Author Peter Steinke suggests Old Testament understandings of salvation are connected to openness rather than constricting. Steinke writes about how healthy communities behave in times of anxiety. His perspectives in Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times provide insight into what is happening in Mennonite Church USA these days.
I did not attend the MC USA convention in Kansas City. I do not bear the wounds that some do from that time together. I’ve listened, though, to dozens of people about their experiences. I’ve noticed similar strands of behavior and storytelling that resonate with post-traumatic stress. Poignant incidents stand out, while overall story lines are sometimes jumbled. Emotions are complicated. Some talk about holy moments of sacred inbreaking; others confess only feeling the absence of the divine.
We are living in the midst of an unraveling. We are not immune to the cultural, political and theological questions of the day. We are pulled by the same tensions that exist in the world beyond the church doors. It’s likely always been this way, though as Mennonites we may have tried to deny it by saying we are in but not of the world.
Steinke invites leaders to be a nonanxious presence. We have heard this advice before, but it is hard to do in times of conflict. What is it about encountering difference that makes us anxious and ready to stand our ground rather than curious and open to staying connected?
Anxiety and curiosity seem like opposites. Anxiety, according to Steinke, closes us up and is often accompanied by bodily reactions similar to the fight-or-flight mechanism. This response tenses our shoulders, raises our blood pressure and limits our ability to think clearly and creatively. Steinke asks us to notice what provokes these responses so that we can better understand how to be healthy leaders.
Anxiety can be paralyzing and polarizing. We are not our best selves when we respond with limited vision and a sense of needing to protect ourselves or our way of life or our beliefs.
If salvation is about opening up rather than closing off, I wonder: Are we open to what the Spirit is doing in the midst of our unraveling?
I trust the wise words of historian Phyllis Tickle in The Great Emergence: Even in times of upheaval, the Good News moves into new spaces and reaches more people as a result of change and chaos.
I’m ready to confess that it is possible the denomination might not survive this turbulence. At times, this unraveling feels costly, because I’ve invested 20 years of my work life in MC USA and its people. Nevertheless, I believe the Good News will continue to flourish.
Steinke’s work reminds me that the posture of leaders in the midst of the turbulence matters. I need to stay focused and to think on the things that are lovely, good and true. I must not be overcome by the anxiety that sometimes wells up within me.
Since Kansas City, I’ve been clinging to the words of Paul to the Corinthians. These three things remain: faith, hope and love. That is more than enough reassurance and challenge to do the work of God, even in the midst of anxious unraveling.
Stephen Kriss is a teacher, writer, pastor, student and follower of Jesus living in Philadelphia.
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