Ask a Young Clergy Woman: Non-anxious Presence Edition


Post Author: Askie


 Dear Askie,

What does a calm, non-anxious presence actually look like in practice? Specifically, what does it look like at contentious meetings where people criticize decisions you’ve made as a church leader?

Signed,

A Little Bit Anxious, Not Gonna Lie

Oh, Bitsy. This right here is why every clergy person at one point (at least) in his or her life has remarked that working in the Church would be great if it wasn’t for the people. As pastors we do heavy emotional labor, often moving quickly between very emotional situations over the course of a day- praying by a deathbed one hour to meeting with a newly engaged couple the next, followed by a grueling finance committee meeting, well past the hour when folks with “normal” jobs are at home watching television and hanging out with their families. The deep valleys of sadness and suffering that we share in as part of our vocation are matched by equally staggering peaks of joy, but the quick turnaround between the two can be exhausting, and doesn’t often give us a chance to process any of our own emotional reactions in real time.

Ok, so none of us expected this to be easy, you are probably saying to yourself right now, but here is the thing: even the healthiest psyche can only take so much, and being attacked by the very people one is in a spiritual relationship with can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.  Pardon the parental analogy, but Askie imagines it is similar to the feeling of a mother who has sacrificed repeatedly for her child, only to have that child look her in the face and scream “I hate you.” The mother loves this child with a love that is without boundary, and in her heart knows the child doesn’t really mean these words, understands intellectually that the child is processing its own struggle with difficult, maybe overwhelming things like fear and change and uncertainty, but in the moment- the mom really wants to say “Fine, then.” and leave the kid to the wolves. The whole time, she knows that that reaction also is impossible, that the role of parent means loving and caring for one’s child even when that child is acting like a terrible human being. Especially when the child is acting like a terrible human being. And so, hopefully, the mother reaches deep down into some previously unknown store of strength that enables her to ignore her heartbreak and be the rational adult in the situation.

Often, and especially in situations like you describe, being the adult in the room when everyone else is being an asshole is what a non-anxious presence looks like. So how do we find these hidden stores of strength that make the whole thing possible? Prayer, regular self-care, and a good therapist help a whole lot. We hear it so often that we tend to tune it out, but God got us into this whole mess, and only God can get us through it. Making time for intentional conversation with God, however that works in your life, is integral to your health and wellbeing. (We all also go through desert times when God seems silent, and need to give ourselves the same referrals we would to parishioners when that happens- to a spiritual director, a spiritual practice, or a retreat. The rains will come and there will be blooms in the sand once again, but we can’t wait passively.)  Working in an emotional labor field is only sustainable if the worker takes regular days off. Wait to answer those emails- as often as we work with life and death, rarely has Askie had an actual life or death emergency present itself electronically. Take all of your vacation, even if someone or something is making you feel guilty about it. And find someone professional to talk to about what you are experiencing- self awareness is they key to all of this. Only you can truly advocate for your own needs, so you need to be really sure of what those are.  An objective therapist can help you realize when there is some truth in the criticism you are getting that you can learn from, and also how to recognize when someone is just being an asshole.

The real secret, though, to this whole non-anxious presence thing, is one Askie borrows from Alcoholics Anonymous: fake it ’til you make it. Picture someone you respect and admire, who is a pillar of calm in all storms, and pretend to be that person. It is surprisingly effective. For Askie, this person is Sister Julienne from “Call the Midwife”. She would have used a photo of the character to illustrate this post if she had been able to find one with a Creative Commons license, so take a second and go google it. This fictional character radiates cool collectedness in all that she does. Birthing babies, gently reprimanding rogue young midwives who have let their idealism outpace their experience, ticking bombs left over from the Blitz and discovered in the building next door ready to blow at any moment- Sister Julienne calmly turns her wimpled head and stares anxiety into submission with her pale blue, knowing eyes.

Who do you think of? Try picturing that person right now, and imagine slipping into her or his skin, becoming who that person seems to be. Be creative. Visualize how that person would respond to the critics at your meeting. In slipping out of yourself and into this other identity, something magical happens. Suddenly, you find some emotional distance between the you in the moment and the you observing yourself, and in that space is room for a deep breath, a quick prayer. The strength you didn’t think you had appears, allowing you to respond instead of to react. Eventually, you will become what you are pretending to be. And in the meantime, you will have some borrowed armor to keep your heart safe in this odd and wondrous work that we all do.

 


Do you have a question for a Young Clergy Woman? Do you think our YCW was completely off in her answers? Comment below, or submit your own question- or answer- to ask.ycw(at)gmail(dot)com.


Image by: Hans Thoma
Used with permission
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