Doing the Reassurance Dance

By Derek Penwell

The Reassurance Dance

Debbie, who comes into the church where I work at least three or four times a week, suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. Most of the time she’s as docile and kind as she can be. Sometimes, though she gets afraid. And when she experiences fear, she lashes out. (Who doesn’t, right?)

Debbie talks freely about her life–what kinds of things are happening at her apartment complex, who’s hassling her, what kind of health problems she has. From Debbie’s perspective, there seems to be a great deal wrong with the world … wrong in ways that threaten Debbie’s world. I’m not sure what her world looks like to her, but from my vantage point, the world Debbie inhabits looks pretty scary.

I understand Debbie’s fear, given the reality she inhabits. Because that fear seems so proximate and real, whenever she goes to leave, Debbie will come to me and ask: “Father Penwell [although I’m not a priest–at least of any recognized order, except, perhaps, the parental one]: Is everything all right? Does Debbie have anything to worry about? Everything’s ok, isn’t it?”

I call this the Reassurance Dance. The reassurance dance exists as a desperate need to have someone tell us everything’s going to be all right.

Debbie’s pleading strikes me as genuine. She’s afraid of a scary world, and she’s seeking a little reassurance. That makes sense to me. I look for that kind of reassurance myself sometimes. Things get hectic at work–I’m running late on a deadline or I sense some unease over a decision, and I search for ways to reassure myself that everything’s all right, that the world isn’t falling apart.

The problem with the reassurance dance, though, is that it doesn’t work … at least in any meaningful way over the longterm.

Why not?

How do I know whether everything’s going to be ok for Debbie? I have no idea. Therein lies the problem. No matter how reassuring I sound, I can’t guarantee Debbie anything–about whether her landlord is going to kick her out, or whether the rain is going to start up and drench her in the afternoon, or whether she’ll be hassled out on the street. I rely on the law of averages, and say, “Everthing’s fine.” But the reality of the situation is–I don’t know.

Same thing with me. I feel anxious, so I check my email. I’m feeling nervous about the unknown so I somehow maneuver to be able to be in the presence of someone who will tell me I’m a good person, and that everything’s going to be ok.

Well, that sounds pretty callous. Why is caring about people’s feelings a bad thing?

Look, I’m not suggesting that seeking reassurance for oneself or offering reassurance to others is always a bad thing. Seeking affirmation in the face of uncertainty is a coping mechanism. The purpose of coping mechanisms is, of course, to help us cope. Tautology notwithstanding, sometimes we need the psychic boost that reassurance provides to make it through the day. Fine.

But, what I’m talking about is the reassurance dance, which amounts to a kind of psychic feedback loop. I feel anxious, so I seek some affirmation. I feel better for a bit–not because the nature of my situation has changed, but because I’ve distracted myself for a bit–like getting drunk when you’re girlfriend breaks up with you.

But, getting drunk when you’re sad doesn’t work very well, does it. Why not? Because you wake up and you realize that your girlfriend still thinks you’re an idiot–plus, now you have a headache that will last until sometime just prior to the Vernal Equinox.

Now, you’re depressed and hungover. And Lord knows there’s only one thing to do when you feel that bad … get out a bottle of Tequila.

You see the problem.

Life Inside the Ecclesiastical Echo Chamber

Unfortunately, the church is just as prone to the reassurance dance. How often do you hear a congregation asking, "Is everything all right? Do we have anything to worry about? Everything’s ok, isn’t it?

Usually, they don’t say it quite like that–but you know what I’m talking about. Want to know how to recognize the signs that a church is getting ready to dance the reassurance dance? Here’s the tip-off:

They start paying inordinate attention to the numbers–baptisms, transfers, pledging units, personnel budget, the ratio of incandescent/cfl bulbs, whatever.

Notice I said “inordinate attention to numbers.” You have to pay attention to numbers. It’s stupid to act like numbers don’t count. They do. Numbers provide information, and information isn’t necessarily good or bad; it’s just information.

The problem comes when you think that numbers provide all the information you need to evaluate–you name it–the effectiveness of ministry, the legitimate expression of worship, the curriculum for VBS.

"Well, that’s just hyperbole. No church makes decisions based solely on numbers."

Let’s be clear, I didn’t say decisions get made “solely” on numbers. Even extremely anxious congregations will tip their hats to concepts like faithfulness and integrity.

But let me ask you this: When was the last time you had a board meeting and everyone forgot about the treasurer’s report because you were so involved in trying to figure out the most faithful way to provide a much needed latch-key program for kids in your neighborhood?

When was the last pledge drive where the Stewardship committee said: “We need money, but you’ve always given in the past … and we trust that you’ll do so this time around. So, this year we want to devote our whole campaign drive to figuring out how we can identify and tap the gifts for ministry of everyone in the congregation?”

When was the last time the elders said, “You know, we’ve got enough members to sustain this level of ministry for awhile, why don’t we shift our focus off of membership, and put it squarely on the ministry? Why don’t we invest in doing the thing God is calling us to do and let God take care of new members?”

That’s what I thought.

Instead, congregations are almost always preoccupied by numbers. Numbers are a very human way for the church to seek reassurance that it’s successful, that it’t popular, that it means something.

Again, I’m not saying numbers don’t matter at all. What I am saying, however, is that numbers aren’t always the best way to keep score in the church.

“Is everything all right? Do we have anything to worry about? Everything’s ok, isn’t it?”

I can’t tell you because I don’t know. And besides, you wouldn’t believe me for long, even if I said yes.

Let me ask you:

  • Do you perform baptism and eucharist? .
  • Do you seek to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick, hold hands with the fearful and the grieving? .
  • Do you open your doors and welcome those who are unwanted, those who’ve had to sit at the back of the bus, those who’ve been hurt by the church? .
  • Do you pray and study? .
  • Are people learning to be more like Jesus?

Because, until you can feel good about the answers to questions like this, the reassurance dance just isn’t that interesting.