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How Chronic Anxiety derails the church from her purpose

Just read some good stuff in the last few days, and it is so relevant I just had to write it up and share it. In fact, I would say it is essential knowledge for church leaders. If what is described here is active in your congregation, it will help you understand, and both be compassionate and firm with the problem, or even to nudge you to seek help addressing it.

IMPORTANT INFORMATION ABOUT HOW ANXIETY IMPEDES RELATIONSHIPS IN CHURCHES

and so then interferes with doing God’s work as well.

One of the books I am currently reading explains how a negative emotional dynamic in churches works. It has to do with unhealthy anxiety. Everything I read here fits both my experience and my theories about unresolved trauma in the CRC in Canada. By the way, I will start mentioning that the theory is not a blaming theory, in fact it is quite sympathetic. People at that time did not know what was happening, and they did not know how to deal with it.

By the point in the book these quotes are found, the author has explained there are two kinds of anxiety. Short term, or acute, and chronic, which is always there. Chimes or alarm bells are always going off for the chronically anxious. I will add that they seem to need to be fearful. He has also explained, simplistically put, that there are three areas of brain activity that regulate our behaviour, one is the part we have that is most in common with primitive, reptilian animals, it governs basic functions that keep us alive—survival processes. The next, more advanced part of the brain is the part that deals with playing, nurturing, bonding, and emotional expression –relational processes (my term). The most advanced section of the human brain’s processing centres, consisting of about 85% of the brain matter, deals with analysis, concepts, symbols, reflection, observation and insights. The author refers to it as the “Thinking Cap.” Stress, or anxiety, tends to cut out the second and third level and have the lower one dominate.

In this section the author is talking about Jesus’ parable of the lost son, using the runaway as an example of acute anxiety, and the homeboy as an example of chronic.

Here is the quote:

“Acutely anxious people regain their perspective. There is a return to the Thinking Cap. They have the capacity to control their reactivity. But the chronically anxious have immense difficulty keeping their hands off their own chimes. They are not self-regulating. And they are not imaginative. Note how the father appeals to his oldest son’s thinking capacity: “It is fitting to rejoice and give thanks. After all, my son—your brother—was lost and is found. Son, everything I have is yours.” There is no response.

“Typical of chronically anxious people, the older son resorts to either/or, yes/no, or black/white thinking. It was either “favor me” or “favor your other son;” it was all these years of obedience versus the irresponsible behavior of the other son. Anxiety-driven reactivity inhibits the use of the Thinking Cap. With little capacity for discernment, the chronically anxious reduce everything to all or nothing. Lines are drawn. It is no wonder, then, that they overfocus on others and their weaknesses. They blame or falsely criticize. The older son, for example, diagnoses his brother—reckless, careless, foolish. By overfocusing on the riotous brother, he is no longer responsible for his own reactive position nor responsive to his brother. To the older brother, the trouble is external to himself. Obviously, the brother cannot think systemically. For when you see yourself as part of all relational transactions, you look in both directions. You understand that in emotional systems everything is mutually influenced.

“The parable of Jesus also clues us to another characteristic of chronic anxiety. There is willfulness. “If it’s not done my way, I’ll show you.” Thus the older son refuses to join the festive party. If the chronically anxious cannot diminish or eradicate their pain by blaming, they’ll rid themselves of it nonetheless through other means. “I’ll make you suffer yet.” If differences cannot be tolerated, they are likely to be persecuted.

“It is the chronically anxious individuals in the church family who are apt to conduct a “search and destroy mission.” They will not hesitate to impose their wills on others. They make hostages of their gifts, attendance, and participation. They employ their stewardship as brinkmanship. Their ultimate threat is to run away from home—transferring or terminating their membership if an action is not rescinded, a person is not removed, or a demand is not satisfied. These tactics are effective in church families that place a premium on peace and harmony. They will exchange integrity for tranquillity. They cannot free themselves from the bondage of others.

“Basically, chronically anxious people have a low threshold for pain. This is why they are in the forefront of the effort to secure immediate relief. They hanker for answers and comfort. Threatened, they make demands, spread rumors, exaggerate circumstances, claim injustice-whatever it takes to lessen their anxiety. Governed by instinct rather than insight, they cannot be stopped by reasoning or appeasing. Mistakenly, those who must deal with them think being “nice” to the chronically anxious will earn cooperation in return. Or that being reasonable will get the reactive forces to follow suit. But the reptilian brain does not respond to nice behavior, clear thought, or sugar and roses. Under the siege of the Automatic Pilot, thoughtful and careful approaches are ignored. For this reason, too, difference itself is not the cause of the friction. Differences are problematic in proportion to the automatic processes. With the chronically anxious, the contentious issue is not at the basis of their reactivity. Even if the issue changes, their chimes are still ringing. They keep adding emotional fuel to the fire.”

–Pg 24-25 How your Church Works

“At times a system becomes aware of the anxiety-generating forces, yet refuses to use its strengths and resources to deal with the agitation. Sweeping the anxious reactivity under the rug, the system proceeds as usual. But “benign neglect” only reinforces malignant processes. Moreover, ignoring is as reactive as placating or attacking. VICIOUS CIRCLES CAN ONLY BE DISABLED THROUGH EXPOSURE. They are enabled by secrecy and avoidance.

“The church family’s relationships are no exception to anxiety. It was as true in the early church as it is in the contemporary church.”

–Pg 27 “How your Church Works; Understanding Congregations as Emotional Systems” by Peter Steinke

 

 
 

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The Power of Christ and Christians is in vulnerable love

Some extended history of mild abusiveness have been surfacing in the congregation I am serving. And there are hints now and then of deeper abuses. As a result council asked that I begin to address abuse in some sermons.

The first of these sermons was introduced with our denominations’ historic and ground-breaking survey in the 1990s that, much to our surprise, revealed abuse within the denominational membership was reported at the same or higher levels as in general society. We began to address this as a denomination as soon as the shock wore off.

The first sermon I preached was rooted in Philippians 2:7,8 and Galatians 5:16 with Matthew 4:1-11 and 27: 39-41 in supporting roles. I also borrowed some things I learned through Tony Campolo, who apparently learned them from Willard Wallard, namely the concept that “for love to increase power must decrease”

The main drive of the sermon (in my mind anyway) is that there are two main power dynamics in this world and one of them was never strongly used by Jesus:

Power One is what we might call survival of the fittest, the way of the flesh, the ways of nature – of this world, or the ways of the Kingdoms of this world. It is a form of power that is primarily dominating, coercive and thus abusive and violent. It is the one we know naturally and instinctively, even as humans. It has us wanting to take that power to ourselves. Vulnerability has no place in this system, except to be taken advantage of to advance oneself.

The other is the power of the Kingdom of God, the way of Jesus and the way of the Spirit. It is in direct counter-emphasis to the original one. Jesus repeatedly was given opportunity to use or obtain the powers of the Kingdoms of this World, for instance in the wilderness with Satan, and for another instance on the cross, when people are saying they would believe in him if he healed himself. So why is it that he did what we most likely would not have done if we had access to ‘super’ power? — i.e. let himself be vulnerable to that power? To increase and show love is why.To build relationship is why.

Jesus knows that for love to be shown, Power One must decrease. Think of human relationships like marriage. If strained, the person who really loves and cares has much less power than the one who says and believes “I don’t care.” If that relationship is to balance, the one with the power must become vulnerable and reduce the power they have in the situation. God understands that. We don’t. Not easily.

So, that sermon said Jesus became vulnerable to show God’s love and in dying in that vulnerability revealed the power of God, the power of Love, Grace, Forgiveness, Mercy etc.

When we pull power to ourselves, we will abuse.

For the next Sunday morning I was led to preach on Ezekiel 34, focusing on verse 21. In the chapter I saw that there was a reprimand for Shepherd-Kings, but then also one for the dynamics within the flock. The “Survival of the fittest” Power One dynamics. The same dynamic Paul addresses regarding the Agape Feast in 1 Corinthians 11. And God, through the prophet, says he will intervene himself and level things, not so much the playing field, as much as the power field.

Well, those who enjoy using Power One in the church do not like that message. At all. OK, I’m not comfortable with it myself. It’s scary to recognize the call to the sheep in that chapter. Support the vulnerable, do not butt and boss the weak, etc. The rules of Power One are much easier to figure out, and if you work well under those rules, why change? Well, because the Word says that to live by the flesh is to be displacing the Spirit, that is why.

So, I’m working on it.

 
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Posted by on January 23, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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It is good to hear a terrible (to you) sermon now and then

One Sunday recently when I was in Central America I attended an English (Gringo) service hosted by the Spanish (Tico) congregation my brother and his wife and other gringo missionaries in the area are part of.

These Gringos (mainly my brother’s family and another family) are involved with setting up a Christian Private school, and have roles in running an addiction treatment ministry, and helping out in a ministry that takes young girls out of the sex trade and teaches them English so they can get jobs in the regular tourist trade and support their families that way instead. It is all great ministry and all three are growing. The lady who was in charge of the Addiction treatment facility has been there 10 years, and clearly has deep connections, relationship and respect from the Ticos. She showed me the Saturday market, and it took us quite some time to walk from one end to the other with all the hello’s and greetings and meetings we had on the way. That respect seems to be the fruit of a combination of her personality and a factor of having put in a long time in the community. All three missions, and even the Gringo congregation, had stories about the difficulty of getting government permits in writing. The more I heard and saw, the more I think it has to do with an innocent, well-meaning arrogance Gringos bring with them, that the Ticos see and smell but that is inodible (I made that word up spellchecker) to the carriers of it. I have developed this radar that is always asking “What am I communicating that I am blind to” and that radar leads me to that awareness.

Back to the worship service. When you are not at home you expect to experience something different. I did. I was not prepared to be so disturbed by a sermon though.

The ‘pattern’ of worship there is to start with a set of worship songs that move from enthusiastic, to pensive, to a ‘pentecostal’ mood and then finishing with a rousing chorus repeated multiple times. After that came announcements, offering, and then the message to close the service.

It began with the obvious challenge of musicians leading us in worship using their second language. I was deeply appreciative of the musicians (the great drummer was only 12 and had been drumming since he was 4) being willing to risk this as hosts. When you are worshiping in a second language, and you get to the part of worship where you usually lose yourself in adoration and pentecostal praise, reverting to your mother tongue is understandable. Meaning it’s ok with me as a Gringo, even if I can’t understand. And yes, the irony of reverting to one’s first language in a “Pentecost” moment is rich and wonderful for a Reformed guy to observe.
The musicians finished and left.
At that point the congregated are all older but-able-to-travel-and-be-active Americans, and my brother’s young family, and the lady from the addiction treatment center and her young son and teen daughter.
Then some announcements.
Then the pastor asks someone to come forward to tell of some mission work they do. It’s a near 60 yr old builder guy from Tennessee or some place like that, who tells of his conversion 6 years before, and how he a year later felt God telling him to go to poor countries and build houses to North American specs (double pane windows) and ready for plumbing and electric if the people want to put them in later (but no one does) to give them away. He tells of how it has grown, and how they’ve done 12 houses now, and if you want support or be part of a team etc etc etc. And I was wondering how helpful that kind of thing really is, but when he asked for questions I stayed quiet. I’m a guest. I don’t want to make trouble for my brother and his wife’s reputation. I had already asked some pointed questions at the open house for the new home some of the same people had built that was to be a group home for the girls who had been rescued from their pimps. Questions like “What do you do to be careful to respect their cultural patterns, like their more lax approach to time, (which I admire and envy) and not turn them into little American Northern Europeans? And in fact could that be one of the resistance factors in getting government permits?” Like that. It’s what I do. But I began to realize these people were not used to thinking that way, and didn’t really understand what was behind the question… they are convinced they are doing a good thing (and they are) and don’t understand why not everyone rushes in to support it.
So I stayed still in church.
Then the scripture was read.
Hebrews 11:6, which we were told was a context where the writer was talking about faith: “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.”
The word “earnestly” or “diligently” became the focal point of a sermon that substantially was a contrasting of lazy and diligent, with a long string of “definition of lazy” jokes being the counterpoint to the diligence. “When the remote is 10 feet away and you decide you like the rerun after all… that’s laziness and not diligence” that kind of thing.
The theme statement or big idea seemed to be “Work hard, don’t be lazy, and you will please God enough that things will work out for you” with the caveat that a prosperity gospel was not what was being preached. There was no caveat about works righteousness.
Very soon I began realizing that my experience of the faith journey, and my understanding of the passage, was completely different than his. My experience was that a certain kind of ‘trying hard’ that he was describing, for me almost always led to problems, and that a recognition that my effort was not the key but my relaxing into God’s will for the moment led to all kinds of great results my efforts had little to do with. I saw and heard the passage saying “Faith in God leads to God being pleased, coming to God in belief leads to pleasing God, earnestly seeking relationship with God leads to rewards that are freaky and wonderful and amazing and unimaginable beforehand.
So there I was, believing the complete opposite of what he was preaching. And I was seeing how a message like this was perpetuating the inodible problems and barriers. And I was frustrated.
Now, that all would have been workable, if this was not a “call for response” insecure preacher. But, alas, he kept asking “are you with me? Let me hear an Amen!” and at my toughest point he directly asked “Do you agree with me? I need to hear if you agree with me!” and I made myself look over at my brother’s family and think about what damage I might do to their work there if I told out loud what I was thinking and feeling, and I kept quiet.
Later, when I had time at the poolside to reflect, I came to realize how important it is to hear a bad sermon now and then, how it can sharpen your awareness of God’s ways.

 

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I am not good at not wielding power!

I currently feed myself by being the caretaker in a summer Camp run by a church. I was the chaplain last summer and am biding my time until that role kicks in for 2010 again.

Recently, delegated regional leaders from the various congregations met and decided to put the Camp up for sale, hoping they can find a buyer who will commit to protecting the increasingly rare environmental treasure the camp is, and who will let Christian camp ministry continue. If both are accomplished there is no doubt God will have had to be active.

I was witness to this process as an employee. I was not an active delegate, not an appointed clergy person, I was merely an employee of the camp witnessing others undertaking the process of making a choice. It was agony! Being powerless to the point even of being voiceless pushed many of my buried inner buttons. And in that there was a lot of hard learning for me.

I need to admit that I failed to remain powerless. I “used” my knowledge with words and process and cashed in on my awareness that I had some respect – some ‘trust equity’ in the room – to finagle a chance to address the decision making body. So I failed to accept my powerlessness and clutched and grabbed for power anyway. I largely knew what I was doing. I didn’t strategize to accomplish it, but when little opportunities presented themselves, I instinctively leveraged them, I pried them bigger, so I could have a voice and feel empowered. Others did not have the opportunity. They were kept powerless. How frustrating that must be.

I didn’t know until this series of events how much I need to have power and voice. Alternatively also, I became freshly aware how much as a clergy person I was used having extra power and was accustomed to ‘managing’ such processes. In the past I “presumed” it was my responsibility to maneuver every step of things in a certain direction. If I were up on the podium, I would believe I was “doing my job” in that manipulation. So I was not angry so much at the leaders. I was astounded at how it felt to be on the receiving end of that kind of treatment, and astonished at how badly I needed to be the one dishing it out rather than receiving it. I don’t believe these words I’m typing can adequately share how frightening that is and how afraid of my sick need for power makes me. It does.

 

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