Podcast: How to Address Leadership Anxiety

Diffusing anxiety is one of the biggest challenges leaders face—especially their own. In this episode of the Church InTension podcast, Dr. Jon Chasteen talks with Steve Cuss, a leadership anxiety expert who helps coach leaders on addressing anxiety in themselves and their teams.

The Church InTension podcast is a place to have healthy conversations about areas of tension and the intentions of the Church. Hosted by Dr. Jon Chasteen and powered by The King’s University and Gateway Church.

Dr. Jon Chasteen: Well, thanks for joining us again on the Church InTension podcast. This is a podcast where we look at the church and we look at the intentions of the church, yes, but we also look at the church in tension. And today I have a guest with me that I’m really excited about, Steve Cuss is a lead pastor at Discovery Christian Church in Broomfield, Colorado, suffering for Jesus up there in Colorado.

Steve Cuss: That’s right.

Jon: He’s also the author of Managing Leadership Anxiety, and I’m really excited to talk about that today. Book came out last year, he also has a podcast of his own that I highly encourage you to check out, it’s also called Managing Leadership Anxiety. Steve has served as a pastor, he’s been a hospital chaplain, he helps leaders struggle with anxiety, and Steve you and I have been talking, we met a couple months ago and we’ve been chatting back and forth and I’ve just been fascinated with what your ministry is doing, and I think the timeliness of your book coming out is so important, and I’m just excited to jump into this Steve. Before we do, tell me how you got interested in this topic. Why anxiety? Why is this something that you wrote a book on?

Steve: Yeah Jon, great to be with you. It’s so funny, in many ways I think, “Man, I’m the least likely person to talk about anxiety.” Because I’m an Aussie, West Australian, and we don’t generally admit we have anxiety as Aussies. If any of your audience knows Australians, we actually work quite hard to look relaxed, but I ran headlong into leadership anxiety when I was a hospital chaplain and that’s what got me fascinated in it, just this idea … anxiety is such a huge word, but the only aspect of it I really help people with is what’s clinically known as chronic anxiety, which is always generated on false belief or false need.

Steve: PTSD is a real form of anxiety that’s actually based on a real traumatic event, but chronic anxiety is always false need and false belief, and I think I was fascinated that the Gospel has a lot to say about that. I think sometimes the Bible uses terms like idol, and then in the New Testament I think we’re invited to die to it. So I got really interested at a young age, but yeah man where I ran headlong into it was as a chaplain when I had my ministry training and I came from a sales background, and suddenly I’m in rooms with people who are grieving, or who are processing the worst news of their life …

Jon: Wow!

Steve: … and all of my kind of theology and my sales was all bankrupt in the face of these people’s pain, and I started to notice myself getting anxious because I always need to know what to do, or I need to have an answer for somebody, and those are just a couple of quick evidences of when someone’s anxious. So yeah, I’ve been interested in it for about 20 years, it’s based on what’s called family system series, I did a bunch of studying that, and I’ve been chasing it ever since.

Jon: Man, you said so much there that I want to unpack, I’m sitting here writing notes like crazy already, and I love that you differentiated different types of anxiety, I think that’s really important to talk about. So the PTSD versus this chronic anxiety, how does a leader notice or differentiate the two? Is there a way that you differentiate that within yourself or within others around you? I know you defined kind of what their difference is, but how do you self-identify the difference, if that makes sense?

Steve: Yeah, it’s a great question, it’s actually a really important question because there’s five basic forms of anxiety, and I won’t go into them all but I’ll just name them. Grief is different than chronic anxiety, PTSD we’ve covered, there’s generalized anxiety disorder, the two that are really interesting for us is acute anxiety and chronic anxiety. So acute anxiety is when you’re actually in danger, the easiest example I know is you’re driving down the interstate, somebody in front of you slams on the brake and you think you’re going to run into them, and you have this physiological reaction, right? Your heart races, you might even let out a curse.

Steve: So acute anxiety is actual life-threatening or dangerous, and it’s always short-term like stopping on an interstate, but you’re always able to calm yourself afterwards. Chronic anxiety is not short-term, it’s always constant, it’s long-term, and it’s not actual danger it’s perceived danger, you think you’re in-

Jon: Wow!

Steve: … danger. And where it gets really crazy for a leader or a parent is your body can’t distinguish between acute anxiety and chronic anxiety unless you train it. So many leaders I know burn out, not because they’ve got too much to do but because they haven’t addressed the chronic anxiety they’re carrying.

Jon: It’s really good.

Steve: Like in my case, if chronic anxiety is based on false belief, one of the many lies I naturally believe is I need to have the answer, and it’s based on a whole lot of things, I like to be helpful to people, I like to be seen as smart, there’s all kinds of reasons, but it’s very hard for me to say to somebody, “I don’t know.” And so if somebody asks me something and I don’t know the answer, or even worse if I’m caught unprepared, even on this podcast we may witness it, you may ask me something and I’m unprepared, I’ll actually start to get anxious. So chronic anxiety-

Jon: I don’t know that I will have a question for you like that, but …

Steve: Oh, well let’s find out, let’s see-

Jon: … I don’t know.

Steve: … if you can shock me maybe. Yeah, the chronic anxiety is what shows up after we don’t get what we believe we need, and this is why we tend to exaggerate in our preaching, or …

Jon: Wow!

Steve: … we tend to maybe get really discouraged if somebody doesn’t laugh, or if we think someone doesn’t like us, so a lot of pastors we struggle with people-pleasing, and you can’t-

Jon: So true.

Steve: … be an apostolic leader and a people-pleaser-

Jon: Wow!

Steve: … those two are at odds, so that’ll make you anxious.

Jon: That’s really good.

Steve: So that’s kind of just a way of fleshing it out.

Jon: So what’s happening chemically, the acute, a deer jumps out in front of your car, you slam on the brakes, you get this rush of, I believe the chemical that’s being released is cortisol? You would know better than me.

Steve: Yeah.

Jon: So we all obviously know that that’s a chemical that’s released in the moment, when you’re dealing with chronic anxiety is it the same chemical, is it cortisol, it’s just being done slowly over time? Chemically what is happening in our bodies?

Steve: No, that’s a good question. Do you actually just ask me a question that I’m not qualified to answer?

Jon: You’re not being anxious, are you?

Steve: I am, so here’s actually what’s interesting is I think we always believe that Yoda from Star Wars or the Dalai Lama is the destination we’re all trying to head for, actually all we’re trying to head for is managing your anxiety, you and I will always fight anxiety, but even as you’re asking the question, I’ve been doing this work 20 years so I’m pretty nimble, I’m thinking to myself, “Oh, I could just agree with Jon.” And then I think, “Wait a minute, I actually don’t know.”

Jon: I might be wrong.

Steve: Well, and I actually don’t know what I’m talking about as it relates to the details of chemistry, so what I’m going to do instead is say, “Hey, I don’t know,” and because of the Gospel of Jesus I’m going to be free of needing to tell you that.

Jon: That’s so good. That’s so good.

Steve: Yeah.

Jon: And it’s that simple, right? “I don’t know.”

Steve: It really is, yeah. Now, what I do know is in leaders anxiety usually shows up in one of three places, so I can’t speak to chemistry but I can speak to location. So it’s a spinning mind for some leaders, you just start thinking harder, or worrying more of your listeners, if they’re going into a situation they’re anxious about they’ll actually preempt every possible scenario, kind of like choose your own adventure …

Jon: Play it out.

Steve: … and they think they’re just planning but they’re actually anxious. It’s going to be very difficult for them to just actually walk by faith because they’re walking by incessant planning. To other leaders it’s a racing heart, it’s like you’ve had 10 cups of caffeine, and then to other leaders it’s like a tightening body, either a nauseous feeling in your stomach or clenched shoulders.

Steve: So what I train leaders to do is to try to name where it starts with them, because most leaders … we’re pretty entrepreneurial, we’re pretty otherwise driven, we’re actually often the last one in the room to know when we’re anxious …

Jon: Wow!

Steve: … but if you can begin to notice it, you can then overcome it. And if your listeners are thinking, “Man, I actually either don’t think I’m an anxious person, or I don’t know when I’m anxious,” then all they have to do is ask someone that loves them, and your loved ones will tell you. They typically know when you’re anxious before you do.

Jon: That’s so good, they look at you from afar and they see it every day. So you referenced when you were a chaplain and being in a room full of people that are looking for answers and you don’t have answers, or they’re looking for something that you maybe don’t feel like you have to give, I think that hits a big nerve for pastors because you kind of hit it on the head. We have this, “Well, I’m a pastor, right? I have this apostolic anointing, I have this gifting,” when we don’t have the answers. Can we actually take on the anxiety of others if somebody on our team, or somebody that we’re trying to minister to … do you ever see that at play where we can actually kind of receive or take on someone else’s anxiety?

Steve: Oh yeah. Half of my book here is about your anxiety, but the other half is about their anxiety.

Jon: Wow!

Steve: If you just imagine that we’re all carrying a bucket, maybe we don’t even know we’re carrying this bucket, and it’s almost full of chronic anxiety most of the time, then when someone’s anxious it’s like they’re erupting like a volcano and they’re just trying to dump their bucket. And so we do end up tending to catch each other’s anxiety, so every one of us can kind of look at our teams, those of us who work on a church staff, and we can all probably think of a time, even in the last few weeks, where the whole room caught the most anxious person’s anxiety.

Steve: So it’s highly contagious. That’s where my training gets really fun, is the good news is a calm leader, a leader that’s practicing calm presence can massively de-escalate anxiety.

Jon: Wow! 

Steve: And the beauty of calm presence is that doesn’t mean that you’re not anxious, again, it’s not like you’re Yoda, all it means is you are stopping your anxiety from spilling over to others, and you actually become immune to catching other people’s anxiety. So what happens is, when anxiety has you in its grip you stop seeing what’s actually true and you start believing a lie, you start seeing things that aren’t true, you start projecting under people, you start filling in gaps pathologically about people, but if you’re aware of that you can die to it and actually step into what’s really going on. And that was what I had to learn to do as a chaplain, is after being in a dozen deaths or so you start getting afraid of death …

Jon: Wow!

Steve: … or you start getting afraid that a loved one’s going to die, and if you’re not aware of that you’re going to carry that fear into that room and you’re not actually going to be present to those people because you’re too busy being in the grip of your own fear. So that life and death is obviously pretty drastic, but that’s the way I think that-

Jon: No, it’s good.

Steve: … is coming out in your question, or?

Jon: Yeah. No, I was just going to say I love that you’ve tied this topic to leadership, I think it’s so important because it does affect not only the way we lead, but it affects everyone around us. And speaking obviously our audience is a lot of pastors, and my team found a study here that was done by the Duke Divinity School, this study was done all the way back in 2008. Now, think about what all has changed in our world in the past 12 years, but even in 2008 this study found that clergy members tend to experience anxiety at a rate of twice the national average.

Steve: That’s right.

Jon: You’re affirming that, so I guess that is true, but now I’m even thinking about what all has happened since 2008, thinking about what’s just happened this year alone. And so why are pastors so much more susceptible to that, would you say?

Steve: I do think we have an impossible job description, I genuinely believe that it’s the only job description in the world that requires faith to accomplish it.

Jon: That’s so good.

Steve: There’s the breadth of it, there’s the never-ending nature of it, a lot of people have a never-ending job, school teachers are like that, but pastors we never go home and say, “Well, that’s done.” And then because God’s our boss I think we put on an identity level, we so grapple with being God’s child versus being God’s employee, I think that leads to a lot of anxiety for a lot of us. I think most pastors I know are profoundly passionate human beings, we got into this because we love God, and we love God’s people, and we love telling people about God, and I think passion makes our work so much more personal.

Steve: So my early years of ministry I took every criticism so profoundly personally because I really couldn’t differentiate between my work and my identity. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, I think it comes with a territory, and then people project onto us expectations that not a single one of us can live up to, so there’s a lot of complex reasons why pastors carry a lot of anxiety. I’ll tell you this Jon, we have one of the highest life insurance rates in the country …

Jon: Wow!

Steve: … if you ask your local life insurance rep. I haven’t checked it in a while, I believe it’s the top five most expensive life insurance if you’re a pastor.

Jon: Wow! I did not even know that. Wow! Steve, how long have you been pastoring now?

Steve: I’ve been about 25 years.

Jon: 25 years, okay. So you got really good perspective?

Steve: I’m sorry.

Jon: No, you’re good. You got really good-

Steve: Yeah, 15 in the lead chair and 10 in an associate or some other chair.

Jon: What have you seen change? Do you think there’s more anxiousness today than there was when you got into the ministry? Have you sensed a change in that?

Steve: That’s a great question. I think it has increased a lot, I mean, I think specifically in this seven months of COVID I think it’s changed because we are in an ambiguous situation, and any time you’re in ambiguity you’re going to be anxious. Some of the work I do is I simply help leaders identify the environments they’re in that generate anxiety, and one of the environments is ambiguity. Another environment is scarcity, so if a pastor is now dealing with a waning budget you’ve got ambiguity and scarcity. So there’s a lot of dynamics going on.

Jon: Compounds.

Steve: I think when we were younger I think we felt less pressure to grow our churches, I do think the young pastor today wants to-

Jon: This is really important. Yes, please talk about this.

Steve: Yeah, I think we want to plant the church …

Jon: So good.

Steve: … we want it to explode, then we want catalysts to call us so we can stand on the catalyst stage and say, “It wasn’t me it was God.” We all kind of want-

Jon: So true.

Steve: … success, so I think that’s a lot of pressure we’re facing. So we read Eugene Peterson, and we read Henri Nouwen, but we actually want to be that and also big and growing. I think-

Jon: This is something that I’m really passionate about Steve, and I’m so glad you talked about it. I know we’ve talked about it on the podcast many, many times that it’s like the definition of success has changed for a pastor, and I’m not sure who’s to blame, and I’m not saying who’s to blame, I don’t know that there’s a specific person, or organization, or entity that’s to blame for that, but I do think that it plays a huge part in creating this anxiousness because it’s a false expectation. It’s like what you were saying, we put this false expectation and when we don’t meet that expectation I begin to feel like a failure, now I’m coming into agreement with a lie which causes an anxiousness, and we see the rate of suicide even amongst pastors increasing, and all of these just devastating things.

Jon: And it seems like every time we turn on the news we see another pastor fails, or falls, or has a moral failure, makes a massive mistake. And so let me ask you this, is there kind of a cycle that you see in anxiety or … I’m trying to think of a better way to explain that, if you could look at certain people who have kind of fallen or messed up, and we all do, we’re not throwing people under the bus, but is there a series or a progressiveness? Do you see what I’m saying? Is there a progress to me going, “Well, yeah I’m a little bit anxious to falling off the rails.” What does that look like as it progresses?

Steve: It’s a really important question. I’ll tell you this, there’s a Gospel to anxiety, and so I think the cycle is laid out in Romans 6 where Paul warns us to be careful what we give ourselves to, because whatever we give ourselves to will consume us or take us over. And in Romans 6 Paul’s contrasting sin with God, if you just put the word anxiety in where Paul writes about sin, I’m not suggesting that chronic anxiety is a sin, I actually don’t believe it is.

Jon: Sure.

Steve: All I’m interested in is it acts the same way, where it grabs you and then it drags you down a dark path of doom. So I do think there’s a progression that the more you give into it the more it gets a hold of you, and that’s one of the signs when I’m working with leaders trying to help them figure out what level of anxiety they’re in. One of the signs is the more you give yourself to it, it’s like drinking salt water, you’re never at peace, you’re never feeling free.

Jon: Wow!

Steve: So in the early days when you’re in anxiety’s grip it’s like a nagging feeling, but it definitely at some point takes you and drags you along, almost like a moth to a flame, and that’s why I really believe the Gospel is actually the pastor’s best tool to displace anxiety and actually experience the peace and freedom of Christ. In my case, my anxiety first shows up in my mind, and I’ve never yet worried my way to peace …

Jon: That’s so true.

Steve: … but if I don’t intentionally intervene with the Gospel I’ll just keep worrying, even though I’m 48 years of age I’ve never worried my way to peace, but that’s the power of the Gospel of anxiety is it’s always trying to convince us to depend on it …

Jon: Wow!

Steve: … instead of depend on Christ. So I do think there’s some stages, one of the most obvious signs that I help people notice is when they’ve stopped noticing that God is with them, that’s usually when you know you’re in anxiety’s grip if you start to believe it’s all on my shoulders, or that the only solution is I must work harder, I must be smarter, I need to be a different person.

Jon: I, I, I.

Steve: Yeah. And this is what I learned as a chaplain, it’s like, “Wait a minute, no, actually God is right with me but I’m no longer able to notice.” So John says in 1st John, “Perfect love casts out fear.” I think the love of God, the presence of God displaces anxiety, and therefore I think the opposite is true, that anxiety, it doesn’t displace the love of God it displaces our ability to recognize the love of God.

Jon: That’s so good. That’s so good.

Steve: Yeah, that would be something people could really measure.

Jon: You said right off the bat there, referring back to that Romans 6 passage, that be careful what we give ourselves to, and I pastor a church still, so my mind starts flashing immediately to what we give ourselves. When I first took over the church that I’m pastoring, we get these reports every week, all pastors do, we get the offering report, attendance report, all these things. And I went through a season in my life where I had to stop getting the attendance reports because, to use your vocabulary, I was giving myself to that, and then I began to find my identity in the ups and downs of church attendance, and it would begin to cause anxiety in me.

Jon: I think social media is a huge one for pastors, we compare ourselves to one another, our church gets two salvations, and then we pull up our favorite pastor and they had 14,000 salvations, and we compare, and so what are some of those other things that pastors might give themselves to that might be the culprit? And maybe a pastor doesn’t even realize that’s listening right now that, “Yes, wow! I need to analyze what I’m giving myself to.” What would be some of those other things, you think?

Steve: Yeah. What we try to help a pastor to do is name what they think they need that they don’t really need, and some people know right away and for some people it takes some time and some prayer, and then we try to get really specific. So I’d talk about being a people-pleaser, or wanting to look intelligent, one of the things that I identified in my life is I need every sermon I ever preached to be the best sermon they’ve ever heard, and it takes some time to get from that first generalized people-pleasing looking smart down to something that concrete, but what you’ll learn to notice is you’re normally using superlatives, and exaggerations, or absolutes so every person always, “Best sermon ever.” Those are kind of those trigger words, that’s when you know you’re anxious because when I say that to you you’re sitting there saying, “No one can do that, no one can preach the best sermon every week, every time.”

Steve: Once you identify that, the next step is to see if you can start to notice the impact on you and on the people you love when you’re giving yourself to that need. And so I’ll give maybe an easier example, in the early days of our church we were real small, we had 140-something people, we needed everybody, and as we started growing a guy left and as he left he called the elders and he said, “Steve’s not as available as he used to be.” And I foolishly took that to mean I must do more to make him happy, and I couldn’t have worded it that way at the time, but so what did I do next? I reached out to him and set up a series of lunches with this guy.

Steve: Well, that’s obviously not sustainable, so then after a couple of lunches he came back to church, and I can’t have those many lunches with all those people so I stopped doing it, so he just got madder-

Jon: He gets mad again.

Steve: … and then told more people, yeah. So I call that “lunching people back to church”.

Jon: Wow!

Steve: What I would do is I would try to lunch them back to church, so when you get real clear on, “Okay, what am I living for that’s not the Gospel?” And we’re all living for dozens of things, just want to give people a break. If people are feeling terrible about themselves right now I still live for things that aren’t the Gospel, so what am I living for, and then what am I doing that’s making it worse? Okay, I’m lunching people back to church, and Jon this is rough, and this is where my students kind of fight me, the only solution is to bravely practice the other.

Jon: Oh, you’re getting in my business Steve, because that’s something that we all feel guilty of, we get the one congregant who says one thing and then we swing the pendulum all the way to the other side to try to combat that anxious feeling that we’re feeling, so this is so good.

Steve: Yeah. Bravely practicing, I’ll give you two examples, and I’ve done both of these and they were brave. If I am beholden to needing every sermon to be amazing, the opposite is to get up and intentionally preach a bad sermon and not tell anybody. So I did that in, I think it was 2011, I preached a sermon where the story didn’t really make sense, and I made sure the points … i said them-

Jon: Did you really?

Steve: Oh, yeah, yeah. No, this is a real thing. I said them like they were profound but they just weren’t profound, I even said them in a profound voice, couldn’t tell anybody, and-

Jon: You have an Aussie accent, everything you say is a profound voice.

Steve: I’m telling you Jon, this is a bad sermon. But what happens is it starts to uncover all the beliefs you have and all the pressure you’re carrying that aren’t true, so I believe if I wasn’t always gold standard people wouldn’t keep coming back, and the next week people came back.

Jon: They came back.

Steve: I believe that my well-being is tied deeply to my performance, all of that stuff. So then the lunching people back to church, I started practicing, if what I was doing before is chasing people I’m actually going to ignore people in there.

Jon: Wow!

Steve: And that might sound terrible to some people, but I just learned the hard way that chasing them back only makes it worse …

Jon: Wow!

Steve: … and if they don’t have the respect to simply meet with me and tell me to my face, me who’s a very approachable person and will meet with anybody anytime, then I don’t need to be chasing them.

Jon: Wow!

Steve: And then the third thing I practiced is sometimes I’ll tell people I don’t know the answer when I actually know because I love to know the answer, so that’s something I still practice. I’ll often be in a meeting, and especially as I’m developing our leaders and I’m the lead pastor, because I’m on the top of the hierarchy my voice carries more weight. It’s getting more and more important to me to stop giving answers so that I look-

Jon: That’s so good.

Steve: Yeah. So that would be an example of brave practice. On a podcast it’s tricky to track, but basically you try to name the source of your anxiety, you try to list actually in writing the impact, what are you doing to make it worse, and then you try to do the opposite. And boy, Jon, I have so much fun when I’m coaching people that the week they come back from their brave practice it’s so much fun as people talk about how it went and what they did. Yeah, it’s been really great.

Jon: Yeah, I expected you to say, “Well, social media is bad do the opposite, don’t get on social media.” No, you’re like, “Preach a bad sermon.” That goes against everything in me, but I love that, and how opposite you have to become to … why is that Steve? Why do I need to do that? Is it a shock factor, is it a proving to myself that it was a lie, that I’d come into agreement with a lie? Why is it so important to do something so drastic?

Steve: All right, so I learned this practice because I did marriage and family therapy training, but I’m not a therapist, I’m a pastor. But in marriage and family therapy training they trained us, they were like, “Hey, when a couple comes in your job is to not talk about what they’re fighting about, your job is to help them change the way they fight.” So they might come in and talk about sex, or money, or raising the kids, but just focus on the way they fight, who starts it, who escalates it, who starts calling names, who needs space, and the way I was trained is they’ve said that pattern, the way they fight, is predictable, they fight about different topics but they always fight the same way.

Steve: So I took that and I thought, “Wow!” And there’s an actual training that is called second order change, and I write about it in chapter six of my book, I think it’s in. So I took that and I thought, “Oh, this is too fun.” And so what they would teach us to do is if a couple came in fighting you would actually say to them, “Okay, I’m going to prescribe a fight, this coming Tuesday night at 6:00 PM I want you guys to fight, and then come in and tell me how it went.”

Jon: That’s awesome.

Steve: And they’ll come in the next week and I’ll be like, “All right, how’d the fight go?” And they’ll say, “Well, we couldn’t do it, that was the dumbest homework ever, we looked at each other and we just started laughing.” And the reason it works is because when the couple comes in they don’t realize they were in the grip of anxiety, they’re actually in the grip of a spiritual force that-

Jon: Wow!

Steve: … has them in a predictable, repeatable pattern. I believe that is exactly what sin does.

Jon: Wow!

Steve: Sin tells us, “This time it’s going to be different.” Sin tells us, “Why don’t you hide and blame and it’ll be fine?” It’s never true and we keep doing it, and then the Gospel actually says, “You can be free from that craziness.” And so when you make a couple fight at a scheduled time instead of them being in the grip of fight they now have fight in their control, because they have scheduled it.

Jon: That’s so good.

Steve: So when I’m in the grip of gold standard sermon but then I hack the system by intentionally preaching a doozy, a boring sermon, anxiety is like, “Whoa! I don’t know what to do with that.” It loosens you on the grip, and the really crazy part … because I’m as passionate as ever about being a strong communicator, it’s not that I’m now a lazy preacher, it’s just that I’m no longer in that tyranny of-

Jon: In the grips of that.

Steve: … having to reach a standard I can’t reach.

Jon: I’m still just blown away by this Steve, so at the end of the sermon you didn’t say, “Gotcha, I did that on purpose.”? You literally walked-

Steve: No.

Jon: … off the stage like you preached a-

Steve: Yeah.

Jon: … rockstar sermon?

Steve: It’s even worse than that Jon, people came up afterwards and complimented me, and I had to say, “Thank you.” So a few weeks ago, actually sorry, last year, we teach all this in our church to our leaders, and we have college interns, and they’ll come and do a year with us, and we put them through my class, and so the second ever session this college kid, great kid, and he uncovers his need to always get it right, whatever it is he believes he has to get it right the first time every time.

Steve: He’s a perfectionist, and it’s connected to punishment for him, and the way he’s raised, and so we kind of dug in and we said, “Hey, do you want to try what we call brave practice?” And his boss had tasked him with ordering the meat for the volunteer banquet, and I am his boss’s boss because I’m the lead pastor, and I said, “Okay, you have to order three times as much meat as you need, you have to waste church money and then when your boss tells you off you just have to take it-“

Jon: Wow!

Steve: ” … and then we’ll meet and then tell me how it went.” But he can’t say to his boss, and her name is Jen-

Jon: Your boss told me to do this, yeah.

Steve: He can’t, he can’t say to Jen, “Hey, Steve’s got me doing this crazy jiu-jitsu stuff.”

Jon: Wow!

Steve: He just had to do it. And my favorite part Jon is I come into work one morning and there’s an all-star email from Jen, his boss, and she’s like, “Hey, we have leftovers, if any of the staff is into food help yourselves.” And I was like, “I bet you do have leftovers.”

Jon: You said, “You’re welcome.”

Steve: Yeah. And so we met with Corey, this young guy’s name is Corey, well like, “How did it go?” And he said, “It was really disappointing, I was actually looking forward to her telling me off and she was fine with it.”

Jon: Wow!

Steve: But this is what anxiety does, is Corey had-

Jon: So true.

Steve: … already projected onto Jen that she’s a harsh taskmaster when she’s actually not, and so he had assumed that all this pressure to get the ordering right because Jen’s harsh, and that’s what anxiety does it actually gives you a message or a Gospel that’s false. So when Jen didn’t even blink an eye Jen literally says to him, “Hey, no problem, you’re young, you’ve never done this before, and now this is great because we’ve got free food for this hard-working staff and that’s fine it would get to help them.” That’s who Jen actually is, and he got to see more of who his boss really is, and he got to die a little bit more to this thing that has him in its grip.

Jon: I love this, I’m going to have to really process through that even for myself. That’s speaking to me in a lot of ways, so really I really appreciate you sharing that. One other quick thing, you’ve obviously met with hundreds of pastors counseled, processed with, seen things in, pastor, after pastor, after pastor, what is a common thread that you would say that you see in most if not all pastors when it comes to anxiety?

Steve: Jon, I first want to say pastors are getting really creamed right now, there’s too many famous pastors that are falling publicly, my experience is pastors are phenomenal. I mean, I’m one so I guess that’s self-interest, you’re one. They overall are-

Jon: I think they’re phenomenal too.

Steve: Yeah, and man I meet with that diverse group, mega church pastors, and very small high church pastors, mainline, as a species I find pastors to be genuine human beings, passionate, I would say the most common thread is we are not good at self-care, we believe that the command of love God and love others is only fulfilled by emptying ourselves …

Jon: Wow!

Steve: … and when we think of filling ourselves up and loving out of the overflow we somehow believe that that’s not good. So when you go on the airplane and the flight attendant says that you shouldn’t put the oxygen mask on your own, they’ve been ordered to help someone else. I don’t think pastors believe that’s true, so the common thread I find with pastors is when we’re getting worn down we feel guilty about resting, or enjoying life, or reaching out for help, we’re often the last to actually say to somebody, “I need help.” That would be my overall experience.

Jon: That’s so good. Again, you’re hitting it between the eyes. So on that same topic, ride along with it, talk about Sabbath, why is Sabbath so important for pastors?

Steve: Oh man, I love talking about Sabbath. I think Sabbath is important for pastors because I think when we think of Sabbath we first think of rest, but I think Sabbath as it was set up in Genesis is first about control before it’s about rest, it’s first about God’s people letting go of control for 24 hours, not harvesting for 24 hours, not earning that seventh day of income where they needed it, and remembering that God is in control. I actually think Sabbath is mostly about the sovereignty of God, and I think that’s why pastors struggle with it, not because they struggle to rest but because it’s very difficult for us to believe that God is actually a primary agent in our churches.

Jon: Wow!

Steve: I think we fundamentally believe by default that we are the primary agent, and …

Jon: Wow!

Steve: … I don’t think that’s an ego thing, most pastors I meet don’t think they’re all that, they just feel very responsible.

Jon: They feel the pressure.

Steve: Yep. We’re very earnest, and because we’re dealing with eternity who has time to take a break from that? We’re-

Jon: Right, saving people.

Steve: Right, right. There’s always one more. Jon, how many times have you heard people say, “If only one heard it it’s worth it.”?

Jon: Right.

Steve: I would simply say, “Not always.”

Jon: Wow! That’s really good.

Steve: The cost may not have been worth that one person.

Jon: That’s so good.

Steve: Or the idea that God can’t reach that one person through another person or another event, that’s a fallacy.

Jon: I think that’s such a good perspective on Sabbath, we always hear it as rest, and it is rest. But you’re so right, it’s so much about control, and what we’re saying is, “If I don’t do this God can’t do it.” Right?

Steve: Yeah.

Jon: It’s pride. If you really want to boil it down, it’s pride, we’re prideful.

Steve: It’s probably pride, but most pastors I know have a fairly hefty inner critic, so it doesn’t manifest as boasting pride.

Jon: No, no, no, no, not at all. Not at all. No, it’s not a boastful pride it’s like a false pride, it’s like if you peel the layer of the onion all the way down to its core it’s pride, but it’s not like you’re saying, it’s not a boastful in any way. Oh, go ahead.

Steve: I’ll just say this before we move on, once we get control figured out with Sabbath then we’re free to rest, that to me is the order.

Jon: I see.

Steve: Let go of control and then you can enter into God’s rest.

Jon: You can’t do it the other way.

Steve: No.

Jon: Okay, so some pastors listening are obviously, I have no doubt, dealing with anxiety, and in just a few moments I’m going to have you kind of even tell our listeners about what you could do and what products and services you offer on your end, but before I do that where do they begin? Where does a pastor even start, Steve, if this podcast is hitting pastors between the eyes, like I know it is, because it’s hitting me between the eyes, what is a good first step? What do I need to do with myself?

Steve: Yeah, the best first step I know is to find at least one other person, and ideally to be maybe two or three other people, and just form a discussion group on whatever time works for you, if you can do it in person it’s better but it doesn’t have to be in person, you could do it over Zoom, and just have these conversations together. The crazy thing about anxiety is it’s such an internal process to us that all you really need is a trusted, loving community where you can externalize it, get it out, and I’m telling you man, I’ve been doing this over 20 years, getting it out and naming it the way you and I have been doing is 50% of the battle.

Jon: Wow!

Steve: There’s some really sophisticated tools I teach, genograms, and verbatims, and childhood tales, we go really deep, the first step you can do is get a group of two or three brothers, or brothers and sisters, sit down and in almost like a 12-step group say, “Hey, I’m an anxious person and I would like us to all take turns and see if we can figure out what makes us all anxious.” And the moment you name it you’ve gotten power over it. In my opinion, this is part of what the Bible talks about with confession. I think if we confess to each other we’re freed from its grip, so that would be the first step.

Jon: Yeah, you’re bringing light to it. It’s really good. Let me ask you this, I love words, and breaking down words, and the intentionality of words, and one of the first things I noticed about your book and your podcast that really sticks out to me, Steve, it’s Managing Leadership Anxiety, why the word managing, why not use the word alleviating, or extinguishing, or getting rid of? I’m really fascinated, and I agree with you, first off I’m not challenging you, I’m really interested in hearing you say why it’s we manage leadership anxiety.

Steve: Yeah, I wanted to be very careful what I promised, I think too many books claim things that they can’t live up to. So I don’t believe we can ever be relieved of anxiety, I think the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is we can go from being managed by anxiety to managing it, and I believe that’s actually-

Jon: That’s good.

Steve: … the path of freedom and peace. So the last thing I’d want to say Jon is I’ve been doing this work a long time, and on any given week I get a 3.5-4 out of 10, that would be the grade. If 10 times I’m in anxiety’s grip, three and a half to four is the amount of times I’m able to flip the power dynamic and really work with God and have the Gospel, the other six to seven times I’m still in anxiety’s grip.

Jon: Wow!

Steve: We do an eight-month class at our church, and when I’m coaching people I set for them a goal of 1 out of 10 and I say, “1 out of 10 is an A in my class.”

Jon: 1 out of 10?

Steve: 1 out of 10, because you’ve spent your whole life-

Jon: Wow!

Steve: The reason Christians don’t change, in my opinion, this is just my opinion, is because we don’t address our chronic anxiety. I actually believe in the Western church, this is how Satan has us in his grip.

Jon: Wow!

Steve: If you go to Haiti or some developing nation there’s a more overt spiritual warfare, we think we’re too smart for spiritual warfare because we have iPads and-

Jon: Wow!

Steve: … internet, so I think Satan has just gotten more sophisticated, and it resides in our mind, the way we think, and I don’t think most leaders realize how often we depend on self instead of on God. And so chronic anxiety becomes the evidence we’re depending on ourselves, and so 1 out of 10’s an A in the early days.

Jon: Steve, we’ve done a lot of podcasts, we’ve had a lot of really, really great guests on, but this has been one of my favorite ones. I think it’s so needed right now and I can’t wait for our listeners to hear this podcast, but I also know that there’s some of our listeners that are pin-in-hand ready trying to figure out how to get into contact with you, because I know that you have resources for pastors and leaders on the subject, and I already told our listeners you need to get the book Managing Leadership Anxiety, you need to go to his podcast, it’s a really, really great podcast, I’m a regular listener of it, it’s called Managing Leadership Anxiety. If somebody wants to go even deeper than that, Steve, what do they need to do?

Steve: Yeah. It’s interesting you ask, I’ve been trying to figure out, because I’ve done a few things, I do webinars, I do group coaching for pastors, if your listeners want to get a group of four or five people together I’ll meet with you for six or seven sessions, we do it over Zoom right now. That goes pretty well, and you can just email me, Steve at stevecusswords.com, so my last name, I just have fun with it. So stevecusswords.com is my website, you can just shoot me an email, Steve at stevecusswords.com, and right now I’ll just deal with you directly …

Jon: Awesome.

Steve: … and then I’ve got an assistant that manages schedule and stuff. But I am cooking up an online membership in 2021, because I’ve been trying to replicate my class that I teach in my church, I’ve been teaching this for almost 10 years at our church, and it’s the best experience I offer because if this tool … we’ve covered a lot of ground today, everything we covered today I would actually take a number of weeks in my class, where we just grip them out a little at a time, we give people time to practice, we put them into cohorts. So 2021 I’m launching an online community, and I’m actually right now … when does this come out Jon? When do you release [inaudible 00:45:36]?

Jon: We’re recording this in October, it’ll be this month, it’ll be in October.

Steve: Okay. Yeah, so in November I’ll release a Beta on my online community, it’s going to be $22 a month.

Jon: Wow! That’s great.

Steve: I hope you like the Beta price. So if anyone wants to be part of the Beta, I’m just going to limit it to about 50-80 people, I’ve already got 40, I just started literally three days ago getting Beta names.

Jon: Wow!

Steve: But, if people want to be on that, it’s 22 bucks a month, they can cancel any time, but they’ll basically be helping try on this, and they’ll get a video every week from me, they’ll get a self-assessment every week, some of the questions I’ve been asking on the podcast they’ll be in your inbox every week, but also an online community of fellow people. So I’m just trying to create shared language for people to get a talk about this stuff, there’ll be a regular Zoom, so I’ve got some facilitators that I’ve trained, they’ll be on the Zoom where you can actually Zoom with facilitators. So if that’s interesting to people they could just email me and I’ll put you on a Beta list, and I’ll be in touch in November when we’re going to launch.

Jon: This is awesome. Steve, thank you for being on the podcast, but even more so thank you for writing this book, thank you for having this gifting and this passion for this, it’s so needed for our pastors. So we just so appreciate you being on the podcast with us today Steve.

Steve: Jon, it’s been great to connect with you, I’m looking forward to connecting with you more. I know I’ve got at least one thing coming up here, but thanks so much for having me on. It’s better to talk about than read about it, so-

Jon: Absolutely.

Steve: … I enjoy this format.

Jon: Well, we’re looking forward to bringing you in here at The King’s University and working with some of our staff, we’re looking forward to that. To our listeners out there, thank you again for listening, give us a like, give us a post, rate us on whatever platform you’re listening to this on, give us a rating and a comment. We love you, we’re praying for you, and we look forward to seeing you back here on the next episode.

Church InTension
Church InTensionhttps://church-intension.simplecast.com
The Church InTension podcast is a place to have healthy conversations about areas of tension and the intentions of the Church. Hosted by Dr. Jon Chasteen and powered by The King's University and Gateway Church.