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Church, Clergy Health Suffers When Chronic Anxiety Spikes

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It doesn’t take a prophet to recognize we live in anxious times.

Anxiety is seeping out of the pores of our world. It is felt in families, neighbors, politics, businesses and any institutions wherever a community is gathered.

Without relief, free-floating anxiety may grow like a virus. It is spread from individual to individual. A tipping point can be reached where the virus threatens the health of the community.

A virus is the perfect metaphor for life together in our interconnected world.

Murray Bowen described a phenomenon whereby chronic, free-floating anxiety would occasionally spike.

This kind of anxiety is more deeply rooted than the typical nature of community nervousness. The heightened anxiety is more pernicious, deeper and more embracing to the point he calls it societal regression.

When this occurs, the world is marked by terrorism, fundamentalism, cults and a general shifting in the individuality-togetherness scale toward the stuck-togetherness end of the continuum.

In such a climate of heightened anxiety, the focus shifts toward pathology rather than health, safety becomes more important than trusting one’s desire to risk or adventure, and dependency is heightened.

Such a time is like a toxic martini for well-defined leaders and for the issue of congregational and clergy health. During a societal regression, free-floating anxieties are often projected upon leaders.

In his book, “A Failure of Nerve,” Edwin Friedman compares this to “the volatile atmosphere of a room filled with gas fumes, where any sparking incident could set off a conflagration, and where people would then blame the person who struck the match rather than trying to disperse the flames.”

In such a time, those who are most anxious will act out with few boundaries to hold them back.

Because of the communal nature of congregations, Friedman claims this is also true of religious communities that stand on the border between society and family.

Congregants will likely project their personal and family anxieties into institutions that are already caught up in the collective anxiety of the community.

E.O. Wilson, author of “Sociobiology,” concluded three characteristics exist for a healthy society: cooperation, cohesiveness and altruism. These uniting building blocks are threatened because societal regression has such a strong downward pull it subsumes these forces.

Friedman described this condition of heightened anxiety as “a panic in search of a trigger.”

Such chronic anxiety strangles a community’s ability to express a spirit of playfulness and stifles the joy of laughter.

Members are locked into a pessimistic attitude focused on the pathology of the group, making it nearly impossible for the group to regain an appreciation for the group’s inherent strengths.

Such negative forces may also cause members to revert to a reptilian way of existing, more reactive than responsive. Such an existence is narrow in expression and thin.

A group under this kind of chronic anxiety will struggle with how they apologize for their faults and stingy in forgiveness. The tighter the anxiety, the more reptilian the response.

Congregations can blindly experience societal anxiety and barely recognize the signs of the vicious downward cycle of the health of the community of faith.

Editor’s note: This is the third article in a five-part series. The fourth installment, which will appear next week, will focus on six lessons for churches from Family Systems Theory. The previous articles in the series are:

How Churches, Ministers Build Healthy Relationships – Part 1

Vaccinating Your Church Against the Anxiety Virus – Part 2

Keith Herron

Keith Herron is the Bridge Pastor for First Congregational Church of St. Louis. He is the author of “Living a Narrative Life: Essays on the Power of Story," and served previously as a member of the EthicsDaily.com / Baptist Center for Ethics board of directors.