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Managing Stress and Anxiety in the Church
Stress and anxiety have never been higher – in our country, in our families and in our churches.
There is always stress in our lives and churches, but today’s environment makes soaring anxiety difficult to manage.
There’s polarization everywhere and people take hard stances politically, in managing the dangers of COVID19, and regarding racism and police protection.
In most of the churches that I work with, this tendency toward polarization is showing up today in the dilemma of what is “safe worship” and what is not.
Do we meet in person? Do we wear masks?
In addition, the division of how to handle gender-driven issues is marked.
The church always faces dilemmas and differing opinions, but today’s level of anxiety creates a more reactive response to these issues.
Where do we begin?
It begins first and foremost with oneself.
As leaders, we must work first on managing our own anxiety in order to more effectively mitigate the levels of stress within the church body.
It is important to realize that a calm leader promotes calm within the group.
Anxiety is catching.
Serenity is catching.
All one has to do is watch a nervous mother with a crying baby who calms when someone less nervous takes the baby.
Here are some steps to take when working on managing one’s own anxiety:
• Have clarity about your principles and values. Take an “I” position – what I think, what I will do and won’t do. Allow others to have their “I” positions. It’s not always necessary to state your position but choosing when and where to do so is important.
• Recognize what makes you anxious. Do money issues make you cringe? Are you clear on your gender issues? Do you want to please others? Does conflict make your heart accelerate? Work to get clarity on those issues with a therapist/coach or a colleague.
• Create a balanced life for yourself. Enough work, enough playtime, enough feeding of your soul or spirituality, enough family time, enough exercise, etc. When you are rested, fulfilled and healthy, you are better able to remain calm when things get “hot”. Exercise of any type is a must when feeling stressed. Having a daily spiritual practice is also helpful –
like meditation, gratitude lists, and Bible study.
• Stay connected to family, friends and congregants – especially to those who are the most difficult in your congregation.
• Work on ways to manage your own reactivity to things or people who are difficult. Sometimes that means taking a break. Or it could mean asking clarifying questions? Or it could mean standing there and doing nothing until you are able to think about what to say and how to say it.
• Keep your humor intact! Now that you’ve gotten yourself on track, you’re in a position to impact the level of anxiety in the congregation.
Here are some suggestions:
• Use humor. At a highly charged meeting in my church over a very big deficit in the budget, the head of Finance began the meeting with a series of appropriate cartoons. That alone diffused the tense atmosphere so that productive conversations could
• Ask good, thought-provoking questions. Get people to think rather than be emotionally reactive.
• Set boundaries. These might be named at the beginning of meetings. For example, being respectful of everyone’s opinion. Not interrupting. Set time limits. Have a short period of
silence after each person has spoken.
• Ask to hear from those who have been quiet and silent.
• Coach your lay leaders on how to respond, how to ask questions, how to maintain calm.
• Meet with dissenters to connect and ask for help in areas that are strengths for them.
• Model how to disagree by using “I think” statements.
• When things get out of hand, invoke silence for two minutes. Take a break.
October is Emotional Wellness Month and our church leaders are facing increased stress and anxiety many have never encountered before.
For more help on learning to lead less anxiously, visit Leadership in Ministry.
Elaine Boomer has been a Licensed Clinical social Worker in private practice in Northern Virginia for over 20 years. Her first exposure to Family Systems Theory was through personal coaching from Edwin
Friedman, author of Generation to Generation, from 1989-1991.
After receiving her Masters in social work in 1994 from Virginia Commonwealth University, she studied with Friedman until his death in
1996. Her coaching approach is engaging and clients find that their skills are easily transferred to marriage, parenting and business relationships. She is a faculty member of the Leadership in Ministry Workshops and often presents seminars and workshops on systems thinking to various community organizations.
She is the coauthor of the book, A Family Genogram Workbook.
Elaine Boomer, LCSW