Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Transforming Anxiety into Calm: Embracing the ‘With-God Life’ for Effective Leadership

Written by: on February 22, 2024

What does a “with-God life” look like? 

What makes it different and attractive? 

Do we need to have a perfect with-God life to invite others to join us on the journey?

These are questions I had been praying about so I could discern how to talk about discipleship and disciple-making for my doctoral project. 

I didn’t have good answers to these questions and was concerned about being a bit hypocritical if my own life is not attractive to those who are not yet following Jesus. I wrote in my journal, asking God to help me with this.

Then I picked up the commentary by David Atkinson that is helping me work through Genesis. I turned to the section about Cain. Atkinson wrote, “There is no peace for human beings unless they can discover the freedom of living within the providence of God, can see their lives as the focus of his care, and believe that their highest good is found in living under his will… When, as with Cain, we are separated from God, our world is one of constantly searching anxiety. For in him is our satisfaction. Anywhere else, as Augustine said, our hearts are restless until they rest in God.” [1]

He then quotes Calvin, “There is no peace for men, unless they acquiesce in the providence of God, and are persuaded that their lives are the objects of his care.” Atkinson concludes, “Does not the restlessness of Cain picture vividly a life that is lived outside the presence of God?” [2] That describes exactly (at least one aspect of) what the with-God life is all about: a life without anxiety, without the restless searching for meaning, purpose, and unchangeable love—a life of shalom.

I love it when I ask God for something and he immediately gives it to me! I can’t say that happens very often, but it is a true gift when it does. I shared this experience with a friend and she replied, “I agree that asking and receiving from the Lord Jesus is life-giving and feels like love – which it is!”

In his book, A Failure of Nerve, Edwin Friedman provides a long commentary about how important it is for leaders to differentiate themselves by a combination of courageously distinguishing their individual self yet staying connected to others. But this is a challenge. He states, “The struggle between individuality and togetherness exists in every relationship system.” [3]

A key part of Friedman’s thesis is that effective leaders must be able to remain a calm, non-anxious presence within an anxious system (whether that be a family, church, business, country, etc.). He describes how leadership stress and burnout (the topic of my doctoral project!) are far less about busy schedules and far more about triangulated emotional relationships. Taking responsibility for others’ relationships is exhausting. He says, “The way out is to make the two persons responsible for their own relationship, or the other person responsible for his or her problem, while all still remain connected… Staying in a triangle without getting triangled oneself gives one far more power than never entering the triangle in the first place.” [4]

Building on this idea, in my coach training I learned about the “6 Human Needs” by Anthony Robbins. [5] The first two – which are somewhat in tension with each other – are certainty and variety. The second two – which are also somewhat in tension with each other – are significance and love/connection/belonging. The last two, which stand alone, are growth and contribution.

Source [6]

We all need ALL of those needs (hence, the name). But the first two are on a spectrum, as are needs three and four. In terms of Friedman’s and Steinke’s works, it’s easy to see that when a person or group of people lean too far in one direction or another – too much variety, say, or too much individualization – it leads to anxiety individually and within the group. 

Because Friedman doesn’t give much detail about what it means to be a non-anxious leader in a church (it’s just one of many systems he discusses), I turned to Peter Steinke’s Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times

Steinke points out, “Anxiety comes from an interesting family of words. The great-grandfather is the Greek ananke, meaning ‘throat’ or ‘to press together.’ In fact, Ananke was the name of the Greek god of constraint who presided over slavery. Ananke was the word used for the yokes or rings on the necks of slaves. Anxiety can hold us back, take us by the throat, and chain us like a slave.” [7]

Anxiety affects us by decreasing our capacity to learn; replacing curiosity with a demand for certainty; stiffening our position against another’s; flooding the nervous system so we cannot hear others clearly; prompting a desire for a quick fix; simplifying our thinking (yes/no; either/or); arousing feelings of helplessness or self-doubt; making us defensive; diminishing our flexibility in facing life’s challenges; and diminishing our creativity. [8] No wonder anxiety is a key factor in relationships and communities that don’t function well.

This brings me back to my questions and the answers I received – by God’s grace – from Atkinson: A with-God life is non-anxious. Not only is it attractive as a way of life, it’s also critical for leadership. 

So… how do we live a with-God life that results in a non-anxious presence, which in turn results in more effective leadership? 

Richard Foster explains more about the self and being connected: “‘Spiritual formation’ is the process of transforming the inner reality of the self (the inward being of the psalmist) in such a way that the overall life with God seen in the Bible naturally and freely comes to pass in us. Our inner world (the secret heart) becomes the home of Jesus, by his initiative and our response. As a result, our interior world becomes increasingly like the inner self of Jesus, and, therefore, the natural source of the words and deeds that are characteristic of him. By his enabling presence, we come to ‘let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus’ (Phil. 2:5).” [9]

So as I move forward with my NPO project and prepare to assist pastors and ministry leaders of all types in healing and preventing burnout and busy-ness, I will be certain to talk about spending time with Jesus – the with-God life – to become more like Jesus. This is the key to being a non-anxious, non-triangulating presence that ultimately shifts the culture of its community, so the leader can lead more effectively. 

The eye of the storm seems very calm indeed when the wind is howling and nothing else is stable. That calm stability is a gift of God. It’s how we are called to lead in the world.


1 – David Atkinson, The Message of Genesis, 1-11. (Downers Grove, ILL: IVP Academic, 1990), 111.

2 – Atkinson, 112.

3 – Edwin Friedman, A Failure of Nerve (New York: Church Publishing, 2017), 184.

4 – Friedman, 234.

5 – Team Tony, “Discover the 6 Human Needs”.  Tony Robbins, accessed Feb. 22, 2024, https://www.tonyrobbins.com/mind-meaning/do-you-need-to-feel-significant/

6 – Team Tony, “Discover the 6 Human needs.”

7 – Peter Steinke, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times (New York: Roman & Littlefield: 2006),   7-8.

8 – Steinke, 8-9.

9 – Richard Foster, Life with God (No location: Harper Collins Publishers, 2008), 10.


About the Author

Debbie Owen

Deborah C. Owen is an experienced spiritual director, Neuro-based Enneagram executive and life coach, disciple maker, professional writer, senior librarian, and long-time church Music Director and lay leader. She has earned the award of National Board Certification for teaching excellence, and a podcasting award, and is pursuing a Doctor of Leadership degree through Portland Seminary at George Fox University. She lives in the backwoods of Maine with her husband and flat-coated retriever. She spends as much time as she can with their 3 grown children, daughter-in-law, and 2 small grandchildren. Find her online at InsideOutMinistries.info.

8 responses to “Transforming Anxiety into Calm: Embracing the ‘With-God Life’ for Effective Leadership”

  1. Adam Cheney says:

    Thanks for the post and discussion about Friedman. I wonder what is this aspect of non-anxious presence one of the things that have risen above others as you have researched for your NPO? Or has something else risen as the primary issue?

    • Debbie Owen says:

      Adam, I really think being a non-anxious presence is key to reducing burnout and busy-ness. I’m also looking at John Mark Comer’s book about eliminating hurry. I think there are many ways we can slow down that help us remain in God’s presence… which is never anxious (especially about time!).

  2. Christy Liner says:

    Hi Debbie, thanks for the thoughts on a with-God life. Isn’t that what we all want and desire? When I think about Christ, his non-anxious presence just bleeds through the pages of Scripture. He wasn’t afraid to ask the hard questions, to be differentiated, and didn’t displace blame or respond with high reactivity.

    The with-God life is truly to become more like Jesus.

    After reading this book, do you have insights as to why pastors and ministry leaders struggle with burnout? Certainly they are the most likely to be walking with Jesus, but why are they susceptible to burnout?

    • Debbie Owen says:

      Christy, there are multiple reasons, but a big part of it is unmet expectations. Or too many expectations. I think that all leads to being anxious. Creating realistic expectations and generally slowing down in life can help leaders prevent and heal burnout.

      That being said, all of that also requires a great deal more self-awareness. So… there are many variables at play.

  3. mm Shela Sullivan says:

    Hi Debbie,
    I agree that leaders often find themselves drained not just by their workload but by the emotional burdens of managing interpersonal dynamics.
    How has Friedman’s concept of remaining a calm, non-anxious presence within an anxious system resonated with your experience in leadership, especially in regard to stress, burnout, and managing emotional dynamics within your organization?

    • Debbie Owen says:

      Oh my goodness Shela, being a non-anxious presence is absolutely necessary to being an effective leader! But I don’t think it’s the “first stop.” I think we start with getting to know God better, which helps us know ourselves better. This increased self-awareness leads to realistic expectations, which leads to less “hurry” which leads to reduced anxiety, which leads to more effective leadership.

      Thank you for asking. It helped me to outline that!

  4. Graham English says:

    Debbie, thanks for your post. I work with pastors and the struggle you’ve identified for your NPO is very real. The inner life is certainly a key to this and I’m glad you’re focusing on this. What leadership skills or mindsets might also help pastors avoid burnout?

    • Debbie Owen says:

      Graham, I just shared this with Shela:
      “being a non-anxious presence is absolutely necessary to being an effective leader! But I don’t think it’s the “first stop.” I think we start with getting to know God better, which helps us know ourselves better. This increased self-awareness leads to realistic expectations, which leads to less “hurry” which leads to reduced anxiety, which leads to more effective leadership.”

      If you have personal experience with burnout – or know others who do – I’d be interested in having a conversation to find out more.

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