Leading through Anxious Times and Situations: More than Meets the Eye

Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous
to be understood. . .
Let me keep company always with those who say
“Look!” and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads.

–Poet, Mary Oliver

All congregations are profound mysteries. The Columbian writer, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, said of his wife that he knew her so well that she was completely and utterly unknown to him. Those same words describe my encounters with congregations, this living organism, this unpredictable community with a wonderful and frightening life of its own. The more I know it, the more it is completely and utterly unknown to me.

As we walk winding and wandering into the sacred mystery, deeper and deeper into its joys and pains, its challenges and opportunities, in and out, curving, stumbling, meandering on circular walk-ways, listening to the questions on the journey and hearing the emerging wisdom, we walk with awareness and sensitivity, always paying attention. The blade of each new crisis points the way and brings us closer to the bigger question the community lives from its center. The essence of this mystery called congregation is relationship. Leading in this labyrinth of relationships involves our full attention, our words and our presence, our walking and our standing still, our way of doing and our way of being. It involves all of us, our thinking, spirit, body and emotions. All are part of what it means to be ourselves, the deep call of pastoral care, of preaching, of being a leader in religious communities. These components together make space for the deep, mysterious embrace.

While there are no simple check-lists or “how-to” answers for leading through conflicted, anxious times and situations in congregational life, this chapter will strive to offer insights to help leaders, both professional clergy and laity, also consultants, lead in anxious times and settings and help groups move toward conflict transformation, and do it in a way that lessens stress, increases the possibility of positive movement for the community and heightens awareness. In this chapter, I will offer a lens to help us see and understand congregational anxiety and conflict. My assumption is that conflict is a way to deal with anxiety, but not the only way. In this chapter, I offer a specific lens for understanding and responding to conflict. I identify and give a working definition of anxiety, behaviors that are symptomatic of high anxiety and conflict and common triggers of anxiety. Also, I offer insight for leaders to consider as they assist congregations and other organizations move forward through anxious times, situations and conflict. Then, the essay moves into some new thinking about leading through anxious situations. Last is the conclusion. Enjoy the journey. Like any body of relationships and life, congregations are mysteries to be embraced, not problems to be solved.

Whether the community is made up of two or one hundred and two people, anxiety is always present. It is a deep flowing powerful force. From a systems perspective, leadership involves learning to regulate and manage this hidden anxiety and its influence on oneself and the larger system. To do so, we must be pay attention.

The word anxiety comes from a Latin root that means to strangle, to have by the throat, to choke, to cause pain by squeezing. We all know the suffocating impact of anxiety when it becomes too intense. It is like a wet wool overcoat. It stifles, it restricts, it confines and blinds us from options for creative flow and adaptation.

As you are aware, there are two kinds of anxiety, acute and chronic. When gripped by acute anxiety, we know why we are anxious. It is a response to a real, immediate threat. An example is: We are anxious because we have a church audit tomorrow and we have none of our numbers together. Anxiety can be helpful, for it can motivate us not to delay any longer.

Systemic or chronic anxiety is different. It is a deeper, lingering anxiety. We can sense it, we might even feel its effect within, but we cannot clearly identify its source or reason. It is like a deep ocean current that we cannot see, but it is flowing, stirring the sands and making the vision murky and unclear. It is more imaginal, and surfaces around the “what if” questions not necessarily grounded in reality. It is the “cry wolf” that keeps whispering and sometimes shouting. Systemic anxiety can envelop us when we walk into it. When we get caught in it, and fear and panic become our modus operandi, the imagined reality we fear often constellates.

Chronic anxiety is contagious, bringing out the worse of human potential. If people are not differentiated or well-defined, it spreads like a highly infectious virus. The sign of its infection is the reactivity and resistance people display. When infected, we and they will often behave in ways we had never imagined.

For congregations, communities or organizations, the leadership, the congregation, the staff, conflict is difficult. As humans, we get caught in the back and forth of anxiety and conflict. Throughout negative conflict, destructive emails get sent, harsh words spoken, feelings hurt, relationships strained and blame tossed around, placed or projected. There are as many nuances to the reasons for and opinions of the stories as there are people. The challenge for the congregation is to accept, learn from, and move beyond the time in the narrative, so the group can grow from it and move into a new future of mission and ministry.

Is it any wonder that Jesus said, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious (worry) about your life…”(Matthew 6:25), and Saint Paul commented, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. (Phil. 4:6-7)?

The challenge and opportunity is how to regulate this chronic anxiety, so it will not choke, strangle, or stifle creativity. How do we assist in keeping it from becoming a force that drives us apart from our knowing? How can we regulate and manage it in a manner that creates mature Christian communities? How do we create environments where an ”I-Thou” way of being is the accepted norm?

Anxiety is like the wind—you cannot see it, but you can feel it and observe its impact. But to observe it, one must pay attention. For example, one cannot see the wind, but if you look at a flag on a flagpole, you can tell if there is wind, and if so, you can estimate its strength. You can feel it against your skin.

The same is true for anxiety. When you are ministering in your congregation or working with a group, you cannot see the anxiety, but by observing the participants, you can tell if it is present, and if so, how strong. If you are sensitive and have developed the art of paying attention, and are intuitive or discerning toward self and community, you can feel the anxiety against and under your skin.

From working with congregations and other organizations that are conflicted, 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:

  • Blaming. Mature leadership and community foster 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.
  • Feeling victimized. As a result of feeling like victims, those in the system do not claim, at least in a mature way, the power they have been given to use responsibly as creatures of God.
  • Seeing people as objects, not people as people. When anxiety is high, the relationships with those who disagree tend to become, to use Martin Buber’s language, “I-It.” They become objectified; the other is seen as having less value, less worth and less importance.
  • Exaggerating values. Anxious 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 communities are highly anxious, they are unable to see or acknowledge strengths and celebrations of others or the community. Highly anxious communities do not see possibilities. They can only see challenges, problems and cautions. As a leader, I have found that when I enter and focus on the pathology in the system, 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, then the organization’s anxiety lowers, creativity rises, and they have greater possibilities to move forward.
  • Over-emphasizing rules, regulations and policies.
  • 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. They want everyone to see alike, act alike, be alike, believe alike.
  • Fomenting unhealthy triangles and secrets in the community.
  • Focusing on “shoulds,” the critical parent voice. I like the bumper sticker that said, “I will not ‘Should’ on anybody today.”
  • Demands for quick-fixes, saviors and short term relief.
  • Over-emphasis on who’s right.
  • Reactivity, resistance and lack of compassion.

While above are some universal indicators for high anxiety, we also have our personal indicators. I encourage you to spend time developing a list of indicators that tell you that 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 her indicators. Another person tells me that his indicator is that he withdraws and gets quiet. He told the story of a time when he was with his family and his feelings were hurt. He began to withdraw as was his pattern when things did not go in the direction he desired. His daughter remarked, “Daddy is pouting.” He 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 anxiety reactions: fight, flight, freeze and fright. What are your personal indicators?

In congregational and organizational 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 the more common triggers:

  • Money—In any church and in other organizations, follow the money trail, and you follow the anxiety trail.
  • Leadership style—When this issue surfaces with groups, 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.
  • Worship style—Change the worship and anxiety rises.
  • Conflict among the clergy and/or staff—When conflict and anxiety exist in the leadership, it surfaces in the congregational body ten-fold.
  • Growth and survival—When a congregation moves into a survivalist mode, it becomes more difficult.
  • Old and new—This can be applied to people, curriculum, or worship. When working with congregations and other organizations caught in this struggle, 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 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 as a giant mobile; you touch one part and the entire mobile quakes. When the leadership changes, the mobile shakes.
  • Governance/Community decision making process—When the decision-making process breaks down or is unclear, anxiety is triggered.
  • Focus on internal or external—A common button that triggers anxiety is whether to emphasize ministering to those within the church community, or reaching out into the larger community. Highly anxious groups often think in dichotomies—“either/or” not “both/and.” The higher the anxiety, the more difficult it is to invite the parishioners to that “both/and” way of thinking and being.
  • Issues involving sex and sexuality—Any issue around sex and sexuality is a hot button for anxiety in most congregations. In my opinion, sex and sexuality have 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.

In many congregational and organizational situations into which I get invited, it is not about one of these, but multiple factors interacting. When they try to simplify to one factor, it is usually a sign of scapegoating or being reductionistic. Either way, it is not a accurate picture of the situation. Most conflict is about multiple factors interacting.

Am I suggesting that since these identified issues or buttons trigger anxiety that clergy, consultants or leadership 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. 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. When it occurs, be prepared, calm and prayerful. See people as people to be cared for, not objects to be manipulated, defeated, discounted or used.

To help clergy, consultants and other leaders move congregations through times of high anxiety and conflict, the following are several strategies that I have found helpful. This is not a comprehensive list, but several of my own findings that I offer to you.

Work on your family of origin and extended family field. One possibility is to do a genogram or, at least, revisit your family literally or metaphorically, to understand the voices and persons who influenced you.

The way we lead and the manner in which we handle anxiety is strongly influenced by what we learned from our family of origin and our extended family field. We carry our ancestors with us. How did your family of origin and extended family deal with anxiety, and how do you deal with it? What is the same, what is different? The communion of saints still speaks to us from our past.

Remain calm, non-anxious and responsive in the face of anxious situations and groups. If I remain calm and responsive, the group has a greater chance of finding its way to a calmer and more creative way of responding. I tend my own hoop and focus on staying calm and non-anxious myself. One of the most important variables to remember in modifying communities is taking responsibility for yourself, rather than trying to control others.

Remember to breathe. When getting anxious, I take three deep breaths before speaking. Breathing helps us to relax, to focus, to maintain balance and to be present.

Be present and listen with compassion and curiosity. Listening is a sacred act. Listening means being fully present with others. When we are present and listen to others, the holy moments of insight can emerge, creative options can surface, deeper connections happen, and possibilities for moving forward increases significantly.

Find sanctuaries where you can reflect on events and regain perspective. Find an out-of-the-box place from which you see life, other people and yourself differently. Sometimes sanctuary comes from being with an old friend or new acquaintance whose mere presence is a sanctuary or that allows you the space to get out-of-the-box within.

Reach out to confidants with whom you can debrief decisions and actions and articulate your reasons for taking certain actions. Ideally, a confidant is not a current ally within your congregation, your organization, your conference, or even possibly your religious denomination. An important criterion is that your confidant cares more about you than about the issue at stake. Also, she or he needs to be honest, compassionate and insightful.

Utilize the spiritual practices from your tradition to nurture your soul and your spirit. We are invited to engage our spiritual practices regularly in a disciplined manner. If we need support or guidance, getting a spiritual director can be a helpful resource.

Exercise, eat right and nurture a positive attitude. Healthy diets, good exercise habits and positive attitudes fall under the broad umbrella of lifestyle and have become indisputable contributions to one’s health and excellence in ministry. Personally, my exercise routine is in direct proportion to the level of the conflict situations with which am engaged. I have done martial arts since 4th grade and still do it regularly, I do yoga and lift weights. As I do these exercises and pay attention to my health and self-care, the situations in which I minister look differently.

Don’t lose yourself in your role/position. Defining your life through a single endeavor, no matter how important your ministry is to you and to others, makes you vulnerable when the environment shifts. While your position or role is important and part of who you are, there is a whole host of mystery and personality to you that is beyond your role. Let the mystery live, not the role define.

Ask open, honest, high level questions. Good leadership for this century is less about having the answers and more about asking the difficult questions and not allowing the group to settle for easy answers.

While part of good leadership begins with honest questions, some questions are designed to injure or make a point rather than explore and learn. But open, honest questions are grounded in humility, curiosity, and a desire to learn. Open, honest questions can help groups move to a higher level of functioning and away from anxiety that paralyzes. In addition, asking questions give the responsibility and anxiety back to the rightful owners and invites them to find their own solutions.

What is an open, honest question? It is not: “Have you ever thought of seeing a therapist?” That question is loaded. An open, honest question is something like, “Help me to understand . . .this situation more clearly. What do you think this is about?”

Be transparent as a leader. Congregations come through transitional times better when the leaders model openness and refuse to allow secrets to be part of the process. Secrets lock in the pain, stick systems and breed mistrust. (Transparency does not mean leaders do not have boundaries or are not differentiated. Boundaries are important for leaders in anxious situations.)

Work to see the strengths, gifts and graces of the community and its members. Spend a few moments discussing what we can celebrate about our community since the last time we met. It is not a way of ignoring the challenges; by affirming what we do well, we find the strength and energy to address the challenges.

Bring your emotional self to your ministry. Appropriate displays of emotion can be an effective tool for change and regulating anxiety, especially when balanced with poise. Parishioners appreciate candor and honesty.

Emotions/feelings are part of any decision and what it means to be human. When we deny rather than acknowledge them, they go “under the table,” but still influence decisions.

Have a vision and articulate it regularly. Both personally and for the organization, a clear vision and being able to articulate the vision is important for congregations. Vision is not only about seeing further, an anchor into the future, it also has to do with perception, “seeing” what others do not see.

Know what you believe, where you stand, what are your core values. Fleshing out what you believe is a lifelong conversation. In times of high anxiety, your core values serve as a compass or guiding principles through the mire. In addition to knowing your guiding principles, I also suggest working on how to articulate those “I” statements in a manner that does not belittle people who stand at a different place.

Be careful using the pulpit to address difficult issues of high anxiety for congregations, especially those involving internal conflict that has erupted. In most situations, I advise against it. The more the minister is the focus or part of the conflict, the greater the risk of misunderstanding and negative impact on the community. I have witnessed many anxious situations escalated because the minister, with good intentions, used the pulpit to address conflict or difficult internal issues. I agree with Mother Teresa when she comments that preaching points are never (or rarely) connecting points. In times of high anxiety and conflict, what is needed most often is not preaching to people, but the gentile guidance that grows out of listening to, looking at, and being in conversation with others.

While defining self, work to stay in personal, face-to-face connection or relationship with the other(s) as much as possible. If it is with an individual or group of people, try to stay in relationship as much as possible and do it in an authentic way that has integrity. While staying in relationship, also we have to honor their choice not to be in relationship. But still we can maintain a, “I-Thou” way of the heart toward them, whether they maintain that towards us or not. This does not mean we have to be friends, but we can still be their minister. As ministers, often we get opportunities through pastoral care with the person or a family members, that allows us to remain in relationship.

Spend more time and energy on the motivated, than the unmotivated; on the fruit-bearing, not the troublesome issues, people and situations, the emotionally and spiritually mature, not the immature. Too often I have heard Cabinets and other judicatory leaders lament that they spend 80% of their time with the troublesome 20%. A district superintendent of the UMC commented that one of her convictions is “not to invest inordinate energy in helping people cross the street if they do not want to go.” As a leader, what does it look like for you to focus more on the motivated, the mature, the fruit-bearing in your context of ministry?

Love what you do, but not too much. A poet is being interviewed. The interviewer asks, “With the demands of life, making a living, etc, how do you keep your attention on writing poetry?” She responds that she never takes a job that she loves too much. In other words, she stays clear on the difference between her job and her calling or vocation and to which is her deeper commitment. When we as leaders keep clarity between job and deeper calling, between what is life-giving and life-depleting, and can live in the tension, it impacts us and the systems to which we are connected.

Differentiation of self is the phrase often used to describe the process toward which the previous strategies are pointing. In fact, self-differentiation is a synonym for leadership, and it is a life long process. The concept involves defining and honoring Self, while staying in relationship with others. Differentiation describes a mature way of belonging. According to systems theory, the more differentiated the leader, the more mature the organization is or potentially can become.

While I appreciate the word, differentiation of self, my experience is that our common usage of the concept as a behavioral strategy overlooks a deeper component. Self-differentiation in its deepest meaning is about a deeper way of being—the soul or heart. Religiously, we are talking about soulful transformation, not a new mask we wear. It is about a way of being in relationship with self, others, God, life and community.

People sense or intuit something deeper than behavior, as I learned from the work of Martin Buber and others. When this deeper component that people sense or intuit is not right, it will sabotage even the most outwardly correct behavior. When the leader and community are in touch with this deep wellspring, the anxiety is more regulated and motivates positive change. When leaders and the community lose touch with this source, it escalates anxiety and creates unnecessary chaos and confusion.

Pastoral ministry is not about a particular set of “good” behaviors or “stronger” programs that ministers are supposed to employ, however important these might be. Behavioral strategies, although vital, will never be enough. Instead, pastoral ministry is about something deeper and more important than behavior.

Too often, I have watched ministers do ministry “right,” practicing the recommended behaviors and launching great new programs, preaching excellent sermons, but somehow it all goes wrong. Other times, I have seen clergy do virtually everything “wrong,” failing to use the specific techniques they’ve been told to use or using them poorly at best and their sermons are not particularly strong, but their ministry goes right.

What accounts for the difference? One key variable may be the leader’s way of the heart or soul. When ministers focus only on correcting what’s wrong, on addressing the weakness, negative or pathological in the system, or when they work on looking “good,” on working harder with more intensity, they can neglect their own way of being, inadvertently causing their ministries to lose the very depth of connection they had sought. If we focus first on our way of our hearts and souls toward those with whom and to whom we minister, ministry can happen more naturally and easily at a deeper level. Whatever I do on the surface, people respond to who I am being when I am doing it. Way of the heart or way of being determines influence. To frame it another way, the level of our influence on others is in direct proportion to our openness to be influenced by them.

So what is at the heart of pastoral ministry, this deeper way of being, this way of the heart and soul? It goes back to Martin Buber’s concept of “I-Thou” and “I-It,” which fundamentally captures the two ways we have of being in relation to ourselves, the world, God and others. When I stand in that place of “I-Thou,” I see people as people. I respond to their reality because their reality is as real as is my own —their concerns, their hopes, their dreams, their needs and their fears. When I am in an “I-Thou” relationship with others, they know it. They sense it. They intuit it. Trust is cultivated and, usually, they will respond in kind. As a result, possibilities for soulful, creative ministry happen. As Buber remarks, “All real living is meeting.” (2)

When my relationship to the world is an “I-It,” I see others, if at all, more as objects than people. I see them as less than I am — less relevant, less important, of less worth. Their reality is less important than is my own. As a result, the possibility for ministry of any kind is slight. Ministry must first begin out of the heart and soul, this deeper way of being with self, God and others.

While I am aware that this chapter raises as many questions as it answers, I hope you have found some food for thought and a way of seeing into the mystery of this incredible body we call congregations and communities. The rest of this book will continue to build from this foundational lens._

As leaders, your challenges might seem overwhelming at times. But within the challenges are also gifts and opportunities. Be open to God, whose middle name is Surprise! Trust yourself; trust God in the situation. We do not face it alone. God is with us as are others on the journey.

We are in unique times and a watershed moment in the life of our world. Never have the challenges been so great, nor have the opportunities been so many. Congregations are microcosms of the larger macrocosm. What is happening “out there” gets brought into the community and often intensifies there. As leaders, we get invited to deal with what we and our parishioners carry, and the load and influence is deeper and more than meets the eye.

Because of the unique time and place in which we are living, the voice of congregations, its role, and its collective wisdom has never been more needed. In some ways, I wonder: What would a church body look like serving as a functional model for our culture? Can we provide a space for people to think critically about the deeper issues we face as a world? Can we ask the difficult questions and make safe spaces for deep, grounded, soulful conversations with and for the larger culture?

To provide those spaces, our communities have to deal first with their own anxiety, learn to contain it, thus invite ourselves and others into that sacred circle of questioning, connecting, listening and speaking. What does it mean to become a place that models what it looks like to disagree but stay in relationship? How do we model moving into the deep, difficult conversations in a way that honors connections and differences? How do we live a life that makes the relationship with others and all of creation more important than the content of it?

May the journey continue,
and we find our way by walking.
God ‘s grace and peace be with you!

(This article was previously published in the Leadership Resource and as a chapter in a book entitled, Transitions.)

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