All systems experience episodes of acute anxiety but systems manifest it differently. Relatively stable, resilient and high-functioning systems seem able to respond to episodes of acute anxiety. In contrast chronically anxious systems which lack resilience will tend to be reactive in the face of acute anxiety. That is, they have little tolerance for challenges, lack capacity for self-regulation or for imaginative responses to handle times of acute anxiety.
Chronically anxious systems share the following characteristics:
(1) They make someone in the system responsible for someone else's functioning
(2) They are structured to inhibit the effectiveness of its leaders
(3) They develop reactive, rigid, and predictable patterns for dealing with anxiety
(4) They tend to spawn anxiety triangles.
While it is more helpful to assess the emotional process at work at the systemic level it can be helpful to observe how symptomology is being played out in the individuals in the system. When facing reactivity at the systemic level congregational leaders will need to respond to how it affects the individuals in the system. Needless to say, those individuals in the system who have a low capacity for self-differentiation and for managing their own anxiety will tend to be the most symptomatic (i.e., the ones who "act out").
Symptomology in Anxious Systems
Here are some truisms worth remembering when dealing with reactive individuals in a system going through acute anxiety:
The job of a leader in a system caught up in acute anxiety is twofold: first, self-regulation, and second, being attentive to the emotional process in the system and providing the function it needs of its leader. Depending on the circumstance, the function of the leader can be anything from providing a corrective to acting out behavior; re-framing the issues from a principled, values, and missional perspective; empowering the calmer, more mature, more centered persons in the system; or merely providing the presence of the leader in the system (staying visible and emotionally connected).
The good new is that acute anxiety, and the reactivity it engenders is episodic. Its shelf life is as long as the length of the crisis. Leaders can be encourage, also, by the fact that every system has some elements of health and maturity even in the midst of acute anxiety and crises. When the leader is able to focus on those, she or he can be surprised at the capacity for some in the system to step up to leadership or be a resource to the system.
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. Formerly, he was Dean at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. He serves as faculty coach for the Leadership in Ministry Workshops, a clergy leadership development program from a systems perspective. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Ministry (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer and Don Reagan. Galindo contributes to the Wabash Center's blog for theological school deans.