There’s plenty wrong with fear. It’s implicated in the debilitating effects of stress, it’s related to the development of chronic illness, and it underlies addiction, violence and abuse. Dr. Lissa Rankin’s latest book, The Fear Cure, outlines the evidence behind this and more.
But what if there were an upside to fear? After all, some of the greatest biblical characters suffered from fear. We know this because of how often angels tell their surprised visitants, “Do not fear.” From Moses to Joshua, and from Zechariah to Joseph and Mary, the heroes of our faith were afraid.
Could there be something for church leaders to learn today? Discover three gifts that fear bestows, and how to embrace them in your leadership style.
Rankin discusses two kinds of fear. The first kind of fear is realistic. It’s the kind that sets in when someone is pointing a gun at you, or an 18-wheeler has veered into your lane and is bearing down on you. Fear this? You bet. This is a legitimate fear. Adrenaline will kick in and enable you to stay calm, be on high alert, act with unusual speed or kick into action in a way you didn’t know you were capable of.
The second kind of fear is the kind that is unrealistic: the thousand dreadful worries that never come to pass or the worst case scenarios we conjure up without even trying: What if my husband gets killed in an accident today and never comes home again? What if my child says the wrong thing in school and is bullied for the rest of his life? What if we get hit with some freak flood on top of this mountain and lose our home, our belongings and have to live in a homeless shelter for the rest of our lives?
Church leaders have these kinds of fears too: What if no one likes this sermon, no one gives today, everyone gets mad at me, and the church empties out never to re-fill? What if our mission outreach doesn’t work, people get discouraged, the Board calls a special meeting to dis me, and God hates me?
These are unrealistic fears that tax our bodies, deplete our spirits, and deaden our minds. They are also just the kind of fear that can grow our leadership. To understand how fear can help us grow, let’s take the word apart and look at several acronyms.
F.E.A.R. #1: Flee Everything And Run
When the fight or flight mechanism kicks in, there’s a sign that something deeper is going on. If you catch yourself inventing unrealistic fears and responding as if they were real, chances are you are reacting to something bigger and older than the current circumstance. In other words, your buttons are getting pushed. Use this as an opportunity to notice, name and resolve old hurts. Separate out what is happening now from what happened then. It seemed I had a preponderance of gruff men in my congregation. Every one of them intimidated me. No matter what they said, I responded in fear and felt myself grow small. I was afraid to say what I thought if it contradicted them. I was afraid they wouldn’t like me. I was afraid I couldn’t stand up to them or they would say something I couldn’t handle. Turns out my buttons were getting pushed. My grandfather had been a gruff old man. I had transferred little girl fears into my adult situations. I resolved it once and for all when I was direct and no-nonsense with the final gruff old man at the church. I was pleasantly surprised when he took it all in stride, and delighted when gruff old men seemed to disappear from my life. Now I know how to stand my ground, and come from strength not weakness.
F.E.A.R #2: False Evidence Appearing Real
“I could never tell my congregation what I truly feel about gay marriage. That would divide the congregation. Trust would be gone forever.” So said a pastor friend at a recent retreat.
Fear this? Maybe. Maybe not.
Some of our brightest pastors have coalesced congregations around preaching the controversies. That takes courage, sure. But even they have had fear. For courage can’t exist without fear. Just like faith can’t exist without uncertainty.
Dealing with a controversy? Our people don’t expect us to be automatons. They’ve been around the block. They too hold a divergence of opinions. This could be the time to gird your loins and spit out the truth. Just be sure to do it in a way that leaves others’ dignity intact, and their right to disagree unchanged.
I’ll never forget when I preached on environmental stewardship as a Christian value in my Wyoming congregation. Ours is a state where coal is king and natural gas is Prince Charming. I thought they might all get mad. But that’s not what happened. Those I least expected demonstrated their support. The rest were unfazed one way or the other. They came back next Sunday, as always. But one particular person, Dave Dingman, began a recycling ministry that touched practically our whole community. I tell the full story in Green Church.
My fear was false. When I took it on, I grew in courage. More importantly, that gave others permission to respond in courageous faith.
F.E.A.R #3: Forgetting Everything’s All Right
Sometimes we get so caught up in trying to manage and handle the life of the church, and make good on our word, that we forget we’re not ultimately in charge. Made a promise you can’t keep? Cast a vision you can’t implement? Fear this? Maybe. Maybe not.
The well-known Denver pastor, Dr. Roger Teel, tells the story about needing $25,000 to make good on a mortgage payment. He was a young minister who had led his congregation in faithful exuberance to stretch and make this commitment. The deadline came and went for the payment to be made. But there wasn’t enough money. They had failed in fundraising. Teel went back to his office to pack up his things, convinced that his tenure at this church was now over. Imagine his surprise, when he found an envelope in his office, with $25,000 dollars in it, given anonymously.
Somehow, when we least expect it, our fears show us that they are false: everything’s all right after all.
F.E.A.R #4: Face Everything and Rise
Fear has its place in the life of faith. But it’s not the final word. When we are able to face what we most fear, we can grow. When our congregations can face what they most fear, they too can grow.
One small church finally faced the facts: it was time to close its doors. They had moved from adolescence into adulthood and finally into maturity. As they topped the rise and picked up speed on the downward side of the hill, they realized they would have to close. But they wanted to do it while there were still people in attendance; people who could attest to the good ministry the church had accomplished. A moving service with 15 souls in attendance was a powerful witness to the loving acts of kindness, the preaching of the gospel, the families who had been cared for, the prayers that had been prayed, and the difference this community of faith had made. It was a touching service that satisfied the needs of the people, spoke to the community, and ultimately made room for an encore congregation to form in that building. The original congregation completed its mission. They made space for new life to rise from their foundation. It was a blessing all around.
Fear is a natural human element. In fact, it’s hard wired into the brain. But it’s not all bad. It gives rise to courage, to faith, to a deep grounding in the presence of God. If we let it, it can help us transform all that’s missing in our lives.