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.

 


Ministry as a Research Project: A Re-Frame That Mattered

August 4, 2015

Friends, I have revised my website and blog to reflect this time in my life. As a way of leaving this vocation that always exceeded by grasp while filling me with purpose, I’m going back and picking up some tools (re-frames) that I found useful in the gardening we do. These “re-frames” mattered to me in my years of pastoral ministry. I’m passing them along with the hope that some will serve you as well.

“Ministry as a research project”—a phrase I first heard from Ed Friedman, the rabbi connecting family systems theory with leadership. But the antecedents for this re-frame go back a way. When I allowed it, this re-frame could change the way I viewed my work.

First, let’s understand Friedman’s point. He spoke of taking with him into a session with a client a yellow legal-sized pad with a line drawn down the middle of the page. On the left side of the pad he wrote factual notes from his conversation that might assist him at a later point in the therapy, e.g. age, work, family members, hospitalizations, medications, etc. And on the right side of the pad he recorded what he was learning for himself from the interactions. Much later, he reports, he would cut the paper down the middle, discarding the process notes while preserving for himself the personal learning gleaned from the experience.

The story stayed with me as a metaphor—the “yellow pad with a line down the middle” with new ideas on the right side to be harvested. For me it was a fresh slant on ministry, asking, “What am I learning here?”

The antecedents to this stance go back further for me. Early in seminary the classic Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl came to my attention. I suspect you know the story. Frankl, a young psychoanalyst, was abducted and taken to a Nazi concentration camp, just for being Jewish. Everything was confiscated from him: his family, his friends, his synagogue, his community, his work, his book manuscript, his clothes, his hair, potentially his life, and even his name, now a number. Everything. Everything . . . except one thing. He discovered that the one thing that could not be taken from him was his freedom to respond. He claimed this freedom. He chose to treat this horrific prison experience as a research project, observing how inmates found meaning or failed to find meaning in this death-dealing existence. The project—what he was learning—kept him alive, gave him purpose, and became the basis of a new approach to psychotherapy that he later developed as Logotherapy or “meaning” therapy.

Let’s review a characteristic frame of ministry. Drawing on the “yellow pad” metaphor, most of ministry is preoccupation with the left side, that is, focusing entirely on the work itself, the people involved, their needs, their possibilities. That’s the way I framed it initially. I was to be available to help, not to learn . . . show up to give, not receive . . . present to serve, not to be served . . . eager to change, not be changed. You can guess where that frame led me. Yes, to over-functioning, over-attaching to results, and eventually to bone weariness of heart and body.

Later I began to experiment with the re-frame—what am I learning here? What am I clinging to that I need to release? What am I seeing in the other or myself or situation that I want to savor, perhaps digest for growth, my own and others? Something is trying to grow here, something trying to emerge, something of the Spirit happening here—where and what?

This re-frame could change my angle of vision. The very question, like a crowbar, could prize open my emotional over-investment in a person or situation. It could release my grip on forcing some quick solution. Just by asking the question—what am I learning?—would grant distance and perspective. Raising the question, either in the moment or later, created space for exploring options. Even better is the question that invites mutual insights—what are we learning here?

An example. The closer I came to my retirement as pastor the higher the level of my anxiety. The prior endings of my predecessors were problematic, so I felt the pressure to help configure a good ending, both for myself but especially for the congregation. By that time I was schooled, as you are, in the impact of pastor endings upon a congregational system for years and years, for good or ill. So I was full of angst, asking: When to announce my retirement? How long between announcement and last Sunday? How will my preaching be different during the last months? What will be my agreements about requests for weddings and funerals? How will I say goodbye? With whom do I need personal time? How will “ending” gatherings and rituals be handled? You get the picture. I was feeling a huge amount of responsibility. And all this anxiety, even before my announcement.

Then the re-frame inspired by Frankl and Friedman came to mind. I began asking myself, “What if I treat the ending process as a research project?” Immediately curiosity peaked. My energy shifted. My anxiety lifted a degree or two. My thinking was invited in another direction. What if I framed the question: “In our fifteen years with you as pastor what have we learned about being church together?” What if I kept journal notes about what I am learning about my leadership over these years? What if I selected an “ending” committee to be with me and share all the planning that must happen?

You can sense the shift from this re-frame. For me the difference is noteworthy. I entered my last months with less anxiety, less sole responsibility and with more curiosity, more inner freedom. There were times when I could pause, take a deep breath, and ask, “What am I learning here? What are we learning here?”

And, you may be thinking, this could apply to other areas of my life—marriage or illness or friendship as research projects, occasions for learning and growth. Try it out and see.

I pass along this shift for your consideration. Occasionally seeing ministry as a research project gave perspective, sparked curiosity, invited playfulness and provoked transformation. It’s a re-frame that mattered.


Ministry as a Research Project: : A Re-Frame That Mattered

August 4, 2015

Friends, I have revised my website and blog to reflect this time in my life. As a way of leaving this vocation that always exceeded by grasp while filling me with purpose, I’m going back and picking up some tools (re-frames) that I found useful in the gardening we do. These “re-frames” mattered to me in my years of pastoral ministry. I’m passing them along with the hope that some will serve you as well.

“Ministry as a research project”—a phrase I first heard from Ed Friedman, the rabbi connecting family systems theory with leadership. But the antecedents for this re-frame go back a way. When I allowed it, this re-frame could change the way I viewed my work.

First, let’s understand Friedman’s point. He spoke of taking with him into a session with a client a yellow legal-sized pad with a line drawn down the middle of the page. On the left side of the pad he wrote factual notes from his conversation that might assist him at a later point in the therapy, e.g. age, work, family members, hospitalizations, medications, etc. And on the right side of the pad he recorded what he was learning for himself from the interactions. Much later, he reports, he would cut the paper down the middle, discarding the process notes while preserving for himself the personal learning gleaned from the experience.

The story stayed with me as a metaphor—the “yellow pad with a line down the middle” with new ideas on the right side to be harvested. For me it was a fresh slant on ministry, asking, “What am I learning here?”

The antecedents to this stance go back further for me. Early in seminary the classic Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl came to my attention. I suspect you know the story. Frankl, a young psychoanalyst, was abducted and taken to a Nazi concentration camp, just for being Jewish. Everything was confiscated from him: his family, his friends, his synagogue, his community, his work, his book manuscript, his clothes, his hair, potentially his life, and even his name, now a number. Everything. Everything . . . except one thing. He discovered that the one thing that could not be taken from him was his freedom to respond. He claimed this freedom. He chose to treat this horrific prison experience as a research project, observing how inmates found meaning or failed to find meaning in this death-dealing existence. The project—what he was learning—kept him alive, gave him purpose, and became the basis of a new approach to psychotherapy that he later developed as Logotherapy or “meaning” therapy.

Let’s review a characteristic frame of ministry. Drawing on the “yellow pad” metaphor, most of ministry is preoccupation with the left side, that is, focusing entirely on the work itself, the people involved, their needs, their possibilities. That’s the way I framed it initially. I was to be available to help, not to learn . . . show up to give, not receive . . . present to serve, not to be served . . . eager to change, not be changed. You can guess where that frame led me. Yes, to over-functioning, over-attaching to results, and eventually to bone weariness of heart and body.

Later I began to experiment with the re-frame—what am I learning here? What am I clinging to that I need to release? What am I seeing in the other or myself or situation that I want to savor, perhaps digest for growth, my own and others? Something is trying to grow here, something trying to emerge, something of the Spirit happening here—where and what?

This re-frame could change my angle of vision. The very question, like a crowbar, could prize open my emotional over-investment in a person or situation. It could release my grip on forcing some quick solution. Just by asking the question—what am I learning?—would grant distance and perspective. Raising the question, either in the moment or later, created space for exploring options. Even better is the question that invites mutual insights—what are we learning here?

An example. The closer I came to my retirement as pastor the higher the level of my anxiety. The prior endings of my predecessors were problematic, so I felt the pressure to help configure a good ending, both for myself but especially for the congregation. By that time I was schooled, as you are, in the impact of pastor endings upon a congregational system for years and years, for good or ill. So I was full of angst, asking: When to announce my retirement? How long between announcement and last Sunday? How will my preaching be different during the last months? What will be my agreements about requests for weddings and funerals? How will I say goodbye? With whom do I need personal time? How will “ending” gatherings and rituals be handled? You get the picture. I was feeling a huge amount of responsibility. And all this anxiety, even before my announcement.

Then the re-frame inspired by Frankl and Friedman came to mind. I began asking myself, “What if I treat the ending process as a research project?” Immediately curiosity peaked. My energy shifted. My anxiety lifted a degree or two. My thinking was invited in another direction. What if I framed the question: “In our fifteen years with you as pastor what have we learned about being church together?” What if I kept journal notes about what I am learning about my leadership over these years? What if I selected an “ending” committee to be with me and share all the planning that must happen?

You can sense the shift from this re-frame. For me the difference is noteworthy. I entered my last months with less anxiety, less sole responsibility and with more curiosity, more inner freedom. There were times when I could pause, take a deep breath, and ask, “What am I learning here? What are we learning here?”

And, you may be thinking, this could apply to other areas of my life—marriage or illness or friendship as research projects, occasions for learning and growth. Try it out and see.

I pass along this shift for your consideration. Occasionally seeing ministry as a research project gave perspective, sparked curiosity, invited playfulness and provoked transformation. It’s a re-frame that mattered.


Triangling in the Text: A Re-Frame That Mattered

June 1, 2015

Friends, I have revised my website and blog to reflect this time in my life. The reflections will be “re-frames” that have mattered in my years of pastoral ministry. I’m grateful that this astounding technology makes possible on-going connections with you and others. For this to be possible at my age and from my home is a gift beyond measure. I treasure your participation.  

 . . .

With this first re-frame, let’s go to a characteristic aspect of our work—preaching. Addressing regularly the same community over multiple years is unique among professions.

When I retired someone asked me, “Mahan, will you miss preaching?” Without hesitation I blurted out, “Yeah, I sure will. How will I know what I believe?” It’s true. Preaching was the opportunity to work out my sense of the gospel’s take on the meaning of life with a community of soul friends week after week after week . . . in my latest instance, for fifteen years. It became an on-going conversation that starts with the life and lives of the congregation and returns to the life and lives of the congregation. Each Sunday after stepping up to the pulpit I could have said, “Now . . . as we were saying.” There’s nothing like it: this on-going conversation about faith, hope and love with people you know and who know you. Preaching, while never losing its sense of audacity and chutzpah, came increasingly to feel like an unimagined privilege.

But privilege was not my word for preaching during the first part of my pastoral ministry. “Performance” was the word. I felt an enormous pressure to “make it happen.” My congregation deserved my very best. And more to the point, my competence was “on the line” week in and week out. More than I like to admit, it was about me, an awareness frequently confirmed by after-comments: “That was a great sermon . . . you really touched me today . . . you are getting better and better.” These responses, of course, just pushed me to try harder.

But along my learning curve of this art appeared a fresh, new concept that named what I was beginning to intuit. It is a re-frame that changed my understanding of preaching. The gift came from friend of preachers, Walter Brueggemann, drawing on an insight from family systems theorist Murray Bowen in an article “The Preacher, The Text, and the People,” (Theology Today 47 1990. 237–47).

Bowen noted that life requires homeostasis (balance and stability). For instance, a tripod requires three legs, not two, in order to be stable. Similarly, when two human beings feel unstable, they often “triangle” in a third person or issue as a way of reducing the tension and sustaining the balance between them. You know well the experience. Recall two parishioners in conflict who (likely unconsciously) “triangle” you in as problem-solver or maybe even as the “problem.” This reduces the tension in their relationship while leaving you holding the anxiety. These lethal triangles are “bread and butter” challenges for pastors.

But the re-frame so helpful to me is a positive use of “triangling.” Brueggemann calls on the triangle concept in family systems theory to present his understanding of preaching. Preaching is generally seen as occurring between pastor/preacher (A) and people/congregation (B). It sure looks that way: preacher in the pulpit addressing people in pew; preacher speaking, congregation listening; preacher interpreting scripture, people agreeing or not agreeing. It’s an interaction between only A and B, it seems. And when the conversation is controversial, it’s predictably a win-lose proposition, some agreeing with the preacher, others not. In either case, the focus remains on the preacher and sermon.

(C) text

SilerTriangle

(A) preacher               (B) congregation

What if, as Brueggemann suggests, the voice of the biblical text is “triangled” in as “C”? I’m not talking about “tipping our hat” to the text, seeing the text as a jumping off place for our untethered imagination. Rather, in Brueggemann’s thinking, you as preacher (A), along with the congregation (B), come under the authority of the text (C). It’s the text that matters. It’s the sense of God’s Word through words—scripture and ours—that matters.

I found this perspective liberating. When I allowed it, I was no longer performing. It lifted the burden I felt to interpret brilliantly, to craft a polished sermon, to declare a memorable message. I was freed to realize that I am not the subject. My sermon is not the subject. The text is the subject. God is the subject. Christ is the subject. Spirit is the subject. The “triangle” makes it clear. The primary action is between the congregation and the text, not between the congregation and me.

We, as preachers, are left with the privilege to engage the meaning of the text out loud hoping all along that the preaching stimulates the member’s interaction with the text. My role becomes more prompter than expert. I was to honestly struggle, play and fuss with the text—in public—wanting my words to provoke a similar engagement between listener and text, “B” with “C,” parishioner with Spirit. We say in effect: “Friends, this is what I see, feel and hear in this text. Here is where it takes me. This is where it can take us. Where does it take you? What do you see, feel and hear? ”The shift occurs: the sermon becomes primarily about God and the congregation, not about you and the congregation.

I found this re-frame transformative. It re-shaped my vision of preaching. And more importantly, on occasion I could internalize this truth emotionally and spiritually.

This way of re-framing preaching is also a way to conceptualize leadership. That will be the subject of the next Re-frame.