How Pastors Can Keep Anger and Anxiety from Ruining Relationships

An Interview with Joel Malm. Author of Love Slows Down: How to Keep Anger and Anxiety from Ruining Life’s Relationships

Does 2020 have you feeling anxious or angry with the people in your life?  Are you struggling to navigate leading your church and family with grace during these turbulent times?  If so, you’re not alone, and that’s why we’re excited to be talking with author Joël Malm.  Joël is a licensed counselor, speaking pastor, entrepreneur, communicator, leadership coach, the founder of Summit Leaders, and the author of Love Slows Down:  How to Keep Anger and Anxiety from Ruining Life’s Relationships, the book we’ll be discussing today.

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Josh:  What inspired you to write Love Slows Down?

Joël:  The book reads like a self-help book, but it actually goes deep.  It talks about some core motivations that we all have, things that God placed in us that we need.  

I was inspired to write it as I traveled and spoke because I noticed two words that would make people universally lock eyes with me as I was speaking.  Those two words were “anger” and “anxiety.”  What I realized is that, while we all need security, connection with others, and a sense of empowerment or control, these needs often present themselves as two very specific emotions: anger and anxiety.  However, we don’t notice those core needs as the problems- we notice the emotions and think those are the problem.

I believe there’s a Biblical basis for this.  After the fall, the first emotion that the Bible describes is fear (Genesis 3).  In Genesis 4, anger shows up in the lives of Cain and Abel- and those are just two examples!  So, while my book is psychologically driven, there’s a lot of theology to it, as well.  Before 2020, this was a message that already resonated with a lot of pastors.  During 2020, our security, connection, and sense of control have been threatened in larger ways, so everything has been compounded.

Josh:  What were you seeing a lot of pastors finding that anxiety or anger about?

Joël: I remember one pastor, specifically, who came up to me and said that he’d been angry with his congregation and staff for years.  As we talked, it became clear that his congregation wanted him to lead them- but he was afraid because they’d fired their last pastor.  I see a lot of similar problems with leaders and pastors, specifically.  When God has called you to lead a church, and you don’t lead, it ends up creating fear and anxiety in the people under you.  Then, you get angry and anxious because they’re angry and anxious, and it creates this endless loop.  

Anger and anxiety are always secondary emotions.  They’re responses to a threat to your security, connection, or sense of control.  However, we have to address them if we’re going to lead effectively.  

Josh:  As pastors are experiencing increasing stressors, what issues are you seeing come up and what do you recommend?

Joël:  I really feel for pastors right now, because there’s no way you can make a decision that’s going to make everybody happy.  And the worst part is, everyone feels the need to vent on social media.  As a pastor, you didn’t sign up for this.  You signed up to preach the gospel, not play politics or to try to please as many people as possible.  That’s why courage is so important.  Fear is contagious, but so is courage.  What we need right now are people who are in tune with the Holy Spirit and listening to what He’s saying- and who realize that living without fear can sometimes look reckless. 

I love what G. K. Chesterton said, “Courage is almost a contradiction in terms.  It’s a strong desire to live, accompanied by a willingness to die.”  A man who wants to break free in a battle must cut his way through to get home to his family.  But he seems reckless, until he’s deemed courageous.  So yes, seek wisdom and advice from other leaders, but make sure you’re open to the Holy Spirit and how He’s leading you and your church to act.  

Josh:  If you’re a pastor, how do you practically navigate anxious feelings?

Joël:  Well, I can tell you what I’ve been learning personally: I take myself way too seriously.  And the Lord has been talking to me about how humility is realizing that I’m not that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things.  I’m going to make some mistakes, and God’s big enough to overcome my imperfections.  

So, first of all, I’d say, lighten up a little bit!  The weight of the world doesn’t hinge on your shoulders.  God has this under control.  Then, stay humble and admit the things you’re struggling with.  I don’t think you necessarily need to seek a consensus withing your church- that’s probably impossible.  But you do need to be willing to say, “Hey, we’re working through this as best as we can, and this is a great chance for all of us, as a body, to practice grace.”

Third, be flexible and open to feedback.  You don’t have to take every piece of advice that’s offered, but part of being humble is believing that God can speak through your congregants.

Finally, be willing to be creative.  As weird as this sounds, I think that’s part of humility.  When you’re willing to be creative and try new things, you’ll step out in faith and try some crazy stuff.  It may flop, but at least you tried.  When you’re humbly trusting in God, it frees you to take some risks and make some mistakes.   

Josh:  What are some ways pastors or churches can creatively navigate some of our current issues?

Joël:  I think the key to creativity is humility, obviously, but also compassion: just realizing that everybody wants to get back to some sort of normal.  At the same time, we have to realize that some things have changed.  Things are going to look different in the future.  They have to.  One of the challenges I see for so many churches is that we think the way we’ve always done things is best.  But God has something more for us- we just need to be open and flexible to where He’s leading.  It’s really easy to get hung up on the shell of what was, rather than the heart of what was, and that’s what we have to be careful to avoid.  That’s going to require discernment- and it’s a tricky thing to navigate as a leader. 

Josh:  What would you say to pastors who are struggling with deep anxiety or anger?  

Joël: First, you must consult your anger.  It reveals the areas in your life where you’ve been looking for connection, security, or control apart from God’s love.  As soon as you start feeling angry, it’s because you’re feeling a threat to your sense of security, connection, or control.  Only God’s love can give you the fulfillment of that.  As pastors, we know that, but it still sneaks in.  

So when you’re angry, ask, “What is this anger telling me about what I haven’t surrendered to God?”  Then, take a step back further and say, “What is my anxiety showing about what I haven’t surrendered to God?” 

That’s where I think the book is really helpful.  A lot of times anxiety and anger come from the same source.  As you work through it, you’ll start to notice the areas where you tend to lean on your own understanding and that you need to surrender to God.  I love what A. W. Tozer says, “The essence of surrender is getting out of God’s way, so that He can do in you what He wants to do through you.” 

So, consult the anger and then face your fear.  And fear shows up in so many ways- sometimes it’s just completely checking out and wanting to watch Netflix.  At other times it’s trying to numb those feelings, or as indecision.  

Josh: What does facing your fear look like?

Joël:  Before you can face your fear, you have to name it.  Fear thrives in darkness, and it thrives and grows when it doesn’t have a name.  One of the crazy things about fear is that the action of naming it actually reduces its power.  However, it doesn’t go away just like that.  No, it has to be faced and attacked head-on.  So once you’ve named your fear, pray, seek guidance and wisdom, and move toward the thing you fear in small steps.  

At the end of the day, life isn’t going to get easier.  We have to get stronger.  And the beautiful thing is that God made us to get stronger.  I’ve never seen the Lord ask for giant leaps of faith.  He’s always prepared you for the next step with your little faithful actions in the meantime.  He’s really gracious that way.  

Check out the book: Love Slows Down 

Connect with Joël: http://www.joelmalm.com/ (You can also check out studies he’s written in the YouVersion Bible app!)

Summit Leaders (Outdoor leadership training): http://www.summitleaders.com/