Uncertainty and stress due to Covid-19 in recent days are producing a pervasive anxiety throughout society. That anxiety can look different in different people but, if you pay attention, it’s there in the excited and upbeat people as much as in those who are negative or fearful or even cynical. Anxious people act and react in ways they normally would not and that puts particular demands on leaders. Fortunately, we know quite a bit about the psychology of anxiety and that helps tremendously in planning appropriate leadership responses.
In his wonderfully insightful book, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times, Peter Steinke helpfully lists the principal ways in which anxiety affects human functioning:
- decreases our capacity to learn
- replaces curiosity with a demand for certainty
- stiffens our position over against another’s
- interrupts concentration (everything takes longer)
- floods nervous system so that we cannot hear what is being said without distortion or cannot respond with clarity
- simplifies ways of thinking (yes/no; either/or)
- prompts a desire for a quick fix
- arouses feelings of helplessness and self-doubt
- leads to an array of defensive behaviours
- diminishes flexibility in response to life’s challenges
- creates imaginative gridlock (not being able to think of alternatives, options or new perspectives)
Does all that look familiar?
In this series of blogs, I’m going to suggest a short checklist of leadership initiatives that take into account these impacts of anxiety. You are probably already doing most of these things instinctively, but it may be helpful to have clear points to do a mental self-assessment so you can decide where you might want to give a bit more attention.
- Remain calm
Family therapist Edwin Friedman first coined the phrase, ‘non-anxious presence’. Pastoral ministry training will often include a reference to how important it is for a pastor to remain calm and collected in the midst of an emotionally charged situation. Of course, if you have any level of care for the people you’re dealing with it’s virtually impossible to be non-anxious. But we can, with a little focus and determination, be less-anxious, and it’s vital that we make that effort in these times.
Bear in mind that coronavirus is not the only infectious thing going around. Anxiety itself is infectious. Seeing other people around about us in a worried state tends to intensify our own unsettledness. Unless something is done to cool things down, anxiety can start to spiral out of control. As a leader the idea is to nip this in the bud. But what can you do when you have your own anxieties that are perfectly reasonable and very real? Peter Steinke says we can learn to manage our natural reactions, using the knowledge we have about how anxiety works to suppress our knee-jerk responses, choosing to be patient and proactively taking more time than usual to listen to people and observe what is happening around us and within us.
All that is excellent but as Christians we have an additional secret weapon: prayer. Leaning into God, we find a genuinely non-anxious presence. Our heavenly Father is never in a flap, never fearful, never uncertain. His calm gently seeps into our soul, bringing a sense of stability and a recovery of faith and hope. This is what Paul writes to the Philippians:
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Phil 4:6-7 NIV)
At the risk of sounding super-spiritual, the ‘peace of God which transcends all understanding’ is precisely what we need when facing a pandemic. We need something supernatural to cut through the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity; something to guard our hearts from emotional disturbance and our minds from racing into imagining all kinds of scenarios that might never happen.
If it’s hard to put your finger on exactly what you’re anxious about, David’s prayer at the end of Psalm 139 can serve as a good reminder of how to approach God:
Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting. (Ps 139:23-24 NIV)
Sounds really obvious, but how many of us have neglected serious, focussed prayer in the rush to attend to all the adaptations we have to manage? Through the practice of prayer, we can remain (relatively!) calm with a settled spirit, drawing from deep wells in order to be ready to lead God’s people in anxious times. There are five more leadership responses I want to share in the blogs which follow, but you can’t effectively implement those until you have this one sorted.
 Steinke, Peter L., Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times: Being Calm and Courageous No Matter What (Herndon: Alban, 2006) p.8-9