THE REV. DR. ALFRED BAMSEY is a nationally known church consultant who is a guest writer this week at ReadTheSpirit. In addition to his recommended-reading list on Monday and a quiz about religious change on Tuesday, Dr. Bamsey is sharing two articles about his work with congregations.
To learn more about his latest idea — a plan to organize an experimental clergy-consulting group involving Jewish, Chrisian and Muslim clergy — go back to the introduction to Monday’s story.
To contact Dr. Bamsey directly, Click Here and we’ll pass your email along to him. Or, you can leave a Comment for our readers by clicking the “Comment” link at the end of this article on our site.
Here is today’s piece:
Anxiety, the Root of All …
by the Rev. Dr. Alfred Bamsey
I never had thought much about the power of anxiety in church life until I attended a seminar over a two-year period with Rabbi Edwin Friedman, author of the best-selling book on family-systems thinking, “Generation to Generation.”
During those periodic seminars held in the outskirts of Washington D.C., Friedman made it clear to all of us in attendance that he thought that the quality of “anxiousness,” which all of us humans share, was at the root of much of the dis-ease, dysfunction and dissatisfaction that marks so many religious congregations. By the end of those seminars I no longer worried much about naming the sins that people and groups experienced and produced in my own congregation or those I counseled with over the years. Instead, the first question I asked of the staff that worked with me at our church when a brushfire occurred was, “Who is anxious about what in their family, their health or their work?”
Likewise, the issue I pursued in my head when I was consulting with congregations was, “What are the underlying anxieties that are provoking the conflicts in this congregation?”
Anxiety is pervasive in human beings.
Everyone seems to carry some around with them, no matter their station in life, their wealth or poverty, their power or lack thereof, their history, ancestry, or success in life. Most of us contain our anxiety most of the time, which allows us to live in some sense of settled community.
But it dwells like a crouching tiger just below our calm veneer. Currently, as I write this, the country of Kenya has suddenly moved from its status as one of the most settled governments and economies in Africa into an explosion of inter-tribal violence, terrorism, burning and maiming because of a recent contested presidential election. The civilizing forces, which have contained the anxiety in the populace of that country for many years, have overnight been stripped away and vicious and violent confrontations presently rule.
Police in the cities of America respond every day to anxious domestic spats in families that escalate into violent confrontations, sometimes with weapons, and often with tragic outcomes. Too much uncontrolled anxiety drives business leaders to make decisions that are thoughtless, shortsighted and sometimes destructive. No person and no corporate entity in human society can avoid the necessity of recognizing and controlling their anxiety. Anxiety appears to be endemic to living.
Congregations are not exempt from this reality.
There are people in congregations who wish mightily that churches will be a respite from the anxiousness that plagues their everyday lives. And many former believers have left churches, synagogues, and Muslim congregations, disappointed that their hope of finding a “little heaven” on earth failed to provide them with a safe haven.
But so pervasive is the experience of anxiety that even those religious bodies, who would help their adherents trust in a reality beyond what our everyday experience affords them, cannot banish anxiety in this life. It smolders in all of our lives and sometimes erupts into conflagrations wherein people are hurt, disappointed and abused. Disagreements sometimes are not mediated but instead are exaggerated, misused, turned into punishments such as shunning, finger-pointing and even irrevocably dividing congregations.
Indeed, it is somewhat disconcerting to someone like me, who has consulted with many congregations over the years, to recognize that in some congregational fights, the antagonists are as vicious in their conniving and confrontations as any secular body in American life.
However, and this is an important lesson to learn, the cause of these unholy uproars is not that there are simply good and bad people within congregations. Rather, when you understand the ubiquity of anxiety in our lives, you begin to see these frictions as anxious reactions by normally decent people. The core of the problem is that they have lost the capacity to channel their anxiety into productive processes that can resolve differences and restore sanity and stability to their anxious system.
Those who would be leaders of religious bodies — clergy, rabbis, imams and their lay leadership, as well — must understand the various manifestations of anxiety in their congregations and, even more importantly, how to cope creatively with the anxious people that are at the heart of the troubles that beset congregations from time to time.
It is usually futile to bury one’s head in the sand and try to wait out the anxiety building in a congregation. At the same time, it is usually useless to become authoritarian and demand that the congregants straighten up. Some small conflicts can be settled like that, but most often an authoritarian response to a building conflict only stifles the anxiety for a while, until the anxiety generates other options for stirring the pot.
This article cannot describe the many skills leaders have to learn if they are going to become good at containing and channeling the anxiety that will show up in their congregations.
But, let me just share a couple of strategies that can be effective. One is that as a leader you must work to decelerate anxiety’s expansive power. Anxious people need responsive people to fuel their anxiety. If you remain calm, and seek to be objective as a leader, that will empower others to stay calm and thoughtful and not get caught up in the fright that fuels the anxious persons within the congregation.
Such calm and objectivity is very difficult to hold onto if an anxious person or cabal pushes one of your “hot” buttons (values, plans, feelings that are very powerful within you). Nevertheless, with coaching, leaders can learn how to decelerate anxiety within their congregations.
A second strategy is more programmatic.
Congregations who are focused on goals, or end results, have more ability to weather anxious times than congregations without some focus on hopes greater than themselves. I remember fondly the response I received from an aging pastor I once supervised when I asked him, “How is it going?”
He smiled at me and responded, “Fine. I have them focused on goals. As long as I can keep them doing that, they won’t focus on me.”
He had never formally met the theories of family-systems thinking but he understood one of its tenets. A family — and some non-profit enterprises and certainly religious congregations — deal much more effectively with the inevitable anxious situations that arise periodically if they are attuned to end goals toward which they are working.
Such engaging commitments automatically put short-term problems into perspective and empower leaders and followers to keep focused on the most important dreams they have together and not be derailed by a passing disturbance.
COME BACK TOMORROW for one more article by Dr. Bamsey.
Remember — Click Here to send an email to Dr. Bamsey — or click on the Comment link at the end of our online story and leave your thoughts for other readers.