadership problems and prescribed remedies.

Emotional Sabotage in the SBC

I think that every current and aspiring Christian leader in America should read this book, regardless of your position or denominational affiliation. But as I read it, I couldn’t help but see how the acidic dynamic of emotional sabotage is running roughshod over the Southern Baptist Convention right now. As a pastor in the SBC, I care deeply about the health and vitality of our Convention. If we are going to move past the rancor and infighting that has so unfortunately characterized our association of late, current and future Baptist leaders must learn how to spot, and resist, emotional sabotage. Therefore, this book is a must-read for SBC pastors and institutional leaders. 

In 2017, frightening headlines of rampant sexual abuse in theSBC flooded the news. Since the Roman Catholic Church had a massive sexual abuse scandal of its own in recent memory, many Southern Baptists eager pressed for swift action to demonstrate our outrage toward sexual abuse, our desire to provide justice for victims, and commitment to preventing any recurrence. There’s no denying the fact that abuse has occurred in discrete, autonomous Baptist churches–just as abuse occurs in every institution in a fallen and sinful world. But as Mark Coppenger has so meticulously demonstrated, the “rate of abuse” in local Baptist churches does not constitute a crisis.

And yet, the actions recommended by the most radical abuse advocates–and unfortunately pursued by the current leadership class in the SBC–have violated Southern Baptist polity and threatened to bankrupt the convention by opening it up to endless litigation. Some sober-minded SBC leaders urged caution and due process, but they were emotionally sabotaged by activists who accused them of ignoring the victims and providing cover for widespread sexual abusers in the SBC. What might loving victims best by resisting the anxiety of emotional sabotage look like for the SBC as we handle the inaccurate claims of an “abuse crisis” and the false allegations of “widespread coverups?” Jon Whitehead and Josh Abbotoy give a non-anxious, and thoroughly Baptist, answer in their piece The Path Forward on Abuse Reform in the SBC: Returning to Baptist Accountability

Another example of emotional sabotage at work in the SBC is seen in the rising tide of egalitarianism. Southern Baptists have always affirmed that the office of pastor is reserved for biblically qualified men. But as a number of SBC churches with women pastors on staff has proliferated over the years, the Law Amendment was proposed to simply reassert that we still believe what we’ve always believed. The reaction to the Law Amendment from its opponents has been telling, with the vast majority of the “arguments” against it being rooted in emotional language, asking not whether it’s the right thing to do, but rather asking how it will make women “feel.” One SBC pastor, Dwight McKissic, even asserted that the Law Amendment is rooted in the same mentality as systemic racism. This is a blatant attempt to emotionally manipulate messengers into opposing the Law Amendment to avoid the charge of racism. Thankfully, the emotional sabotage against the Law Amendment didn’t work in New Orleans–the amendment passed with approximately 80% of the messengers voting in favor of it. Yet it must pass a second time this year to be officially added to our constitution. SBC messengers coming to Indianapolis in June must be prepared to resist the weaponized empathy and emotional manipulation that is sure to be launched in a last-ditch effort to stop the Law Amendment. How can they do this? For starters, they can read Leadership and Emotional Sabotage


In the endorsement that I was honored to write for Rigney, I said that “This is the leadership book I wish I had five years ago.” I’m certain the book will only increase in relevance as the “chronic anxiety” of our culture continues to rise. Christian leaders who survive the coming decades will be precisely the sort of leaders Rigney describes in his book. Those who take these biblical lessons to heart will be much better equipped in the days ahead. 

Because if you want to be a successful and biblical leader, It is absolutely essential that you are able to keep your head–even when everyone else around you is losing theirs. 

  • Michael Clary

    Michael Clary is the Lead Pastor of Christ the King Church in Cincinnati, OH, co-founder of King’s Domain ministries, and author of God’s Good Design: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Guide to Human Sexuality. He graduated from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 2008 with a Master of Divinity.