Indicators of high anxiety in congregations

(This is a Part 2 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) 


Anxiety Quote

From working with congregations and various organizations that are anxious, conflicted or stuck on that creative abyss looking to the next step, or trying to be intentional and reflective about the future they are being called to create, I have found there are clear, common indicators of chronic anxiety that can be observed and sensed:

Indicators of Chronic Anxiety

  • Blaming. Mature leadership and community foster taking appropriate responsibility, not blame. Blame and anxiety feed each other. As blame increases, so does anxiety. As anxiety increases, so does blame.
  • Horriblizing others. When an individual or group is caught in anxiety, other people’s faults seem larger and exaggerated.
  • Feeling victimized. As a result of feeling like victims, those caught in the anxiety in anxious systems do not claim, at least in a responsible way, the power they have.
  • Seeing people as objects (I-It), not people as people (I-Thou). When anxiety is high, the relationships with those who disagree tend to become objectified. In the language of the philosopher and theologian, Martin Buber, when anxiety gets high, we tend to stand in the world in an I-It way ; the other(s) is seen as having less value, less worth and less importance.
  • Exaggerating values. Anxious individuals and groups inflate their values. Although the values may be positive, when they become exaggerated, they can become counter-productive. As the poet and philosopher, Kahlil Gibran, comments, “An exaggeration is a truth that has lost its temper.”
  • Focusing on weaknesses and pathology. When congregations and other organizations are highly anxious, they are unable to see or acknowledge strengths and celebrations of others or the congregation/organization/community. Highly anxious individuals and congregations do not see possibilities. They can only see challenges, problems, dangers and cautions.As a leader, I have found that when I enter and focus on the weaknesses or pathology in the system/congregation, the people will go no further with me. But if I can help them discover what holds meaning and passion for them, what they really care about and what they celebrate (strengths), it is then that the congregation’s paralyzing anxiety lowers, creativity rises, honoring the human dignity of another increases and they have greater possibilities to move deeper and forward.
  • Over-emphasizing rules, regulations and policies.
  • Cut-off in important relationships. Conversations stop or are not honest.
  • Magnifying differences between and among people.
  • Demanding certainty, while strongly resisting living with ambiguity.
  • Focusing on self in an unhealthy, obsessive way.
  • Resistant to creativity and diversity. When leaders and the congregations they lead are highly anxious, they want everyone to see alike, act alike, be alike, believe alike.
  • Fomenting unhealthy triangles and secrets in the system. Secrets lock in the anxiety and pain and are never on the side of healthy, mature, resilient congregations.
  • Focusing on “should,” the critical parent voice.I like the bumper sticker that says, “I will not ‘Should’ on anybody today.”
  • Demands for quick fixes, saviors and short- term relief.
  • Over-emphasis on who’s right.
  • Escalating reactivity, sabotage and resistance.
  • Lack of capacity for healthy vulnerability, compassion and empathy.

While above are some universal indicators for high anxiety in individuals and congregations, we also have our personal indicators. I encourage you to spend time developing a list of indicators that signal when you are getting caught in the anxiety of a group. For me, an indicator is when I can no longer think of questions to ask a group. One person told me that sarcasm was one of his indicators. Another person tells me that her indicator is that she withdraws and gets quiet. She tells the story of a time when she was with her family and her feelings were hurt. She began to withdraw as was her pattern when things did not go in the direction she desired. Her daughter remarked, “Mommy is pouting.” She said, “She caught me and named it. She helped me find my indicator when I am getting anxious.” You may be familiar with the 4 F’s of anxious reactions: fight, flight, freeze and fright. All can be indicators.

Questions for Reflection:

  • What are the indicators in your congregation that the anxiety is high?
  • What are the indicators that you are getting caught in the congregation’s anxiety?
  • What is the narrative you and the congregation are telling yourselves about self, others and God that seems to be raising the anxiety and lessening your ability to respond in a responsible way?

A Calm, Creative, Intentional Response

In contrast, a less anxious, well-thought-through, intentional response by leaders in highly anxious situations is a perspective that opens space for safe, courageous conversation, and reminds us of the ever-changing flow of life, with all its movement and possibility. When leaders, organizations and teams are in this place, they are able to hold what John Paul Lederach called, “paradoxical curiosity;” that is to hold together what appears on the surface to be opposites, and to do so without judgment, until clarity and deeper insights are realized.

Howard ThurmanThrough this reflective perspective, presence, and the culture it creates, the congregation can draw closer to the present and find the underlying thread connecting the moment’s experience to the fabric of life and the congregation’s deeper purpose and passions. It opens people and the congregation itself to a bigger sense of who they are and what they are capable of doing; it opens the people and the congregation itself as a body to trust the experience, the wisdom of the group to find its way through the experience, and it allows them to see with what Howard Thurman called “quiet eyes.”

When the anxiety is lower, the congregation has a higher capacity to perceive what is trying to emerge and invite a new narrative. Granted, as anxiety rises, the functioning of people potentially becomes more reactive and conflict can easily follow, for conflict is a way of dealing with anxiety. The anxiety and conflict, when responded to appropriately by leaders, can be the catalyst for creative, adaptive growth and positive change.

Questions for Reflection:

  • What are times when your congregation has dealt with anxiety in a productive, creative way? What helped such positive responses to happen?
  • What was the narrative you were telling yourself about yourself, other(s) and God?
  • How do you stop the conversation you are currently having that has you stuck? What is the new conversation?
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