Friday, May 30, 2008

Healthy Congregations Respond to Anxiety

NW MN Synod Bishop's Letter

June 2008

The cords of death encompassed me; the torrents of perdition assailed me; the cords of Sheol entangled me; the snares of death confronted me.
In my distress I called upon the Lord; to my God I cried for help….He brought me out into a broad place; he delivered me, because he delighted in me. Psalm 18:4-6, 19

Thank God for the gift of anxiety! If we had no anxiety about anything, we’d never climb out of bed in the morning, never get to work on time, never finish an assignment or meet a deadline. A modest degree of anxiety or stress gets us going in life.

Anxiety isn’t something we choose. Anxiety simply is! Feeling anxious is as normal as breathing, eating, or sleeping. This is true for Christians and non-Christians alike. (See II Corinthians 1:8 where the Apostle Paul recalls a time when “we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself.” Now, that’s anxiety!) Anxiety is a natural response to a threat or a fear—real or imagined.

But what about unrelenting anxiety? What if we continually operate on the high side of anxiety—above the threshold of normal, run-of-the-mill stress? What if anxiety paralyzes us, stops us in our tracks, overwhelms us? What then?

The word anxiety comes from a Latin word angere, meaning “to cause pain by squeezing.” Related words are anger, angst, angina (heart pain). The image here is telling: anxiety run amok constricts us, squeezes us, reduces our options and possibilities. It feels as if the “cords of death” are wrapped around our necks, choking off our oxygen supply (Psalm 18:4).

This is true for organizations as well as individuals. Congregations are living bodies—vibrant emotional systems of inter-relationships. Congregations can easily become “anxious systems.” And when that happens they become constricted, limited, “squeezed.”

Peter Steinke, a Lutheran pastor and counselor, contends that there are ten common triggers of anxiety in congregations:
*Money (too little or too much, e.g. a large bequest)
*Changing worship patterns
*Issues around sexuality
*Pastor’s leadership style
*“Old versus new” discussions
*Concern over growth or survival
*Conflicts among church staff or resignation of a staff member
*Being overly focused on internal matters or on external matters
*Suffering some major trauma, tension or transition
*Harm done to a child or the death of a child.

Every congregation deals with anxiety. That’s a given. The crucial question before us is: will we mindlessly, automatically react to anxiety? Or will we reflectively, thoughtfully respond to anxiety?

Reacting to anxiety is what comes most naturally. Steinke points out that there are three components to the human brain. There’s the “lower brain” that is concerned with sheer self-preservation. The lower brain specializes in automatic reflexes and reactions. Then there’s the “middle brain,” which is the seat of our emotions. This part of our brain focuses on whether a stimulus is painful or pleasurable.

God has given us a third, “higher brain”—unique to human beings. This brain, also called the neocortex, makes up 85% of our total brain mass. The higher brain is the seat of imagining, problem-solving, and decision-making. Through the “higher brain” God has bestowed upon us the ability to regulate what we do with anxiety. Our higher brain allows us to step into the “broad place” the Psalmist speaks of (Psalm 18:9) where we move beyond constricted gut reactions and “squeezed” unthinking reflexes.

Precisely here we see the difference between reacting (lower brain, short-term, survival-focused) and responding (higher brain, longer-term, mission-focused).

When a congregation simply reacts to anxiety we notice things like…
*Folks are constantly critical of one another;
*Persons or groups make threats, engage in manipulation, throw tantrums;
*Splinter groups form;
*Change is feared and rejected;
*Quick fixes are sought, and the path of least resistance is preferred;
*People keep secrets and avoid open communication;
*Folks get stuck in narrow, “either/or” thinking and thus miss the array of possibilities before them.

When a congregation and its leaders learn to regulate their stress and respond to anxiety they:
*Avoid snap judgments and quick fixes;
*Take time to gather information and analyze options;
*Generate all sorts of possible solutions;
*Endure short-term pain for the sake of long-term health;
*Commit themselves to living in the unity of Jesus Christ;
*Make wise, balanced, thoughtful decisions;
*Trust that God will sustain them, guide them and bless their faithful efforts in the midst of anxious times.

Larry Wohlrabe, Bishop
(This article is based on the Healthy Congregations training materials by Dr. Peter Steinke.)

Questions for reflection and discussion:
1. How do you recognize when you’re dealing with high anxiety? What physical symptoms show up? How do you know when anxiety is operating in your congregation? What are its symptoms?
2. Recall a time when your congregation reacted rather than responded to anxiety. What happened and what was the outcome?
3. Right now what is one way you could help your congregation live into the “broad place” of God’s care and mercy? How could your church improve its capacities to respond rather than react to anxiety?

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