Why Money Is a Focus for Anxiety at Church

Edwin Friedman used to say, “The issue is never the issue.” He meant that certain perennial issues and problems in church life, or the latest hot-button topic, are primarily a focus for people’s anxiety. We live in highly anxious times, and there’s a lot of free-floating anxiety around. People have to do something with it, and they (not consciously) attach it to certain issues. This anxious focus can happen in church life in many areas, with several being favorites — music, children and youth ministry are a few common arenas. And, of course, money. As one pastor said, “It always seems to have an exclamation point when money is involved.”

Why does money become such a focus for anxiety? Well, in our culture money is about survival, and it gets at something fundamental in human experience. We need food to live, and money buys food. It seems really basic, but I think that’s the root of our powerful reactions around money. In addition, any of us have individual family stories that have intense elements about money in some way, going back through the generations.

This ongoing chronic anxiety shows up in a variety of forms in congregational life. Here are some of the ways:

1. Secrecy around money.
2. Denial around financial realities – thinking there isn’t enough when there is or thinking there is enough when there isn’t.
3. Overestimating or underestimating giving capacity.
4. Regular crises around finances, real or imagined.
5. Embezzlement/mismanagement.
6. Resisting necessary expenses like deferred maintenance.
7. Overfunctioning/underfunctioning – a few members give a lot, or one person rescues the congregation or makes a special gift (like paying for a consultant when the church is in conflict). Clergy carrying most of the anxiety, giving up salary increases or taking a reduction (while still working just as hard) to balance the budget.
8. High reactivity around the way church leadership raises funds.
9. Never talking about money or, conversely, always talking about money.
10. Blind trust in the leadership around money matters, or, conversely, extreme suspicion of leadership.

When we think about money as a focus for anxiety, we won’t be simply focused on solving the problem with dollars. We’ll be able to think bigger and longer term (both past and future) about the issues at hand, because we won ‘t be so caught up in our own anxiety about it. And we won’t spend endless amounts of energy trying to solve problems that one person, even a key leader, cannot solve. We’ll know better how to accept the things we cannot change, and work with others without overfunctioning. This shift in perspective doesn’t happen overnight, but when we begin to make it, we’ll be more effective in leading around money matters — and less stressed.

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