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Conversations: Steve Cuss, anxiety management expert

Steve Cuss2

US-based anxiety management expert Steve Cuss believes anxiety is one of the great challenges Christian leaders face. Cuss, who is partnering with Baptist World Aid to deliver a series of workshops for Christian leaders in Australia, spoke with DAVID ADAMS…

US-based anxiety management expert Steve Cuss believes anxiety is one of the great challenges Christian leaders face. Cuss, who is partnering with Baptist World Aid to deliver a series of workshops for Christian leaders in Australia, spoke via Zoom about how working as a hospital chaplain prepared him for the role, how systems theory is a useful tool in tackling anxiety and why it’s critical Christian leaders confront and deal wih it…

Hi Steve. First up – can you tell us a little about yourself?
“I grew up in Western Australia, in Perth. I didn’t grow up in a religious family but my sister and I became Christians as teenagers. I’ve [now] been a pastor for 26 years, mostly in the United States – that’s where did all my training. What really got me on the path I’m on now is that before I was a pastor, I was a hospital chaplain. It was a happenstance thing – I just needed a job for one year while my wife [Lisa] finished college – we’d just got married – and it turned out to be a life-changing experience…

“I did trauma chaplaincy, emergency room, intensive care and then I also did hospice/end of life chaplaincy. It was so formative…I was 24 and felt very invincible, of course, and to be confronted with death literally every day really forges something deep in you and in your faith and in the way you talk about faith. Death has a way of stripping pretence and glib answers…

“Chaplaincy [also] taught me a theory of human behaviour called systems theory and that’s what I’m trained in…and so I apply systems theory to leadership. Systems theory is simply learning to notice how anxiety spreads. You learn to know how it’s spreading in you [first] because most of us don’t think we’re anxious so we’re quite surprised to discover that we are. And then secondly, it’s noticing it spreading in groups. As a chaplain, my job then was to emotionally connect to strangers in the worst moments in their life so systems theory became a really helpful tool…

“So that’s what I’ve been using in pastoring for 20 something years now; it’s very helpful in helping to build a healthy team culture; it’s helpful in the way I preach. It really, for me, infects every part of my faith…because I believe that anxiety – at least, chronic anxiety – is the number one competitor [in being] aware of God’s presence. It’s very, very hard when you’re reactive to notice God so a lot of the work I do is help people notice their anxiety so they can notice God.”

Steve Cuss2

You’ve also founded Capable Life, an online community. Can you tell me a bit about that?
“Sure. So at our church [Discovery Church in Broomfield, Colorado, where Cuss previously served as senior pastor], we do a nine month course because systems theory and this way of living takes a while. It’s not so much that you need a lot of information, it’s that you need a lot of time just to notice and observe and debrief.

“So we set up this nine month class at church and Capable Life is simply the online website where people can do that self-paced. All the elements we do at our local church we offer online. You can meet with a coach, you can meet with a peer group, but at the heart of it you can watch a video and do some self assessments. We call it Capable Life – the first three letters CAP just remind us to be connected, aware and present. That’s the vision – we try to help you lower reactivity, increase connection in awareness and presence to yourself, to people, and to God…

“Most people join for a year, some people join for a couple of years. We’ve got a lot of organisations where their whole team has signed up and they go through it together. That’s really the best way to do it. So it’s a series of videos, self-assessments, optional Zoom calls. You can post questions anytime and there’s a number of us that are on there coaching and helping people.”

“We all carry triggers and reactivity…Capable Life is all about noticing those patterns, naming them and then diffusing them so that you can – instead of being caught up in yourself – so you can actually be present to God.”

So it’s about giving time for connection with God and confronting and managing anxiety and how that works in your life?
“We all carry triggers and reactivity and we get quickly triggered and we get quickly flooded, and the most dangerous people are those who don’t think we do. Honestly, it’s people who look like me – white guys, particularly – we just kind of show up and do our thing and we don’t realise that we’re often infecting places with reactivity and anxiety…

“So Capable Life is all about noticing those patterns, naming them and then diffusing them so that you can – instead of being caught up in yourself – so you can actually be present to God. A simple example would be if you walk into a room with somebody who’s really grieving and you feel this compulsion to say something or do something. It’s not for them – you think it’s for them, but it’s for you. You have this unmanageable need to make the situation better. In systems theory, that’s what’s called anxiety – you’re so anxious that you have to say something or you have to do something…We help you pay attention to those impulses [and] slow down long enough to invite God into them so you can be more deliberative rather than reactive.”

You’re in Australia at the moment to deliver this series of workshops with Baptist World Aid on managing leadership anxiety – is that the message that you’re bringing to those workshops?
“That’s right. We’re just doing a couple of hours together in each city and it’s the same journey – we’re going to help you notice that you’re anxious and one of the hardest questions you can answer is ‘How do you know when you’re anxious’? Most people think ‘I’m not worried, I’m not really afraid so therefore I’m not anxious’. But maybe you are perfectionist, for example, or you need to be in control. So we help you notice it and then we try to help you name what’s driving it and then diffuse it and so that’s what we’ll be doing in each of these workshops is this two hour journey of notice, name, diffuse. And hopefully, giving people some relief from the pressure that they are feeling.”

The workshops are aimed at leaders and Christian leaders in particular – are there any particular pitfalls that Christian leaders fall into because of the fact that they’re a Christian?
“Yeah, Christian leaders have unique challenges, particularly Christian church leaders. The first one is God is infinite and so we very rarely hit the target – you know, how many people do you want to reach? Just one more. So it’s very hard for a Christian leader to rest and to say ‘I did well’.

“There is also a cultural thing in Christianity that we believe humility is being down on ourselves so it’s very hard to receive a compliment when you’re a Christian leader. ‘You did a good job’. ‘No, no, I should have done better.’ These are all signs of anxiety. I think the other thing we look at – and we will look at this in the workshops – is that a lot of time our anxiety is on the shadow side of our gift. So I’m good at pastoral care, but I’m also a people-pleaser. A lot of Christian leaders struggle with criticism…Christian leaders have to deal with a lot of different opinions [among] their congregants on how they should be doing their job…

“I think the biggest challenge for church leaders is that, unlike [with] any other leadership, we wear multiple hats with everybody in their congregation and that’s exhausting. Where a business leader [might] wear one hat – you’re the boss, you do the paycheck -…in church, you’re the boss, you’re the pastoral care[r], you’re the volunteer recruiter, you’re the friend – it’s very messy. Church leadership is inherently more messy and complicated than any other from leadership, in my opinion.”


A favourite book of the Bible…”Old Testament, it’s Ruth, New Testament, it’s Luke. But then it’s Roman and Acts. It’s almost an impossible question.”

A person whom I admire…”Right now, the person I admire most is my wife Lisa. She left a teaching career to become a therapist just recently and then she became a trauma therapist and watching her help people heal from trauma is phenomenal to me.”

A place that’s special to me…”City Beach, Western Australia. I’ve spent thousands of hours in that water catching waves or watching the sun set into the western ocean.”

We’re seeing a rise in anxiety across the board and that includes among Christian leaders. Do you think that’s due to the fact that we’re recognising it more or are we getting more anxious than we were in the past?
“It’s hard to make a generalised statement but…I think both of those is what’s going on. We are more anxious – we have infinitely more information coming at us than we used to have and too much knowledge makes people anxious. It’s actually one of the many sources of anxiety and it goes back to the Garden of Eden – I think God was basically saying to Adam and Eve ‘You don’t want to know too much’. You know, there is a gift to human naivety but here we are in a global society. So that generates anxiety.

“The other thing is our Millennial generation, the Gen Zs – they’re actually giving a real gift to the rest of us. They’re teaching us how to talk about what’s always been under the surface…When I think about my great-uncle when he came home from World War I – he was one of the originals at Gallipoli – and he never talked about it. A lot of that generation drank about it – they didn’t talk about it but they drank about it. I think our Gen Zs and our Millennials are saying ‘Let’s chat about what’s going on under the surface because it’s infecting’. So I think we’re also more aware and we’re trying to figure out how to have a conversation.”

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If we don’t deal with this issue as a Christian leader where can it lead?
“Anything that isn’t transformed is transmitted. So what happens is the unaware leader negatively effects their people, whether it’s their homeplace people their workplace people; your family relationships and your work relationships. Whether you agree or not and whether you like it or not, the undeniable reality is the leader sets the culture of any organisation and it’s never more so than in a church. So if the leader is not well, then the church gets sick – you attract chronically sick people, and I mean like chronically needy people or aggressive people or people wanting leadership power. We’ve seen that in the news…We’ve seen what happens when a leader with big influence is not well and they try to share Jesus and it’s a disaster; it just does so much damage.

“So my whole thesis is what your local church and what your organisation needs more than anything else is for you to be well. And that sounds selfish – you know, you might say ‘Well, you know, what they need is Jesus’. But you can’t give people Jesus if you’re not well –  you give them the wrong guy and you will do damage. So I think this is a calling [out] moment for everybody – ‘Do I want to hide? Do I want to manage privately? Or am I going to bring this out in the open, look at myself as an exactly human-sized person and figure out how to chase wellness? Jesus says you can know truth and truth can set you free and I bet my entire existence that that’s true.

“Chronic anxiety puts you in a false reality – you are no longer able to see what’s going on when you’re full of anxiety. So when I’m in a room with a grieving person, my chronic anxiety is lying to me, it’s saying ‘You need to say something to make them feel better’. But that’s not true and so if I can learn to manage it, I can actually open up my ability to seek God and, in that particular example, I could just attend to that person and be present to that person rather than anxiously trying to make him feel better. It’s really important work for leaders…”

How important do you see the role of peer networks in this work? Is having a peer network, where you can take these sorts of issues, key?
“I think it is key. Your inner critic always wants to keep you isolated and convince you you’re the only one [with this issue] so the ability to be vulnerable in a peer network [is important]. You’ve got to have a safe group of people where you can be exactly yourself  – where you can take that pastor hat off and be exactly human, particularly for pastors whose job is to open the Bible for people weekly. What’s the pastor going to do when their own faith is shifting or when their own faith is having doubts? Who do they turn to to get some relief? I think a peer network is one of safest groups. It takes intentionality and it takes vulnerability and unfortunately a lot of pastors are afraid or they feel don’t have the time but it’s that same idea that working on yourself is not selfish, it’s actually the most selfless thing you can do. Because if you can be well, you can infect your people with healing and that’s what Jesus did…For a leader to get a peer group and to do this difficult work and this brave work, it’s life-changing.”

For someone who might not be able to get to the workshop, what’s the one thing you would say to them?
“The one thing I would say is the best and the only thing you have to offer your people is your well self and through that jar of clay, Jesus will work.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The ‘Managing Leadership Anxiety Masterclass with Steve Cuss’, presented in partnership with Baptist World Aid, is taking place at venues across Australia from Monday, 27th February, to Friday. 3rd March. Tickets are $85 and can be purchased at


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