Knows Self

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Knows self, and handles their own anxiety: Leaders know where their buttons are, and know how to manage their own anxiety; they recognize that anxiety serves little purpose in moving a congregation forward, and instead can lessen that anxiety and help the congregation focus on the issues involved, rather than the anxiety and fear that uncertainty can create; they are comfortable in and with ambiguity

Anxiety kills. We know that — the stress that is a byproduct of anxiety has caused bodies to wear out early, increase incidents of heart attacks, and other medical issues. It makes it harder for us to fight off illness and injury, and makes us more prone to being worn down and worn away by pathogens.

The same is true for congregations. A congregation has an “immune system” of its policies, procedures, behavioral covenants, and the common sense and trust that people have with their lay and professional leaders. When the congregation is at its best, it can weather almost anything with relative ease and confidence, using its tools of best practices, sturdy relationships, and collective wisdom.

But when anxiety, and its partner distrust, enter into a system, it’s as if you’re putting kryptonite up against the strongest thing you have — the good will and trusting relationships that are the hallmark of healthy congregations. When we’re anxious, we ramp up the emotional field of the congregation. It robs us of our sense of perspective, and the ability to get up on the balcony and take a larger view of the current situation. Anxiety increases the stress level of the congregation, its leaders and staff exponentially.

When this happens, we lose perspective. We mistake the urgent for the important, we get brought into (driven into?) overreaction and hypervigilance and hypercritical states. It frazzles the covenant that holds a congregation together.

So what leaders need to do is understand their own anxious responses, and learn how to bypass those initial responses and help a congregation regain its footing. By not responding with anxiety, it lowers the temperature in the congregation, and it restores perspective. It can help turn the molehill-turned-mountain back into the molehill it truly is. It helps a congregation discern the difference between something truly important and urgent from those things that try to grab our attention, but are best left alone.

The New Leader is someone who knows their own triggers, understands their anxiety buttons, and has figured out a way to regulate these responses. With coaching, confidants, and perspective, they are better able to find the partners who can help restore health to a congregation system while still addressing important and crucial elements.

One of the best resources that I can recommend, and do frequently to congregational boards and leaders is by Peter Steinke, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times: Being Calm and Courageous No Matter What. It should be mandatory reading for all new Board members, and each year the Board and staff should revisit its wisdom. Anxiety kills, and we want to make sure your congregation is not a casualty.

About the Author

Lisa Presley

Lisa Presley is a life-long Unitarian Universalist who was an active lay leader before entering our ministry in 1991. As a lay leader she was board president, board member, worship associate, stewardship campaign chair, religious education teacher, bookkeeper, secretary, and shoveled the snow as...

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