“I’m struggling with anxiety” were the words that came out of a young pastor’s mouth as he sat across the table from me, head drooping down, in a local coffee shop. I wasn’t expecting anxiety to be the issue that he was afraid to discuss, although this was not the first pastor I had met with that seemed ashamed of this particular struggle. They could tell their church leadership that they were struggling with pornography, a failed marriage, or a lack of faith, but not anxiety. Anxiety was the issue that ultimately brought them searching for a safe, confidential space in my counseling office.
Anxiety is a difficult issue for those in church leadership because there are so many things that can help distract us from having to face it. Jewish Rabbi and family therapist Edwin Friedman in his amazing book A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, wrote that “the chronic anxiety in American society has made the imbibing of data and technique addictive precisely because it enables leaders not to have to face their selves.” 
So instead of facing our anxiety, we direct our energy towards the next building campaign, the next sermon, creating a community around a blog, gathering followers on Twitter, and posting pithy statements and articles on Facebook. As Friedman sees it, we absorb ourselves in data and technique, so that we don’t actually have to do the hard work of facing ourselves. When I started working as a college pastor in 2002 at Bel Air Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles, I required all of my student leaders to read Henri Nouwen’s book In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership. I was intrigued by Nouwen’s take on leadership and that it derived from a place of relational being rather than doing. Nouwen carries this theme through many of his writings and it is the central paradigm through which we gain our understanding of what leadership in ministry looks like. He comments on the fact that before Jesus did any ministry that we know of, his identity was rooted in his relationship with his Father, rather than in his ability to perform miracles and heal people. “You are my Son, whom I love; with You I am well pleased” (Mark 1:9). That relational identity enabled him to resist the three temptations (Nouwen: “to be powerful”, “to be relevant”, “to be spectacular”) in the desert (Luke 4) because his identity was about who he was and not how he could perform.
So Where Do We Start?
We start by doing the hard work of facing ourselves and not hiding behind our ministry success, credentials, or popularity. Friedman is helpful on this point when he writes, “Family problems can often be resolved by having the parents or partners focus on and work at unresolved issues in their families of origin. By the same token, leaders must not only develop vision, persistence, and stamina, but also understand that the problems they encounter may stem from their own unsolved family issues, their organization’s past, sabotage in response to their effective leadership, or a combination of these factors.”  If you are a church leader who has relational issues with a spouse, friends, or family members, your work might begin by seeking out professional help to begin sorting through those issues. This could be a licensed marriage and family therapist or pastoral counselor. We start facing ourselves when we start to explore and understand who we are in light of how we were raised and what we have experienced. This journey leads us to a place of better emotional health, which in turn allows us to adequately work with our anxiety in a positive manner. It allows us to be leaders who don’t lead out of our own emotional reactivity, but instead out of a place of self-differentiation.
A church community is only as healthy as the people who are leading it. So if you are a church leader and you find yourself struggling with anxiety, there may be some things in your life that you need to face. In my new book The Anxious Christian: Can God Use Your Anxiety for Good? I implore the reader to begin to reframe their anxiety as a gift from God to help them grow. God does not want us to become stuck as leaders and anxiety is one of the catalysts in our lives that he uses to continually move us towards him.
Reach out for the help you need today because your example may be what allows those that you serve to also get the help they need.
RHETT SMITH is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) in private practice at Auxano Counseling in Plano, TX. He is a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary (MDIV, MSMFT) and former college pastor at Bel Air Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles. Rhett has a passion for helping people navigate significant areas of transition in their lives such as parenting, marriage, and the adolescent to young adult journey. He also serves on staff at The Hideaway Experience in Amarillo, TX where he helps couples work towards having great marriages. Rhett lives in Frisco, TX with his wife Heather and their two children. You can find out more about Rhett at his blog www.rhettsmith.com or his counseling practice www.rhettsmithcounseling.com
 Friedman, E. Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix - pp. 21. Found here.
 Friedman, E. A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, pp. 27-28. Found here.
[CC Image • aldoaldoz on Flickr]