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In Anxious Times

Doug Kelly is the Senior Pastor of Bethany Presbyterian Church in Seattle, Washington. I can’t remember how I landed on his church’s website to begin with, but what I found there was hopeful and it has been helping me think about some healthy steps our church can take to keep things moving in a healthy direction.

Bethany’s leadership team first started talking about LGBTQ issues in their church two and a half years ago. Those early conversations led to wider congregational involvement over an extended period of time and then eventually to a decision to remove a long-standing Holiness and Leadership Statement. While Bethany stopped short of affirming same-sex relationships, their new statement did open a door for those in homosexual relationships to be involved in leadership roles in the church.

(Note: This post is part of an ongoing series called The View From Here. Please follow this link and start reading at the oldest post, Fear and Trembling.)

Early in their process, Bethany’s leadership made a variety of resources on both ‘historical’ and ‘emerging’ perspectives available to their congregation and then created midweek opportunities for people to connect and engage in conversation about what they had read. It was clear that a lot of work had been done thinking through the complicated dynamics of getting people to talk about such a heated issue, and their thoughtful approach helped lay the groundwork for an eventual resolution. This resonated a lot with what I was hoping to create for our own community in Waterloo.

All of Bethany’s materials were available online and they had done an excellent job of documenting the whole process. But it wasn’t the process itself that led me to reach out to their pastor. When I first emailed Doug Kelly, I asked if he would be willing to talk to me about the pastoral side of leading a congregation through this season. I asked him about this because I don’t feel like I’m handling this well and am genuinely concerned about my ability to carry the weight of this through to its end. “What I'm wondering,” I wrote, “is if you would be open to some cross-continental conversation around your experience over the past couple of years, primarily from a pastoral perspective (ie. the personal side of the struggle) and also for the sake of learning from any mistakes you’ve made along the way (ie. the ones that might not have made it into your pastoral letters or website updates!)”

After sharing a bit of his back-story with me, Doug told me there were two key things I needed to get clear on before I waded any deeper into these waters: self-differentiation and having a non-anxious presence. I stopped him right there and told him that he needed to unpack those ideas for me. He told me that the principles weren’t his own, but were themes from the realm of family systems theory, which he discovered in a book by Peter Steinke, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times: Being Calm and Courageous No Matter What.

I borrowed the book from the library and devoured it within a day. Without a doubt, the content of this book pulled me out of what felt like a downward spiral and prepared me as well as I could be prepared for the long journey ahead. In the introduction, Steinke writes, “To lead means to have some command of our anxiety and some capacity not to let other people’s anxiety contaminate us; that is, not to allow their anxiety to affect our thinking, actions, and decisions.”

At the time of my conversation with Doug, I realized that I had essentially zero command of my anxiety and that I was allowing the anxiety of others to contaminate every area of my life! I was saying things like, “This is going to be a mess,” and, “I don’t know if we’ll come out of this alive or not.” Statements like these accurately reflected how I was feeling, but they sure didn’t do anything to temper the fear and anxiety that the people on our leadership teams were experiencing as news of Eric’s same-sex attraction was about to go public.

As Steinke writes, “To be a non-anxious presence means to acknowledge anxiety (both our own and that of others) but not let it be the driver of behaviour.” He explains that it is the responsibility of the leader to set the tone, giving a number of examples of both mature and immature responses to crises.

The author goes on to explain differentiation as “the process by which two life forces—separateness and closeness—are managed by a person within a relationship system.” As Doug had previously explained to me, I had to find a way to separate myself from this issue—to engage it fully, while also being able to step away from it. It was about knowing where I end and others begin. Otherwise, he said, this process would consume me, and since I was already starting to see that happen, I knew he was right.

Beyond these two key principles, the other significant take-away from the book was an acknowledgment that our church would experience loss. Of course I knew this would be the case, but Steinke referred to research that suggested that when a church goes through a significant crisis, on average it will lose twenty percent of its membership and see a corresponding drop in financial support. Holy crap, I thought, That’s more than one hundred people!

Steinke states matter-of-factly, “Losses will result no matter what choices are made. Most congregations regain their losses within two years.”

Having concrete numbers in my head was intimidating on one hand—I could hardly imagine seeing that many people walk away from our church—but on the other hand it was comforting to know that I could enter this season of conflict with an end figure in mind. Hopefully we would be able to escape with less than one hundred ‘casualties,’ but even if we didn’t, I would know that our experience was by no means unique.

As I wrote in an email to Doug after reading through the Steinke book, “I feel more hopeful as my role becomes more clear to me.”


  1. It's tough to know that no matter what you do, you're going to experience loss. Oftentimes, I feel like if I do everything "right" I should be successful. These kind of situations where loss in inevitable are really tough for me to accept! The book sounds like a great resource!

    1. I agree Chris. We are so conditioned to 'know what success is'. You could say the same about 'being blessed'. I don't think we always know which either is. That book and author were indeed a Godsend.

  2. Amazing to see how our Lord prepared you for this process Brandon. You were quite literally fitted with some amazing holy armour!


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