Leading in the Light of God’s Non-Anxious Presence

by Joe Goodwin Burnett

Non-anxious leadership is a way of being that reflects and is grounded in God’s own eternal and non-anxious presence.

In a parish I served as rector many years ago, a controversy erupted between my Christian education director and the director of our parish’s playschool, a popular child development center for two to four year-olds. The education director reported to me that the playschool was seeking additional space that would compromise our parish Sunday school programs.

Taking her word for it, I became concerned enough to carry an urgent request to our vestry for their counsel in seeking a resolution. Sensing my anxiety around this matter, they quickly moved to support me in any decision I made, including shutting down the playschool altogether.

Soon thereafter at a meeting with the playschool director I learned that her request for more space had been misrepresented by our education director. I also learned that for some time there had been some festering conflict between the two of them. It was true that the play school did want more space, but they were also quite willing to cooperate in any way to reach a solution.

I realized that I had overreacted to the whole situation and had “bought into” the anxiety of the education director regarding this issue. In so doing, I came close to setting in motion a series of events that could have had negative results for the health of the parish, the playschool, and the wider community.

I immediately directed the two parties to sit down and come to a resolution that could be presented to the vestry. They did so, and by the time of the next vestry meeting the plan had been agreed to and implemented. The vestry, after being “stirred up” by my initial anxiety, went on with other business. No one even asked a follow up question. All was well.

Not long after this episode, I became familiar with the groundbreaking work of Rabbi Edwin Friedman in his 1985 book, Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue. In the decades since, his application of family systems theory to the nature, behavior, and functioning of churches and church leaders has become widely known and used.

Utilizing the insights of family process to understand the dynamics of a congregational system is not just another pastoral “tool,” or method of problem solving. Rather it goes to the very heart and soul of what it means to be a pastoral leader.

When clergy (and lay) pastoral leaders can self-differentiate, remain non-anxious, and yet stay deeply connected to others, the inner integrity that emerges from that identity can empower mature relationships that fuel congregational health, ministry and mission.

What is crucial here is not knowledge or technique, but the leader’s own deep awareness of his/her place and role in the system. When leaders focus not on a system’s pathology, but on their own emotional presence and participation in it, they are much more likely to foster healing, promote vision, and instill in others the courage and capacity to treat crisis as an opportunity for growth.

As I began to reflect on my experience with the parish playschool, I saw how my anxiety played right into the issues presented to me, and how close we came to open conflict. Over time, I became more adept at not being drawn into another’s anxiety, and better able to grasp what was most needed in a pastoral situation. As Friedman might say, I came to realize that my main responsibility was not the organization, but leadership.

For example, years later a neighbor who lived down the street asked if she could come to my office for a visit. When she arrived, she shared the problem she and her husband were having with their twenty-year-old son, John, who was living with them at the time. He was attending a local college part-time, not working, and leading a very active social life.

She and her husband felt that they had lost control of their own home. She reported that John’s room was a wreck, and that he would come and go at all hours of the day and night. He was unresponsive to their attempts to bring some order into the chaos. Her husband had become so frustrated that he tended to lose his temper with the son very easily.

She then asked if I would be willing to meet with her son. After a moment’s reflection, I decided not to insert myself in this situation, but to guide them instead to assume their rightful leadership. I suggested that she and her husband draw up a list of basic areas where John’s cooperation would be necessary to restore peace, and then call him in for a conversation. The bottom line would be this: John could continue living at home, but only if he could abide by a few basic house rules—all of which are generous to him, but also necessary for her and her husband’s emotional health.

Some days later, she told me that she and her husband had the conversation with their son, and that things at home were much better. In fact, she said John had made some remarkable changes, had gotten a part-time job, and was now looking at moving into the dorm for the coming semester.

Countless persons have benefited from this simple and direct approach to leadership. Friedman often referred to it as “headship.” In this understanding, leadership is much more than a collection of honed skills. It is a way of being, a “discipleship,” a spirituality. Indeed, the very notion of a “non-anxious presence” is laden with biblical and theological roots and implications.

For example, Matthew’s gospel is dotted throughout with language about worry, fear, and anxiety. At the announcement of Jesus’s birth. Joseph is told by the angel of the Lord not to be “afraid” to take Mary as his wife. When “wise men” from the East come seeking the newborn king, Herod, “and all Jerusalem with him,” are “troubled,” or “anxious.”

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus affirms God’s providential care in the midst of the disciples’ fretting about the so-called “necessities” of life. He tells them, “Do not worry,” “take no thought,” “do not be anxious.” Later on, when the disciples are caught in a small boat in the middle of a storm, he asks, “Why are you afraid?”

The chief priests and the Pharisees are stung by his parables and want to arrest him. But they do not, because they “fear” the crowds. In Matthew’s story, anxiety is all around. And in the midst of it stands Jesus. He remains, from start to finish, the quintessential, non-anxious one.

Rabbi Friedman once observed, “There is a chronic anxiety that comes with the territory of living.” In that observation are echoes of a theme common in the work of a twentieth century theologian named Paul Tillich, who spoke of human anxiety as estrangement “from the origin and aim of our life.” The only remedy for this, in Tillich’s thinking, was the pure gift of God’s grace.

In one of his most famous sermons, he affirmed that grace strikes us as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted. You are accepted…by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know…do not try to do anything now…do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!” When that happens, “everything is transformed.”

At a workshop he led, I once asked Edwin Friedman if he had ever thought about the relationship between his concepts of a non-anxious, differentiated, and yet connected self, and that of Paul’s teaching about justification by faith. He replied that he had not, then paused, and added, “That’s interesting. I’ll give it some thought.” (A few years later, he developed a fascinating program on the relationship between family process and process theology.)

I think it is well worth our giving that some thought as well. What might it mean that we can stand, justified in Christ, as a non-anxious presence before God? One of the Eucharistic prayers in The 1979 Book of Common Prayer puts it this way: “For in these last days you sent him to be the Savior and Redeemer of the world. In him, you have delivered us from evil, and made us worthy to stand before you.”

Those who exercise leadership—however imperfectly—from a non-anxious presence must be immersed in a way of being that enables their graces and gifts to flow from that deep divine well of acceptance. Tillich referred to this God as “the ground of being.”

For Christians I believe this means being rooted in the way of love to which Jesus calls us. The origin, source, and end of that love is the God of Jesus—who is holy, inexhaustible, and eternal non-anxious presence in and through all creation.

Joe Goodwin Burnett was Episcopal bishop of Nebraska from 2003-2011. Prior to that, he served twenty-five years as a priest in Mississippi, and later taught pastoral theology at the School of Theology in Sewanee, Tennessee. More recently, he was assistant bishop in Maryland, and interim rector at St. Columba’s in Washington, DC. He currently resides in Rapid City, South Dakota.

To purchase the book from which this leadership essay comes, see Open and Relational Leadership: Leading with Love.

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