The structures that shape society show stress fractures from top to bottom.
Institutions long taken for granted suddenly are subject to renegotiation.
Even the meanings enshrined in basic social frameworks of mutual obligation governing families, marriages, religions, and providing the fundamental logic for morality, are up for grabs.
Hallowed assumptions about the most basic of loyalties and allegiances, what it means to be a citizen of a country or a member of a society, even the ordering of such allegiances in relation to one another, is subject to the most radical new questions.
Innovative technologies are leading to an explosion of previously unimagined information sources, and media unsettling long-established spheres of authority and undermining long-respected official sources of reliable knowledge.
Reports of violence multiply around the globe. Militant Islamic forces are perceived as threatening Western culture. Radicalized forces within Western culture itself pose a serious threat to internal stability. “Common ground” has become a contested notion as society orients itself increasingly into opposing political, religious and ideological camps.
It is a time of unprecedented anxiety.
I’m sorry. I just gave you my notes summarizing the characteristics of Europe in the years leading up to the Protestant Reformation I prepared recently for a lecture on the sixteenth-century.
We do indeed live in a time of anxiety — but it is not unprecedented anxiety. Most every age believes its time is the most difficult in history.
While it is natural to feel anxious when threatened, anxiety can paralyze us, limit our range of vision and options, and constrain our imaginations precisely when we most need to think creatively. The best antidote to anxiety is perspective. But chronically anxious people have chronically limited perspectives. This is as true for the church as for any other segment of society. Anxiety tends to make us retrench, draw back, retreat, and freeze at the very moments when we most need to explore.
Some analysts of our culture recently described the peculiar variety of anxiety, the generalized anxiety we are experiencing, as “free floating anxiety,” that is, anxiety that is not necessarily attached to any specific worry or concern but floats around us attaching itself first to this situation and then to another. Such anxiety is similar to a virus. It is highly contagious, and unaffected by antibiotics. About the only effective counter-measure we can take to “free floating anxiety” is to build up our immune systems — and wash our hands thoroughly and frequently. I’m not being entirely facetious.
There is something else we can do as leaders. We can find the courage to risk adventure.
The late Edwin Friedman, in his posthumously published book, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, observed: “Any renaissance, anywhere, whether in a marriage or a business, depends primarily not only on new data and techniques, but on the capacity of leaders to separate themselves from the surrounding emotional climate so they can break through the barriers.” We do not suffer from a poverty of information, according to Friedman, but from a lack of courage. The solution to what ails us is not to discover a new technique for leadership, but to recover a sense of adventure. Sometimes, as Friedman might have put it, you have to sail due west to “discover” the East — and along the way you will also discover that the earth is round. And that changes everything. He called it “adventurous leadership.”
Imagine, if you will, what would have happened if the sense of adventure that brought us the Renaissance and the Reformation had not triumphed over the virus of sixteenth-century anxiety that held the world in its stagnant, fearful grip: Another Dark Age? Another “Bonfire of the Vanities?” It could have happened. There’s no reason to assume the inevitability of progress. Remember: after the fall of Rome we forgot how to mix concrete and flush a toilet for a millennium!
Generalized anxiety, free-floating anxiety, the dread and panic rippling through our churches afraid for their future, afraid of their future, afraid for their survival: these are real factors with which we must really deal as leaders.
The first step to providing leadership in an era of anxiety is simply to avoid catching the virus that has laid society low.
The second step is to embrace adventure.
We’ve done it many times before.
Who would have imagined that a sixteenth-century German monk could have changed the world by nailing a list of debating points to a church door? Or, that a sixteenth-century French lawyer and scholar could provoke a religious revolution that bequeathed to the world the foundational elements for democracy, free enterprise, and universal education, as well as a form of church life that takes seriously the ministry of the whole people of God?
The list of past adventures in church leadership could go on and on. And it must.
MICHAEL JINKINS has been academic dean and professor of pastoral theology at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. On September 1, he will begin duties as president of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.