Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Coronavirus Pandemic Special City Notes '20 | Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times

Your courage will be well spent because anxious times hold not only the potential for destruction but also for creation, important learnings, and changes that will strengthen everyone. 

During this unique moment in human history when we are as anxious as we've ever been, I wanted to share some excerpts from a strong book on servant leadership for this series of City Notes.

Though I'm relatively new to being a pastoral servant leader in Jesus' Church, having the privilege to serve as a minister in Worcester the past 5+ years, I've already seen and experienced some of what Peter Steinke reflects on inside Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times

Steinke brings biblical, sociological, and psychological wisdom for servant leaders who desire to help people become more like Jesus in the midst of a time when society is going through dramatic changes. May we continue to learn at the feet of Jesus, not merely being reactive, but instead being proactive in joining God's mission with Jesus' Good News as our hope and focus.

Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times | 


With anxiety intensifying and penetrating more areas of our lives, leaders today cannot be as anxious as the people they serve. For you to lead means to have some command of your own anxiety and some capacity not to let other people’s anxiety infiltrate you; that is, not to allow their anxiety to affect your thinking, actions, and decisions. ... you will need courage to maintain the course, to unearth the secrets, to resist the sabotaging of efforts, to withstand the fury, and to overcome your own timidity and doubts. The courage will be well spent because anxious times hold not only the potential for destruction but also for creation, important learnings, and changes that will strengthen everyone. + pgs. xii – xiii

Leaders: You are the chief stewards, you are the people who are willing to be accountable for the welfare of the whole. You set a tone, invite collaborations, make decisions, map a direction, establish boundaries, encourage self-expression, restrain what threatens the integrity of the whole, and keep the system’s direction aligned with purposes. + pg. xiii 


Leaders simply cannot set aside distressing circumstances or avoid a difficult decision even if it means individuals will be hurt or the congregation will suffer for a time for the sake of growth. Speak ‘the truth in love for growing up into maturity in Christ’ (Ephesians 4:15) so that His Truth can set people free (John 8:32). + pg. xv

Part 1 | The Leader's Presence 

People vary considerably in how they address emotionally challenging events. On the lower (immature) side, people are reactive. They blame more often; they criticize harshly; they take offense easily; they focus on others; they want instant solutions; they cannot see the part they play in problems. On the higher (mature) side, people are more thoughtful and reflective; they act on principle, not instinct; they can stand back and observe. They are responsive. Intent and choice characterize their behavior. Your capacity as a leader is to be in conscious control over (to respond to) automatic functioning (reaction) that affects the well-being of the whole community. Your leadership ‘presence’ can have a calming influence on reactive behavior. Rather than reacting to the reactivity of others, leaders with self-composure and self-awareness both exhibit and elicit a more thoughtful response. + pg. 1 

Chapter 1 | Anxious Souls 

The psalmist frequently uses the word zarar, 'human distress.' 'In my distress I called upon the Lord; to my God I cried for help' (Psalm 18:6). Zarar is literally translated, 'narrow space.' Anxiety tightens: we think in a narrow-minded way or behave in predictable patterns. The antonym of zarar is yasha, signifying 'open space.' In fact, yasha can also be translated 'salvation' (the base word for Yeshua or Jesus). 'The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?' (Psalm 27:1). Being less anxious, we feel relaxed because there's room to breathe. People feel expansive and joyful when they have open space or freedom. + pg. 8

Anxiety is also contagious. It connects people. Let one or two people unleash their anxiety, and it won’t be long before it has a ripple effect … Grumbling is apparently endemic to human beings and, among some, epidemic. Put people together and their anxiety inevitably spreads like an infectious disease. + pgs. 10-11

Strange as it seems, some anxious congregations refuse to see their problems. People have a strong tendency to deny troubles – as if the difficulties should not be present, as if ‘Don’t disturb’ signs are hung on every door. Not recognizing a problem is an anxious defense. As pressure mounts, people’s blindness may give way to begrudging acknowledgment. Even then, the congregation’s reticence to act may be equal to their reticence to see. Still, anxiety denied has a habit of staying around and festering. + pg. 12

When facing anxious times, a high percentage of congregations freeze. Since action might trigger opposition, some leaders delay and delay. No one wants to upset or offend others. Immobility can put off the inevitable, but only momentarily. As long as the congregation is stuck, it remains knee-deep in anxiety. Edwin Friedman, author of A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, has claimed: ‘Actually religious institutions are the worst offenders of encouraging immaturity and irresponsibility. In church after church some member is passive-aggressively holding the whole system hostage, and no one wants to fire him or force her to leave because it wouldn’t be ‘the Christian thing to do.’ It has nothing to do with Christianity. Synagogues also tolerate abusers because it wouldn’t be ‘the Christian thing to do.’ Indecisiveness is reactivity. It’s a defense against a split in the house. When anxiety ushers in its relatives – anger, anguish, and grief – the temptation to scapegoat is strong. Scapegoating is an attempt to pinpoint a culprit or to find fault with someone. The blame throwers at first will hurl charges indiscriminately at any target. Most likely, however, anxiety will be projected onto people in the most responsible or the most vulnerable positions in the congregation. Blindness, simplification, disinterest, paralysis, and projection – all betray a congregation’s inability to handle anxiety. It’s as if the motto is, ‘Don’t trouble us.’ If these anxious reactivities dominate a congregation, leaders will not be well equipped to use adversity for opportunity. + pgs. 13-14
 … (As a leader, you need to) help them not to waste their suffering. You will need to challenge the congregation, anxious souls as they may be, to use anxious times as a springboard for change, learning, and different functioning. What is at stake may be the very vocation to which God has called and gathered you together – your ministry and mission. + pg. 14

Chapter 2 | The Balancing Act 

Differentiation is a process in which a person moves toward a more intentional and thoughtful way of life (and a less automatic way of functioning). Differentiation is the relative ability of people to guide their own functioning by: thinking clearly, acting on principle, defining self by taking a position, coming to know more about their own instinctive reactions to others, learning to regulate those reactions, staying in contact with others, and choosing a responsible course of action. + pg. 19 

To live a healthy life requires the capacity to stand apart and to stand together. … Leaders must thread the difficult passage between standing too far away from their followers or blending in too much. If anxiety about being separate is intense, a person gets too entangled with others. This is emotional fusion. If a person’s anxiety about being close is intense, he or she gets too disengaged or too remote from others. This is emotional cutoff. Congregations are uniquely vulnerable to fusion. Being idealistic groups, congregations work to maintain high spirits. When premium value is placed on harmony, acceptance, and belonging, people resist information that might disturb their peace. No one wants to speak the truth. If people are emotionally linked, they may not have sufficient space to challenge one another. ‘In an anxiety field,’ Murray Bowen remarks, ‘the group moves toward more togetherness to relieve the anxiety.’ More togetherness, however, can distort people’s ability to discern and judge. James Surowiecki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds, contends, ‘the more influence group members have on each other, and the more contact they have with each other, the more likely they will believe the same thing and make the same mistakes.’ Vested in compatibility or likeness, congregations can easily reject differences or information that contradicts their experience. They fear anything that might drive the group apart or alienate someone. … Fusion results from automatic reactions. Cooperation is chosen. + pg. 25
You will … want to keep the congregation stable, but not so stable that it lacks energy and forward movement. You will have to contend with some members ready for new ways of seeing and doing things and some riveted to the old. Will your relationship with either side affect your thinking? Will emotional bonds determine your decision, or will your own values and beliefs guide your actions? ... The behavior of the poorly defined and the highly anxious person is automatic, emotion driven, and based in the pressure of the moment. + pgs. 28-29
+ Undifferentiation | Instinctive, Reactive, Defensive, Thoughtless Behavior:

1) Accommodates, pleases, or acts to take care of the others’ pain: To maintain a relationship, the leader ‘gives in’ and ‘gives up’ self; is anxious about losing the approval of others. 
2) Focuses outside of self: To stay close to others, the leader pays attention to the actions and feelings of others, not her/his own. How someone else will react is more important than s/he can take a position. 
3) Connects emotionally: To sustain a relationship, the leader reacts to anything that might disrupt or threaten it. 
4) Sets vague, nebulous goals: To have a direction depends on the moment. The climate and goals change with events and moods. 
5) Seeks security: To feel safe, the leader acts cautiously so as not to upset anyone. + pg. 29

+ Differentiation | Intentional, Responsive, Responsible, Thoughtful Behavior:

1) Takes a stand: The leader works on self-definition based on values; knowing what s/he believes, the leader takes positions.
2) Focuses on self: The leader can see how s/he contributes to a situation; being self-aware, the leader makes changes in her/his own behavior; has the capacity to step back and see her/his own interactions with others.
3) Stays connected to others: The leader relates to others by listening, exchanging ideas, and working toward goals; greater capacity for cooperation and altruism.
4) Sets clear goals: The leader knows where s/he is headed; not sabotaged by others’ reactivity because s/he lives with a purpose in mind; stays on course.
5) Seeks challenge: The leader seeks adventure; s/he knows that tension stretches a person’s growth and stimulates the imagination. + pg. 30

Chapter 3 | The Nonanxious Presence 

Regulating anxiety to the point of having no anxiety is humanly impossible. Anxiety is always present; it is a fundamental human expression, even a healthy response to life. … The nonanxious presence is a description of how a person works to keep the center of control within oneself and as a way to affect relationships in a positive manner. To be a nonanxious presence, you focus on your own behavior and its modification rather than being preoccupied with how others function. + pg. 31

The nonanxious presence is an anomaly, never a full-blown reality. It is intended to be a description of a way of being, the capacity to:
1) manage our own natural reactions;
2) use knowledge to suppress impulses and control automatic reactions;
3) keep calm for the purpose of reflection and conversation;
4) observe what is happening, especially with oneself;
5) tolerate high degrees of uncertainty, frustration, and pain;
6) and maintain a clear sense of direction.
People have the dual capacity to act without thinking (reactivity) and to take time for thought before they act (response). They cannot, however, control their original impulses, even their first perceptions and impressions. They can control their expression in word or action. In the Bible, there are numerous instructions about being a nonanxious presence. ‘Be angry but do not sin’ (Ephesians 4:26, RSV). ‘Grieve, but do not grieve as one who has no hope’ (1 Thessalonians 4:13, author paraphrase). ‘In thinking be mature’ (1 Corinthians 14:20, RSV). ‘Have no anxiety about anything’ (Phillipians 4:5, RSV). + pg. 35
When obsessing about danger, our capacity to see or hear other information is nearly impossible. However, the person who can more readily control anxiety is always more aware of its presence. To be a nonanxious presence means to acknowledge anxiety but not let it be the driver of behavior. … With this kind of thinking, a leader can bring more imaginative approaches to bear upon the congregation. The leader is not in the clutches of tunnel vision and the instinctive forces of self-preservation. + pgs. 36-37
The nonanxious presence involves engagement, being there and taking the heat if need be, witnessing the pain, and yet not fighting fire with fire. The nonanxious presence means we are aware of our own anxiety and the anxiety of others, but we will not let either determine our actions. Obviously this means that we have some capacity to tolerate pain both in ourselves and in others … the leader’s calm, reflective demeanor becomes an antibiotic warding off the toxicity of reactive behavior. + pgs. 37-38
The Bible speaks about self-control. It is implied in the apostle Paul’s description of love – it is not ‘arrogant or rude’ and ‘does not insist on its own way’ (1 Corinthians 13:4-5). But our natural instinct is to fire back in defense to an attack. When dealing with reactive people who are attacking us, remember that explaining, justifying, or any verbal defending will simply add fuel to the fire. The attack will be reinforced by our automatic defenses. I have also learned personally that withdrawing and blaming will have the same effect. To be less defensive and automatically reactive to the attacks of others requires some discipline. 

Nonanxious responses include: 
1) Being thoughtful before acting.
2) Staying calm and poised.
3) Using 'I' statements.
4) Maintaining awareness of self.
5) Focusing on larger purposes rather than winning an argument.
6) Asking questions.
Instead of matching reactivity with reactivity, the leader works on a more chosen, deliberate response, one not driven by anxiety.” + pgs. 42-43

Emmaus City Church Worcester MA Soma Missional Community Leadership Acts 29 Sully Notes 13 Part 1 of 3

Next post: Coronavirus Pandemic Special City Notes '20 | Calm & Courageous Servant Leaders No Matter What

Here are links to previous City Notes books:

2014 | A Meal with Jesus; The Art of Neighboring; A Praying Life; Building a Healthy Multi-Ethnic Church; Family on Mission; Encounters with Jesus; One Thousand Gifts

2015 | The Rest of God; Everyday Church; Rhythms of Grace

2016 | Letters to a Birmingham Jail; A Field Guide for Everyday Mission; Notes from a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith; The Pursuing God; Yawning at Tigers

2017 | Gospel Fluency; Moving Towards Emmaus; Evangelical, Sacramental, and Pentecostal; Faith Without Illusions

2018 | The Eternal Current; Learning to Speak God

2019 | Tattoos on the Heart; Drop the Stones; Preemptive Love; Hermanas; The Ultimate Exodus; The Abbey of the Genesee Silent Retreat Special; Praying Jesus' Prayer Special; Advent Special; Magnificat Embodied

2020 | He Speaks in the Silence; Lenten Special: The Dusty Ones; Lenten Special: A Beautiful Disaster

Christ is all,

Rev. Mike “Sully” Sullivan

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