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Anxiety In the Church System

Dr. Charles Revis, Executive Minister, ABC of the Northwest

Leadership insights may come from surprising places. After watching the movie The Changeling I was checking out the bonus features on the DVD. John Malkovich, who played the social activist Presbyterian minister, complimented Clint Eastwood's directing. He said, "[Clint] doesn't give you his panic and his pressure. A leader has to sort of keep that to themselves and find a way to help you keep your eye on the prize." Wow. Right on!

Family systems theory reveals that anxiety in any social system can effectively block progress. As a church journeys through transformation, conflict increases, and along with it anxiety. It's not unusual for the pastor to unnecessarily increase tension in the body by processing his/her own anxious thoughts among the church members. In this way the pastor unwittingly acts as an anxiety accelerator. This increase in anxiety can manifest itself in strange ways. Often they are subversive. For example, the pastor may take the lead in a new initiative, which in itself may be benign. But the push back from some is so intense that the pastor will wonder, "Where did that come from?" The pastor will have little idea that he or she helped set the stage for it.

Conflict in the church is a normal part of transformation. It should be expected. In fact, an absence of conflict is a certain indicator of little forward movement. So, how should a pastor and the leaders process their anxious feelings which are a normal part of leading change?

Certainly not among the general church members! This is the first rule. Learn to bite your tongue. Externalizing one's pain without discretion is a mistake many pastors make to their regret.

Self-discipline is required to process anxiety in a safe place. This leads to the second rule. Pastors must select carefully with whom they will process their pain. A trustworthy covenantal group of ministerial colleagues is one best place. This is one of the primary functions of the Leadership Learning Communities (LLC). Not only can the LLC listen and empathize and pray, the group can coach the pastor to take appropriate responsive action.

A third rule is to increasingly pour out one's worries and anxieties to God in prayer. This is one of the good things that can come from conflict as the tension reinforces motivation for pursuing spiritual disciplines. Personally, I am more consistent in prayer, meditation and scripture memorization when I am dealing with conflict. I recommend applying what Paul commanded, "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."  Philippians 4:6-7

And, fourthly, follow the example of Clint Eastwood (I never imagined I would be giving this advice) and become a non-anxious presence for the congregation. Concentrate on avoiding defensive reactions. Lead by continually refocusing the church on its God-given mission of reaching the world for Christ. These steps will help reduce tension in the system, providing a more conducive environment for discernment and forward movement.

Originally published February 2009 © Dr. Charles Revis, ABC Northwest