10 Topics that can Escalate Anxiety in Congregations

(This is a Part 3 in a 4-part blog series by W. Craig Gilliam about Leading Congregations Through Anxious Times. JustPeace is hosting a 2.5 day training on this subject in Atlanta, GA on Oct 22-24, 2015.  Click here to register. And, stay tuned for the next two posts) 


AnxietyIn congregational life, some common topics activate anxiety. I call these hot buttons or triggers of anxiety. When these topics emerge, anxiety appears and can easily escalate. Although the list is not exhaustive, it highlights some common topics that escalate anxiety in congregations with whom I have worked:

  • Money—In congregations, follow the money trail, and you follow the anxiety trail.
  • Leadership style—Whenever this issue surfaces in organizations, I am never immediately certain what that means. Thus, when I enter a congregation and leadership style is mentioned as an issue, I spend time unpacking its deeper, intended meaning.
  • Conflict between/among leadership, team members, teams, personnel, staff—When conflict and anxiety exist in the leadership, it often surfaces in the body of the congregation or organization ten-fold.
  • Issues involving sex and sexuality—Any issue around sex and sexuality is a hot button for anxiety in most congregations. In my opinion, sexuality has been a shadow for the church throughout its history. Thus, whenever such an issue arises, whether heterosexual or homosexual, the anxiety sky-rockets and reactivity heightens.
  • Worship style—Change the worship and anxiety rises.
  • Growth and survival—When a congregation or organization moves into a survivalist mode, it becomes more difficult.
  • Old and new—When working with congregations caught in this struggle of the way we have always done it or new ways, anxiety heightens. The conversation is to help them clarify what holds meaning, value and identity. Also, the central question becomes How can they preserve what holds meaning and works for them and is part of their identity, while also staying relevant to the emerging culture around them?
  • Change of leadership—Whenever leadership changes, anxiety rises. Think of the congregation or organization as a giant mobile; you touch one part and the entire mobile quakes. When the leadership changes, the mobile shakes.
  • Silo/turf mentality—That is competition and turf struggles.
  • Governance/Community decision-making process—When the decision-making process breaks down or is unclear, anxiety is triggered.

Am I suggesting that since these identified issues or buttons have the potential to escalate anxiety that leaders should stay away from them? No, absolutely not! Around any issue that is important to us lies the potential for anxiety to heighten. It is our wish to escape from anxiety or a paralyzing fear of being swept away by it that steals our aliveness, but avoidance is not the best strategy. What I am suggesting is to be aware that anxiety might surface around these issues, so when you deal with them, do your own inner and outer work. We do not have to be naïve or surprised if we encounter anxiety, sabotage or resistance around these issues and others. When it occurs, be prepared, calm and pay attention. Three keys to such a conversation are timing, context and spirit. Regularly, I am asking, What is the courageous conversation that is trying to happen here, and how do you keep the channels of communication open? How do you continue to see people as people to be valued as I stand in I-Thou way, not objects to be manipulated, defeated, discounted or used (I-It)?

Questions for Reflection:

  • What are hot buttons that escalate anxiety in your congregation/community?
  • Are there other topics, themes or indicators for you and your congregation that escalate anxiety?
  • What are the clues when you are in an I-Thou way toward people, and what are indicators when you are in an I-It way toward the people?
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