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When Congregational Anxiety Makes
Leaders Anxious

Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A.

Number 340

Perhaps the greatest challenges is ministering to chronically anxious congregations. Such congregations are often characterized by anxiety that seems to defy any and all intervention strategies. Plans, programs and ministry initiatives can be carefully crafted, approved and, upon implementation, blow up in a mushroom cloud of anxiety.

Other times, just at the point when one feels that God has provided the leadership necessary to go the next step, suddenly trusted leaders become inexplicably anxious. They begin demonstrating signs of anxiety. They begin to question ministry initiatives and the leaders who formed them. Frequently, they begin to turn on the pastor reciting, almost verbatim, the anxious mantras of anxious groups within the congregation.

What's happening? What, if anything, can be done about it?

Anxious Congregational Elements

Those elements of any congregation characterized by significant anxiety are driven to avoid any further anxiety. Their greatest fear is that if they should fail to avert anxiety, their defenses against anxiety will fail. They fear they will lose control. They also fear that they will have to face the fears that their defense mechanisms have been so finely tuned and so carefully designed and maintained to protect themselves from.

Their greatest fear, perhaps, is that they, like Moses, may discover that God calls them to overcome their fears and follow His leading to the calling He has for them. This is what they are not willing to do individually or as a group. That is why they persistently resist and sabotage what is necessary to discover and fulfill God’s calling for them and their congregation.

Since leadership represents the forces of challenge, change, and growth, leadership by its nature brings with it the threat of anxiety. Pastors are, by their position, the central target of that threat. Thus, anxious individuals will do virtually anything possible to discredit pastoral, dishearten and discourage leaders, and, thereby, derail the ministry programs necessary for vigorous growth and outreach.

A Key: Self-Differentiation

Perhaps the most important key to counter this dynamic is an abundance of healthy non-anxious, self-differentiated leaders. Unfortunately, anxious organizations tend to attract anxious individuals. Indeed, western culture, society and the church frequently encourage anxiety and fusion…instead of health non-anxious self-differentiation.

One frequent result is that congregations will often have leaders who are not well-differentiated. To the extent that they are not well-differentiated and unable to maintain a non-anxious presence, these leaders are susceptible to the unhealthy, reactive, anxious responses characteristic of anxious congregational elements.

Anxious elements then contact these individuals in ways intended to increase their anxious functioning. Such fear-engendering responses will often include attacks on the pastor, comments undermining the leadership, scapegoating, indications of discontent from a "large number" of "anonymous" people, threats to withhold support, attack, split or leave.

The Issues Which Underlie The Anxiety

One of the things which underlies all of these anxiety-engendering approaches is the accusation that "no one" (meaning "The Pastor and his/her yes men") will listen to them. The reality, more often than not, is that they never even tried to approach those whom they claim have been "deaf" to their "frequent" cries.

When asked what specific things they have done to seek reconciliation, they will either say "It won’t work," change the subject, try to discredit the one asking them to seek reconciliation, or engage in some other fight or flight response. The truth, however, is that if they would come forward in a genuine manner seeking understanding and reconciliation, they would lose the self-justification for the anxiety they promote and hold so dear.

As anxious elements cause anxious, undifferentiated leaders to become increasingly anxious, anxious leaders can elicit several responses. Most frequent—and irreversible—is that the increasingly anxious leaders emotionally identify ("fuse") with the anxiety of those representing the anxious congregational elements.

Anxious Fusion
Fusion is demonstrated when they begin voicing the same issues spoken by the anxious elements. These issues frequently discredit the pastor, the leadership and the congregation. Though some of the content of what they say may be true, the anxious emotional process reprocesses much of reality in order to make it conform to—and justify—the anxious response experienced. The result is that undifferentiated leaders will ultimately respond with an anxious fight/flight response.

What is the solution to this problem? The solution is that leaders—especially pastors—must minister to anxious individuals in a non-anxious, self-differentiated way that encourages self-differentiation and a non-anxious presence in the leaders around them. If this is not done, anxious elements will merely continue to perpetuate a cycle of what Bowen and Kerr in their book, Family Evaluation, call "societal regression" in the organization.

Unfortunately, even those who may initially invite this process may respond with defensive reactivity when they are finally overtaken by the emotionality of anxious elements. When this occurs, neither pastor, congregation, leaders, or anxious elements win. The victory is clearly Satan’s.

The Anxious Pattern

What so often occurs in anxious congregations, then, is a toxic, self-perpetuating pattern. The pattern, simply, is this.
  1. Anxious congregational elements identify non-differentiated leaders.
  2. Next, they make these leaders anxious. They especially target those leaders who, otherwise, would be most able to bring about a non-anxious ministry of growth.
  3. As anxious elements succeed, anxious and non-differentiated leaders become emotionally reactive.
  4. Engulfed in anxiety, non-differentiated leaders begin question, undermine, attack and/or leave the ministry team. Often they leave the church.
  5. The anxious elements receive positive reinforcement from their efforts. This encourages them to continue to perpetuate the cycle…from generation to generation.

Some of the tragic consequences of this dynamic are...

  1. the anxious elements in the congregation remain…and are strengthened;
  2. the congregation’s ministry continues to be influenced by anxious elements; 
  3. undifferentiated, anxious leaders will so often avoid going through the process of self-differentiation;
  4. the vision and ministry of Jesus Christ will continue to decline and evaporate--virtually unstoppably--right before your very eyes.
Helping Leaders Become Non-Anxious

Unfortunately, the non-differentiated individual’s resistance to begin the process of self-differentiation prevents one from fully realizing the calling and remarkable joy of service that God has for them. That is why this is specifically an issue of pastoral ministry, of Law and Gospel, central to the whole of Scripture and the principles of Biblical growth and spirituality.

Strategies for intervention must include a multi-pronged approach in worship, in Bible Studies, in counseling, and in personal leadership development. Consultants can also be helpful. However, anxious people resist intervention of any sort—including outside intervention. Thus the most important strategy is one which ministers to the individual person.

There's A Risk!

There is, of course, an implicit risk in this because those who are anxious and not well-differentiated may accept or resist efforts for leadership development. Indeed, until they are willing to face their fears, deal with their own issues, and aspire to God’s purpose for them they will continually resist any and all efforts directed toward healthy, Scriptural, non-anxious self-differentiation.

Yet, whatever the response, the example of Scripture is that God calls all His children to healthy, non-anxious, Gospel-driven self-differentiation. Every prophet in Scripture and every pastor has that calling. Jesus’ teaching, "be anxious about nothing" is but the iceberg of an entire body of faith and spirituality which is necessary to fulfill God’s calling for us.

The best tool for deal with this anxiety, of course, is the Word of God. It is, as Paul told Timothy, profitable for "doctrine, reproof, correction and instruction in righteousness" (II Timothy 3:15). When this essential ministry tool—or the use of it--is discredited, minimized or rejected, the Christian ministry ceases to aspire to the life-changing calling which God has mandated that it be.

Thus pastors and all Christian leaders must vigilantly direct their lives to an even greater experience of faith demonstrated, in this case, by a steadfast, non-anxious, well-differentiated sense of self and ministry.

Can There Be Healing?
Perhaps there can be. But it is admittedly a very, very precarious process which can break down at any point. Such breakdowns may occur with virtually any intervention. Examples of breakdowns may occur when...

1) The pastor tries to play "prophet."  

Jesus said it best. "A prophet is not welcome in his own country." Whatever insight you have may not help the anxious individuals or anxious groups within the congregation. In fact, the insight one has may become an albatross. When anxious individuals sense you have information and insight necessary to understand and begin intervention, they may begin to discredit the one most able to help. "Just stick to preaching, pastor!" "That's not your job!" "Quit psychoanalyzing me!" and other anxious responses intended to stall or thwart intervention--and undermine the intervener--will almost certainly be used.

2) One denies or ignores principles of change.  

Anxious individuals are almost universally laggards. As a rule of thumb they resist change. Ministry Health article #42 "Five Principles Of Change" outlines key principles of change. The anxious element's perception of the timing, compatibility, complexity, ability to reinvent and relative advantage all play a part in the change. When principles of change are ignored, the change agent ought to beware! 

3) One overlooks how systems heal. 

Much could be said of this. In alcoholic families it is often found that one who is a member of a dysfunctional family cannot often heal the dysfunctional family because they are a part of that family. Even when counseling is sought, frequently anxious, alcoholic families do not heal.

If there is healing, this healing generally occurs as individual members of that family face the pain, address their anxiety issues, seek healing and learn how to healthily differentiate themselves from their alcoholic family of origin. Whoever intervenes for healing must be non-anxious and self-differentiated.

Intervention in anxious congregations happens in much the same way. Whether the intervener is a pastor, consultant or well-meaning energetic lay leader, intervention may not be able to progress any farther than the mere mention of it. The greater the anxiety, the greater the resistance to intervention, and the longer the time-table for healing...if healing is possible.

4) The clear message of Scripture is ignored. 

The message of Scripture is one that recognizes that since the Fall every individual experiences deep fear and anxiety. It is only through admission that their anxiety keeps them from God that they will seek a "Higher Power" or any outside source of intervention. When forced, in brokenness, to make this excruciatingly admission, they find that God has comfort, healing and strength for them. This strength enables them to deal with their fear...and find God's forgiveness and calling for them.

What, Then, Can Be Done?

Naturally, the first line of defense for the pastor has to be the ability to become a healthily non-anxious self-differentiated Christian leader. To the extent that the pastor is successful in this effort, the pastor's presence can be a healthy one. To the extent that the pastor is not well-differentiated is the extent to which the pastor is vulnerable to extreme pain, uncertainty, confusion, self-doubt, indecisiveness and spiritual trial.

The second line of defense is to begin developing strategies for enhancing self-differentiation among the leadership. Such differentiation comes about through individual group training and consultation experiences directed toward anxiety. Ministry Health articles and workshops , specifically directed to self-differentiation and understanding emotional process are specifically helpful in this regard.

When people understand the importance of emotional systems in their own functioning, they begin to see the "forest through the trees." As they do, they take themselves less seriously. As their anxiety decreases, they become increasingly insightful to understand what is really going on...and how they can assist--and not exacerbate--the process of reducing congregational anxiety.

Whatever intervention is implemented, the problem may not be the intervention or the intervener. The problem is deeply-rooted anxious denial mechanisms which refuse to be confronted. The greater the anxiety, the more intense the denial mechanisms will be.

A third line of defense is to begin preaching differentiation from the pulpit. Of course, one need not use the word as such. However, much of Christian sanctification is directed to and springs from healthy self-differentiation. Directives against anger, teachings regarding reconciliation and forgiveness, exhortations to patience and being able to "walk through the valley of the shadow of death" yet fear "no evil" (Psalm 23) are but a sampling of the non-anxious, self-differentiating content of Scripture.

A fourth line of defense, among others, is to understand and teach principles of Christian spirituality. So often Christians have adopted an overly-simplistic notion of faith which simply wants to be "saved." God's calling for Christians is much more than that. His calling is to begin the long, arduous journey of faith. This journey entails dealing with our fears, our shame, our past. Though the journey is difficult, the promised healing brings remarkable joy.

A Paradigm Shift?

Perhaps what is most needed is a paradigm shift in the church. The paradigm is to go from an institutional mindset of the church as the guarantor of "dogma" to become a source of spiritual healing and Christian recovery.

One of the most remarkable experiences of ministry can be support group ministry. In my own experience with divorce recovery groups I have found it to be easier to deal with anxiety than among congregational groups. Individuals in recovery attend support and recovery groups because they have experienced the pain of overwhelming anxiety.

Whatever the sources of anxiety (they are multiple), they have an openness to healing that enables them that transcends merely medicating their pain with addictive agents or compulsive behaviors. Instead, they are willing to be confronted. They are willing to yield control. They are willing to experience painful insight which leads to healing. Most importantly, they are open to a Christian spirituality that eagerly seeks to realize God's calling for them. 

If only that would occur more frequently in the Body of Christ and specifically in anxious congregations! That would be the healthiest development of the century!

Your Best Defense
Perhaps the best defense is to begin re-thinking the church as a "Ministry of Recovery" instead of an "ecclesiastical country club." It's a major shift...but one that is certainly and undeniably Scriptural! Perhaps a ministry based on the "Twelve Steps" of recovery might be helpful. Think of it...twelve steps and twelve months in a year. Can it be a coincidence?
Whatever one's experience in the anxious church, the most important thing to consider is one's response to the anxiety. A non-anxious, well-differentiated response, from the very start, requires a trust in the "fear not" Gospel of Jesus Christ which enables one to overcome all anxiety. It is this unconditional promise of non-abandonment which gives individuals the motivation and power to conquer their fears and develop a healthy, realization of a non-anxious, well-differentiated sense of self.
Whom do you fear? The anxiety? Those who promote it and use it against the church of Jesus Christ? Or do you fear God? As you allow God to develop your resistance against fear may He give you the courage to ministry to the Body of Christ, regardless of how anxious it may be, with a "No Fear" ministry!
Thomas F. Fischer

Topical Index    Articles 1-49    Articles 50-99   Articles 100-149   Articles 150-199   
 Articles 200-249    Articles 250-299   Articles 300-349   Articles 350-399 

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This page was revised on: Tuesday, October 05, 2004 11:02:27 PM