Do Churches Try and Protect Their Congregants from Anxiety?

A couple of weeks ago a friend of mine shared an article with me on my Facebook profile called, How to Land Your Kid in Therapy.

It is a fascinating read for sure, and well worth your time.

But I was especially taken by this passage:

Paul Bohn, a psychiatrist at UCLA who came to speak at my clinic, says the answer may be yes. Based on what he sees in his practice, Bohn believes many parents will do anything to avoid having their kids experience even mild discomfort, anxiety, or disappointment—“anything less than pleasant,” as he puts it—with the result that when, as adults, they experience the normal frustrations of life, they think something must be terribly wrong.

Consider a toddler who’s running in the park and trips on a rock, Bohn says. Some parents swoop in immediately, pick up the toddler, and comfort her in that moment of shock, before she even starts crying. But, Bohn explains, this actually prevents her from feeling secure—not just on the playground, but in life. If you don’t let her experience that momentary confusion, give her the space to figure out what just happened (Oh, I tripped), and then briefly let her grapple with the frustration of having fallen and perhaps even try to pick herself up, she has no idea what discomfort feels like, and will have no framework for how to recover when she feels discomfort later in life. These toddlers become the college kids who text their parents with an SOS if the slightest thing goes wrong, instead of attempting to figure out how to deal with it themselves. If, on the other hand, the child trips on the rock, and the parents let her try to reorient for a second before going over to comfort her, the child learns: That was scary for a second, but I’m okay now. If something unpleasant happens, I can get through it. In many cases, Bohn says, the child recovers fine on her own—but parents never learn this, because they’re too busy protecting their kid when she doesn’t need protection.

I think that we often do the same thing in the church as well.

Take this quote:

“parents will do anything to avoid having their kids experience even mild discomfort, anxiety, or disappointment—“anything less than pleasant,” as he puts it—with the result that when, as adults, they experience the normal frustrations of life, they think something must be terribly wrong.”

And re-write it like this:

“churches will do anything to avoid having their congregants experience even mild discomfort, anxiety, or disappointment-‘anything less than pleasant.'”

I just see too often instances where pastors will swoop in and try and rescue a congregant from having anxiety as they wrestle with scripture or with God. They somehow believe that any anxiety is wrong and the person should have a solid certainty about God’s truth. So much for the dark night of the soul.

Or a youth pastor tries to keep a youth kid from asking too many tough questions that promote some anxiety in the group, and uncomfort with the youth pastor themself.

Or a worship planning meeting will spend endless hours managing every detail of a service so that nothing unplanned happens, or no mistakes are made. Sometimes I wonder if they are just trying to stave off any anxiety that may arise during the service in congregants or themselves if something were to not go off as perfect.

Much of church life is geared around trying to protect people from the frustrations of life and from experiencing any discomfort during church or their spiritual lives.

I say this from experience in my own work as a pastor for many years, and from what is conveyed to me by clients who come in for counseling.

But if anxiety is unpermitted in the church pew, then where else can they go to freely express it than the counseling office?

5 Comments

  1. by Angela C. on July 12, 2011  2:12 pm Reply

    I absolutely agree that parents, churches, pretty much most people/organizations try to keep others from experiencing anxiety. The U.S. is incredibly overstimulated, obese etc. and much of why we turn to these outside sources of comfort is because we fear emotions like anxiety. Anxiety is uncomfortable... as are questions, doubts, pain, the unknown... if we allow ourselves to experience these uncomfortable aspects of life from time-to-time, we begin to realize they're not so bad. Sure, they're not fun. We wish we didn't have to deal with them, but we can get up, reorient ourselves and move forward. Once we've done that a few times, we become less afraid of having to do it again in the future.

    Angela :)
    www.habitformingsuccess.com

  2. by Raf on July 18, 2011  9:42 am Reply

    Hi Rhett,

    What an interesting thought you share here! When reading the clip from the article, and your thoughts on it, I am a bit torn.

    It makes perfect sense that if leaders always seek to "step in" on their congregants, they might indirectly be hindering their development and maturity as christian, and depending on their age, their general development in life. It's the "superhero" syndrome, where leaders have to save the day from the smallest issue or problem.

    However, (and maybe I just need to reevaluate my perspective on the interpretation of the scriptures), thinking on what the bible says on anxiety:

    Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.
    (1 Peter 5:7)

    Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
    (Philippians 4:6-7)

    Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest? (Luke 12:25-26)

    and many other relevant scriptures that speak about anxiety leads me to believe that our sight should be placed on living "anxiety-free" I know that theoretically its easy to say, and the practical application of this is a completely different story. We see examples in the bible of how David struggled with anxiety, but I do not think we should ever "embrace" anxiety as something we NEED to experience. Ideally, we need to identify our anxiety and immediately deposit it into the hands of the One that knows all thing-the one that knows the beginning from the end.

    To conclude, my thought is that leaders should not try to "resolve" issues for their congregants, because this can create a dependency on man, instead of God. The responsibility of the leader is to help guide the flock to the Shepherd so that they can deposit their worries on him.

    Thanks for this great post!

    Raf

  3. by John L on July 24, 2011  11:01 am Reply

    Richard Thieme, former Episcopal priest, discusses how religious leaders are targets for projection. Rarely, he notes, do parishioners see their leaders as equals. Projections usually exalt the priest-pastor in some manner, which speaks directly to the co-dependency you write about. There are myriad other types of religious co-dependencies which could be discussed.

    Perhaps the issue is rooted in the basic structure of Western "church" -- the normative and deeply-held idea of "paid professional clergy" leading a body of "laity" can only perpetuate these artificial dependencies. Leadership is essential, but I'm increasingly convinced that the kind of spiritual leadership modeled by Jesus is rarely seen in our ecclesial structures, which sustain a culture of artificial religious dependency.

    In Pagan Christianity, George Barna and Frank Viola do a good job highlighting many of the historical reasons for these inherited imbalances and unhealthy dependencies. It's encouraging that we're seeing movement towards more "organic" types of gathering and leadership, but the old models are still the elephant in the room.

    I personally think, over many coming generations, fueled by a number of powerful horizontal vectors (virtuality, globalization, etc.) we will see sweeping changes in our understanding and practice of spiritual community and leadership. Short of this kind of broad fundamental shift, I'm not sure we're going to see much change to the nature of religious co-dependency.

  4. by Steven @ Leadership on October 8, 2013  10:08 pm Reply

    Rhett,

    Great thoughts. I actually had to wrestle with this at the start of 2013. I stepped into a role where I needed to form a team and empower them around very difficult and stressful situations. That sparked the wrestle between an "easy yoke" and stretching someone's capacity. Looking at scripture, Jesus frequently put His disciples in stressful situations, and He insisted on talking about the touchy subjects. If there is no willingness to enter into anxiety and allow others to as well, there is no reform.

    Although we never want to put more on people than what they can handle. We have to believe that people can handle more than we are putting in front of them.

    BTW, since that decision, now my team has increased their capacity, confidence and skill in things that are building the Church and growing their spirituality.

    -Steven

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