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Posts Tagged ‘anxiety and church conflict’

I ran into a little incident outside my bank yesterday that illustrates why some Christians create conflict in their churches.

My wife and I are buying a house, and while it’s a joyful time in some respects, it’s also very stressful.

Suddenly, we have to meet other people’s deadlines: producing bank statements … scanning documents … signing disclosures … scheduling an inspection … paying for an assessment … and figuring out how to turn brown dirt in the front and back yards into something attractive yet low-maintenance.

Yesterday, after several days of waiting, I finally received the go-ahead I needed to complete a financial transaction involving the house.  I promised someone I would send her the money by a certain time in the late afternoon, and I drove to the bank to finish the task with a few minutes to spare.

Only when I got to the bank, the teller … whom I have never met … told me in a “you’re stupid” tone that the deadline for completing the transaction had passed several hours before, and that I would have to come back this morning instead.

I felt the stress level rise quickly inside me.

As calmly as I could, I went to my car … called the woman who expected the funds … apologized to her for not sending them … backed up slowly … and began driving out of the parking lot.

As you leave the bank, there’s a lane on the right just past the building where cars can appear out of nowhere.  I always approach that small intersection cautiously.

And it’s a good thing I did, because a lady (I use that term loosely) came flying around the corner and nearly hit my car.

I froze … and then got out of my vehicle.

The driver pulled into a space in front of the bank, saw me, pointed right at me, and yelled, “MOVE ON!”

I loudly said, “You almost hit me!”

Then she used a creative combination of vulgar terms and yelled again, “MOVE ON!”

I wanted to move on, but I had to make my point, and I was so upset that the words weren’t coming.

Finally, I blurted out, “When you’re driving through a parking lot, SLOW DOWN!”

She used the creative combination again, and then threatened to call the police on me.  I told her, “Go ahead.  I’ll tell them what a bad driver you are.”

I got back in my car and drove away, not feeling real good about the encounter I had just experienced.

As I drove toward home, I thought to myself, “That person (she wasn’t a lady) was driving recklessly, and she’s probably had similar near-misses before … and she’s trained herself to act like a bully when she violates other people’s rights.”

Okay, that bit of psychoanalysis made me feel a tiny bit better.

But then I reflected on my own behavior, and I asked myself, “Why did I feel it necessary to confront that bully in the parking lot?  Why didn’t I just move on?”

Most of the time, I do.  In fact, I’ve trained myself to let most things go on the road.  It’s just not worth it.

But I know why I did it: right now, I am on emotional overload … my stress level is super high … and I lack a measure of self-control.

Now let’s think about some Christians in your church.

Let’s take Frank.  Frank is in his mid-60s.  In the past four months, he has undergone the following experiences:

*He’s been outsized at work and realizes his career is probably over.

*His work problems drove up his blood pressure so he’s now taking medication for that … and the medication has some strong side effects.

*Frank’s wife has recently been having memory problems, and Frank is worried that she might have … you know.

*One of Frank’s daughters recently separated from her husband, and she’s been coming over a lot more … sometimes staying the night.

So when Frank comes to church on Sunday mornings, he longs for an encounter with God.  He comes with a spirit in turmoil.  He hopes to depart with a spirit of peace.

But what happens instead?

*The music is pounding and seems louder than ever before.

*The announcements drag on and on … and several events are coming that Frank would like to attend, but he doesn’t have the money.

*The pastor’s message contains references to current movies that Frank would never see because he believes they’re immoral … but the pastor seems to love them.

*After the service, Frank hears that two of his best friends have left the church because they don’t like the music or the pastor’s preaching.

And Frank suddenly feels very much alone … in his own congregation.

Frank came to church highly anxious, hoping that God and His people would calm him down … but just the opposite happened.

And right now, Frank can’t handle his emotions.  He needs to talk to somebody about how he’s feeling.

He’d like to talk with the pastor, but he hasn’t been there long.  Frank doesn’t know him very well, and he’s afraid he’ll blow his top and end up a sermon illustration someday.

He’d like to express his displeasure to the music director, but doesn’t think it would do any good.

He’d like to talk to his wife, but she’s struggling to remember anybody’s names right now.

So when Frank gets home from church, he calls his friends who just left the church.

His friends rattle off a list of complaints … mainly about the pastor … and then Frank shares his grievances with them.

And before anyone knows it, a campaign to force out the pastor has begun.

Because this is where division begins in a church: when people begin to pool their complaints with one another rather than speaking directly with the person they’re upset with.

I’ve never tried to get rid of a pastor before, and I wouldn’t want to be a part of any campaign that had that as its goal.  I’d leave the church before I tried to push anyone out.

Yes, like the woman in the bank parking lot, some professing Christians are bullies.  They want to run the church their way … or else … and they will use threats and demands (they work well in churches that pride themselves on how loving they are) to intimidate the pastor.

But many churchgoers who end up causing trouble aren’t bullies … or even immature believers … but are ordinary believers who have been undergoing extraordinary stress in their lives.

They bring that stress with them to church, and if something at church adds to their anxiety, they start complaining … usually the first indicator that conflict is about to erupt.

Rather than dealing directly with their behavior, the pastor and/or key leaders might ask such people about their personal, family, and work lives instead:

*How is your husband or wife doing right now?

*How are your children doing?

*How are things at work?  How does that affect your career?

*How are you doing spiritually right now?  Emotionally?  Financially?

*How can we pray for you specifically?

*How can our church family assist you right now?

Many believers who end up creating havoc come to church highly stressed … become even more anxious when church doesn’t alleviate their anxiety … and finally decide to eliminate the source of their “church anxiety” … their pastor.

I don’t excuse it.

I do understand it.

And maybe … just maybe … understanding such anxiety can help church leaders address the concerns of “the anxious among them” in a more caring and compassionate manner.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The key to preventing conflict in a group – whether it’s your family, your workplace, your neighborhood, or your church – is understanding the role that anxiety plays.

This is what family sytems theory teaches.

In my last post, I mentioned a woman named Ethel who is undergoing overwhelming anxiety in her own life.

Then she comes to church on Sunday … hoping to receive encouragement and comfort … and discovers that the music director has left the church without explanation.

With her anxiety already sky-high, she begins doing what all anxious people do.

She complains … to anyone who will listen.

The church is now in a dangerous place.

There are two kinds of anxiety in a church: acute or chronic.

Acute anxiety is crisis generated.  When the giving is falling behind budget, or there’s an influx of new members, or there’s a major shift in lay leadership, acute anxiety appears.

In a healthy congregation, the events causing acute anxiety are acknowledged and addressed so the anxiety is eventually abated.  People regain their perspective and are able to control their reactivity.

But chronic anxiety is embedded deep within the church system.  It’s a condition that never ends.  Even the slightest change in a church triggers reactive behavior.

To obtain relief from this anxiety, chronically anxious members act out their anxiety by making accusations, exaggerating events, and spreading rumors.  They’re uncomfortable with the way they feel, and so attempt to displace their anxiety onto others.

Imagine that you’re a member of the church I mentioned above.  The music director is no longer on the staff, and Ethel comes to you after the service to complain.

She’s angry with the pastor for not getting along with the music director.

She’s angry with several people on the music team she suspects pushed out the music director.

She’s angry that the music director is gone because she liked both him and his music.

What should you do?

First, let Ethel know that you can’t do anything about her complaints.

Second, encourage her to speak with the pastor or board members and share her concerns with them.  In fact, offer to go with her to speak with them if necessary.

Finally, let Ethel know that while she has the right to speak with a leader about this issue, she does not have the right to complain indiscriminately to others in the church.

Because Ethel wants someone to listen to her, validate her feelings, and take away all her anxiety.

But if you agree with her complaints – and throw in a few of your own – you have assumed her anxiety and you are dangerously close to becoming divisive.

It is not divisive to disagree with church leaders mentally.

It is not divisive to disagree with church leaders to their faces.

It is not divisive to disagree with church leaders when talking to a friend or family member.

But it is divisive to pool complaints with others … because people who share gripes are ripe to form an unofficial coalition.  And if they can find a leader … or a complainer offers to take on the task … they will start meeting in private.

And then they will put the needs of their group ahead of the church and start making demands.

And then you have division.

Church consultant Peter Steinke writes:

“It is the chronically anxious individuals in the church family who are apt to conduct a ‘search and destroy mission.’  They will not hesitate to impose their wills on others.  They make hostages of their gifts, attendance, and participation.  They employ their stewardship as brinksmanship.  Their ultimate threat is to run away from home – transferring or terminating their membership if an action is not rescinded, a person is not removed, or a demand is not satisfied.  These tactics are effective in church families that place a premium on peace and harmony.”

If those who are upset about the departure of the music director would speak with church leaders directly, they might discover the real reason why he left … which might alleviate their anxiety.

But if they don’t engage the leaders, and decide to take matters into their own hands, they’ll just make a mess of things and trigger even more anxiety in their congregation.

If and when those with complaints share their concerns with the church’s leadership, the way the leaders respond is crucial.  The key to church health is how the leaders respond whenever anxiety surfaces.

The more threatened the leaders feel, the more the congregation can be disrupted.

The more calmly the leaders manage anxiety, the safer people feel.

According to conflict expert Ronald Richardson, it’s the job of effective leaders to help keep down the anxiety level in the emotional system of the congregation.

And effective leaders do this best by managing their own anxiety.

When my wife and I were first married, we lived behind a church.

One Sunday, we visited that church.

As soon as we walked into the worship center, you could cut the tension with a knife.  Seriously.

The pastor stood up and gave announcements for twenty minutes.  The church was making changes in their scheduling, and he wanted to explain the changes to the congregation.

Good move.

But he spent so much time explaining that he became defensive.  I could sense that his explanation wasn’t working.

It wasn’t long before he was looking for another job.

I don’t know who, if anyone, was the human culprit in that situation.  But I do know that unchecked anxiety assumed control of that church.  I could feel it … and I was an outsider.

People probably blamed the pastor for things.

He probably blamed some board members and powerbrokers.

But most likely, the leaders allowed anxiety to run amok … and when that happens, chronically anxious individuals either leave the church or try and push out key leaders … usually the pastor.

The lesson is simple:

If you’re a parent, keep the atmosphere in your home calm.

If you’re a boss, make sure and manage the anxiety in your workplace.

If you’re a church leader, do what you can to keep anxiety from spilling out into your congregation.

Because as anxiety goes up in an organization, conflict escalates.

But when anxiety goes down, so does conflict.

What have you witnessed along this line?

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In Simon and Garfunkel’s second album, Sounds of Silence, Paul Simon sang these lyrics with his partner on their song “Blessed” :

“Blessed is the stained glass, window pane glass,

Blessed is the church service, makes me nervous …”

In my last article, I mentioned that there are many elements during a worship service that can make people feel uncomfortable: the music, the greeting time, the sermon, the pastor’s voice … all kinds of things.

And I used the worship service as an example because it’s the most visible expression of what a church is about.  During the worship time, a church is at its best.  For a pastor, his whole week culminates in what happens during the 75 minutes or so when the congregation gathers together to focus on God.

But before, during, or after that worship experience, the anxiety level in a church can rise significantly.

And when anxiety rises, conflict escalates.

Let me give you an example.

Imagine that you attend a local church service this Sunday.

During the singing time – without introduction or explanation – a man who has cheated people out of investments sings a vocal selection … and most of the people in the church know his reputation.

How will people feel?  Most who know him will feel upset … angry … ticked off … even violated.  Why?

Because they instinctively believe that only people who are walking with the Lord should stand on that stage.

The anxiety level in that church is going to rise immediately … and people are going to react.

A few might get up and leave the worship center.

Others will write a scathing note to the pastor on their response card.

Still others will write a note to the person next to them (along the lines of “how can they let him sing?”) or whisper a similar statement instead.

After the service, some people will seek out the pastor or the music director to complain.

When the pastor gets home, he’ll receive some phone calls or emails from irate worshipers.

Because when people feel anxious, they react … and complain to others.

For years, I planned Sunday services every week with a team of gifted individuals.

We wanted people to focus on the Lord and the truth of His Word … but we didn’t want people to become complacent, either.

So from time-to-time, we’d take some risks during the service.

Most of the time, the risks worked.

But on occasion, they backfired … and I sometimes regretted what I did.

When I prepared the congregation for the risky element, they usually handled things with grace.

But when I sprung something on them without warning, some people became anxious and consequently reactive.

(I was once cast as Church Lady from SNL in a short drama during a Sunday service … and did a rap about sexual expression in marriage while wearing a dress.  It just so happened that my father-in-law … a pastor, missionary, and professor … chose that Sunday to visit our church.  Talk about anxiety!)

When a pastor springs a change on a congregation without adequate preparation, he is the cause of the anxiety floating through the church … and it’s the job of a leader to keep anxiety under control, not make it worse.

By the same token, though, even the slightest change in a church can send certain people into anxiety orbit.

Let me introduce you a woman named Ethel.

Ethel’s having a tough time in life right now.

Her husband lost his job, so the family is racking up debt.

Not only is her husband depressed, but he’s being tested for heart problems.

Ethel’s oldest son is on drugs, and can’t hold a job, so he’s living with his parents.

And Ethel feels overwhelmed trying to hold the family together.

When she goes to church on Sunday, she wants to know that God loves her, and that He will give her the strength and courage she needs to get through another week.

But when she arrives, she finds out that the worship director is no longer on the staff, and that someone with far less ability is now leading worship.

Because Ethel has been experiencing great anxiety at home, she can’t handle anymore anxiety at church … the one place she thought she could find peace.

So what does Ethel do with her anxiety?

Leave it at home?

Leave it with the Lord?

Leave it with her best friend?

No, Ethel starts complaining … to anyone who will listen.

The church is now in a dangerous place.

Why?

I’ll deal with that in my next article!

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I felt very uncomfortable in church last Sunday.

My wife and I are living in a new area and we’ve been looking for a church home.  Last Sunday, we visited a church several miles away that meets in a small converted warehouse.  Our daughter was with us because it was Mother’s Day.

There was much about the church that I liked.

They sang some praise songs I knew.

They acknowledged the mothers in their midst and gave each of them a gift.

They showed a cute video about Mother’s Day.

The pastor’s message was biblical and heartfelt.

But something bothered me … something personal.

When I brought it up to my wife and daughter in the car afterwards, they felt differently.

But I still felt uncomfortable … even anxious.

If I made that church my home, I’d remain anxious about this issue.  I don’t want to feel the way I do, but I do.

And this is how thousands of Christians feel every Sunday … at their home church.

They feel uncomfortable about:

*pews that are too hard

*theatre seats instead of pews

*the way the pastor dresses

*songs they don’t know

*songs they do know but have sang way too many times

*the style of the music

*the worship leader

*music volume

*the greeting time (“I don’t want to shake hands with people I don’t know!”)

*the pastor’s speaking voice (his accent, pitch, rhythm, clarity, volume)

*the pastor’s stories (too many, too few, too irrelevant)

*the pastor’s points (biblical?  relevant?  realistic?  meaningful?)

*the pastor’s body language (does he smile?  stand up straight?  wave his arms?)

When I leave a worship service these days, there are many criteria I can use to determine whether I’ll visit again:

*How much like me are the pastor and congregation?

*How well was the service done?

*How meaningful was the music?

*How wisely was Scripture used?

*Did God meet me there?

But increasingly, I find myself measuring a service by how the worship experience made me feel.

And one dominant question rattles around inside my spirit:

How comfortable did I feel in that service?

The more comfortable I feel, the more likely I am to return for a second visit … and eventually stay.

The more uncomfortable, the more likely I am to cross that church off my list and visit another one the following weekend.

Here’s how all this is relevant:

When most people attend a worship service, they want to feel comfortable there.

While they may be open to being challenged intellectually and spiritually, they wish to feel safe emotionally and socially.

If they visit a church once, and it feels comfortable, they may visit again … and again … and again … until they can predict that they’ll feel safe every time they attend.

And if the rest of their family has a similar experience, they will finally make that church their spiritual home.

But there are two wild cards that can mess things up and lead to conflict.

The first wild card is sudden or drastic change that makes them feel even more uncomfortable.

The second wild card is their own personal anxiety that they bring with them to church.

I will discuss both of these wild cards in my next article.

And I hope you feel comfortable until then!

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