GROWING IN GRACE
Our world is filled with anxiety. I don’t know if that’s a new thing, but it’s certainly been amplified over the years through vehicles like cable news and social media. And certainly, this anxiety has been ratcheted up during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. As Methodists, we bring our own baggage because our General Conference — the one where we finally promised one another we’d solve our 50+ year division over LGBTQ inclusion in the church — has been postponed since May 2020.
I was first introduced to the phrase “non-anxious presence” in seminary when we read a book by Edwin Friedman entitled, “A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.” This book was transformational for me because, by nature, I tend to be a little tightly wound and anxious. I’m what you would call a worrier. Sometimes I play out worst-case scenarios before they ever have a chance of happening. But, Friedman notes, the best gift a leader can offer any situation is to be the least anxious person in the room.
Friedman best defines what he means by “non-anxious presence” when he writes:
I mean someone who has clarity about his or her own life goals, and, therefore, someone who is less likely to become lost in the anxious emotional processes swirling about. I mean someone who can be separate while still remaining connected, and therefore can maintain a modifying, non-anxious, and sometimes challenging presence. I mean someone who can manage his or her own reactivity to the automatic reactivity of others, and therefore be able to take stands at the risk of displeasing.
How does one grow into the non-anxious leader we all need, especially in seasons of potential crisis? I think three things can help us grow to lean less on our anxiety and more into the leaders God calls us to be: Understanding what’s most important; Understanding our value (and the value of those around us); and understanding where we end and where everyone and everything else begins.
To understand what is most important in any given situation requires that you take the 50,000- foot view. Leadership guru Ron Heifetz would say every leader should “get on the balcony” in order to get a full view of what’s happening so they can give level-headed, rational, and insightful leadership. I would argue that before any leaders can do that, they must turn inward and ask what God is calling of them first. I did a podcast awhile back with Jorge Acevedo where I asked him about what he was reading. He said 30 years ago he read two to three leadership books for every book on prayer and the spiritual life. Now he’s reversed that ratio and wishes he had done so 30 years ago. To understand what is most important as a leader is to understand yourself — who you are and who God is calling you to be — first. Pete Scazerro says that all of our leadership is simply an outpouring of God’s love in our life and our awareness of that God. So we become a non-anxious presence by understanding ourselves first and what’s really going on second.
The next place you arrive when you understand who you are and who God is calling you to be is to begin to understand your value, both as a leader and as a disciple. One of the unhealthiest things we do in our culture of conference leadership is posting the annual salaries of clergy online. This practice only breeds things like competition and resentment among clergy. And it does so because we can’t help but look for our worth in a number and compare it with someone else’s.
But in reality, our value begins in a place where we can’t assign merit or earning potential — our baptism. Before we ever knew it or could claim it, God claimed us. We say that this gift comes without a cost to us. Before we were a listing on a salary sheet, we were one who, though we wandered, Jesus left the other 99 to claim us as His. Our value as leaders and disciples comes from the value of the presence of Jesus in our lives and the fruit we bear as witness to such presence.
Understanding where we end and where everything else begins is a tricky thing to learn. Counselors will tell you this is how we understand transference — not imposing our own stories, assumptions, etc. on others and not letting theirs impact us in a way that would lead us away from who God calls us to be. We often see this crop up in subtle ways — the disgruntled pastor or lay person who leads a meeting off the rails because they couldn’t help but bring the frustration from a previous situation into the room only to bleed all of it over people who have no idea what they’re struggling with. That person, and those who leave the meeting totally frustrated, have to asses where they end and others begin. In doing so we set boundaries to help us navigate frustrating situations with patience, grace, and a clear-headedness to seek to understand what’s really going on.
2022 is a new year. And there’s something magical about a near year and the possibility it can bring. Maybe this can be the year we grow in our practice of being a non-anxious presence. Maybe when our local churches are stressing out about the long-term effects of this pandemic on the life of the church we can see the opportunities amid the frustrations and help others see this as a chance to become something new with the power of God. And maybe when our pastors get wound up about what might or might not happen at General Conference (if it ever happens at all) we can remind them and one another that God is still in charge and, with patience and a little open-mindedness, it won’t all be doom and gloom. Maybe we can remind those lay people, pastors, and conference leaders who are wringing their hands incessantly about the future that God is already at work in our present with opportunities to reach people with the Gospel that can’t be missed when we let fear cloud our vision.
I don’t know how many years I’ve written an occasional column for The Advocate, but it’s been a few. And I want you to know that I count it as a great gift in my life to offer these occasional ramblings and musings. It reminds me of the great cloud of witnesses across South Georgia who are faithfully living and sharing the love of Jesus day in and day out. Here’s to a wonderful, and hopefully less anxious, 2022 together!
The Rev. Ben Gosden is senior pastor at Trinity United Methodist Church in Savannah. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.