Faith and a Little Anxiety
Rev. Douglas Taylor
May 19, 2013


Let me begin with a vignette from a conference I attended several years ago, a clergy conference on Congregational Systems theory.  Congregational systems theory comes out of family systems theory.  Murray Bowen is among the pioneers of family therapy, specifically family systems theory – a branch of physiology that basically refers to the family as a self-regulating system.  Instead of treating an individual who has a specific problem, family systems states you have to treat the entire family because no problem exists outside the context in which the problem manifests.  ‘Systems thinking’ is a broad interdisciplinary concept for biology, engineering, philosophy and psychology.  Murray Bowen specifically referred to the family as an emotional system, as an interlocking, interconnected web of emotional relationships.  Ed Friedman, a rabbi and therapist, took Bowen’s theory into the realm of congregations and discovered that congregations also function as an emotional system of interconnected relationships.  

Several years back I attended a clergy workshop on Congregational Systems theory.  The opening activity for the conference was an exercise using the concepts of birth order from Family Systems Theory.  While birth order is not that dramatic of a determination of personality or leadership style, it is simple enough to use as a starting point for a conference, a way to begin the conversation.  So that’s what the presenter used. 

The clergy were asked to sort themselves into birth order groups and determine together what similarities they found in their ministry styles.  There were a few youngest, some middle children, a handful of only children and ‘other’ – you always have to allow for an ‘other’ category for complicated family systems.  By far the preponderance of clergy there were in the firstborn grouping. 

After talking in our groups about ministerial style similarities, we were invited to report back to the larger group.  A recently retired minister from the firstborn group offered a reflection that drove the remainder of the conversation.  She said, “I am really looking forward to being retired so I won’t have to worry about making other people happy anymore.”

The presenter got a little grin on his face and asked, “Was that a significant part of your work as a minister, making other people happy?  How about the rest of you in the firstborn group, is part of your job to make the people in your congregation happy?”  There was some mixed response, but most of them said yes.  In one way or another, to greater or lesser degree, yes; making the people in the congregation happy was an unwritten expectation of the job.

As the presenter invited feedback from the other groupings, he inserted that question each time.  As this question moved away from the firstborn ministers, the answers grew more muddied.  Some said it was a part of it but not the most important part, others said it was an expectation they ignored; a few said it was their work and others said it wasn’t. 

When the presenter asked the group of us who were youngest children if we saw ‘making the people in congregation happy’ as a significant part of our work I immediately piped up: “I have a hard enough time making myself happy.  Their on their own.”

That got a good laugh, which I will admit was part of why I said it.  I am the youngest from a family of four after all.  I have found playfulness to be a useful trait.  Rabbi Ed Friedman said, “Playfulness can get you out of a rut more successfully than seriousness.”

But my playful answer was also a true answer.  If my work as a minister is to make people happy or keep people happy, then I need to reconsider my career choice.  But I don’t think I am wrong.  Each of us is responsible for our own happiness.  I care about your happiness.  I would like to see all of us happy.  But I can’t make anyone happy just like I can’t save anyone or enlighten anyone or make anyone realize their full potential – or any other grand goal of a meaningful and good life.  I can help.  But I can’t do it for you, no one can.  In his letter to the Philippians (2:12) Paul said “you must work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”  I see my calling as a witnessing and an opening of doors, creating opportunities.  But ultimately, we each must breath our own air, write our own stories, break open our own hearts, fall into our own love, find our own happiness.

You know, as a minister, as a member of the ‘helping profession’ as it is sometimes called, this perspective is a little disconcerting.  But then Murray Bowen is the one who said “When all else fails, don’t just do something, stand there!”  Your presence is the best resource you have to offer.  Your integrity as a human being is your greatest asset. 

Ed Friedman wrote, “The colossal misunderstanding of our time is the assumption that insight will work with people who are unmotivated to change.  If you want your child, spouse, client, or boss to shape up, stay connected while changing yourself rather than trying to fix them.”

So instead of trying to fix anybody, I stand witness to the resources you have within you for your own healing.  This is not simply for counseling and pastoral meetings; this is a stance for preaching, teaching a class, leading a committee, and really any situation in which I am wanting to accomplish something.  My integrity is my strongest asset.  My presence, not my expertise, is what I have to offer.  But that is not an easy position, because I and most people have a deep urge to step in and help people, to fix them, to make everything better, to keep things smooth.  Friedman said we live “in the land of the quick fix.”  What is needed is maturity, stamina, and personal responsibility, not expertise, information, or even empathy.  “The emphasis [is] on strength, not pathology; on challenge, not comfort; on self-differentiation, not herding for togetherness.” (A Failure of Nerve, by Edwin Friedman, p 2-3)

This perspective fits my basic ministerial inclination and has proven effective when I can relax and trust the process and people around me.  This is the “faith” I am thinking about that I am alluding to the title “Faith and a Little Anxiety.”  I use the word faith in different ways at different times; there are several valid meanings to the word.  Today I mean it is a fairly simple way.  I mean it as synonymous with trust.  Trust the process, trust yourself.  To be like the Domino that wasn’t ‘dominoed’ in Friedman’s fable (“Panic”), be concerned first with your own stability and integrity.

I was talking with someone the other day who was trying to determine the best approach for resolving difficulty he was having with a team he was working on.  This was a team in conflict.  This was not a church committee, I’m thinking of an example here with a little distance.  But we do have committees in conflict from time to time.  Of course we do.  And I’ve offered the same council to people who have asked me about dealing with difficulty on a congregational committee.  But for right now, I’m speaking of a situation outside the congregation.  This person was a leader on a team working on a justice issue in the community and he was experiencing a lot of tension and conflict on the team and wanted to know what to do about it.  I said to him: first, find your integrity, find your center.  What is it you want, what is your goal for the team or for the project?  Start from your own integrity. 

Then, when you enter a tense interaction or meeting, don’t react, don’t demonize the other perspective, and don’t rush to fix the problem.  Instead, while staying centered and true to your integrity, lean in to the conflict.  The truism stands, “We cannot change others, only ourselves.”  The ultimate responsibility of any leader or change agent is to take charge of yourself.  The work is not to motivate, move, or manipulate others.  Friedman said, “Stay connected while changing yourself.”  That doesn’t mean giving in to whatever someone else wants.  That means listening to what they want, hearing them, and then responding from your own centered position.   

One of the past moderators of this congregation who has since moved away gave me a great way to talk about this.  “Freeze, unfreeze, refreeze.” I saw him use it in a board meeting and I asked him about it afterword.  I’ve since learned that it is a change model from Kurt Lewin, a social scientist from the 1940’s.  Basically the model says: know where you stand, where you start.  Know your center, your integrity.  Then listen to what’s going on around you when you are in conflict or are amid difference of perspective.  Freeze, but then unfreeze to consider other understandings.  Then refreeze, re-center yourself. 

We have to lean in to the difficult places in our lives, lean in to the tense conversations.  But first we need to be centered in our own integrity.  Both are necessary.  Center yourself and then lean in to the anxiety, the difficulty, the trouble you are seeing.

And here in lies the latest lesson I am learning.  I have long subscribed to the general perspective on anxiety and difficulty in life: it’s not good and having as little anxiety and trouble is the goal.  No anxiety would be perfect.  If you know me at all, you’ll have picked up on the flaw in my thinking.  Perfection is overrated, I’ve often said before.  ‘No anxiety’ is an impossible and perhaps an unfavorable goal to achieve.  Anxiety is a part of living.  Yet I have a strong propensity toward being non-anxious, toward calming everything down or lightening everything up.  Bowen and Friedman talk about a good leader as one who is non-anxious.  But being non-anxious is impossible and a better goal I am learning is to be less anxious. 

Anxiety is associated with stress and instability.  It is usually seen as synonymous with fear. We all have a certain amount of anxiety in our lives no matter who we are.  Indeed, anxiety is not only a reality we all live with, we can have a healthy, necessary level of anxiety.  It is all in how we use it.  Anxiety can be a source of energy for change in our lives and in our communities. 

In a 2008 there was an article in the UU World magazine by Robert Rosen entitled, “Do you have just enough anxiety?” Rosen suggest that there is a health level of anxiety, just enough.  It is the “amount you need to respond to danger, tackle a tough problem, or take a leap of faith.”

He acknowledges that not all anxiety is healthy.  Anxiety can interfere with our good judgment and normal functioning.  Anxiety blocks our ability to respond, it can close us off to possibilities that would serve us well, it narrows our vision and focuses us on our fears, our inadequacies, our failures, and our feeling of insignificance.  Anxiety can close us down or send us send us off frantically in strange directions.  Too much anxiety is a bad thing for our physical and psychological health. 

This much is well known and acknowledged by pop psychology.  This much is the base critique of systems thinking.  What Rosen adds to the conversation is this: 

Too little anxiety … is the face of complacency. It comes from the belief that all is well, and an unfounded expectation that good times will continue unabated, with no need for change or improvement. Too little anxiety leads to passivity, boredom, and stagnation.

Paul Tillich, in The Courage to Be, writes: “The basic anxiety, the anxiety of a finite being about the threat of nonbeing, cannot be eliminated. It belongs to existence itself.”  So in a sense, too little anxiety is a ‘checking out’ of life, it is a way of stepping off to the sidelines of life to be a spectator rather than a participant of your own life.  The Buddhist assertion to “wake up” is in keeping with this concept of anxiety.  Just enough anxiety is like finding the self-aware balance between non-attachment and compassion. 

Anxiety tends to narrow our focus onto the issue that is making us anxious.  As I said at the beginning, ‘systems thinking’ is a broader view.  If we think of our families and the congregation and really any community in our daily lives as a system, then instead of focusing on any particular issue that is bothering us we can consider the whole context of patterns in which that problem is manifesting. 

The trick is not to avoid all anxiety.  The trick is to learn, instead, to acknowledge my anxiety but not let it determine my actions.  Anxiety, like fear or guilt or anger or any other unwanted emotion, is information about what matters to me and what has a hold of my heart.  But anxiety should not be given free reign on my response to situations.  I can instead have faith that a little anxiety can be a healthy. Change and uncertainty will always unsettle us and make us anxious.  And if we always avoid anxiety then we will always avoid change and uncertainty in life. Allowing for just enough anxiety, we can lean in to the trouble, trusting our own centered integrity to hold us.  With both faith and a little anxiety, we can respond to all the challenge and the beauty life holds.

In a world without end,
may it be so.