Dealing with Chronic Anxiety: A Re-frame That Mattered

November 17, 2016

“There is more chronic anxiety to deal with,” was his answer to my question during a recent visit. John, let’s name him, is approaching the end of his pastoral ministry. In contrast, my ending has now been eighteen years. So my question: “How is it different?” His response: “There is more chronic anxiety to deal with now.”

I remember precisely when I first heard the phrase “chronic anxiety.” In a lecture on leadership Edwin Friedman, referencing his mentor Murray Bowen, said, “Our society is functioning like a chronically anxious family.” I perked up and took notice. What does that mean? Understanding this manifestation of anxiety changed my functioning as pastor. It became a re-frame that mattered.

During seminary days I learned about anxiety. Reinhold Niebuhr wrote about the angst of being human, the inherent anxiety of being finite, uncertain, not in control. Paul Tillich, in The Courage to Be, identified the recurrent human anxieties as fate and death, guilt and condemnation, and emptiness and meaninglessness. He believed that the form of anxiety dominant in our time is meaninglessness, the lack of a compelling purpose for living. Then there is acute anxiety. Much of my pastoral care training was learning skilled, compassionate responses to persons and families in acute crises, the kind of anxiety in loss of life, faith, jobs, health, and relationships.

But chronic anxiety is another matter. Here’s the difference. Acute anxiety is definable and pin-pointed; it results from a specific loss and has a beginning and ending. In acute anxiety the loss is keenly experienced, but over time the acuteness or intensity of the felt loss usually subsides. The loss of relationship, the loss of a job, the loss of faith — the familiar arena of every pastor — are examples of acute anxiety. Chronic anxiety, on the other hand, is systemic. It lives within and between us with no clear boundaries. It’s in the air we breathe, invisible and potentially explosive like gas fumes.

There are specific behaviors that signal chronic anxiety at work, whether in family or congregation or society.

Blaming: The fault is not mine; it is out there, someone or something else. Blame for difficulty is displaced, distancing us from painful acknowledgment.

Reactivity: the vicious cycle of intense reaction to events or persons that by-passes the cortex (thoughtful thinking), like billiard balls bouncing off of each other.

Herding: the polarizing instinct to retreat into camps in a posture of “us” against “them.”

Pushing for a quick fix: the urge to relieve the painful anxiety by finding quick solutions.

Do these behaviors look familiar? Of course they do. At every turn, whether in the public or private arena, we see and feel ample examples. In fact, this behavior is so prevalent that some just presume that’s the way life is.

The connection to pastoral leadership — the subject of our conversation — is striking. Leadership, let’s understand, calls for the opposite of each of these chronically anxious behaviors. When leading, in contrast to blaming, we call for taking responsibility for our participation in both the problem and its resolution. When leading, in contrast to automatically reacting, we call for thoughtful responses. When leading, in contrast to herding or polarizing, we call for collaboration across differences in the pursuit of shared goals. When leading, in contrast to quick fixes, we think long-term and call for the willingness to accept short-term pain for future gain.

No wonder — I want to shout — it’s so challenging to be a leader in our day! No wonder it feels like swimming against the tide! No wonder there is the current level of burn out, loneliness, and despair among many leaders! The atmosphere of chronic anxiety makes creative leadership almost impossible. My admiration goes to you and other leaders who dare to assume this role, placing yourselves intentionally in the midst of toxic anxiety and from that place attempt to lead with courage, wisdom, and vision.

Friedman goes on to speculate why there is such a high level of chronic anxiety in our day. The rapid rate of change is one. All of us feel, to some degree, overwhelmed by the amount and speed of change. In previous eras change came at an arithmetic pace — 2-4-6-8-10. Now the pace is exponential — 2-4-8-16-32. At the end of World War II, the complete knowledge of humankind doubled every 25 years. Today knowledge doubles every 13 months. Change at this pace keeps our heads spinning, generating the anxiety of never “catching up,” feeling “behind” much of the time.

A second source of chronic anxiety is the release of anxiety binders. Friedman notes that the anxiety around difference has traditionally been bound in tight, discriminating stereotypes such as racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, and hetero-sexism. While we celebrate the cracking open of these binding prejudices, we are also left with the anxiety of uncertainty. In relationships of diversity we find ourselves in unfamiliar, uncharted territory, feeling the challenge of learning new ways of relating on multiple fronts across differences that are honest and mutually respectful.

How then do you deal with increasing chronic anxiety? How can we approximate being an open-hearted presence in the midst of chronically anxious situations? Here are a few of my practices that I hope will stimulate a review of your own.

First, notice without judgment expressions of chronic anxiety. Perk up when you experience either in relationships or in yourself the alarms, that is, reactivity in the form of blaming or polarizing or pushes for quick fixes. Notice. Notice these behaviors and remember that when they reign, creativity and reasonableness are sabotaged.

Second, if you notice these behaviors in relationships, with either one or more persons, consider ways to invite the lowering of anxiety. The most essential gift that lowers anxiety is your own non-anxious presence. This does not mean you are not anxious. It means you find ways to reduce your own anxiety so you can be non-anxious within your role as leader. We know from experience that leaders, like thermostats, by their presence and actions, will either fuel more heat or lower it.

Other lowering responses in a group might include these. When noting the “not listening” occurring, you might call for a few minutes of thoughtful, prayerful silence. Or, “triangling” in the mission/purpose of the meeting can sometimes return the attention to the larger, mutual reason for gathering. Offering or joining lightness and humor will also lower the tension, because we can’t be anxious and playful at the same time. Even simply slowing down the interactions by a careful, respectful summary of what is being said will reduce the pace and stress.

This leads to the third point, the most important and challenging one: working with your own anxiety. You have your own ways. Know them, use them, and expand your repertoire. Again, noticing is the first step. Notice when and how you are being triggered into reactive behavior — blaming (including yourself), polarizing (binary thinking), and over-identifying with quick, specific outcomes.

Fortunately we live in a time when there is a plethora of technologies being rediscovered and offered as resources for our chronically anxious time. These include contemplative prayer, other meditation traditions, stress relaxation techniques, chanting, yogi, and other body-work practices. All of them are practices that help you over time develop, like a muscle, the capacity to let go of anxious reactivity sometimes even in the midst of it.

Theologically I see these practices as surrender, a letting go, a dis-identifying of these anxious thoughts and feelings, then returning to my deepest identity as rooted and grounded in Love, in God. I am fond of Martin Laird’s metaphor: “I am the mountain, not the weather.” My identity — the grace of Being, being loved — if I allow it, is as solid as a mountain. All else, the array of thoughts and feelings, comes and goes like the weather.

Self-regulation is the widely understood word for this inner work. Whatever the particular practice you might employ, it’s a process of releasing our energies squandered through egoic re-activity and returning to a non-anxious center, sometimes even within chronically anxious settings. There’s no quick fix here. This is long-term inner work. More accurately, this is life-long inner work.

In summary, naming chronic anxiety gifted me in two ways. It unveiled the energy source of ruinous chronic behaviors ever so present in all our institutions, including congregations and family. Also this understanding framed the spiritual, inner work required for leadership, namely, how to be in chronic anxiety without being of it. It is a re-frame that has mattered.

A comprehensive description of this inner process of self-regulation as prayer can be found in the chapter “The Welcoming Prayer,” in Cynthia Bourgeault, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening.

 


Agent of Change: A Re-frame That Mattered

October 18, 2016

Change is at the core of our vocation. We hear it in the weighty words like repentance, conversion, redemption, transformation, and reconciliation. But how change occurs is complex, more mystery than not. During my walking around in this mystery I came across a pair of glasses that helped me see from a particular angle.

I came out of seminary excited, feeling ready to be an agent of change. The Search Committee that offered my first pastoral opportunity shared a similar expectation. They proposed: “Here is where we are as a congregation. Here is where we want to be.” The subliminal message I heard: “Your leadership can change us.” So I set about to be an agent of their change?

But along the way — about five years actually — I began to question my capacity to change “the other.” It didn’t work. A particular change might be willed for a period, but when the pressure was released the behavior went back to previous patterns. It didn’t work with my wife, not with my children, not with friends, not with the congregation, and not with myself. Any willful effort to change always invited the counter force of resistance. Clearly, something was missing in my view of change.

What was missing — and it became a re-frame that mattered — is understanding change from a systems’ perspective. It speaks counter-intuitively: focus on yourself, not your congregation, and that, to some degree, will change the congregation. You work on yourself — your clarity of vision, your learning, your integrity, your transformation, your responses, your relationships, your questions, your calling, your presence. It all sounds totally self-serving and selfish until you see the paradox: by working on changing yourself you change the system. By focusing on our functioning in relationships we change the relationships. This perspective — centering in on changing self not congregation — felt like a 180-degree turn.

Let’s review the systems view of change. Imagine a system as a mobile with various hanging, dangling parts. We know from experience that if the height of one part is changed, then the total mobile is changed. All the parts of the mobile are thrown out of balance until the force of togetherness (homeostasis) brings the parts into balance again … but in slightly new positions.

Remember a sermon in which you took a stand that challenged the congregation. It was a new position you were taking, like changing your part of the mobile. The sermon was unsettling. The congregation, like a mobile, was thrown out of balance, however slightly. But you also noticed, either immediately or over time, there was a power in the congregational system at work pulling toward a new stability. The mobile-like congregation eventually settled down into a new balance, somewhat changed.

Or, imagine a number of separate parts connected to each other by rubber bands. Let’s say that you take one part and pull it upward to a new position. Note what happens. All the rubber bands, not just one, are stretched. Then, three possibilities emerge. One, all the rubber bands connecting the other parts could pull the deviant part back to the comfort level of what had been. Or, the deviant part will stretch so far that the band will break, causing a “cut off,” a disconnection. Or, the pull of the adventurous part could invite all of the parts to change in that direction to some degree.

Think again of that same visionary sermon you preached. Notice the options: Did your vision get no traction, no movement of change from the system, with congregants saying in effect, “We are not ready for that”? If so, you go back and wait for another opportunity. Or, was the vision so “far out” it was rejected, “cut off” like the break of a rubber band? Or, was there enough curiosity and excitement from congregants for there to be significant movement toward the vision articulated in the sermon?

Each metaphor illustrates the central point: changing yourself, your position in any relational system changes in some way the relational system as a whole, whether it’s two people or an entire congregation.

While we cannot change the other, we can offer with clarity the changes occurring in us in a way that invites the possibility of significant change happening in them. We challenge by defining our self in relationships. Note this difference. To try to change another is to say, “This is what I think you should believe or do or be.” It’s a “you” message. To focus on our self is to send an “I” message. My message, “Here is where I am with … (issue, situation, belief, conflict). This is what I see or feel,” contains an inherent invitation, “Where are you with this? What do you see or feel?” By focusing on defining yourself and offering that self-awareness, you challenge the other person or persons to do the same, namely, to take responsibility for defining themselves. And these mutual self-expressions create change, hopefully change toward growth and maturity.

This is the essential interaction: This is what I see; what do you see? It’s present in preaching — this is what I see in this text; what do you see? Or in a committee meeting, “This is where I see the connection with our mission; how about you?” These interactions strengthen mutual capacity to take responsibility for our thinking, feeling, and doing.

But this is an important clarity. This focus on self is not to be confused with autonomy or independence or self-differentiation alone. In systems’ thinking, according to Murray Bowen and his interpreter Ed Friedman, a self is a connected self, a self in relationship. The self is always in relationship, like the parts of a mobile and the rubber bands illustrated in my two metaphors. There is so such thing as a separate self. I once heard Friedman muse, “Maybe life is all about how to be a self in relationship.” That’s the heart of it. That’s the challenge of it. It’s the essence of leadership.

I found in this re-frame both a gift and cost. The gift is the energy saved in efforts to change the other. Simply put, willful leadership is exhausting. There is relief in realizing that we cannot motivate people to change, as if we know what others need to become. It’s freeing, not wearying, to stay focused on questioning, challenging, offering, and inviting.

While the gift of this re-frame is huge, I experienced cost from it as well. I did so in three ways. First, because you and others will inevitably “see” differently, conflict can be expected. And if the differences become heated then your work is how to stay connected without agreement. It is costly, hard work to stay in relationship when differences are being mutually voiced and felt. This takes time, emotion, patience, vulnerability, and detachment from outcome.

A second cost. Don’t underestimate the time, maturity and effort it takes to find the space within yourself to clarify your responses. This work of self-definition is demanding. To react from our oldest “reptilian” part of the brain is quick and easy; to respond with thought-through, non-anxious words and presence reflects years of inner work.

A third cost. Challenging others with what you see, along with the invitation for them to do the same while staying in relationship — well, that’s a tall order. It’s an unrealistic ideal to expect such maturity from everybody, including yourself. Leading from self-differentiation will elicit multiple responses: some will be unable to respond with “I” statements; some will experience your self-definition as coercive; some will misinterpret your intent and content; and some will blame you for challenging the status quo. The stretch of the “rubber band” may be too much, too fast, too threatening. No one told me that this expression of intentional leadership could reap so much misunderstanding and loneliness. While systems’ thinking altered my understanding of change, I had to look elsewhere to find the inner strength required to adopt it.

Being a part of change within our multiple relationships is at the heart and in the heart of our call. We are about transformation. In this reflection, like a pair a glasses, I’ve offered one aspect of change I came to see more clearly. For me it was a shift: from focusing on changing others to focusing on changing myself, and from that place stimulate and engage others in their choices. It became a re-frame that mattered.


The Congregation’s Angel: A Re-Frame That Mattered

September 7, 2016

You remember the hand gesture — locking your fingers inward and saying, “This is the church, this is the steeple,” and then, as you open your hands, “open the door, here’s all the people.”

That’s the way church looks — an aggregate of individuals. When you look out over the congregation on a Sunday morning, what do you see? You see individuals separated in rows, each with a distinct appearance, each with a different personality, each with a different history with you. Or, looking through the church pictorial directory you notice individual faces, most of whom are shown within families, each with different names. Or, in your imagination when your congregation comes to mind you likely think of individuals to call or families to visit.

But on some level we know there’s more. Intuitively we know church to be more than separate individuals and family units. We just know it. There’s an invisible reality that will never show up in a church directory. Consider two fictitious individuals reflecting on their first visits to a particular congregation:

“I walked down the aisle, found a seat, looked around, breathed in the ambiance of the space, glanced through the worship bulletin, and took a deep breath. I don’t know why but I just felt at home. This fits. I could be a member here.”

“The people seemed nice enough. The sermon was okay. Nothing wrong with the music. But, somehow, I didn’t feel engaged. I’m not sure what I am looking for, but this is not the congregation for me.”

This felt, invisible force that each of these church visitors experienced we call by a number of names: “culture,” “spirit,” “corporate personality,” or “gravitas” of a congregation. Walter Wink calls this reality the “angel” of a congregation. Wink’s interpretation of angel, new to me, immediately became a re-frame that mattered.

Angel? Angel of a congregation? Who believes in angels these days? Aren’t angels disembodied figments of a non-enlightened mind? What possible meaning could this ethereal construct have for us?

Walker Wink is convincing. He opened my eyes to an added dimension of congregational life. This New Testament scholar wrote a trilogy that shook the theological world, including my theological worldview: Naming the Powers (1984), Unmasking the Powers (1986), and Engaging the Powers (1992). In Unmasking the Powers Wink notices that in the Book of Revelation, in chapters two and three, seven letters are sent to the seven churches in Asia Minor. But they are addressed to the angel of each congregation, e.g. “To the angel of the church of Ephesus,” “To the angel of the church of Sardis,” etc. In contrast, Paul addresses his letters to an entire congregation, like the church at Ephesus or the church at Philippi. Until Wink’s observation I had never noticed this before. Frankly, up to this point angels had no place in my understanding of life. They were contrary to my way of thinking. Never had I taken them seriously — until Wink came along.

For Wink the angel of each congregation represents its totality. The angel is not something separate or moralistic or airy. Rather, the congregation is the angel’s incarnation. The spirit or angel of a church is embodied in the people and place. The angel represents the spirituality of a congregation, its corporate personality, its interiority, its felt sense of the whole. Angel (aggelos) in this context means “messenger.” The angel of a church conveys its true unvarnished message. It tells it like it is, the good and not so good. In the above illustration of fictitious visitors, these individuals encountered the angel of the same congregation. They engaged its spirit or culture. For one visitor the experience felt uninviting; for the other it was a coming-home feeling.

The angel or spirit in each of the seven churches in Revelation reveals a mixture of mature and immature characteristics. These letters picture Christ’s spirit addressing the angels of these congregations with both affirmation and challenging critique. For example, to the angel of Ephesus: “I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance … [but] you have abandoned the love you had at first.” (Revelation 2:2) To the angel of Laodicea, the message begins with a scathing indictment, “…because you are neither cold or hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth,” but ends with, “Listen, I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.” (Revelation 3:16, 20) In fact each letter ends with the same challenge: “Let everyone who has an ear, listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”

Although Wink, and this reflection, focus on congregations, it is important to note that every collective entity with continuity through time has an angel. A family or a business has it own unique spirit, as does a school. We even speak of “school spirit.” Wink provides a way to name the invisible spirituality within any visible institution. Wink reclaims a biblical image — granted an unfamiliar one — for naming this invisible reality.

This is the picture: In these seven letters in the Book of Revelation, Christ is imaged as walking among the congregations, engaging the angel of each, sometimes critically, sometimes affirmatively — all in the service of transforming the angel into Christ-likeness. The living Christ is at work not only in the lives of persons in all their relationships. The Spirit is also at work loving, confronting, healing, and transforming the spirit-angel of each congregation.

Now, let’s turn to the significance of this re-frame during my last stint as pastor. This awareness I received from Wink dove-tailed so perfectly with family systems theory. As the new pastor I set before me two tasks: one, come to know the people; and two, come to know the system, the corporate spirit that I later learned from Wink to be the angel of the church.

The second task felt like detective work. I saw clues. I noted the architecture, the placement of pulpit, choir, and other symbols. What’s the message they tell about our spirit-angel? I kept asking questions: what’s the glue that holds us together? I continued to listen for favorite stories about past events, past crises, and past pastors. What former rituals continue to be life giving? And what are people in the community saying about us? One observation began to clarify as a characteristic of our long history: our angel had two strong wings — attention to worship and attention to social justice. Of course, there was more to learn about the angel, but this awareness jumped out with clarity and became a reference point for the rest of my leadership.

This was my assumption: The angel, if I allowed it, was introducing itself to me. I was being invited, less to analyze the angel than to learn to love the angel. In what may appear strange, I was forming a pastoral relationship with the angel, as well as with the people. It’s not unlike learning to care for another person. I was being invited to love this particular congregation with all its complexities, gifts, failures, inconsistencies, and richness.

Perhaps some specific examples will help you understand the value of this double vision seeing individual persons and paradoxically seeing the invisible corporate spirit, the angel.

I first experienced the angel of this congregation as cool, reluctant to extend a warm welcome to visitors. The church had been through some stressful years that absorbed the energy required for getting through a significant transition. So when the congregation gathered for worship members wanted to be together, to reassure each other, to enjoy each other. Wink gave me language for what I was intuiting, namely a wound in our angel that needed healing. For the next decade a priority for our leaders was to recover the church’s former generosity and eagerness to welcome the stranger.

This angel was severely tested in my ninth year. The congregation was discerning whether or not to add a ritual to our ministry — the blessing of a same-sex union. At the time there was not a more contentious, divisive issue in the larger church. This was the surprise. During this extended process of decision-making, we experienced more conflict outside the congregation than within it. We splintered, but we did not split.

I wondered then and now — what kept us steady in the water during this whirlwind of controversy? I believe it was the angel. During those stressful months, often a member would say something like, “Yes, we will lose some members. Yes, we will lose some money. Just like we did when we elected women deacons in the ’40s and when we racially integrated in the late ’50s and when our pastor was speaking out against the Vietnam War in the late ’60s. We made it through then. We’ll make it through now.” The angel with its passion for social justice, rooted in favorite passages such as Micah 6:8 and Jesus’ mission statement in Luke 4, provided the keel that kept our ship from overturning in turbulent waters. When enough members said, “This is who we are,” they were referring to our angel.

This imaginative metaphor of a congregation’s spirit inspired my occasional sermon that addressed the angel of our congregation. In a 1990 sermon, drawing on Wink’s interpretation of these verses in the Book of Revelation, I imaged Christ walking among us, engaging our angel. I spoke of Christ’s affirmation of our angel’s heart for community matters arising from and supported by our core practice of worshiping God. I gave some specific examples of this rhythm between worship and service, being at our best when not taking ourselves too seriously. But I also imagined Christ confronting our angel for our sometimes pride in feeling special, “progressive,” and yes, superior. I also envisioned our angel being chastised for being, at times, so open and inclusive that such grace could be morphed into cheap grace with little sacrifice or commitment.

And I ended the sermon, “So, these are some reflections on our angel. More importantly, I want you to take home this picture — the image of the spirit of Christ encountering our collective spirit, walking among us with the desire to transform our angel into his likeness.”

I conclude this reflection by noting a peculiar characteristic of our work. Like few vocations, pastoral ministry is all about seeing the un-seeable. The realities of trust, hope, and love — indeed, the Mystery we name God — are all invisible Spirit, like the wind, an uncontrollable force experienced but not seen. Even inter-personal relationships, the very heart of our work, cannot be seen or precisely measured. In these words I am underscoring another invisible reality on the list: the angel. Discerning and loving the angel of the congregation in the service of further transformation became for me a re-frame that mattered.