By Eddie Pipkin
June 4, 2016
The anxiety experienced when we don’t feel we have control over a situation is a fundamental part of ministry life. We plan and plan and massage the details, yet most of us serve in volatile, dynamic environments in which we work with dozens of people on a given event or project (and most of them usually volunteers), and we’re never quite sure how things are going to play out.
Some of us are naturally more comfortable in this environment than others.
Some of us roll along in moments of tentative dubiety (there’s a word for you vocabulary buffs), placid and purposeful in a Spirit-led sense of “it’s all going to be okay.”
Some of us totally freak out.
In one of those great confluences of science and faith that I so love, here are some very interesting insights into how we are biologically wired to be freaked or unflappable: “Your Reaction to this Confusing Headline Reveals More About You Than You Know.”
It turns out that God has created us with certain levels of tolerance for chaos, and it is important for us to be honest with ourselves about exactly where we are on that sliding scale. The Washington Post has even provided us with a QUIZ so that we can measure our uncertainty tolerance.
An inability to healthily process our worry over uncertain outcomes is one of the contributing factors to burnout. There is genuine (physically manifested) stress involved in the anxiety that surrounds not being able to control a situation, and yet uncontrollable situations are exactly the address at which ministry most often lives. I work with a Youth Director who is freaked out about the negative possibilities inherent in taking kids on a wilderness adventure – in this case a kayaking trip on a river, which is just about as unpredictable a scenario as imaginable – that’s a thing to get genuinely nervous about, and the stakes are much higher in that case than whether or not the new Acolyte is going to get the worship candles lit in correct sequence. Unfortunately, our intimidation when faced with the “mystery” of outcomes can make us timid in our leadership or even unpleasant to deal with as we project our anxieties on others.
In all ministry applications, and indeed in all nail-chewing life situations, there are some straightforward steps towards managing our uncertainty anxiety. Some are practical and some are solid spiritual disciplines:
• Plan Thoroughly, but then Be Willing to Abandon the Plan.
Meticulous planning is always welcomed. It means the supplies are ready to go, everyone knows what their assigned task is, and it’s easier to stay on schedule. Early planning, done thoroughly is a great counter-measure to combat anxiety. However, don’t be a planner so obsessive that you aren’t able to deal with variations of (or even a total collapse of) the plan. The plan is in place to give you structure and confidence. It actually frees you up to be flexible to changing circumstances.
• Mental Rehearsal and Imagining the Worst Case Scenario.
All pro athletes mentally rehearse a game plan. That is, they visualize what’s going to happen and what they will do in a given moment. This is a great strategy for speakers, event organizers, worship leaders, and even administrators. Add an additional layer of mental preparation by imagining the thing that could go most horribly wrong. How would you and your team respond and work through it? Now you are not only prepared for that scenario, but since there’s a 99.99% chance of that not happening, you can be more sanguine about the little snafus that are 99% likely to actually happen.
• Feedback and Team Communication.
It’s always a good policy to have solid, consistent communication with your team and the people with whom you are working in ministry. The stronger the communication, the less likely for there to be derailments of the plan, the more likely unanticipated derailments can be dealt with swiftly, and the less tension there will be between the people involved, even when things aren’t running smoothly. Similarly, open channels for feedback and the encouragement of ideas sharing and constructive criticism can really smooth the ministry path. For some people communications and the solicitation of feedback are themselves stressful to contemplate, but they are skills that, once mastered as healthy habits, pay off again and again.
• Time in the Scriptures.
The science articles might explain the latest in biology research, but they are not so current on Spirit-filled practices which keep us focused on what’s most important and comforted by the God whom we serve. Daily time in God’s Word provides a baseline of calm and tranquility that is helpful in all scenarios (including unraveling ministry scenarios). Go-to verses such as John 14:27 can be used as a mantra for serenity (“My peace I give you, not as the world gives you peace. . . .”). And when we have such a strong foundation, we are in a much better position to help others keep their calm and focus.
Of course, what is written above about time in the Word is true as well of prayer. People who are engaged in the hard work of ministry who are not spending daily time in prayer are comparable to an Olympic athlete who is trying to fuel herself with M&M’s. Prayer sustains, and by its very nature promotes calm and perspective. Prayer is also uniquely suited to be an accompaniment to other activities (from driving to ministry, to walking, to stacking chairs and other mundane tasks, to short breaks when we are waiting). I am a particular fan of task-purposed, focused prayer right before we are beginning an event. When I was a youth director, long ago, I used to pause in the parking lot before entering the building and pray this prayer, “Lord, I have prepared myself for every crazy thing I can imagine happening tonight. Please give me the peace to roll with the thing that will inevitably happen that is beyond my imagination.”)
All of these strategies work better within the context of an honest understanding of how well we function in times of uncertainty and chaos. What are your own struggles where chaos and uncertainty are concerned? How have you developed strategies to make it through these moments? Share your own experiences and observations in the comments section.