A Non-Anxious Presence

Ann Spangler
Ann Spangler

Early in their seminary training, many pastors-to-be learn a curious phrase. Their professors instruct them that they are called to be a "non-anxious presence," that is, the one person in the room who maintains a peaceful presence when everyone around them is losing it. When a child has died, when a couple is on the verge of divorce, when someone is in despair, when the church is threatening to split, they are to be present in a way that reorients the emotional and spiritual atmosphere. Their leadership can make all the difference. But this, of course, is far easier said than done. Here's how one woman dealt with her own anxiety while trying to help a family in crisis.

Amy Butler had spent an anxiety-filled day at the hospital with parents whose child had died in utero. Now they were waiting for their baby to be delivered. Refusing to leave despite her inability to ease their suffering in any significant way, she tells what happened when she was allowed to hold the infant in her arms shortly after the baby was born:

"I finally felt my anxious pastoral presence easing when I got to hold that just-born baby. He was a precious little guy, perfectly formed; wrapped in a blanket, warm and solid in my arms. After hours of anxious anticipation I felt at that moment nothing anxious at all ... just the calm assurance that this baby is surely loved by his parents and by God. Strangely enough, as we cried and prayed and said goodbye it seemed to me that all of us around that hospital bed had stumbled unexpectedly upon a few holy moments, an oasis of grace, a true, almost tangible, enveloping non-anxious presence.

After this week of poignant opportunities to try to be a non-anxious presence in situations that make me hyperventilate when I just think about them, I'm starting to suspect that this non-anxious presence we learned about in seminary is not the pastor's presence at all. What our task as pastors must be, I got to thinking, is not necessarily to BE the non-anxious presence but rather to WELCOME that non-anxious presence precisely because when we step into situations like that we are so anxious. Most days the best we bring is the expectation of God's pastoral, non-anxious presence--not our own."1

Amy Butler's story is an encouragement to all, but especially to those of us who find it hard to maintain our own sense of calm in difficult circumstances. Once again, staying vitally connected to the Holy Spirit will not only increase our peace but it will help us to become channels whereby that peace can spread to others.

  1. Amy Butler, "Anxious Presence," Talk with the Preacher (April 27, 2006) https://talkwiththepreacher.wordpress.com/2006/04/27/anxious-presence/ (accessed 10/21/2019)

Originally published November 26, 2019.