In teaching a graduate course at ACU on Church Leadership, I enjoyed reading once again a wonderful book by Peter Steinke entitled Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times. Steinke offers wonderful insights into realities of congregational life and highlights the challenges leaders face. More than that, Steinke presents cogent wisdom to guide leaders to be non-anxious in the midst of all sorts of anxiety-producing realities that are found in churches today. As Steinke readily acknowledges, we are living in an unprecedented time of rapid change and upheaval. He says that we are “living with constant, radical change.” So how do we navigate that change, keep our sanity, and help our churches continue their faithful witness to God’s work in our world? Here are some of his thoughts:
- Hold on to the big picture—God’s work in the world and his faithful presence with his people. Why? Because Steinke declares: “Most people are interested in relieving their own anxiety rather than managing the crisis or planning for clear direction. Their primary goal is anxiety reduction, not congregational renewal.”
- Refuse to let the squeaky wheel lead the church. “If the leader adapts his [or her] functioning to the weakest members, he [or she] enables their dependency, encourages their happy ignorance, and reinforces their helplessness. To protect a congregation from bad news or upsetting changes is to admit that the system is weak and fragile, too brittle to be challenged.”
- Utilize a crisis or challenge for the church’s well-being. “Distress is not always an obstacle to learning. Pain can be a teacher. Real learning begins when the threat of pain emerges. Everyone has learning anxiety (a general dread of entering unfamiliar territory or exploring new ways of understanding). The anxiety that spurs growth is survival anxiety, when choosing something new because survival itself is at stake.”
- Frame change processes to emphasize the church’s mission. “How the conflict is framed affects the behavior of those involved. When the conflict is conceptualized as cost or benefit, the participants’ behavior changes. People become more involved if they anticipate losses as a result of the conflict than if they anticipate gains. Losses arouse greater emotional force. Researchers found that a prospect of loss led to less yielding behavior.”
- Leadership teams must be flexible and practice non-anxious behavior. “No emotional system will change unless the members of the system change how they interact with one another. Patterns of behavior tend toward rigidity. Conflict may be necessary to jolt and jar the shape of things in order to reshape the pattern. But the degree to which that change is positive or negative depends on the leadership present to respond to it.”
May God bless you as you practice non-anxious leadership for the sake of God’s mission in your congregation!
Editor’s note: If you enjoyed this article, you may be interested in these related resources from the Siburt Institute for Church Ministry:
- Peter Steinke on “Church: Making the Future Work,” from a seminar hosted by the Siburt Institute. Find the videos here.
- Joey Cope on “Shepherding the Anxious: A Church Leader’s Guide,” from ElderLink Fairfax. For a limited time, CHARIS readers can access the free recording. An MP3 of the session can be ordered later; use promo code CHARIS for a 50% discount.