Dena Hobbs is a minister, mother, wife, volunteer, yoga instructor and writer. I sat down to interview her about anxiety, a subject she and her husband, Jason, are committed to addressing with faith, love and candor. For more of Dena’s work, follow her blog, where she ministers to others by sharing her own struggles and her continued search for peace.
You were always a writer, I’m guessing, whether you thought of yourself as one or not. When did writing become your career?
As a kid, I was a reader with a big imagination, too shy to share my thoughts. My first feedback came from sermons I preached while in parish ministry. My congregation requested written copies. I began to write devotionals and submit them for publication. The pace of parish ministry was too busy for me to continue.
You have a divinity degree, as does your husband, who is also a therapist. How does your family balance self/other-care?
We are still learning. We have a yin/yang relationship. One of us does ministry while the other focuses at home caring for our family. There was a three year period in our marriage when we were both ministers in different churches. This was a stressful time (especially after the children arrived.) Too much other-focus was unsustainable. I left parish ministry to care for the children, but also to care for my husband. At the end of a day in his therapy office, he comes home to dinner on the table and family who harasses him if he doesn’t feed himself, inside and out. The kids pull him into play. He reminds me to slow down. Our self-care is in family rituals.
Did you experience power differentials (perceived or otherwise) between male and female ministers, and what populations were most trusting and respectful of you?
I was treated well by my parishioners. I took some flack from the outside community, but none of it was extreme. I refused to do youth and children’s work because I didn’t want to do “women’s work.” I wanted to preach to and teach adults. While that was a good experience, I cut my nose off to spite my face. After I left the parish, I volunteered with youth ministry and loved it.
I see my colleagues struggling with respect. To succeed, women pastors are expected to act in more masculine ways or lead as men would. I held tight to my femininity and collaborative leadership style. To relinquish that would do violence to my expression of the female face of God.
Why is writing about anxiety the subject you and your husband most want to tackle?
I don’t know if writing about anxiety is what we most want to tackle as much as it is what we want to tackle right now. The book we wrote together and my blog came out of anxiety. One morning when things were particularly bad, I bowed my head into my hands and prayed for a book to help. It was getting hard to get out of bed. The answer came to me quickly: I needed to write that book.
What about anxiety can help us, or hurt us, when we cling to it?
Fear is helpful when we’re in danger. It helps us survive. Overabundance of fear sucks our joy, like a prison, trapping us from living fully. Tamed anxiety is energy and movement. Anxiety-prone people, when healthy, get things done! I have a pharmacist friend who is a little OCD. If it were to overwhelm her, it would be debilitating. On good days, she rechecks medications before they go out. This is a life-saving trait!
With much dogma tied to guilt, shame and other negative associations, is faith a source of comfort to you in anxious times?
My faith is comforting. I’m studying Julian of Norwich. Her ability to say “All is well” has become my mantra. When I was a pastor, I was ashamed of my anxiety. It took years of therapy for me to understand mine is a disease like any disease. When I began talking about my anxiety, I was shocked by the people who came forward and said “me too!” My faith became all help, no harm, which is a tremendous gift. The most repeated phrase in The Bible is “Do not fear.”
I thought I had to be perfect and work hard to be worthy of Christ. Now my theology is centered on grace. I may be a slacker Christian, but I’m much calmer (kidding, of course.)
Church triggers my anxiety sometimes. Anytime you get a group of people together, there is tension. That’s people being people, not a result of faith.
As we watch tragic events play out in repetitive burnings of historically African-American churches targeted by racist motives, and as we celebrate the right for same-sex marriage made lawful, how do you believe we will reconcile justice, peace, forgiveness, love and change in our faith communities and communities at large?
That is a really big question. I will start with a really small answer. The answer is always grace and love; not judgment, anger or self-righteousness. Sadness and hurt come into play. Speaking truth comes into play. Standing arm in arm with the oppressed comes into play. These things can be held with love. Hate and bitterness and judgment cannot.
I was reading To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time when the martyring of the Charleston 9 happened. I love the image of Atticus Finch sitting outside the jail the night the Klan was coming to lynch a black man wrongly accused of raping a white girl. We sit with those who are vulnerable. We put our skin in the game to love and sit with those who face danger by hate.
Speak out. Stand up. Do it with love.
Can anxiety move us forward, or will it send us back in time, where tragedies were an outgrowth of inequality?
We have to keep our eyes upward. Like the Israelites in the desert during the plagues, they looked up at Moses’ snake to be saved.
I keep my eyes on the cross. My brokenness is covered by grace. Look to the cross. Look to heaven. When we see love around us, we are free to heal.