So many things raise the anxiety level of the average pastor—even being average. Pastors are almost always overworking yet remain underpaid. An unexpected illness or sudden death in the congregation can wreak havoc on pastors’ schedules, leaving them off balance. Even the next sermon—as satisfying as preaching can be—can elevate tensions, especially if one worries about upsetting congregational expectations.
Bill Selby founded the Center for Pastoral Effectiveness in the Rockies because he was tired of seeing good pastors leave the ministry. He’d seen pastors act out, burn out, or just check out. As a long-time United Methodist pastor, Selby knew well the stresses of ministry. He says, “Churches are anxious places. We become anxious when we’re not growing, or we become anxious because we are growing.” Selby admits that in his own ministry there were times he felt alone and wondered if God cared. He says, “I felt anxious and thought, What’s my call? Am I really worth it? Is there truth out there? Does God really care whether we grow?”
While working to overcome his own anxieties, he began a serious study of Family Systems Theory, which offered him a way to think about how to work with people and take ownership over his own ministry. He says one thing that differentiates Family Systems thinking is that you don’t focus on the problem; you focus on the rest of the group and how they define themselves so that the problem person can then redefine himself or herself, creating a healthier system.
He says, “Through it all, I survived, and I realized that I was being asked to help other churches and other pastors with these issues.” His work eventually led to starting the center in 1999, and Selby has helped hundreds of pastors from many denominational settings stay in ministry. Grace and Peace Magazine met with Selby to discuss how to lower a church’s anxiety and become a non-anxious presence as a leader in ministry.
This interview has accompanying videos. Please CLICK HERE to view the videos.
G&P: IS IT HARDER TO BE A PASTOR NOW THAN IT WAS TEN OR MORE YEARS AGO?
SELBY: Ministry is just as difficult now as it was in the 1970s, when I started pastoring. What’s changed is how the community looks at the church. In 1973, I received a letter from a school superintendent, apologizing that a basketball game had to be rescheduled to Wednesday night, which he knew was church night. That doesn’t happen anymore. Collective society no longer views church as a priority. The church now competes with many other things for attention, like family time, work schedules, recreational activities and gaming, and youth sports. In addition, the expectation of quality is much higher today. For example, the communicational transition from mimeograph to stencil, then from stencil to copier created higher expectations of quality. These expectations have continued with communication advances like the internet and social media, which require churches to keep up with the latest technology. In addition, worship expectations are much higher than before, especially in larger congregations. Many people also bring a consumer mentality to church, which, when combined with an already mobile society, has added a lot of anxiety for pastors concerned about reaching numerical goals. Society’s ever-rising fever of anxiety has spread to our churches and created anxious systems.
G&P: YOU SAY THAT ANXIETY TYPIFIES THE CHURCH ENVIRONMENT FOR MANY PASTORS. IS THIS ANXIETY DIFFICULT TO RECOGNIZE?
SELBY: One of the most difficult things for all leadership to recognize—pastors, lay leaders, even parents—is the feeling of anxiety. Anxiety is fear, and many adults don’t want to admit when they have it. All leaders feel scared. Leaders who bury this feeling end up sabotaging themselves. It is important to understand that anxiety has nothing to do with church size. The anxiety in a church of fifty can be greater than in one of three thousand. The anxiety of one family can upset an entire congregation, making life difficult for a pastor. So, how do we deal with that as leaders? First, recognize you can’t fix someone else’s anxiety. In fact, if you try to fix someone’s anxiety, that person will keep coming back for more fixes, and that creates a co-dependent relationship. The proper response, once an anxiety is identified, is to ask: “So, how would you like to deal with that anxiety?” If the person asks you to fix the issue, say, “I have an answer for me, but what’s the answer for you?” Wisdom is not necessarily providing answers. Wisdom is asking the right questions. The important thing to understand is that every church has its own emotional system, and its anxiety levels fluctuate, depending on inward and outward circumstances. I like to joke, “The same anxiety exists in a system whether it’s growing or just surviving. So you might as well go for growth. It’s a lot more fun.”
G&P: WHAT CONSTITUTES A CHURCH’S EMOTIONAL OR FAMILY SYSTEM?
SELBY: There are three family systems that are all connected: the family system of the church as a whole, individual families within the church, and the pastor’s personal family system. The pastor’s family system may be the most important factor in the whole equation. The good news is, if any of the three improves, all three will become healthier. If I attend a retreat with my family and we’re getting healthier, that directly affects how I work with the church and promote its health. That’s why we have youth groups. The youth can learn to love God and love themselves, and they can positively affect their family systems when they return home.
On the other hand, when one of the major systems becomes anxious, all three systems grow anxious. For example, promoting a financial campaign at your church may agitate a particular church member, who responds with, “Why do we always ask for money all the time?” Such a response elevates anxiety and can spread to the whole system. When this happens, rather than stoke the anxiety, it’s important to consider what external factors may be provoking that response. That anxiety could spill over into the church’s system, and unless I’m sensitive to that possibility, I’ll think it’s about me, instead of considering the numerous external factors that weigh on my parishioners’ minds at any given time.
A pastor’s self-understanding of his or her family of origin is critical to this process. Our families of origin influence how we lead and how we speak to others. If we’re aware of the traits we’ve inherited, then we won’t become victims of them. For instance, if I get into a conflict situation with a male in my church, the first thing I ask myself is, Is that person an oldest son? I know there is an intuitive process that occurs between me and an oldest son, and I have to make a conscious effort not to fight with them, like I did with my older brother. As a middle child, I can never overtake an oldest son. Conversely, an oldest son does not want anyone to overtake him. So that is an emotional enmeshment we can face as pastors. At the Center for Pastoral Effectiveness, I help pastors consider the roles they bring into ministry, such as being male or female, spouses, middle, first, or youngest children, and so on.
G&P: WHY DO PASTORS TRY TO RESCUE PEOPLE IN AN EMOTIONAL SYSTEM, AND HOW CAN WE CHANGE THAT MENTALITY IF PEOPLE PLACE THOSE EXPECTATIONS ON US?
SELBY: As pastors, we tend to be rescuers, looking for victims to save. Unfortunately, such a mindset suggests that the so-called victims are incapable of caring for themselves, which shifts all the responsibility to the pastor. In systems thinking, this is called over-functioning and under-functioning. The over-functioner must always change first because the under-functioner is never motivated to make any changes. Over-functioning pastors tend to have under-functioning churches. In my work, we focus on helping the pastor not to over-function.
I tell pastors that both church and children start with c-h. When a church system gets anxious, it can revert to acting like a child. Thirteen-year-olds, for instance, are at the stage of thinking they’re independent, but they still blame their parents, which is not independent behavior. Pastors become the parents of the church, and the church cries, “Make me happy.” What is seductive about this scenario for pastors is that we see this as our mission. Jesus didn’t do it that way, though, when he dealt with his disciples. He made them take responsibility for their own emotions, like adults should.
G&P: YOU SAY THAT CLERGY, PARTICULARLY THOSE FROM HOLINESS TRADITIONS, HAVE TROUBLE DEALING WITH DIFFICULT PEOPLE. HOW SO?
SELBY: I think it’s wonderful that Nazarenes have a holiness code. However, sometimes that code creates a legalistic mindset in a congregation, and a legalistic mindset doesn’t allow the pastor to be human. People may judge pastors too strictly, expecting perfection. Role-modeling stresses pastors out. A pastor’s actions certainly affect a congregation, and pastors should be held to certain standards; however, people can take this too far.
Edwin H. Friedman, who was a significant family-systems therapist and author of Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue, claimed that ministers are held hostage by their Christian-ness. We are expected to be nice at all times, even when church members act un-Christian toward us and our families. Some members of the congregation feel entitled to our time and deem it unacceptable for a minister to say no.
I encourage pastors to handle difficult situations with grace and level heads. If you’re a non-anxious presence during a confrontation, that doesn’t mean you’re not anxious. It means you’re anxious but aware and, therefore, not acting out of your anxiety. At that point, you can be a good resource for people.
G&P: DISCUSS SOME OF THE EXPECTATIONS PEOPLE PLACE ON PASTORS AND HOW A PASTOR CAN RESPOND IN HEALTHY WAYS.
SELBY: As a pastor, you want to be available to your people. At the same time, you must be self-defining and put boundaries around your life, and this can be a complicated balance, especially with the added expectations of a holiness code. My family always understood that if there was a death or a traumatic scene, I had to go, and they wanted me to go because they knew it was important. However, there were other times when I was asked to do something, and I agreed only out of my anxiety and desire not to disappoint people.
Here’s a typical scenario: You’re at home putting your kids to bed, and someone calls your house, saying, “My wife and I are fighting. I want you to come over now and help us.” It is difficult, with people’s expectation of constant care and attention, to respond, “I’m not available right now, but I’ll be glad to see you both in my office tomorrow morning at 8:30.” The caller may say, “Wait a minute, how can you call yourself a minister if you’re refusing to help us? This is when we need you!” Calmly hold your ground by saying, “I understand that you have those feelings, but I am not available right now. I will be there tomorrow morning at 8:30.”
The caller may up the ante by contacting leaders in your church and telling them that you refused to help. The leaders may call you and say, “Did you tell these people that you can’t drive over and help them?” Respond as before, calm but unyielding: “Yes, I said no. I’m here with my family right now. I’ll be available tomorrow morning at 8:30.” That is a great example of a differentiated decision on the part of the pastor. The response isn’t easy for people to swallow, but it’s necessary for the health of your family system and the system as a whole.
I talked with a minister who told a story about taking his family on a vacation. Early in their journey, he was pulled over by a policeman. The pastor said to the officer, “I don’t think I was speeding.” The state trooper asked for his name and gave him a note from his church, informing the pastor that someone had died and they wanted him to drive back home immediately to perform the funeral. The pastor decided to turn his car around. The vacation was over. His family didn’t even speak to him during the drive back home. He and his wife divorced a year later. When I asked him if he would make the same decision today, the pastor said he would not. He only caved to the church’s request out of fear. “I was afraid if I said no,” the pastor recalled, “my church would be angry with me.” At that time, he was more afraid of his church being angry than of losing his own family.
Pastors face these kinds of tough decisions all the time, and it’s unfair. So helping pastors gain the ability to know what they believe, determine what’s really valuable in their lives, and put appropriate boundaries in place, is what makes this ministry so rewarding and enjoyable. Often it’s the most unmotivated, passive-aggressive, dependent, manipulative people you spend time dealing with, and pastors have to be loving but firm in their resolve to not cave to the pressure of making everyone happy. It’s not a pastor’s job.
G&P: YOU'VE SAID THAT CLERGY OFTEN GET PULLED INTO TRIANGLES IN THE CHURCH. WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY THIS?
SELBY: Triangles are the basic DNA of all family systems. They’re not necessarily bad. They’re just a particular kind of communication pathway. For instance, when someone says to me, “Frank’s unhappy,” this has just created a triangle. The three points of the triangle are Frank, the informant, and myself. If I ask Frank if he’s unhappy and he says yes, he’s probably thinking, I want you to make me happy. This creates a new triangle consisting of Frank, myself, and Frank’s happiness. Know this: You can’t make Frank happy. In fact, the harder you work to make Frank happy, the more intense your own anxiety will be. Frank won’t benefit from this.
A pastor becomes healthy amid triangles by being more aware of the triangles. Murray Bowen, the creator of Family Systems Theory, says it this way: “When you’re doing counseling with someone, three quarters of the time you spend de-triangling, and one quarter of the time you spend defining yourself.” Notice that he doesn’t focus on the client. If pastors can stay aware of the triangles, they will be less likely to join the triangles, and using “I” language will help.
G&P: HOW DOES A PASTOR LEAD AND MANAGE CHANGE IN A CHURCH SYSTEM WHEN CHANGE, BY DEFINITION, RAISES ANXIETY?
Selby: In Family Systems, we understand that you don’t jump into that role from the start. A pastor must gain the trust of the people. Pastors need to value that process more. If a pastor starts changing things right away and rams a vision down the church’s throat, that pastor will get fired.
You must work on developing relationships with as many people in the church as possible, which takes time. A leader should also not grow anxious about people who are upset that change isn’t happening quickly enough. A good response to people desiring immediate change is: “I really hear you, and we’re moving in this direction. It may take time, but we will.” The person may respond, “Well, you’re not moving fast enough.” You can reply, “You know, I can appreciate your perspective on that.”
Some people may become anxious, push their ideas for the church, and have the financial backing to make it happen. This causes even more tension because no one wants to refuse financial support, but pastors must be able to say, “You know, I really appreciate your anxiety in this. Change is hard. How about if we stay connected on this, and I believe we’ll be able to get through this together.” That individual may respond, “Well, I don’t like it. We need to do this.” Your reply should be, “You know, I can appreciate that perspective.” Some people even get angry at that phrase because I’m not solving their problems. I’m not taking away their anxiety.
Pastors should create a vision for the church. Vision is something people are drawn to and can unite on. At the Center, we work with pastors on their vision. We also work on the pastor's beliefs—not just about God and theology, but what do you believe about your phone use? What do you believe about your office hours? What do you believe about your family? It will serve you well to have set beliefs on these topics before a situation occurs. When someone questions your actions, you can answer that person with your beliefs and a vision. If we don’t have a vision, the anxious people will give us one.
G&P: SO WHAT CAN OTHER PASTORS AND CHURCH LEADERS DO TO SUPPORT PASTORS WHO MAY FEEL LIKE THEY CAN’T CONFIDE IN ANYONE ABOUT THE ISSUES THEY DEAL WITH IN THEIR CHURCHES?
SELBY: One thing they can do is normalize anxiety. Anxiety is not something to fear; it’s a normal process. Let them know they don’t have to be a perfect person in order to be a pastor. We need to remember the messy family issues and ministry issues that our pastors are dealing with, communicate with understanding, and let them know they’re not alone. Let them know we believe in them. Pastors say things to me like, “If something goes wrong, I feel like I’m in total isolation. I am on my own and get no support.” Some pastors go to churches believing they can make a difference, and the whole system just pushes against them. We should normalize that scenario for pastors so they don’t feel like failures.
This interview has accompanying videos. Please CLICK HERE to view the videos.