When I was a senior in high school, one of my favorite teachers gave me a birthday card that included Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If.” Kipling offers advice on how to “be a Man” in the face of various tests of character, including in the first line: “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you . . .”
That line struck a chord with me. It highlighted a common trait among the men and women I considered effective leaders. They had the virtue of maintaining self-control and clear minds in difficult situations. They were able to remain calm, composed, and rational when faced with chaos and adversity, especially when others were panicking and unfairly attributing the blame to them. And in response, their serenity helped me feel more composed.
They modeled the type of person I wanted to become. Yet I never knew where to begin because I didn’t even know what to call such a collection of leadership virtues. Decades later, I recognized this was a set of traits and a way of being that some now refer to as a “nonanxious presence.”
The concept of a nonanxious presence has been frequently referenced in leadership, counseling, and pastoral care circles since the mid-1980s. Yet despite the ubiquity of the term, it’s surprisingly difficult to find a clear explanation of what it means or how we develop it as Christian leaders. To help fill that conceptual gap, I offer this attempt to clarify what’s meant by “nonanxious presence” and to provide recommendations for how we can help become such people ourselves.
What Nonanxious Presence Means
The origin of the term is deeply rooted in family systems theory, particularly in the work of Murray Bowen, a psychiatrist and pioneer in the field of family counseling. For Bowen, a primary cause of problems within families was the existence and spread of anxiety. Bowen defined anxiety as the response to a threat, whether real or imagined. He classified anxiety into two primary types—acute and chronic.
Acute anxiety is a type of fear, an emotional response to a real or perceived immediate threat. It serves as a warning system that alerts us to danger right now. For instance, if you’re traveling down a path and encounter a venomous snake, you might naturally experience fear of being bitten. Such prudential fear can be a God-given capacity to help us avoid harm. But when the danger has passed, that fear should dissipate. No danger; no acute anxiety.
In contrast, chronic anxiety is a warning system of possible impending danger. You might, for example, be anxious about walking in the woods for fear of encountering snakes—even if you’ve never seen one on your path before. This type of anxiety tends to be more persistent because it’s often vague and dependent on perception. Acute anxiety leads to worry, which can be both the product of anxiety and the cause of additional anxiety.
Bowen’s key insight was that chronic anxiety is primarily generated within relationships. He believed anxiety in one family member cannot be isolated from the rest of the family system. In his view, anxiety is contagious and transmitted through relationships within the family. This means the emotional state of one person can significantly influence the emotional states of others within the family.
Anxiety is contagious and transmitted through relationships.
Consider this example. A project you’ve been working on at work fails, and your boss holds you responsible. Feeling frustrated and anxious about the implications for your career, you show up at home visibly tense. Your wife notices your mood, but when she asks about it, you avoid sharing any details. Sensing the tension, your wife becomes irritable and snaps at your teenage daughter for not having finished her chores. Your daughter, in turn, gets upset and retreats to her room, feeling unfairly targeted. She then vents her frustration on her younger brother, criticizing him for playing his music too loudly. This leads to an argument between the siblings.
In this scenario, your work-related anxiety has unintentionally cascaded through the family, affecting each member differently and amplifying the overall stress in the household. Everyone in the family is now anxious and yet no one understands how it started. The anxiety has leaped from one person to another, infecting each in turn in different ways.
Bowen considered such chronic anxiety to be a driving force behind many common family patterns and behaviors. He believed it tends to be deeply embedded in family relationships and can even be passed down through generations.
All humans experience anxiety, so why do some families suffer from such chronic anxiety while others don’t? A key factor is the presence within the family of individuals who have what Bowen called a “differentiated self.” This is the ability to maintain his or her own emotional and intellectual autonomy while still being emotionally connected to others (“If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs . . .”).
A person with high differentiation can maintain a strong sense of self without being overwhelmed by the emotional states of others. Conversely, lower differentiation makes individuals more susceptible to getting entangled in the anxiety of the family system. A person with high differentiation acts as a type of emotional circuit-breaker, preventing anxiety from spreading throughout the family, while a person of low differentiation acts as a conduit, helping anxiety spread more rapidly.
Edwin Friedman took Bowen’s ideas about anxiety and self-differentiation and showed how they applied not only to families but also to churches and other organizations in which people are closely and firmly integrated. Friedman, an ordained rabbi, family therapist, and leadership consultant, introduced this concept in his 1985 book Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue. The three main ideas of his book are that leaders need to be self-differentiated, nonanxious, and present with those they’re leading.
In a later book, A Failure of Nerve, Friedman explained the concept of nonanxious presence: “Someone who can be separate while still remaining connected, and therefore can maintain a modifying, nonanxious, and sometimes challenging presence. I mean someone who can manage his or her own reactivity to the automatic reactivity of others, and therefore be able to take stands at the risk of displeasing.”
Why Nonanxious Presence Is Needed
Why is our culture so anxious? I see three primary reasons: a breakdown of institutions, an expansion of social networks, and the monetization of anxiety.
Institutions, according to Friedman, serve as containers for the anxiety of their members. This means they can take on and manage the collective anxiety of individuals, preventing it from escalating or causing dysfunction. A healthy institutional system will prevent anxiety from becoming toxic or paralyzing, enabling the institution to function effectively and adapt to challenges. As the trust in institutions has broken down, so too has their ability to absorb anxiety.
As the trust in institutions has broken down, so too has their ability to absorb anxiety.
What has largely taken the place of institutions is informal online networks, primarily social media. In the past, most Americans directly interacted with a relatively small number of people, and most of those interactions didn’t involve the direct sharing of anxious concerns. But social media has changed that dynamic.
Today, you’re likely to encounter anxiety-producing opinions and information from hundreds of people a day, most of whom you may not even know in real life. We’re expected to remain constantly “informed” by keeping up with whatever is considered newsworthy at any particular moment.
The result is that the number of direct connections we’re exposed to daily has grown exponentially. For instance, in an examination of nearly 100 million accounts on X (formerly Twitter), Brandwatch found the average number of followers those accounts have is 707. A person regularly engaged on X would therefore be connected to hundreds of sources of anxiety every time he or she logs on. This direct connectivity leads to emotional fusion with others that’s symbolized in the frequently posted question “What are we mad about today?”
Social media is delivered by companies that need to increase engagement to boost revenue. Since almost anything that increases anxiety increases engagement, these companies have a strong incentive to monetize anxiety. Algorithms are tweaked to ensure users stay in a perpetual state of anxiousness. As Caleb Wait points out, anxiety is a feature, not a bug, of digital media.
How to Be a Nonanxious Presence
These are only a few of the reasons we live in the new Age of Anxiety. To counter the effect, we need nonanxious presence in Christian leadership.
Applying Friedman’s concept to Christian leaders involves adopting the leadership qualities of Jesus. This is ultimately why we should strive to be a nonanxious presence and why the concept is useful—because it helps us become more like Jesus, who was gentle, lowly, and nonanxious. Here are five ways we can do that as Christian leaders.
1. Embrace and apply self-differentiation.
This is the cornerstone of Friedman’s theory. It involves being able to separate one’s emotional and intellectual functioning. A nonanxious leader can maintain a clear sense of self, values, and goals without being overwhelmed by the anxiety or emotional reactivity of others.
To model this behavior, we need to develop a greater level of self-awareness by regularly engaging in self-reflection and prayer to understand our emotions, triggers, and responses. This helps in distinguishing our own emotional states from those of our congregations, staff teams, or families.
We can also learn to self-differentiate by establishing clear boundaries. Boundaries are the physical, emotional, and mental limits we set to protect ourselves from being manipulated, used, or violated by others. They help us separate our identities, thoughts, feelings, and needs from those of others and prevent the overabsorption of their emotional states. When done appropriately, maintaining well-being isn’t selfish. Instead, it’s stewardship of a resource God has given you—yourself—for his service.
2. Practice emotional regulation and nonreactivity.
Being a nonanxious presence requires displaying a calm and gentle demeanor, especially in the face of crisis or conflict. This calmness isn’t about being disengaged or indifferent but rather being composed, thoughtful, and gentle with others, which provides a stabilizing influence. A nonanxious leader must manage his emotional reactivity. Emotional reactivity occurs when an external event triggers intense emotions disproportionate to the cause.
If we’re nonanxious, we won’t succumb to such emotional reactivity because we don’t get swept up in the anxieties, fears, or emotional dramas of the groups or individuals we’re leading. We avoid knee-jerk reactions to situations and instead respond thoughtfully and deliberately, which can help de-escalate tense situations and encourage others to think and respond calmly.
As we practice spiritual disciplines like regular prayer, meditation, and Bible study, we center our emotions and cultivate a sense of peace and stability. We can also practice being present in the moment and acknowledging God’s presence in all circumstances by reflecting on verses like Psalm 46:10, “Be still, and know that I am God.”
3. Cultivate nonreactivity by active listening.
One of the most effective ways we can build this ability is by listening to others. “By definition, listening is maintaining a nonanxious presence,” says Jack Shitama. He continues,
One, you are remaining nonanxious because instead of fighting, getting defensive, or caving in, you are asking questions. Two, because you are exploring the other’s feelings, you are emotionally present. The best way to handle an anxious attack by another is to not argue and to not agree. Listening accomplishes this.
4. Disconnect from sources of anxiety.
For many people, the greatest source of anxiety in modern life is the media—whether mainstream media (e.g., cable news), alternative media (e.g., talk radio), or social media (e.g., X). It’s nearly impossible for a Christian leader to be immersed in such media and be a nonanxious presence.
As we practice spiritual disciplines, we center our emotions and cultivate a sense of peace and stability.
Many leaders are quick to justify their wasted time keeping up with news (“I need to stay informed”) and spending time on social media (“It’s where the people are!”), not realizing how it undermines their leadership. We cannot effectively lead people to obey Jesus’s command to “not be anxious” (Matt. 6:25) when we’re liking, retweeting, or sharing the anxiety du jour on social media.
We can either be part of the problem or part of the solution. Unfortunately, far too many Christian leaders—including, to our shame, pastors—are more interested in participating in “outrage culture” than they are in promoting the Great Commission.
If you want to be a nonanxious presence for the people you serve, you need to do more to disconnect from the sources making them (and you) more anxious.
5. Be an influence through your presence.
In his book A Non-Anxious Presence, Mark Sayers writes, “The root of our anxiety is our disconnection from God; this means we cannot be a nonanxious presence without God’s presence.” Christian leaders need to be models of this otherworldly peace for an anxious world. We can lead by example by demonstrating trust, faith, and reliance on God through our actions and decisions. This can inspire and influence those who follow our leadership to adopt a similar stance.
A calm and composed demeanor can have a stabilizing and positive influence on others, reducing overall anxiety and promoting healthier interactions. But it requires being present. The full effect only occurs when the nonanxious leader is fully present (i.e., physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually) with those she’s leading.
We also need to be accessible and empathetic. While maintaining emotional boundaries, we must be approachable and empathetic to the needs and concerns of those we’ve been called to lead. We rightly caution others not to be overly influenced by online pastors and teachers. But where are they to turn when we—the authorities God has entrusted to watch over them—don’t make ourselves available to them?
Our Anxious Age Needs Nonanxious Leaders
The beauty of being a nonanxious presence is its ripple effect. Just as anxiety can cascade through a system, so too can peace and stability. A leader who embodies this trait experiences personal growth and spiritual deepening but also fosters an environment where others can flourish emotionally and spiritually.
Just as anxiety can cascade through a system, so too can peace and stability.
The challenge of being a nonanxious presence isn’t just about managing emotions or maintaining composure; it’s about cultivating a deep-rooted stability that comes from a strong sense of self and an unwavering trust in God. It’s about balancing the intricacies of human emotions with the demands of spiritual leadership. It requires continual self-reflection, spiritual growth, and emotional development. It’s about leading with all you are, influencing others through a presence radiating assurance that we can trust God.
As Christian leaders, our calling is to both steer the ship and calm the waters around us, instilling a sense of faith and peace amid life’s storms. By being a nonanxious presence, we show those we lead what it looks like to rely without wavering on God’s sovereignty, guiding them not just through challenges but toward a deeper understanding and experience of his grace and love.