Tuesday, May 27, 2008


“Do not be anxious,” Jesus said. Without a doubt, Jesus’ wise advice to his disciples is also applicable to a congregation or community. Over the years, as I worked with congregations, I grew to have a greater appreciation for anxiety and its effects upon communities.

Directly said, anxious communities are reactive communities. Anxiety is an emotional state that is processed by our minds and bodies in the same way we react to fear. Emotionally, we click into “fight or flight.” We fight when we respond with conflict and when we attack others. We flee when we withdraw or avoid others. Some congregations that I worked with were so chronically anxious that they repeated sick and toxic behavior. For example, in congregations that others have called “Priest killers,” I have found that this destructive behavior toward clergy is a symptom of a deeper underlying anxiety.

When our congregation or community becomes anxious it becomes reactive. It is not very able to respond certainly not in creative ways. Things are viewed through the lens of either/or, black/white, right/wrong. People and events are measured as being for us or against us.

For some time now, I have tried to state as rationally and calmly as possible that TEC is a community that shows all the signs of an anxious and reactive community. The continuing polarization on issues related to human sexuality and the fight or flight posture of many of our leaders is strongly indicative of our plight. I further believe that our current tension and polarization has gone on for so long that we are in danger of becoming, if we are not already, a chronically anxious community without the inner resources to turn toward health and healing.

I should mention that when I try to say this, those strongly caught up in the reactivity usually respond in very negative ways. They argue for the rightness of their side, or the importance of “rights” or “belief.” I want to make it clear, before you hit the “comment” button to my blog that I am not saying that the issues on both sides are not important. I am saying that we are dealing with them poorly because we have become so reactive.

What we do know about reactivity is that reason and understanding are pushed aside by emotion and passion. One continuing example of this is the way Episcopal leaders talk about, and the terms we use to describe, those we “see on the other side.” (One rule of thumb that I learned as a consultant is always to use the terms and descriptions that people and groups use about themselves WITHOUT giving these a pejorative definition.)

Those who have read articles from me already know that I have said all this before. What I want to answer in my blog is this question that is seldom asked: “What are we anxious about?” In other words, what is driving our present anxiety? I would say that the answer to this is complex, but it is knowable if we stop and thing about it.

First of all, as a Church with strong connections to American culture, we are anxious about all the things our general society is anxious about. Try this for a starting list:
The Post-cold war transitional world community
9/11 and global terrorism, our incursion into Afghanistan, and our disastrous quagmire in Iraq
Globalization (which includes all of the above)
The changing definitions of humanity and human sexuality, which corresponds to the diminishing identity we once found in our tribe, race or national origin.
The rise of violence in our society
The complexity of our society
The tremendous changes brought about by technology, the internet and computers
The decline of the family as the basic unit of culture and the emergence of the peer community as its replacement
The explosive growth in our understanding of the Universe and the diminishing place we humans find in it
The consequences of our dependence upon carbon fuels and the results, be they global warming or $5.00 a gallon gasoline

Then as a church:
40 years of decline
The loss of our “English” identity and the Americanization of ECUSA
The change from being a New York and East Coast elitist Community into a more upper middle-class community post WWII
The changing and emerging power of women
The declining number of African-Americans and blue collar workers who represented our previous “diversity and inclusion.”
The failure of Anglo-Catholics, Evangelicals, and Charismatics to gain control of our community combined with the absolute control of our national leadership by Progressives
The use of a Prayer Book that does not create a common sense of language and community – too many options for that
An aging membership that remains highly educated, largely Anglo and that can’t find many ways to live out the diversity that we value so much
A lack of consensus as to the role and place of Anglicanism in North America and a growing tension with Anglicanism in the rest of the world

Add to these, Post-Christendom, Post-denominationalism, and Post-modernism and you get a lot of anxiety.

So, what are we to do? When I suggested in a previous post that it will be 2010 before we will have the opportunity to move beyond our present stuckness, one reader, Sarah, stated her opinion that this will go on much longer. It certainly could. The result of such on-going anxiety will be the essential demise of our community. Sure, a remnant will remain, but it will be the remnant so burned out and dysfunctional that it will have no future.

Or we could simply have it out by fight or flight. The 2009 General Convention could be an essential sweep of the issues even at the expense of our membership in the wider Anglican Community. I have certainly heard this attitude expressed by some Progressives. We could see the withdrawal of more leaders, congregations and even dioceses. We (and they) kid ourselves if we think that such flight does not affect those who leave. I think a few folks who have left have managed to move beyond our present situation, but most clearly have not.

The answer in another way is quite simple, keep engaged and refuse to either win or withdraw. This is not a very easy road to take, nor a very comfortable one. Finally, one way to survive this is to surrender “the illusion of control.” As I said in my sermon May 25th, most human beings greatly over-estimate what we can really control. Worse, in believing we can control, we only create greater anxiety in ourselves and in our communities. Here is my summary comment for myself and the church I love, “When control is the issue, Jesus has left the building!”

On a personal note, I will be away for several days attending my grandson’s graduation from High School in Seattle. So, now you can hit the comment button and I will respond (hopefully not react) when I return.


Fred said...

In a way, you already answered your own question with a kinda “all of the above.”

The answer:  “keep engaged and refuse to either win or withdraw” is the source of the anxiety in the first place.

Your preferred answer:  “surrender ‘the illusion of control.’” suggests pushing the balance away from the negative aspects of reason and understanding toward the positive aspects of emotion and passion.  Probably a good thing.  I applaud your emphasis on giving up the illusion of control.  I will continue to pursue that goal myself.

But in a way, your answer is both traditional Christian humility and post-modern.  By post-modern, I mean that there are no commonly accepted public “rules of discourse” that allow us to dialog.  We personally accept we cannot think our way out of a problem.  And this conflict in our public community is a reflection of our personal 21st century existential angst.

I think post-modernism is a solution to anxiety, not a cause. It dissolves conflicts or at least reduces them to things that can be confessed and faced with humility.  Unfortunately, claiming to dissolve this conflict by embracing post-modernism will be like throwing gasoline on the fire.

SamW said...

Jesus, Take the Wheel

She was drivin' last Friday on her way to Cincinnati
On a snow white Christmas Eve
Goin' home to see her Mama and her Daddy
With the baby in the back seat
Fifty miles to go and she was runnin' low
On faith and gasoline
It'd been a long hard year

She had a lot on her mind and she didn't pay attention
She was goin' way too fast
Before she knew it she was spinning on a thin black sheet of glass
She saw both their lives flash before her eyes
She didn't even have time to cry
She was so scared, she threw her hands up in the air

Jesus take the wheel
Take it from my hands
'Cause I can't do this on my own
I'm letting go
So give me one more chance
Save me from this road I'm on
Jesus take the wheel

It was still getting colder when she made it to the shoulder and the car came to a stop
She cried when she saw that baby in the back seat sleepin' like a rock
And for the first time in a long time she bowed her head to pray
She said I'm sorry for the way
I've been livin' my life
I know I've got to change
So from now on tonight
(Repeat chorus)

[Thanks to Dave, Michelle L, Jordyn for corrections]

from: http://www.cowboylyrics.com/lyrics/underwood-carrie/jesus-take-the-wheel-16549.html

Dean Kevin said...

You comment about post-modernism being a resolve of the anxiety is a thoughtful one and worth considering. That is what a new paradign is supposed to do, give us a new way of looking at an old problem. I will need to think on this some. Thanks.

Fred said...


I am gaining a new appreciation for your dry wit. You artfully use a post-modern idiom "new paradigm" to describe openness to post-modernism.

At the risk of appearing pedantic, I'll let your readers in on the joke. "New paradigm" and "paradigm shift" were used by the late Thomas Kuhn (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Structure_of_Scientific_Revolutions) to describe how communities of scientists reform to pursue new theories. Through historical reflection or "deconstruction" he changed our understanding of science from monolithic march of progress to a dynamic battle between scholastic cliques.

He dethroned Science as the last great "belief" of the enlightenment. "Paradigm shift" also became the battle cry of advertisers, marketers, "thought leaders," and social reformers. Because we have all grown up in a post-modern culture, it is often hard to see how affected (infected?) we are.

Comparing the number of responses to your previous and this blog post we can safely conclude that post-modernism is a total buzz kill. But I'm definitely going to try to pay more attention to your sermons. Who knows what witty gems have been spilled on the ground?