Most people want to experience a sense of community in their church.  One can define “community” as the comfort level of emotional closeness and distance that church members and leaders create in their relationships.  Picture a “community continuum” anchored by closeness on one end and distance on the other.   Individuals and groups seek to remain in their “comfort zone” – that space on the continuum where they feel at ease, either close enough or distant enough, for their comfort.  When individuals feel anxious, or when relationships are in tension, you become protective of your “comfort zone”.  People who like more closeness “move in” to secure the relationship.  People who want more space “move away” to gain more breathing room.  Grumbling about a church leader may emerge when a church leader’s “comfort zone” is mismatched with that of individuals in the congregation.  Complaints of feeling left out, ignored, unappreciated, even abandoned may arise from those who want more closeness with the leader and experience the church leader as too “distant,” even cold.  Complaints of being nagged, bothered, badgered, even smothered, may arise from those who want more distance and experience a church leader as seeking connection with them too often.

The differences in our zones of comfort can create a kind of “pursuer-distancer” dance.  How aware are you, as a church leader, of your own comfort zone?  How does your comfort zone match up with the comfort zones of your church members?

Thrive in Five

In his book Creating a Healthier Church, Ronald W. Richardson (pg. 78-79) recommends the following:

  1. Take a personal inventory.  Your comfort zone of connection originates in your family of origin.  Family patterns of closeness/distance are functional, and the family typically views them as “normal.”  These patterns intensify during anticipated life transitions or unexpected crises.  A family member’s  comfort zone can lay “outside” the accepted family norm.  Church leaders repeat their closeness/distance patterns in their marital families and in their relationships with church members.  Consider what you do when you feel anxious, do you tend to pursue others to be assured of your place in the relationship or do you tend to move away to reduce the relationship pressure? How would you describe the breadth of your own “comfort zone?”  How do you think this impacts your relationship with other church leaders/members?


  1. Reflect on congregational fellowship. Church fellowship is affected by the closeness/distance dynamic.  Relationship safety is required for people to let themselves feel close to others or to allow themselves to go their own way without burning bridges (e.g., to hold a different opinion or viewpoint). Richards observes that “safety allows flexibility of movement, whereas anxiety constricts us and makes us cautious.”  With whom do you feel “safe enough” as a leader to be emotionally real and transparent?  Is this a person within your church or is it a church leader in another congregation?  For whom is your church “emotionally safe?”


  1. Accept other’s comfort zone. Culture, gender, and life experience also shape our comfort zones.  People in some cultures prefer to stand close together while other cultures prefer more personal space.  Comfort zones for closeness/distance are not dysfunctions, pathologies, or personality defects.  They represent “where” we like others to be so that we can feel safe, so our anxiety isn’t triggered by someone being too close or too far away.  How aware are you of other people’s comfort level with your closeness to them or distance from them?


  1. Increase your ability to remain “non-anxious”. Richards writes, “a major quality of mature leadership is to feel comfortable with others’ distance from us and not to become anxious about their “abandoning” us or abandoning our view of their responsibilities (p. 77).  An impulsive tendency is to anxiously pursue the person who has created space in your relationship.  Anxious pursuit of the other is most likely to backfire because distancers can always outdistance you (Richards, p. 71).  Instead remain friendly and adopt a “non-anxious presence” of openness, and wait patiently for the other person to show some sign of moving toward you again, like the Father in Luke 15:11-32.  How easy is it for you to remain “non-anxious” when a church member creates distance in your relationship?


  1. Increase the range of your own comfort zone. The use of guilt and shame to motivate participation in church life is one form of anxious pursuit.  Leaders with a broader comfort zone range avoid using guilt and shame to motivate church members’ participation.  While a percentage of members will yield to guilt, eventually they will distance themselves emotionally, if not physically.  People need to know that a church leader will respect their “no” before they will comfortably say “yes.”  Jesus invited many people to follow him, and he allowed them to say “no” without anxiously pursuing them (e.g., John 6:66).  This principle is true for evangelistic efforts and for efforts to recruit committee members.  Examine how you invite others to participate in church responsibilities.  How often do you anxiously pursue others by using guilt or shame to motivate them?



Edwin Friedman, Generation to Generation, Guilford Press. Section I: Family Theory.

Virginia Todd Holeman & Stephen L. Martyn.  Inside the Leader’s Head (2008), Abingdon Press, Chapter 4:  Emotional Maturity

Ronald W. Richardson, Creating a Healthier Church (1996). Fortress Press, Chapter 5: Closeness, Distance, and the Congregation

Relational contributor: Virginia T. Holeman, PhD., LMFT, LPCC, Retired Chair of the Department of Counseling and Pastoral Care, Asbury Theological Seminary
Executive editor: Johanna Chacon Rugh
Curator of content: Carla Working