Coping with Anxiety

May 1st, 2010
This article is featured in the Global Health (May/June/July 2010) issue of Circuit Rider

An Episcopal priest friend in California said one day in a sermon that Jesus had three commandments: “Love God, love your neighbor, and don't worry.” I was surprised at the third commandment that she attributed to Jesus. We can certainly find it in Matthew 6:25 and Luke 12:22. St. Paul even mentions it in Philippians 4:6.

So why was I surprised? Because, although I've read these passages many times and even preached upon them on occasion, it never occurred to me that Jesus was actually commanding us not to worry. Worrying is something that most of us do. It might not even be a stretch to say that anxiety is just part of the modern condition—and pastors are no exception.

We may be anxious about raising enough money to fund the congregation's budget. We may experience anxiety as the time for making appointment changes draws near. I've known United Methodist pastors who were anxious when they knew that the District Superintendent was about to visit. There is the anxiety of wondering whether our sermon will be well-received on Sunday. Then there are all the normal stressors that go with day-today living like balancing our own budget and caring for a parent whose health is failing.

Perhaps the worst part of anxiety for a pastor is that we know we are not supposed to worry. A pastor who admits to struggling with anxiety may be perceived as lacking faith. He or she may suffer a loss of credibility as parishioners find it difficult to confide in someone whom they know is as afflicted by anxiety as they are.

What are we pastors to do? The first thing to do is to avoid operating as what one former District Superintendent of mine described as “The Lone Ranger.” Even the Lone Ranger had Tonto. Some of us are at risk of trying to handle the work of ministry, the responsibilities of family life, our spiritual growth, and our continuing education by ourselves. We must seek out support.

Support Systems

Who is pastor to the pastor? Theoretically, the District Superintendent is there to help us cope with whatever is causing us anxiety. I have found the District Superintendent to be quite helpful on a number of occasions when I was living with anxiety over the critical comments of one or more parishioners. However, District Superintendents' responsibilities are primarily supervisory and advisory. My experience has been that it is difficult to be both a supervisor and a counselor.

Staff Parish Relations Committee (SPRC) members can be a resource for pastors seeking support. They frequently are not trained for the task of supporting a pastor, however, and in fact, they sometimes become a one-way channel through which complaints about the pastor are conveyed anonymously for the pastor to “fix.” Yet, the SPRC can and should listen to the pastor and provide compassionate support. Perhaps the SPRC will even assist the pastor in rearranging her or his priorities and support the transfer of specific tasks to committees to relieve some of the pressure and resulting anxiety that the pastor feels.

Especially in the early years in pastoral ministry, the Annual Conference (or whatever larger network your church is a part of) should provide a means of support for the new pastor. When I was new in ministry in the former Maine Annual Conference, an experienced elder would be asked to lead a group of three to five people who were in their first five years of pastoral ministry. We would gather once a month to discuss case studies from our parish life. This helped me see that I wasn't alone in dealing with these issues, and also gave me the wisdom of both the elder and others who were new to ministry. Problems and issues that are expressed tend to have less power over us.

Powerless Over Anxiety

Perhaps it will seem like I am overstating the problem of anxiety to suggest that it sometimes needs to be treated like we treat addiction or substance abuse problems, but sometimes anxiety can be so debilitating that we are unable to cope, as expressed in Step 1 of the 12 Step program of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Step 1 says, “We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol (drugs, food, gambling, etc.), that our lives had become unmanageable.” It is indeed possible to be so anxious that we are paralyzed with anxiety. There are degrees of anxiety, of course, but it is sometimes necessary to admit that we are truly overwhelmed by it.

The bottom line is that when anxiety begins to interfere with our home life or other relationships, when it causes us to be reluctant to make decisions in day-to-day parish life, or when it causes us to lose sleep or otherwise be uncomfortable, it is time to do something about it. If the Annual Conference does not have a structure in place to provide ongoing collegial support, we should form a support group of our own.

Spiritual Approaches

When I was the Chief Chaplain at the VA hospital in Vermont, I met weekly for lunch and a time of sharing with two pastors. They were people I had grown to trust and respect for their knowledge of pastoral care. I listened to the issues that my colleagues described and together we discovered ways to cope with the pressures of our respective responsibilities as pastors.

Prayer was a vital part of our support group. We prayed for each other as well as for our families and those to whom we were pastors. One prayer that I still find helpful is Reinhold Niebuhr's Serenity Prayer, used by millions of people in 12 Step programs: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.” Just admitting that there are situations we cannot change is a liberating experience. Working with my support group helped me face my tendency to believe that I am responsible for making every situation better. Also, working as part of a health care team in the VA hospital helped me recognize that not only could I not change certain situations, I might even make them worse by involving myself in a problem for which I didn't have the skills to make a positive difference. I learned to work with others to define, treat, and sometimes solve problems.

Along with support groups and prayer, journaling is another spiritual discipline that can help with anxiety. Writing in a journal is a way not only to record what happened and what it means to us but also a way of saying to ourselves that we take our emotions seriously enough to write down our story and to be open to discovering how our lives have been impacted by what has happened to us.

We pastors also need to have regular opportunities for worship. Often, pastors who lead worship are not worshiping as fully as they otherwise would if they were sitting in the pew. Therefore, pastors should form groups in which they take turns leading worship for one another and perhaps their families as well. We need to know by having the Word preached to us that God is speaking to us too.

Seeking Professional Help

When all of these approaches fail to stem the tide of anxiety, of feeling like we're never going to be in control of our lives, it may be time to ask for professional help. This might be in the form of counseling with a licensed professional counselor, a psychologist, or a licensed clinical social worker. It helps to find someone who has at least some familiarity with the nature of pastoral care and our belief system.

We can also take medication to help to control the anxiety. Yes, I know that our parishioners might have mixed feelings about us taking medications. We may be ambivalent as well. But anxiety can be so acute that it becomes a clinical condition. When it does, it needs to be treated clinically. Sometimes, medication makes it possible to do the talk therapy.

The worst thing that we can do is to try to manage our anxiety on our own. We need to be open to the insights and prayerful support of other people to cope with our anxiety. We heal from complex physical diseases with the help of a team of clinicians. We can heal or at least learn to cope with anxiety with the help of our congregations, our colleagues, and those skilled in treating anxiety as a clinical condition when it needs that level of care.

Lawrence L. LaPierre is a retired elder in the Troy Annual Conference and a VA hospital chaplain, and now resides in San Jose, Calif.

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