Sometimes we let most anxious person in the room decide the agenda and the tone. When we do, the work that we need to be doing do often goes undone.
This week’s experience with Florence reminded me of the hurricane that accompanied my early days at my first church gig. A gulf-coast storm had disrupted gas supplies for the entire Southeast, and though it was just an inconvenience North Carolina had become seized with anxiety about the possibility that we’d all run out of gas and have to leave our minivans stranded by the side of the road.
Thus the stage was set for my first-ever-church-committee-meeting. We’d worked for just a few minutes when someone barrelled in late, blurting “everybody’s out of gas! The stations are dry!” In a polite panic everyone speed-walked to their cars to commence the hunt for fuel. Meeting adjourned.
Every storm and every disruption is different, but in this case there was little need to worry. News reports told us this was coming and would probably last a few days, and with some foresight there was no reason to panic. But panic we did, and now we’d lost an important meeting with mere weeks to go before a fall program was to begin. It made a fairly straightforward committee job a lot harder.
It was a lesson to me, right there in my the very first of many hundreds of committee meetings: if there’s anxiety in the room, it will want the floor. And without effort to diffuse or redirect it, that anxiety will likely derail the actual work that needs to be done.
It’s helpful, when it surfaces, to see anxiety for what it is. That doesn’t mean we get to dismiss it or ignore something we don’t want to hear as “anxiety.” Sometimes the most anxious person in the room is telling us exactly what we need to hear. And there are times that each of us becomes the most anxious person in the room…we all take our turns. But seeing anxiety as something pulls our focus away from the work at hand, and puts us instead on shakier ground, is a first step in unwinding it.
The deeper lesson over the years, though, is that anxiety isn’t a given. It took me a little while to realize that, especially after that first capsized committee meeting: the great majority of groups and team meetings I’ve been in over the years have actually been pretty productive, and folk usually show up to get it done and go home. Anxiety will always be there, of course, gets better over time, if we can learn to be attentive to headaches before they become crises, if we can stay focused and practice some discernment along the way.