Why your church freaks out over “little things”

Church freaks out

Anxiety on the road

A lady was driving home one evening and cautiously approached an empty intersection. The light was green so she continued straight, but another driver ran his red light and plowed directly into the driver’s side of the lady’s car. Both drivers are injured, but the woman had neck, back and brain injuries. For weeks visited the doctor and ran expensive tests. On the way to each test, she was more cautious than ever to slow down at every intersection and look anxiously in both directions before passing through.

Some time later, it happened again: another car accident. This one wasn’t as severe as the first, but nonetheless the woman is flooded with thoughts and emotion. She even begins to think she is cursed, like a helpless victim. Her emotions are so hight that now, whenever someone drives her around town, she constantly gives warnings and instructions. She very alert and it effects everyone she comes into contact with because she can still hear the sounds of her previous crashes in her head every time she passes through an intersection.

Of course, this is understandable and would be true of everyone who goes through such an experience. Life delivered the driver a series of unfortunate events she needed to navigate.

The problem is that over time, the more anxiety she feels, the more it will effect her driving ability. Slowing at every intersection, for instance, is a great way to cause another accident. It’s not long before the fear of another accident causes another accident.

Anxiety in the pastor

A pastor working in a church one evening is sideswiped by a surprise board meeting in which he is asked to deal with some “issues.” The issues all happen to be problems with the pastor’s performance, none of which had been previously brought to his attention. There’s a lot of emotion in the room, which is not originating with the pastor but it’s directed toward the pastor. Some of what’s said is true, most is not based on reality. The pastor reacts and the situation melts down quickly.

The pastor is recovering from this situation from his previous church and questions whether he will ever pastor again. He thinks questions like, “What if the next church is like the last one?”

If course this is understandable and would be true of most people who go through such an experience.

The pastor takes another job, but now when he reads an email or attends a board meeting, he’s defensive. He wonders when it might happen again. Sometimes he feels an attack when there isn’t an attack. His anxiety fuels defensiveness. Maybe it’s for security, control, success or peace, but he’s determined to never relive the experience of his previous church.

The problem is that, over time, the higher the anxiety when he senses conflict coming (real or otherwise), the more likely conflict will occur. It’s not long before the gravitational pull of what we fear the most will draw us into the very things we obsess over.

Anxiety in the church

It’s important to realize that the pastor is not the only one prone to anxiety in the church. All people come from painful experiences in their past. They are wounded, sometimes by other pastors. They are on alert.

If everyone on the road is anxious in this way. It doesn’t make the roads safer, it makes the roads more treacherous. Certainly, there’s a place for defensive driving or simply competent driving, but everyone on the road driving anxiously would be devastating and increase accidents, not decrease them.

In the church, there are times when this becomes true. There are communities in which the anxiety level becomes so widespread, so normative, such a part of the DNA of the congregation that the anxiety becomes chronic. Where people live in fear, so they reject change. They play the victim and only blame others for their pain. The least mature voice is the person the community listens too. These hurt people gather themselves together to wallow in their pain.

Posted on June 23, 2011

  • Wow, thank you for this. I was fired in January and it came completely out of thw blue for me and left me with a big distrust of boards about their true thoughts, opinions, and intents. At the beginning of this month I got a new job and all of the experiences with the last board came flooding back to my mind, especially in how I handle them with such fear and trepidation. This message you wrote is a very timely thing I needed to hear. Especially, "It’s not long before the gravitational pull of what we fear the most will draw us into the very things we obsess over." That really challenged me and I'm excited to grow in that area of my life. Thank you so much for listening to God and spreading what He's teaching you. I really, truly appreciate it! Blessings Tim!!!

  • Nate Jones

    I think my favorite way of describing this phenomenon is "assuming crash positions." We allow ourselves to be so convinced that catastrophe is about to strike that we just brace for impact. Then when the impact doesn't come there is shock to deal with.

  • I was just coming to this conclusion for myself the other day. I had a rather traumatic firing experience (almost dead similar to the one you wrote about in the post) and after 9 months of searching found a new position. I've had that same "shields up" mentality lately when I've been getting criticism or deal with problem people. Instead of reacting with an "appropriate" or "normal" level of anger/annoyance/defensiveness, I immediately ramp up to level 10 and it catches me totally off guard. Fortunately I'm able to control my emotions (no going off on people) but its brutal in what it is doing to me. And I will be the first to tell you that things are great here and that this church is nothing like my previous church. Thanks for the article Mark!

    • So, as a guy who's been through this, what's your advice to others who are trying to work through the immediate defensiveness and emotional swings?

      • Thats a good question. I'll try to answer it, I really will. I've come back 2 or 3 times to try to write in concise terms how I'm working through it but its not wanting to be concise.

      • Some "practical" advice, then some spiritual advice…

        Look for the best in people, not the worst
        Look for the grain of truth in anyone's complaint
        Find someone to talk through the issues with
        When you're mad, write a letter venting your emotions…then delete it
        When someone upsets you, look for how they've been hurt and why they're acting out the way they are

        All these practical things are good, but what I have discovered is that my defense mechanism is not so much a shield as it is a barometer of my relationship with Christ. I am reacting out of my own insecurities, not in the calm assurance that i have in Jesus. What He thinks of me is of much more importance than the petty complaints of those attacking me. My value is in the price that He paid on the cross for me, not on how many people like me or what I am doing today. He has proven time and again that He will take care of me even when I think that things are darkest. So, by me acting in a defensive manner I am not only pushing others away but pushing Christ away as well. So if you respond like that, perhaps you need to step away from the situation and find the nearest prayer closet. I have taken to "casting my cares" on Him. Basically, when someone has been annoying me, I've been immediately praying, "God, this person is ticking me off. Do something about it." Not exactly a model prayer, but I am casting my cares on Him. And its seemed to help.

        Obviously this is still early in the process, and God is still working on me. But, this is what I've discovered so far.

        • I think you need to write this as a guest post. :) Good stuff, Bill. Thanks for sharing and being so transparent.

  • thanks Bill!

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