Anxiety is a powerful force in emotional relationships.
Pastoral theologian Myron Madden was known to ask, “What demons have camped at your door to make you act this way?”
Those who act out of their anxieties and afflict others around them, even upon those they love the most, demonstrate they are unconscious of their inner demons of anxiety.
Family Systems Theory was based on the relationships that connect all members of the family to one another as the invisible lines of connection cross repeatedly forming a network.
The metaphorical image is represented by a mobile, that fanciful kinetic sculpture where when it jiggles on one end, it jiggles on the other end, as a given condition of an interconnected system. Everything in this conceptual world is connected to everything else.
So, what happens when a group binds themselves to one another in a jointly held participative organization? Particularly if that organization is a group that welcomes the free voluntary association of persons as a condition for their membership?
How do those lines of connection evolve with time and experience, accentuating both the health and unhealth of those many relationships?
The emotional forces are seldom experienced on the surface but rather are typically experienced as hidden forces that ebb and flow if the group is to exist as a healthy, functional organization.
Anxiety exists in any group connected to a shared purpose by its members and must be recognized by the group’s leaders as present to understand how this anxiety is created and how the group experiences it.
To explain this anxiety, in his book, “Life Together,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “An element of sickness gets into the body, perhaps nobody knows where it comes from or in what member it has lodged, but (nevertheless) the body is infected.”
Peter Steinke observed, “The single purpose of a virus is to replicate itself.” As such, a virus is an intracellular parasite. It invades cells of other organisms.
Once a virus gains a toehold into a cell, it takes over the inner workings of the host cell, draws out the nutrients and runs off copies of itself.
The Apostle Paul described the infections that had invaded their communities of faith. “[They are] grumblers, malcontents, loudmouthed boasters” (Jude 16). They are people who “bite and devour one another” (Galatians 5:15). They’re groups “unbending in their contentiousness” warning them against “godless chatter” and “a man who is fractious.” They are persons who are made up of “quarreling, jealousy, anger, selfishness, slander, gossip, conceit and disorder” (1 Corinthians 1:10-17).
These are the expressions of the virus of anxiety.
The presence of secrets or triangles is not the virus; they enable the disease process to continue.
The disease continues to need not only secrets but host cells to conspire together for the disease to progress.
Secrets support immaturity; secret-tellers are usually insecure, dependent and childish. When leaders protect their immature behaviors through silence, they enable it.
If asked, many people would deny they are anxious. Instead, when there is an emotional disturbance, they would prefer to use such terms as angry, hurt, fearful or sad.
Churches, like individuals, differ in the level of chronic anxiety they experience.
A few churches have such a high level of anxiety that they verge on being paranoid. They see everything as threatening. Other churches feel perfectly safe in their surroundings.
A less anxious church may react to the wind blowing through its mobile by exclaiming “Wheeee!” and finding it fun or maybe challenging.
In the same wind, the more anxious church will batten down the hatches, convinced that all is lost and they are about to sink.
A feeling of safety is not an accident. More likely, it’s the result of leaders who experience less threat around the normal unbalancing that occurs (acute anxiety) and feel safer amid the erratic movements of the mobile while staying in touch with the all parts of the mobile.
Likewise, how well acute anxiety is managed often depends on the level of chronic anxiety within individuals and in the emotional system.
A healthy response to chronic anxiety in general by the church’s leaders may well be the coaching and practice needed by the congregation in knowing how to respond when acute anxiety appears.
Editor’s note: This is the second article in a five-part series. The third installment, which will appear next week, will focus on what Peter Steinke called “societal regression” in a healthy organization. The previous article in the series is:
After serving as bridge pastor at First Congregational Church of St. Louis, Missouri, during the past year, Herron moved recently to Lawrence, Kansas, where he will continue to minister in interim settings. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).