Published by Jeremy Fagan on 1st April 2019

From the Chair, David Sims: Anxiety and the Holy Spirit

When I was a child there was a book called the ‘Age of anxiety’ on the bookshelf, although I don’t remember anybody ever looking at it. The title always fascinated me as a concept. Why would anyone let anxiety last for an age? Surely they would do something about it? On the other hand, it sounded like quite an important, significant age to be in. You had to admire anyone who could live through such an age. Heroic, really. All this was long before people were talking about never wasting a good crisis, and about the value of creating burning platforms. Looking back, this must have been a copy of Auden’s long poem.

In my introduction to the Modem Conference in November I said:

‘We live in times of dis-ease, anxiety and control in churches, and it is more important than ever that those of us who are equipped to think about organization, management and leadership, should make a thoughtful contribution to how our churches run. As Margaret Wheatley has commented, ‘I’m sad to report that in the past few years, ever since uncertainty became our insistent 21st century companion, leadership has taken a great leap backwards to the familiar territory of command and control.’ We have an anxiety about our churches which is all the more poignant because it is hard, at least for me, to see God as anxious. Historically we can see that our forebears in the faith have tended to try to recreate God in their own image. I shudder at the thought of what happens as we try to create ourselves an anxious God, and then try to worship this idol.’

This is particularly relevant to us in MODEM because organization is often the antidote to anxiety. The traditional, non-critical view is that if we have got things properly organized we will know what is going to happen and there is less to be anxious about. If we have got a strategy and have checked the cash flow properly, what could possibly go wrong? Years ago, in a church council meeting, I heard one of the participants say, ‘We have got to cut our coat according to our cloth’. I was astonished, and am still convinced that such an approach is all you need to explain church decline. This may because I spent my working life in businesses and business schools, where if you did not have the resources you would then ask how you get them. It is also because, as Nigel Rooms said at our conference, it assumes that you cannot make God the subject of an active verb in a sentence – otherwise we would not be talking about the scarcity of cloth. At the same time it is also sensible advice, and debt advice centres up and down the country would be delighted to see it taken more seriously. The responsibilities of charitable trustees include prudence about the balance between ambition and resources, and this becomes even more important where the livelihoods of paid staff are involved. ‘Taking no thought for tomorrow’ is not how trustees are supposed to go about their work. Nor is it consistent with most ideas of good organization, leadership and management.

And yet we speak of abundance, and of God giving us plenty of what we actually need. There are lots of stories, in the bible, from missionaries, and from charities such as George Muller’s orphanage, of people doing what they believe is right and being given the resources they need at the last minute.  Does trusting in the Lord preclude us from having to check the bank statements?

Two friends of mine, Colin and Nick, shared a yacht. Colin told me once that Nick was such a cautious sailor that he was positively dangerous. His anxiety did not help him to pay closer and more effective attention to the various things that the sea threw at him, but instead left him paralysed with fear that he was not doing the right thing. Colin was not suggesting that Nick should not pay careful attention to his charts, to weather forecasts, to the tides, and to the published information about safe routes into particular harbours under different conditions. Lack of anxiety is not the same as hoping that everything will be all right on the night, and then not feeling the need to check any details. Lack of anxiety means recognizing that you can pay as much attention as you like, but you will still have to adjust to what happens, you can never plan everything fully, and that your primary objective is to achieve and enjoy the sailing trip while staying safe; your primary objective is not to stay safe, which can best be achieved at home.

The cash flow needs to be monitored, the requirements for health and safety, and for safeguarding need to be met. But the ocean we are crossing in our church life is beyond our control. Our attention needs to be on following the star (yes, this is being written in the Epiphany season), in doing so in such a way that we can have an inspiring and exciting journey, enjoying the company of each other and of the Lord, keeping safe but also realizing that everything is beyond our control. Complexity theory and the Holy Spirit join hands to tell us that if we think we are in control of the situation, (a) we are deluded and (b) we are attempting something improper. In the church, we do what we can but control does not belong to us, any of us.

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