Leading In An Age Of Anxiety

Three considerations for pastors on leading in an age of anxiety

Derek Sweatman

In just three days, the world lost two high-profile contributors to art and culture, Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. And because they took their own lives, the public wake has been pretty noisy with pleas for people to seek help, to find support, and to not be alone. We recently held vigil for a young man in our church who took his own life, only 27 years old. It shook the earth beneath the feet of many in our community, me included. (I've long battled anxiety and depression, and all that loiters in those two shadows - the medications, the panic attacks, the counseling.) 

Our pews are not empty of these things, as people carry the weight of their own anxiety and depression into our churches every Sunday. And while I understand our heart in offering as much hope as possible, we must be careful not to hide away the realities of pain and suffering in our preaching. What follows are some considerations for us who pastor churches in an age of anxiety. 

The following is a condensed excerpt from a manuscript of a book currently in the works. 

  1. Focus more on God's work in the ordinary rhythms of daily life, and less on the promise that God is ready to do something great with people. We may have created a culture of unnecessary urgency in our services - an urgency to get out of the mundane and into something greater, something extraordinary. Most of life is unrecorded and unposted, just the normalcy of carpool, paying bills, getting groceries, and sitting through ball practice. A quick scan of church sermon series reveals an attraction (sometimes an addiction) to the extraordinary victorious greater-than incredible kind of life that Jesus brings. It can fill seats, but endorphin-releasing church models might not be as helpful as we imagine. For the arrogant in the pews, the last thing they need to hear is that God is teeing up something amazing for them, something off the charts. Alongside those in our pews who are struggling, they would do better to hear of the presence of God in the ordinary parts of daily life. However someone pictures "amazing" and "extraordinary", those experiences will always be the exception in life. The ordinary has the most acreage, and so should our preaching. (Remember: Jesus left the amazing and made his home among the ordinary.) 

  2. Focus more on the presence of grace in our banged-up selves, and less on the challenge to be the best version of yourself. Positive change and self-improvement are due the praise and worth they deserve, yes. However, grace is not a reward, but a discovery in failure. Grace is there, and always there. As much as we want to stand on the stage and cheer people on to the next version of their lives, and as important as those sermons sometimes are, it's more important to hold up the promise of grace in brokenness. And like the Eucharist, hold it up high. The Gospel is not given for advancement, but for need. We share in the culture of over-curated personas, where we work hard to create the self we want the world to see. Even our church's social media accounts look perfect. For the suffering in our pews, our excitement in pushing people to live their best lives doesn't always translate well. The anxious in our pews can struggle to feel anything but more weight and pressure from such a sermon. And the last thing we want to do is create and reinforce a belief that God is comfortable only when we are at our best - or when we are improving - and uncomfortable when we are at our worst. Both of these are false. As pastors, we have the weekly opportunity to create a culture where the Gospel is not a ticket out of the troubles of life, but the way to stay in, and the way to walk through. And many times our people (us, even) never make it out, they never get to where they wished they could be. But the Gospel remains. 

  3. Focus more on losing well, and less on sermons about victory and abundance. We've given enough pulpit time to the Jesus-helps-you-win-at-life motif, and a pivot away from this would be healthy. There's the more obvious prosperity preaching that's easy to spot. But there's a foggier, less obvious kind of preaching that points people towards an unnamed, unidentified victory. Even our worship tunes are filled with such vague confessions of victory. However, it's possible that the Gospel is not about winning at all, but about losing well. It is based in self denial, isn't it? Is it possible that what God wants for us is not more, but less? I think so, yes. 

It is what we do routinely, not what we do rarely, that delineates the character of a person. It is what we believe in the heart of us that determines what we do daily. It is what we bring to the nourishment of the soul that predicts the kind of soul we nurture. It’s what we do ordinarily, day by day, that gives an intimation of what we will do under stress. It is the daily—the way we act ordinarily, not rarely, that defines us as either kind, or angry, or faithful, or constant. 

- Joan Chittister, O.S.B