What I’ve Been Thinking About This Summer

Lots of thoughts have been swirling around in my head these last few weeks. My head and heart are heavy when I think about current world events, especially the resurgence of the unending violence in Palestine and Israel and the plight of children from Central America coming to the United States hoping for a better life. I have opinions and convictions about both of these issues, formed in large part by a Christian faith that believes violence and retribution are not the answer, justice (making things right) is important, and we’re called to welcome the stranger and care for those in need. But both topics are too complex and multi-faceted for me to sort out in a short blog post. (OK, I’ll be honest: after reading the harsh comments on a Facebook post about the Palestine-Israel conflict by someone I highly respect, I don’t have the courage to enter the fray!) SO: on to two other unrelated topics I’ve also been thinking about.

Anxiety rears its ugly head again: During the last two weeks of June, I experienced a level of anxiety I haven’t felt for a while. It was not pleasant. All the prayer, self-talk, deep-breathing, positive thinking, and distracting myself with other tasks that usually help me control my tendency to anxiety and worry didn’t work very well. I felt like I was close to being back in the place I was nine years ago in the aftermath of my colon cancer diagnosis and treatment and some family concerns, when anxiety and depression threatened to overwhelm me.

The cause this time? Another health scare. My routine annual mammogram revealed some calcifications on one side, and I had to have additional pictures taken. The additional pictures weren’t conclusive, so I was scheduled for a stereotactic biopsy to collect some tissue from the calcifications. In the days leading up to the biopsy, I could feel my anxiety level rising. Between the biopsy and the call from the doctor the next day that it was benign and no further action is necessary until my next annual mammogram, I was more anxious than I have been for a long time.

Calcifications in the breast are common and usually don’t mean anything. The coordinator at the radiology facility told me more than once that eighty percent of these biopsies are benign. But they can be a sign of early breast cancer and in twenty percent of these cases a biopsy will discover a malignancy. That’s what I couldn’t put out of my mind. I was having a hard time coming to terms with what felt like the very real possibility that I could be facing another round of cancer with all the associated treatments.

As I worked to control my anxiety, I realized that it was to some extent out of my control. I could mitigate it with the various disciplines I’ve learned over the years, but I couldn’t eliminate it. And as I beat myself up for my inability to control it, I also had to remind myself that anxiety disorders are not caused by personal weakness, a character flaw, or a lack of faith. Rather, they come from a combination of environmental factors (like the threat of breast cancer), genetic predisposition (my mother also suffered from anxiety), and malfunctioning in the brain circuits that regulate fear and emotion. Recognizing the complex and “organic” nature of anxiety doesn’t make dealing with it any easier, but it does help me not blame myself for being unable to control the waves that overwhelmed me last month and empathize with those for whom anxiety is often far more crippling than it is for me.

Trust is a two-way street: In denominational business meetings last weekend where I was a delegate from my congregation, as questions were raised about proposed changes in governance, the issue of trust took center stage. I firmly believe that our denominational leaders want what is best for the church; I also understand and sympathize with those who were questioning past actions and current proposals and displaying what appeared to be a lack of trust in their leaders.

I’ve been on both sides of this matter of organizational trust. I’ve been on boards (and chaired one of them) that made decisions that weren’t always appreciated or supported by the rank-and-file. I’ve been hurt by accusations both direct and indirect that the board didn’t know what it was doing, we had some kind of hidden agenda, we weren’t worthy of trust. The truth is that members of the boards I was on really had the best interests of the organization at heart, tried to be wise and careful in our decision-making, but among many good decisions also made some that in hindsight didn’t work out so well. Being considered untrustworthy feels like a low blow when we were doing our best to do the right thing.

On the other hand, I’ve also been the “victim” of decisions by organizations that didn’t make sense to me, seemed to head the organization in a direction that would result in a loss of things I believe(d) critical to the organization’s mission and identity, and could have unintended consequences (or perhaps intended, I would think, when I was in my most distrustful and cynical frame of mind). I’ve been frustrated by leaders, who when challenged say something like, “you chose us to be your leaders, so you need to trust us; you need to submit to our authority.” It doesn’t sit well with me when those who support organizational decisions and directions seem to want to shut down dissent and conversation and move on.

The issue of organizational trust often comes down to different views of leadership and decision-making, whether we prefer a more top-down style or more diffuse, shared and consensus-building. For some years now, the trend in our denomination has been toward the former, with fewer rather than more people involved in leadership and decision-making. The reasons are varied and include financial considerations and the associated need to be efficient and organizationally lean, but some have lamented the trend. To some extent, whether you support top-down or shared leadership and decision-making depends on where you sit – that is, if you’re one of the few at the top you’re likely to support top-down decisions, but if you’re an ordinary person at the “bottom” of the organizational flowchart you’re more inclined to question and less willing to trust and submit happily. That’s overly simplistic, of course, but it is part of what’s going on.

One bottom line (out of many possible bottom lines on this issue) is that trust goes both ways, as my pastor said at the close of the business meeting. All of us need to trust our leaders, recognizing that they have been chosen to lead and make decisions. At the same time, leaders also need to trust the people to provide wise counsel, gentle correctives and honest opinions about the impact of their decisions and to give space and time for those conversations to take place.

You can read more about trust and “Organizational Decision-Making” within the church context, with some practical perspectives and ideas, from a denominational publication I edit.

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7 thoughts on “What I’ve Been Thinking About This Summer

  1. Harriet, every part of your note touched me personally. I struggled in ways similar to yours, with bouts of anxiety – as well as guilt over it. A wise Christian counselor sensitively educated me and it did help ease my guilt, as well as lessening the anxiety. I also resonate with your sharing about Conference, comments and complex leadership issues – from multiple perspectives. Bless you.

  2. Harriet, I, too, felt your heart in both areas. Being fortunate to experience the last few days with my Aunt Ruth before her death, raised the whole cycle of life panorama before me. Anxiety is also something I struggle with, and I appreciated your thoughts. You sat in front of me for the conference sessions and more than once I had the thought that you might have had some wisdom to share. One final, comment…I do not think I affirm you enough for the comprehensive coverage in Shalom that you effectively administer. Thank you.

  3. Harriet–what an inspiring post. First, many people go through health crises and have some of the same issues that you. But not everyone is as clear-eyed and honest as you. The anxiety issue, while completely understandable, poses such a challenge–it is so tempting, too tempting, to think of matters of the mind as being “all in your head.” Erroneously, of course because modern medicine has helped us to understand the delicate interplay of personal history, family health and one’s own body biochemical makeup.
    As for matters of trust, particularly in organizations and more specifically in churches–oh yes, many of us have been there. Top down or diffuse–each has merits. I confess (as a now-Presbyterian) I have always been struck with the wisdom of the form of church governance we have. Neither top down nor bottom up. No popes or bishops or other hierarchical figures for Presbyterians. But neither is the congregation the driver. Rather, we seek to have a flow back and forth–the higher body (i.e. General Assembly) speaking TO the people in the congregations. Then on matter of polity change, the top speaks, and the bottom votes. A delicate give-and-take. That said, we too suffer from matters of trust, so a system alone is neither the cause nor solution for matters of trust.
    Ah–when we all realize the kingdom of God is NOW, and we are to live out our calling NOW.

  4. It’s nice to hear some more perspective on GC. I was surprised to find so little from BIC pastors when I went looking for it (links to blogs on their websites). I think diffuse, bottom up leadership is an important polity distinction of the BIC that reflects our understanding of the priesthood of all believers.

    Also- Your sharing about your anxieties is courageous. Thank you. Many are with you in your struggle, actually and in solidarity.

  5. Thanks to all for your comments. I especially appreciate the encouragement and solidarity with me in my struggles with anxiety; it’s good to know I’m not alone. Questions of leadership and trust are more difficult, and what I wrote in this post only scratches the surface of the thoughts, opinions and experience I have had on the subject over the years.

    I’m not sure I can answer Jonny’s questions to his satisfaction (and they are really good questions), but here are a few additional thoughts I could have put in my original post but didn’t. I agree that dialogue is a crucial part of building trust in a relationship, and often leaders and organizations (churches) can’t or don’t allow enough time and space for genuine dialogue to take place before decisions are made. In our particular denominational situation, I think there are/were two things going on: 1) Personnel decisions and actions happened that left more questions than answers. Even when explanations were given, they didn’t feel like the whole story (because they probably weren’t!) and led to more questions and distrust, predictably so. But, when personnel are involved, leaders simply can’t give the whole story even when it might help clarify. I can give examples of this from my own board experience. 2) For some time now, the number of people in decision-making positions has been decreasing, and the process of decision-making has become more “efficient” (shorter time for business, etc.). The style feels more corporate than churchly. This year, some of the language in proposed changes in the governance manual felt like one more step in that direction. Predictably again, those of us who prefer more diffuse and consensus-building leadership styles tended to be a little suspicious, even though the reasons for the changes generally sounded reasonable. Sometimes it felt like nit-picking about one little word, but words matter and are powerful, and you never know how one word or phrase will change the meaning of an entire paragraph.

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