Leading anxious churches through peaceful, patient, prophetic presence

By Jeff Nine

Editor’s Note: this is part two in a two-part series on healthy leadership in church revitalization. Read part one here.


As we explored in the previous post, more often than not our churches are full of anxiety which creates unhealthy, anxious leaders who simply perpetuate the anxiety. So, how do change that? What our anxious churches need are non-anxious, differentiated, and emotionally-healthy leaders.

In his brilliant book, A Failure of Nerve, Edwin Friedman offers some really helpful guidance here and it is worth reading and learning from what he has to say there. But, where can we get a model of what this kind of healthy leadership looks like? What could it look like to respond to anxiety in healthier ways? The Apostle Paul gives us a model in 2 Corinthians.

Of all the books in the New Testament, 2 Corinthians has always fascinated me for both its emotional and relational depth. You can feel the book dripping with tension coming out of intense suffering, painful confrontations, relational frustrations, and lost trust. All those things add up to a situation full of anxiety. Paul at this point can respond to the situation in a number of different ways, but thankfully he gives us a model for how to lead people who are in the grip of anxiety. He approaches the church at Corinth, a church wrecked by anxiety, with peaceful, patient, prophetic presence

1.     Peaceful Leadership

"For I wrote to you out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you." - 2 Corinthians 2:4

Out of the gate Paul takes the posture of a peacemaker. He knows and recognizes that past wounds, past words, and past visits, despite their good purposes and the necessity of such things, brought with them much pain. So, before he begins his main points of the book he acknowledges the pain of the past, steps towards the hurt, and affirms his deep love and affection for them. He doesn’t approach the church defensively or from a calloused posture. He approaches them in humility and grace. He is a peaceful leader among a people wrecked by a lack of peace.

2.     Patient Leadership

"Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart.” - 2 Corinthians 4:1

Paul knows that ministry requires playing the long game. Sanctification, unity, and spiritual maturity are not microwavable entities. They take time, which is why Paul can endure much and “not lose heart”. And in this letter, he invites the Corinthian church into a posture of patience as well. He isn’t rash. He doesn’t come in with demands that have due dates. Instead, he is slow, humble, and patient with them, just as God has been patient with him and with us. Paul knows that if he carries the anxiety of those he leads, he will not be patient. Anxiety destroys patience.

3.     Prophetic Leadership

"Working together with him, then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain." - 2 Corinthians 6:1

While Paul is a peace-maker, he isn’t a peace-monger. When hard or direct things need to be said, he won’t shy away. Too often in anxious systems leaders are tempted to say whatever those they lead want to hear to “keep the peace”. But that is not love, that is not peace, and that is not leadership. While we approach difficult situations with humility, peacefulness, and patience, we also lead our people to true things. We need to be asking God what he wants to say to our churches, and with courage and conviction, say those things from a healthy, differentiated posture.

4.     Leadership through Presence

"This is the third time I am coming to you.” - 2 Corinthians 13:1

In an age before modern transportation Paul would not have been able to visit Corinth often, but he still knew the importance of presence. Of course, in many ways Paul was present with the churches through his writings and through leaders that he sent to them, but he also made an effort to be physically present when he is able by uprooting himself from where he was to come to the church in person. However, as important as this kind of visit is, there is an unexplainable aspect of “presence” in Paul’s very letter. He isn’t merely corresponding with the church. He knows them. He feels for them. He listens to them. He is present, and that presence is felt. They know that even when Paul isn’t in their city, he is with them.

So how do we grow to lead like this?

1.     Rest in Christ

Our identity is that of a beloved child of God. We were chosen by God before the foundations of the world were laid, not because of what we have done or could do, but because of what he has already done in Christ by the Spirit. We are not our vocation. We are not our calling. We are not our positions. We are his, and he is ours. As we learn to rest in our identity in Christ we will begin to lose the anxiety that drives us to perform or produce for our identity. We will begin to embrace the identity that we have been given in Christ.

2.     Abide in God

Second, we need to learn a deep trust in God that only comes through abiding in him. We are not building our churches. He is building his. We want to be faithful, but we are mere gardeners tending soil while God is the one bringing the growth. Recognition of this fact helps us realize our goal isn’t simply to lead others to abide in God… we must learn to abide in God ourselves. It isn’t just our churches that need to grow in God. We need to grow in God. We need to lead others to abide in God by abiding in God ourselves.

3.     Walk in the Spirit

Third, we must learn to walk in the Spirit of God. Jesus promised that his Spirit would lead us, speak to us, and empower us for ministry. We cannot do ministry apart from the active work on the Spirit in our lives and in our churches. Jesus told us that it is better for us to have the Spirit of God in us than to have Jesus beside us (John 16:1-11). May God grant us the ability to believe that and walk in that reality.

By God’s grace, may we step towards these things, and as we do grow into healthy, differentiated leaders who are able to lead our anxious churches out of their anxiety through peaceful, patient, prophetic presence.


Recommended resources:

•    A Failure of Nerve, by Edwin H. Friedman

•    The Leader's Journey, by Jim Herrington, R. Robert Creech, & Trisha Taylor

•    The Imperfect Pastor, by Zach Eswine

•    The Voice of the Heart, by Chip Dodd

Jeff Nine serves as pastor for church planting & strengthening at Frontline Church in Oklahoma City, OK, where he equips and mobilizes leaders and churches for church multiplication and directs both a church planting residency and a minority pastoral residency. He is a lover of theology, eternal optimist, hopeless nerd, husband to Cheri, and father to two of the cutest red-heads the world has ever encountered.