Recently my friend, Joe, and I were playing golf in Dallas. Inevitably when we play our conversation turns to church. Joe is a trusted friend and former chaplain. As we talked about the ebb and flow of church life we both spoke admiringly of our church’s leaders. Joe described one of our leaders as non-anxious. In family systems terms the phrase, “non-anxious presence” is used to describe a leader who is clear in one’s calling and sense of purpose and calm in the face of criticism and conflict. We have been blessed with non-anxious leadership (to be candid, being consistently non-anxious is a lofty goal. Even learning to be less anxious can be a worthy emotional and spiritual goal and will have a profound effect on church and family systems.)
But then I began to wonder, how is it possible to be non-anxious? Where does this quality come from? How do leaders become leaders? Since I’ve been a member of several church staffs and observed lots of leaders in action, let me offer some observations based on experience.
1. Being non-anxious is a multi-generational gift. I don’t exactly mean to say this is a matter of good genetics and a healthy early environment. Are some leaders just lucky enough to have been reared by others with the right stuff? Not sure it’s that simple. I do think when we reflect on our heritage that in every family tree we find people who are models of strength and tenacity. But we have to take the time to explore, to know the stories of our ancestors, to see that we are part of a great cloud of witnesses. Even with the imperfections of every human family there are always stories of people whose lives glow with a trait or a quality that is life-giving. All of my grandparents Haney and Pruitt were children or teenagers during the Great Depression. Their life stories of survival and endurance and resilience are a rich legacy for me. Our pastor, George Mason, weaves into sermons stories of his father who was a ship pilot in New York. These stories show a deep awareness of his own family. Great leaders tap into an inheritance, a reserve of tenacity, clarity and courage especially when times are hard.
2. Being non-anxious comes from “doing the work.” Doing the work is a phrase I picked up in counseling. It means being willing to take a hard look in the mirror and being strong enough to make changes in your life, being willing to bend.
My brother and dad are both Georgia Tech alumni. Many years ago I attended a class at Tech with my brother. The class was on the strength of materials. The professor lectured on the use of metals in the construction of, for example, an airplane wing. The metal employed must allow the wing to bend without breaking. This is described in physics as elasticity. To be sure every metal has its breaking point but the capacity to flex is essential.
Non-anxious leaders are brave enough and self-aware enough to keep “doing the work.” Through prayer, nurturing relationships and even therapy when needed, leaders are willing to grow and develop and choose to become healthier and happier people. Even small changes can make a great difference. Bending without breaking does not mean to abandon principles or convictions. But it does mean speaking with clarity while staying connected. Great leaders “do the work,” managing their own anxiety and not taking on the anxiety of others.
3. Being non-anxious is a gift of the Spirit. How do we explain a courage and perseverance that is not our own? Remember the times when though the storm raged you experienced a strange calm, the gift of being centered, a faith that “all things shall be well.” This is the gift of the Spirit who was present at creation. This is the Spirit who hovers over the waters, the dark places of despair, the scary times of uncertainty. God is with you even when you are so overwhelmed it is difficult to imagine creative solutions or promising outcomes.
I will not gloss over the pain and hurt that leaders must endure. Denial is not helpful. Still, the word of the Lord comes to those in the valley of dry bones. And the breath of God fills us with life. Great leaders keep going, buoyed by the winds of the Spirit who is ever making all things new. Thanks be to God.
Edwin Friedman, Generation to Generation, The Guilford Press, p. 208.