Mainline denominations are sinking.  The money is slipping; the interest and passion have long left the building.  And the building is all that will be left.  This may not be true with every situation.  My hope and prayer is that our pillars of American Christianity and rise from the ashes and lead a new generation.

But for now, we must acknowledge our location.  The ship (as we know it) is sinking.  While that may be a good thing, there are some new challenges that come along with it, especially for those in the middle.  By the middle, I mean clergy caught between the day to day work of leading a church and the denominational expectations looming overhead.

I’ve been in the middle and it is tough.  Ten years ago, in a Methodist parish, our finance team was in a tizzy.  The payments to the denomination proved to be too heavy.  The finance chair had called other Methodist Churches to do some research.  He found churches less involved in local ministries (compared to our church) yet had a larger budget paid less to the denomination that what our church was required to pay.  Upon inspection of the paper work, he noticed a difference in how they reported their expenditures.  He suggested to the finance team to follow their lead and change how we report our expenditures.  (The report numbers were used in an equation that assigned the amount due for that year.)  The treasurer was opposed.  She found it unethical.  They looked to me, the pastor, for answers.  I felt no need to defend the reporting practices nor did I want to assume the complaint was without merit.  So I contacted the denominational representative and asked if she would attend a finance meeting.

During that meeting I discovered that each side was not fearful that the payments could not be met (for there was no penalty if they came up short).  Something  broader was taking place.  The emotion that surfaced was anxiety. Anxiety is best understood as undefined fear.  It comes from a family of words that means suffocation.  The anxiety (the fear that could not be defined) had narrowed the finance committee’s choices to two opposing views.  They were suffocated.  The ability to hear other opinions, make creative compromises and consider new paths had melted away.

I later learned of deeper issues that may have been at play.  The finance chair’s father had served on every church committee from birth (or so he claimed!).  Our chair had been raised with stories about the wicked hierarchy.  He wanted to give a hit for his old man, for he had never amounted to much in his professional career.  The treasurer was trained by a former pastor.  She considered his high ethics something to be imitated.  This striving had taken a deeper root since the recent death of this former pastor.  Without each player being aware of these personal assumptions, the fear could not be defined.

Internally, I was embarrassed but not by my finance committee.  The vocabulary that they were using sounded familiar because they had learned it from me.  I had fed off their anxiety and it tapped into something about myself I had left untouched.  As a result, I was not a self contained leader.  Hearing my words come out of their mouth, I gained a clearer picture of myself.  I learned this:  I was not comfortable with denominational hierarchy and authority.   This was a contrast to the grateful seminary student I was only a few years ago.  The denomination had paid for more than 20% of my seminary education.  I had anxiety about this inner conflict and I wasn’t even aware!  But I’m not alone.

Many clergy caught in the middle of dying churches on one end and an unresponsive or unhelpful hierarchy on the other.  They agree with the congregations complains, for they have merit.  Yet, the hierarchy demands every clergy be a “company man…or woman”.    Who wouldn’t be anxious?

Humans are anxious.  Blame your genes.  Anxiety alerted a part of the cave man’s brain called the amygdala.  Just as these two things served out cave ancestor well, they serve us too.  The amygdala is the portion of the brain that allows us to jump out the way of speeding, out of control bicyclist.  We react, period.  This portion of our brain is constantly working in the background, scanning our surroundings for danger.  When the amygdala is engaged we react quickly, with emotion and without thought.   For example, a simple comment may tap into a speech pattern used by an abuser from our past.  Instead of thinking our response though, we react with great speed and emotion, sounding the alarm for others to back off.  While this is unfortunate, the good news is that we have another portion of our brain that is capable of sorting through the reactionary messages.

The left frontal cortex of our brains has the ability to determine if danger truly exists.  This functioning is what makes human brains unique in the animal world.  Neuroscientist Alexandr Luria calls it the “organ of civilization” (Steinke, pg 56).  It gives us the ability to think through actions, calculate consequences and evaluate history.

When Jesus taught he appealed to the left frontal cortex portion of our brain.  He encouraged openness and thoughtfulness through stories and questions.  He received everyone that came to him, even those who opposed him.

The opposite would be the Pharisees who “murmur”.  They appeal, through spreading anxiety, to another part of the brain; the amygdala.

So unless you have had damage to your left frontal cortex, you (and me) have the physical ability to allow your actions and words to be kept in check.

How do we do that?…with great intention.

Arguments that begin as yelling matches never end well.  The amygdala is engaged when the volume goes up.  But if we can intentionally respond without mimicking the attacker, we create an environment that is more congenial to compromise.  (That applies to volume as well as content of the conversation.)  Peter Steinke writes in Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times: “The non-anxious presence involves engagement, bring there and taking the heat if need be, witnessing the pain and yet not fighting fire with fire.”

This comment, although wise, does not encapsulate all there is to being a non-anxious presence.  I have found that this is a journey and it takes practice.  It beings not in the heat of battle but rather within oneself.  While we can never escape anxiety, we can learn about it and ourselves.

Here are some internal dialogue tips I that work for me:

  1.  When anxiety begins its grip on your spiritual throat.  You must be able to recognize it and name it.  If this is a challenge, then make it your spiritual homework assignment to find readings and reflections on anxiety.
  2.  When anxiety creeps close:  speak to it (verbally if you must) and thank your amygdala protecting you.  Assure that part of your brain you can handle this.
  3. Try to listen beyond the anxiety that is thrown, listen to other emotions presented. Listen to what is said but what is omitted.  (Everyone becomes more skilled at this as they listen to their OWN emotions.)  Sometimes this is as far as one can go.
  4. Speak to the emotion (fear, disappointment, anger) by inviting the anxious person/attacker to explore the emotion.  This allows the anxious ridden person know that although they may be attacking you, you are still on task, not taking the attack personally and even open for more suitable dialogue in the future.
  5. Process the conversation later.  First alone, then with a trusted guide.
  6. Take time to explore relationship in your past than may have been anxiety producing.  Think about how you reacted and look for correlations to your recent history.

Steinke also comments on this process as an internal intention to “tolerate pain both in ourselves and in others”.

Three Insights

As pastors caught in the middle, we must be intentional in tolerating the pain of our parishioners as they struggle with hierarchical demands.  Often we avoid the pain and even make use of it by joining in the griping session.  A more mature pastor would avoid such behavior and focus the church leadership to name and attend to the emotions surrounding the impact of the hierarchy.  Once these emotions are honored and explored more openness and creativity can fill the room.  Instead of the suffocation of anxiety that leads to polarization, the pastor could guide brainstorming sessions with openness to questions and safety that validates varied healthy opinions.  From a pastoral care point of view, the pastor could invite parishioners to share more about their feelings in home or office visitation.

Wisdom teaches us that we (pastors) must discover and claim our own perceptions of those on each side: the church and the hierarchy.  With these claimed opinions in hand, we are less likely to allow them to leak.  These discoveries are best made in a reflective mediation or prayer time.

This new skill set of internally claiming our own anxiety allows us to not take on the anxiety of another.  Finally we are free to walk with our parishioners as a trusted guide as they explore their own anxiety.

One Pondering Prophet’s recommendations for further readings on anxiety

Parker J. Palmer’s The Courage to Teach

Harriet Learner’s Fear and Other Uninvited Guests