by Tim Woodroof
Peter Steinke’s book—Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times: Being Calm and Courageous No Matter What—is a “must read” for church leaders in these difficult days.[i]
Every church constantly teeters on the brink of anxiety-inducing events that can tear it apart. A church leader is caught in an affair. A deacon embezzles funds. Theological tensions within the congregation erupt into open discord. A congregation finally faces the reality that, without radical transformation, its days are numbered. A popular preacher resigns or is fired. Two teens in the youth group are killed in a car wreck.
Church leaders delude themselves if they believe their church is immune to such forces. Stability in the past is no guarantee of stability in the future. Indeed, the future is ripe with looming crises. A traumatic and church-threatening event may not occur tomorrow or next week. But it will occur eventually … in every church … and it can happen at any time.
It is not this potential for crisis that threatens the health of churches. It is, rather, how crisis is handled by church leaders. The one reality you can count on—besides the predictability of crisis itself—is that some church members will react anxiously to threatening events. They will allow their anxieties to determine the shape and strength of their reactions. And they will attempt—consciously or not—to infect others with their anxiety.
If anxious members create anxious leaders, the church is in trouble.
“We’ve got to make a decision right now!” “This is black and white … clear as the nose on your face … why can’t you see that?” “I’ve talked to a number of people who are thinking about leaving!” “I’ve warned you about this for months now.” “This is awful … how could you let it happen?” “We don’t have any choice in the matter!” “Stop debating and DO something!”
Anxious members say all manner of things to church leaders in times of crisis. We cannot regulate how they react or what words they use or the tone of their voices. We cannot prevent their anger or confusion or desperation or lack of faith. We cannot script their lines to ensure less reactionary, more reasoned conversations.
What we can do—as leaders—is regulate ourselves, control our own reactions, and not allow anxious members to infect us with their anxiety.
Anxiety persuades people to speak immoderately, make demands, simplify complicated situations in order to clarify a course of action, eliminate options, act impatiently, experience paralysis or (alternatively) an overwhelming urge to rashness, value pragmatics over principles, give in to hopelessness or attempt ever-greater levels of control, pacify others or cut them off. It’s lamentable when church members act out of anxiety. But it is tragic when church leaders choose to do so.
Steinke suggests that—especially in anxious times—church leaders must:
1. Be driven by values and principles, not emotion and circumstance
2. Be self-aware enough to recognize personal anxiety and self-controlled enough not to give in to it
3. Stay connected to others—even when those “others” are being difficult and demanding and defensive
4. Set clear goals, express those goals clearly, and stick to them even when—especially when—others are urging a focus on particulars rather than the big picture
5. Challenge the system, question assumptions, run towards the tensions rather than away from them
Church leaders love their churches. They worry about them and pray for them and attempt to foster greater health and effectiveness in the churches they serve. They try their best to avoid or prevent circumstances that threaten church peace and unity. Of course church leaders are vulnerable to the same anxieties that can overwhelm their members … perhaps more so, precisely because they care so much.
But because church leaders care about their churches, they must choose to be less anxious than the people they serve … or, at least, less controlled by their anxiety. It is precisely in anxious times that church leaders must avoid anxious behavior in order to lead their churches to healthier and more productive futures.
[i] This is the first on a series of three blogs that is heavily indebted to Steinke’s book. I fully acknowledge the dependence of these articles on Steinke’s thoughts and principles.