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