Put Your Own Oxygen Mask on First

March 07, 2019

By Dan Hester, Pastor, St. Andrew’s UMC in Charlotte and Chairperson, Leadership Development Team
 
Anxiety is a player in the room. Anxiety was in the St. Louis arena, is currently seated in our pews, theater style seats, and moveable chairs, and most prominently in our hearts. Anxiety is a response to a threat, both real or imagined. In these days of standing in the gap with our congregations, we must develop a strategy that takes anxiety into account. My strategy is to put on my own oxygen mask first.
 
Anxiety has helped keep our species alive and thriving. It helped John Wesley respond to the needs of his day and build the Methodist movement. If, however, anxiety is not acknowledged or respected, it works in base areas of the brain in ways that we don’t even need to be aware of for them to impact us. As a positive example, we don’t ever have to decide to make our heart beat faster to confront a bear or a snake (real or imagined). The way God made our bodies has taken care of that for us. The downside is that our very bodies don’t always like to give us a vote when we need to stay calm. Such anxiety results in things like golden calves.
 
Our brain functions differently when we’re stressed. When we’re calm we might think of a hundred options for a given situation. When we’re under duress we might only think of one. Our heart, muscles, and breathing are all affected when a threat (real or imagined) is present. For me to stand in the gap, or take a step in courage, step one is always to salute and manage my anxiety. If I can do that, then my thinking is clearer and my actions are more purposeful.
 
The good news is that we’re not powerless. In addition to prayer and intercession by the Holy Spirit, there are practical things we can do to reduce our anxiety. We can breathe. Even military troops are now trained in breathing techniques to function better in a hostile environment. We can exercise. We can reinforce trusted personal connections. In these present days, my relationships with other clergy provide great support. One of my early mentors told me the story of how he once went to his District Superintendent with an impenetrable problem. The D.S.’s response was to tell my mentor to “just go fishin’.” You can probably list at least five things that you know help to reset your anxiety and get you thinking clearly and creatively again. I call all of these activities “putting on your own oxygen mask first.”
 
Whatever strategies you choose to use in order to stand in the gap and lead through these anxious times, begin by putting on your own oxygen mask first.
 

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