Strategies to help you lead effectively through anxious times

(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) 


Strategies to help lead through anxious times
To help leaders move congregations through times of high anxiety, the following are 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? How do you deal with it? What is the same, what is different?

Remain calm, non-anxious and responsive in the face of anxious situations and groups. If the leaders remain calm and responsive in an I-Thou way, the group has a greater chance of finding its way to a calmer and more creative way of responding. Calmness invites calmness; I-Thou invites I-Thou. I tend my own hoop and focus on staying calm and as non-anxious as I can. One of the most important variables to remember in modifying communities is to take responsibility for yourself rather than try to control others. When the leader can stay calm and non-anxious, or at least less-anxious, in an I-Thou way toward those in her or his care, it has a salutary impact on those with whom she/he connects.

Believe in yourself and the visible and invisible forces to help carry you through your situation. You are and have what you need available to you. In the poem What Is Courage? the first line is, “We are sufficient for the day.” (Where Wild Things Grow, p. 97) Many of us in anxious or challenging congregations or situations feel so overwhelmed and that we do not have enough to handle what is before us, which only adds to the anxiety. Instead, think of Paul’s words, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). Part of the challenge is, what is the narrative you are telling yourself about the situation, yourself, God and others that are keeping you stuck? What is the conversation you need to stop having? What is the new, courageous conversation that is trying to emerge?

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. Deep listening is a sacred act. Listening means being fully present with others. Martin Buber called it Meeting over and against Mismeeting. When we are present and listen to others, the moments of insight can emerge, creative options can surface, deeper connections happen, and possibilities for moving deeper and forward through difficult issues increase significantly.

Find space where you can reflect on experiences and regain perspective and an I-Thou way. Find an I-Thou place from which and through which you see life, other people and yourself differently. Sometimes this space comes from being with an old friend or new acquaintance whose mere presence opens space or that allows you the space to be in an I-Thou way. Some people make us better simply by being in their presence. Who are those people?

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. 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. If they think you are being and doing in a way that is unfair to others or yourself, they will “call your hand.”

Utilize the spiritual practices from your tradition to nurture your soul and your spirit. This might be yoga, meditation, prayer or another practice that helps the leader cultivate, stay grounded and in touch with themselves at their best. We are invited to engage our spiritual practices regularly. For me, martial arts is one. I have been doing martial arts since 4th grade. I am better when I am practicing it. If we need support or guidance, getting a spiritual director can be a helpful resource. Prayer and meditation helps center me. What are your spiritual practice(s), and how do you call upon them to help calm you or find your way through anxious times?

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, physically, emotionally and spiritually as leaders. When any of those parts of me are neglected, they all feel the impact.

Don’t lose yourself in your role/position. Defining your life through a single endeavor, no matter how important it is to you and to others, is not helpful or healthy. 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 beautiful questions, be curious. Being able to ask questions from a place of compassion and curiosity is important for leading through anxious times, while holding integrity.

What is a beautiful question? Beautiful questions shape our identity as much by asking them as by answering them. Beautiful questions open space, options and possibilities for people and often shift a conversation. The beautiful question(s) invite people to see, think and be differently.

Please note, it is not about the Beautiful Question, although I have seen those moments when it is about one question that changes the space and people in it. It is our multitude of beautiful questions that lead us like breadcrumbs down the path to the place where the Beautiful Question can be heard and spoken, but it is often a journey or process to that place that touches at the level of emotional process or at what we call the soul level. Caution: Do not let the search for the beautiful question paralyze you from asking the 100 smaller beautiful questions that help take us there internally and externally.

The source of Beautiful Questions—I have found the questions can come from different faces and places. Sometimes the leader might offer the question(s), sometimes someone else in the group speaks it/them, and sometimes the group speaks that beautiful question(s) that changes the thinking and way of being. The beautiful question(s) can emerge from many different sources. Through this question(s), I believe, “God whose middle name is Surprise!” happens.

Beautiful questions help lower the anxiety in groups, inviting them to a higher functioning, way of being and to their cortex or higher selves.

Be transparent as a leader. Congregations and other communities come through transitional times better when the leaders model openness and refuse to allow secrets and unhealthy emotional triangles 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, but a culture of trust is cultivated through appropriate transparency and courageous, honest conversations.)

Cultivating a culture of vulnerability and revelation: Asking for visible and invisible help. The French philosopher, Albert Camus, said that we are to live close to tears. By that, he did not mean that we are to live in a kind of mortal sentimentality. By vulnerability, he meant an invitation to a constant vulnerability that is not a weakness, but actually a robust form of incarnation in the world, so you can risk yourself; you can risk your story. You can hazard yourself in the world and give yourself away again and again and again to see what comes back to you. Vulnerability invites humanity into space, and when it is done genuinely, it lowers anxiety.

A student of the late Dr. James A. Knight, M.D., a friend, renowned psychiatrist and medical educator at Tulane Medical School, said

“…probably the most important thing he taught us was that while a tough exterior is necessary to deal with the tragedies of our profession, we should always leave a part of us vulnerable, so as to know the gravity of our work and the ethical responsibility of our profession.”

How do we maintain an I-Thou way in the midst of those in an I-It way toward us? Vulnerability and I-Thou go hand-in-hand.

In fully embodying our vulnerabilities, we become more physically present, not only to the sources of our fears and our defenses, but to establish a more proper relationship with reality in understanding how much we need to ask for help.

Vulnerability is a form of incarnation. I have found the most influential leaders I know are those who can be vulnerable in a genuine way. They are not above it all, nor are they beyond making mistakes and showing compassion for others and themselves when they do. They have an ability to own their mistakes and say, “I blew it,” and to say, “I apologize.” Genuine vulnerability is strength, not weakness. It demonstrates one’s ability to accept his or her humanness and accept the humanness of others as well. Strong people pick others up; they do not push others down.

Work on making the invitation: A crucial marker of good leadership.
Making the invitation is crucial for good leaders. We at JustPeace talk about the importance of invitation for leaders. Making the invitation is essential for good leaders, for a good invitation can invite responsiveness and lessen resistance and reactivity. How do we make invitations that create responsiveness and appeal to peoples’ creative, courageous self, not the part of them and us that is resistance, reactive or fear-driven? Good leaders are also listening for invitations in the situations and contexts where they walk with their people. How do we hear the invitation in the given context in which we serve? How do we frame and help others to hear (discover) an invitation forward or deeper as well?

When walking with individuals, organizations and congregations, I often find myself asking, What is the invitation this situation is offering or that the leader is making or that my inner life is inviting me to hear? What is the invitation God might be extending me in and through this situation?

If vulnerability makes us understand just how much help we need, then practicing this constant need to ask is the practice of making invitations, to others, to ourselves, to God, and even to what lies over the horizon of our present life. One of the beautiful and disturbing questions we can ask ourselves is the central question around how invitational are we as individuals. What do others think my invitation is to them? How do I invite myself to frontiers of courage and trepidation? Is my invitation something people would want to follow?

Genuine invitations and giving choices lower anxiety, reactivity and resistance and heighten a since of adventure and courage.

Cultivate and bring into your work/ministry your own form of art and artistry. In my article Our artistry is our ministry, I asked the question: What is the art and artistry that you bring to your work/ministry?

“I see art, and in my case specifically, poetry, as an incarnation. Art gives our creative spirits form and body. It gives outer expression to the deep source or well- spring within us. At its best, art invites us to a deep place ofunder-neathness, a sacred non-space from which creativity flows. Human kind has had a thousand names for this inner place. I refer to it as soul, a ghost-like, far horizon from which our deepest Self makes appearances, shows its face(s) and calls us deeper into the world.”

(from Where Wild Things Grow by W. Craig Gilliam, 2015, p. 15)

I am especially interested in: 1) What is your art? and 2) How do you bring your art and artistry into your ministry/work? As I am working out of that place, the positive energy from this work spills over into all my other work and the systems with whom I minister. How do you cultivate your art and artistry?

Work to see the strengths of the organization/community and its members or employees. Spend time discussing what you can celebrate about your organization/community. It is not a way of ignoring the challenges; by affirming what you do well, you find the strength and energy to address the challenges or growing edges.

Bring your emotional self to your work. Appropriate displays of emotion can be an effective tool for change and regulating anxiety, especially when balanced with poise. People 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 congregation, a clear vision and being able to articulate the vision is important for organizations. Vision is not only about seeing further. An anchor into the future, vision also has to do with perception, “seeing” what others do not see.

Know what you believe, what are your core values, while also being open to novelty and new revelation. 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 do not belittle people who stand at a different place.

The challenge is to know what we believe while also standing in a way that allows for new revelation and learning. How do we know while also
not-know? How do we stay humble or close to the ground?

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 way that honors them as people, whether they maintain that towards us or not. This does not mean we have to be friends, but we can still be their leader/boss.

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 responsible and mature, not the immature. Too often I have heard leaders lament that they spend 80% of their time with the troublesome 20%. A heard one leaders say 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 responsible, the fruit-bearing or those who yield positive outcomes in your context of leadership?

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 vocation and to which is her deeper commitment. When we as leaders keep clarity between job and deeper work, 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.

Questions for Reflection:

  • Are there any strategies or ways of being in the previous list that resonated for you? If so, what would it mean for you to be attentive to that one or ones that resonated for you? Who can help you explore or cultivate that strategy or way of being? What are your next steps?
  • What would you add to the previous list of strategies or ways of being for your work in your organization?
  • For your personal life? For your family?

As a leader or pastor, your challenges might seem overwhelming at times—with work, your own personal needs, family, social life–all demanding more than you have to give. But within the challenges are also invitations, gifts and opportunities. We are in unique times and a watershed moment. Never have the challenges been so great, nor have the opportunities and technologies been so many.

Questions for Reflection:

  • What will you do with the invitations, opportunities and possibilities before you?
  • How do you model a different way of doing and being (less-anxious) in the life of the congregation and in your personal life?
  • How do you create a culture that actually helps people thrive, encourages courageous, open conversation, cultivates trust and lowers unproductive anxiety?
  • What is your next step and who can help you?

From what I am seeing, I think we have yet to become who we can be, but we are moving in the right direction—one step at a time, one conversation at a time, one person at a time, one organization at a time, one congregation at a time, one community at a time. Thanks for your leadership! “We are sufficient for the day…/to love, to adventure… ” May God bless you and your ministry!

Agree or disagree, you are invited into the conversation!

Print Friendly, PDF & Email