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All systems experience episodes of acute anxiety, but systems manifest it differently. Relatively stable, resilient, and high-functioning systems seem able to respond to outbreaks of acute anxiety. In contrast, chronically anxious systems which lack resilience will tend to be reactive in the face of acute anxiety. That is, they have little tolerance for challenges and lack the capacity for self-regulation or for imaginative responses to handle times of acute stress.
Chronically anxious systems share the following characteristics:
(1) They make someone in the system responsible for someone else’s functioning
(2) They are structured to inhibit the effectiveness of their leaders
(3) They develop reactive, rigid, and predictable patterns for dealing with anxiety
(4) They tend toward patterns of triangulation.
While assessing the emotional process at work at the systemic level is helpful, observing how symptomology is being played out in the individuals in the system can also be beneficial. When facing reactivity at the systemic level, congregational leaders will need to respond to how it affects the individuals in the system. Those individuals in the system with a low capacity for self-differentiation and managing their own anxiety will tend to be the most symptomatic (i.e., the ones who “act out”).
Symptomology in Anxious Systems
Here are some truisms worth remembering when dealing with reactive individuals in a system going through acute anxiety:
The job of a leader in a system caught up in acute anxiety is twofold: first, self-regulation, and second, being attentive to the emotional process in the system and providing the function it needs of its leader. Depending on the circumstance, the function of the leader can be anything from providing a corrective to acting out behavior; re-framing the issues from a principled, values, and missional perspective; empowering the calmer, more mature, more centered persons in the system; or merely providing the presence of the leader in the system (staying visible and emotionally connected).
The good news is that acute anxiety and the reactivity it engenders are episodic. Its shelf life is as long as the length of the crisis. Leaders can be encouraged, also, by the fact that every system has some elements of health and maturity, even in acute anxiety and crises. When the leader is able to focus on those, she or he can be surprised at the capacity of some in the system to step up to leadership or be a resource to the system.
To learn more about systems theory as a resource for ministry leadership, attend the Leadership in Ministry workshops, part of the Pastoral Excellence Programs of the Center for Lifelong Learning.