When anxious churches create anxious leaders

By Jeff Nine

Anxiety is killing us.

Of course we know that both Jesus and Paul told us to not be anxious (Matt 6:25-34; Phil 4:6-7), but that doesn’t mean we aren’t. Too often we are anxious people comprising anxious churches creating anxious leaders, because anxiety breeds anxiety. In his brilliant book, A Failure of Nerve, Edwin Friedman points out that “...the climate of contemporary America has become so chronically anxious that our society has gone into an emotional regression that is toxic to well-defined leadership.” Our churches are not immune.  

Why are we so anxious? Because we aren’t just thinking people. We are feeling people. We don’t simply navigate life with our intellect. We experience life with our hearts, which is why Jesus spoke so often about our hearts. We are not simply motivated by truths that we comprehend, but also by what we feel and experience… which means we are often driven by a wide variety of fears, pains, and feelings of shame. We are afraid we’ll never be who we have always hoped we could become. As we navigate our futures, we find the shadows of past wounds constantly in our peripheral vision. And too often we are dripping with shame over who we have become or what those around us will think if they see who we truly are on the inside.

And this all applies to our churches as well. Our churches are anxious because we aren’t growing or are in decline. Our churches are anxious because people are complaining. Our churches are anxious because we don’t seem to be reaching our communities like we had once hoped. Our churches are anxious because we are losing our young people. Our churches are anxious because we don’t have enough leaders… and on and on go the reasons.

This kind of anxiety is particularly acute in churches which are in the middle of revitalization efforts. Will we be able to bring new life to this church? Will our future just look like a rerun of the past? Is there any way to bring health to an organization in disarray? We don’t want to be anxious, but more often than not we have to acknowledge that we are.

So a critical question for every pastor or church leader, especially those working toward revitalization, is: how can we lead well while we are surrounded by anxieties and are leading people who are caught up in anxious systems? However in order to move forward towards healthy, non-anxious leadership we need to learn to recognize the unhealthy, anxious patterns of leadership we often find ourselves falling into.

Among the multitude of unhealthy responses to anxiety that leaders can be guilty of, there are three that deserve particular attention here: denial, enmeshment, and manipulation. Each of these are actually signs that the anxiety in these organizations has entered into the hearts of the leaders themselves.

1.     Denial

Too often I hear pastors respond to anxiety in churches or in leadership with truth statements intended to remove the emotion from the system. We want to deny that anxiety exists or at least act like it doesn’t. We focus on “truth” and “facts” all the while denying what people are “feeling”. But people feel things and organizations are emotional systems. We aren’t just leading people with heads, we are leading people with hearts. And when we attempt to deny the anxiety they feel we actually perpetuate it.

2.     Enmeshment

We are often told as leaders in the church that we need to be empathetic. They say we need to feel and understand the burdens of the people we care for, and there is a lot of truth to that. But there is a really fine line between empathy and enmeshment. When leaders become enmeshed and take on the anxiety of the people they lead, they both justify and amplify the anxiety. At the time when objective clarity and differentiation is most needed, an enmeshed leader begins to be driven by the same anxieties that are driving those they lead, and the anxiety only grows.

3.     Manipulation

Nothing motivates action like fear. Just look at the entire political enterprise and you will notice politicians using people’s fears and anxieties as fuel to drive them to particular actions (vote this way, support this candidate, join this movement, etc.). The same thing happens in our churches. Unhealthy pastors use the anxieties that people in their churches are feeling to “motivate" them to take a particular action or say particular things. Instead of leading our people out of their anxieties, we use their anxieties to control them, to make them go where we want them to go. But that isn’t good leadership. It’s manipulation. It’s sin.

So what does it look like to respond to anxiety with healthy, non-anxious, differentiated leadership? We’ll explore that part two.

Editor’s Note: this is part one in a two-part series on healthy leadership in church revitalization. Look for part two Leading anxious churches through peaceful, patient, prophetic presence Wednesday, May 22.

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.