The Pacific Lutheran University’s Summer Pastoral Leadership Conference, “Leading Congregations in Anxious Times,” began today.
Our first session was led by Margaret Marcuson, author of Leaders Who Last: Sustaining Yourself and Your Ministry and Money and Your Ministry: Balance the Books While Keeping Your Balance.
She began by giving us an achievable goal to work toward: As leaders, we don’t have to be non-anxious. We just need to be the least anxious person in the room.
She begins by describing the context that we are working with in this anxious world. Anxiety makes people reactive. It causes us to herd together with like-minded people, while fragmenting ourselves from those who think differently. When anxious, people are quick to cast blame on one another. We also tend to seek “quick fixes” and easy solutions instead of committing to long-term work. Leaders who are anxious fail to be self-differentiated: we are either afraid to take a stand, or we become rigid and autocratic.
As leaders, we cannot control the anxious world around us. But we can begin to work on our own response to this anxiety. This is our job.
We begin with ourselves. We must:
Observe: What do I do when I get anxious?
Reflect: How does my family of origin react to anxiety? How have those reactions shaped me and my own anxious responses? This is ongoing work, and not something I can do once and be done with.
Have Compassion: I will never respond perfectly to anxiety. I will never “unlearn” all of the nonproductive anxiety responses I have learned. But if I have compassion on myself I can learn to move forward.
When we have begun to work through our own anxiety responses, we can begin to learn to relate to others who are anxious.
Stay Calm: All we, as leaders, can do is work on our own contribution to the sum total of anxiety in the room. By being less anxious than others in the room, we might be able to break the chain reaction of anxiety. Marcuson warns that this is not a magic bullet, but a little does go a long way over time.
Put on the Whole Armor of God: Marcuson reimagines this Biblical image in an interesting way. She uses the image of the armor of God to talk about self-differentiation, asking me to imagine a circle around me and my own anxiety, with the anxiety of others on the outside of the circle. We do not have to be anxious just because other people are. Similarly, we do not have to force our own anxiety onto other people. We must be responsible for our own responses.
Connect: Putting on the armor of God, however, does not mean that we wall ourselves off from everyone else. We must find appropriate ways to connect. This can be difficult: avoiding people who we don’t wish to talk to is an anxiety response, but so is continuously pursuing people who don’t wish to talk to us. We must carefully consider what connection is appropriate in each context.
Be Curious: In addition to considering how our own family of origin affects our personal responses to anxiety, we should look at the church/institution/society/culture as a “family of origin” of sorts. We need to take a look at our collective histories and consider how they might effect the anxiety responses in our congregation.
Be Brave: Responding calmly to anxiety is not about putting up with anything. It is about being tough enough to handle the challenges that come our way.
Be a Warrior for the Human Spirit: In a world where anxiety often causes people to act in inhumane ways, we must break the cycle. We must be decent human beings in indecent times.
Be Prepared: To be a leader in anxious times is to be flexible, to be ready to move in any direction needed. To be prepared for this, we must continue to work on our own spiritual and emotional maturity.
Expect Danger: Differentiated leadership doesn’t mean that everything works out for us all of the time. Leadership is risky, even if we do a good job. We cannot see any of these tips as “quick fixes,” but must have the courage to be self-differentiated leaders, regardless of the outcome.
After this session, we joined together for Eucharist. Quoted during this time of worship was a Vaclav Havel poem that I thought provided an important complement to Marcuson’s words:
Hope is a state of mind, not a state of the world
Either we have hope within us or we don’t.
Hope is not a prognostication—it’s an orientation of the spirit.
You can’t delegate that to anyone else.
Hope in this deep and powerful sense is not the same as joy
when things are going well,
or the willingness to invest in enterprises
that are obviously headed for early success,
but rather an ability to work for something to succeed.
Hope is definitely NOT the same as optimism.
It’s not the conviction that something will turn out well,
but the certainty that something makes sense,
regardless of how it turns out.
It is hope, above all, that gives us strength to live
and to continually try new things,
even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now.
In the face of this absurdity, life is too precious a thing
to permit its devaluation by living pointlessly, emptily,
without meaning, without love, and, finally, without hope.
Being the “least anxious person in the room” isn’t about guaranteed success or quick fixes. It is about continuing to work for the Kin-dom of God, even when things seem hopeless.