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Non-Anxious Presence? Maybe Not.

I cannot count the number of times in seminary that we were taught to be the "non-anxious presence" as pastors - in fact, I don't even think that I can count the number of times I have been told that that's a pastor's role SINCE seminary. Needless to say, it's quite a lot - in fact, you might even get the sense that 'non-anxious presence' is central to the pastor's call.

So what is a non-anxious presence?

It really has to do with Family Systems Theory and the idea that anxiety in a system can be unhealthy and lead to troublesome behavior for all involved. The non-anxious presence is part of the system but interacts without becoming anxious themselves. That is to say, they maintain their sense of self-differentiation; they exist in the anxious system and operate amidst the anxiety, but they recognize that the anxiety of the system is not theirs to take on.

This doesn't mean that the non-anxious presence exists without emotion or even without forceful emotion. It does mean that they can step into a charged environment without becoming enmeshed in the feelings of that environment.

Unfortunately, in the last few years when I've heard this term batted around among church leaders, the way that it's being used implies that the non-anxious presence is there to 1. always be calm and 2. calm everyone else down - essentially de-agitating the system. And this concerns me because, as people of faith, I believe that there are times when we are called to be anything BUT calm - I believe that there are times when we're called to be angry and upset and maybe even anxious in such a way that it agitates us for meaningful action.

Imagine, for example, that you're a pastor or a lay leader in a church that works with a local school. And suddenly the parents at the school discover that their kids can't drink the water that comes out of the drinking fountains because there's lead in it (for the record, this is true of many Baltimore City schools). They are angry. You're probably (hopefully) angry too. Is this the time to swoop in and quell the anger? No. It's not. It's the time to channel that angry energy into action for the good of the students and the school.

Of course, in that situation, it IS possible to still be a healthy, non-anxious presence. That wouldn't mean bringing calm to the situation - it would mean leading in that environment while recognizing what anger is yours and what anger is not. It would mean being able to direct that energy towards healthy and constructive ends without taking on emotion that is NOT yours.

The truth is, the Church - especially the Progressive Church - needs to take a step away from being the non-anxious presence in the way that many are defining it. We need to take a step away from focusing exclusively on being places of calm and peace where tumultuous emotions are stilled (though there is certainly a time and a place for that) and allow ourselves to be congregations where anger, grief, and agitation are directed in constructive ways that help us live into our call as disciples of Christ.

I'm not saying that we shouldn't also provide sanctuary - a place to recharge and find sabbath - in this increasingly anxious world. I'm saying that we need to be true non-anxious presences - individuals and congregations that can exist in an anxious world, even experience those energy-filled emotions, without losing ourselves in the process. I'm saying that we need to experience that agitation and use it to speak truth to power, to organize around issues of justice, and to truly be the Body of Christ in the world.

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