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Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A., Editor
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Ministry To Fear:
Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A.
Among dentists theres a good news/bad news joke. The dentist tells the patient, "I have some good news and bad news. The good news is your teeth are fine. The bad news is the gums gotta go."
Perhaps the most insidious hidden killer of otherwise healthy ministry is fear. Like the good news/bad news joke, the good news is that there is much joy in ministry. The bad news is that the joy often only comes after deep, heart-wrenching encounters with fear--ours and others'.
Untreated periodontal disease slowly eats away at the teeth, gums and can even result in heart disease from a syndrome know as SBE (Subacute Bacterial Endocarditis). Those fearing the treatment are subject to this and other health-threatening syndromes. Untreated and un-confronted fear can affect those who minister and those who minister in some of the same dramatic ways: emotionally, spiritually and physically.
Each week I enjoy breakfast with a close friend, Dr. Lawrence P. Jackson, D.D.S. Hes a very well-respected dentist in the community and has been doing dentistry in Midland, Michigan for decades. In addition to my friendship and chit-chat with "Larry", I gain some insight into another people profession. These chats are not only interesting but it beneficial to me by helping me gain some healthy objective perspective and encouragement relative to my ministry.
Recently I asked Dr. Jackson, "What's the greatest challenge in your practice?" Is it getting people to pay their bills? Is it getting people to show up for their appointment? Is it finding qualified staff? To my surprise, his response was none of these.
The greatest challenge in his dental practice, he suggested, was dealing with peoples fear.
But the factors which most triggered the stress, he believed, was not the anticipated cost of the procedure. Nor was it, in his opinion, due to the environment, the staff, or other more "obvious" overt factors..
Instead, the stress focused on issues relating to their encounter with change and the fear that it engenders. Such issues which he specifically indicated included:
1) Would I be better or worse after the treatment?
2) How much pain would be involved?
3) How long will the pain last?
4) How many treatments will be necessary before its over?
5) How much time would it be to realize full healing? and
6) After this is done, what will I have to do next?
By talking with others, by observing these individuals in normal settings, and by seeing them relate in healthy, constructive and confident ways among others. Surprisingly enough, many of these individuals were the movers and shakers of the community. They were change agents and admired as such. But they, too, were subject to the fear of pain.
The resulting "big picture" he developed help him to realize that these individuals really were, as reported, very nice, honorable and respectable people. They were just subject to fear and responded to that fear. With this alteredand correctedperception of these individuals, he was able to recognize that he would need to make some changes in his approach to these patients to help reduce their fear.
The most obvious consequences was that it could result in possible loss of clientele. As a caring professional, it would also affect him. After all, he deeply and genuinely cares personally for people and, over the years has taken great pains to build a deep sense of trust between himself and others--whether patients or friends.
Another consequence was that if the fear could not be dealt with, it might cause other support staff to become uneasy and be overcome by fear.
Perhaps the most important consequence he faced were long-term consequences. He was concerned that if he could not assist patients in dealing with the fear of necessary treatment, they might be so overwhelmed with fear that they would avoid any dental treatment altogether. If this occurred he risked interfering with the development of healthy attitudes toward health and hygiene.
The most effective strategy he found to deal with this fear was to deal directly with the fear. This meant that he had to overcome the temptation to deny that the fear existed. Dealing directly with their fear was not only good for the patient, it was good for him, too. Most importantly, it gave greater credibility to his allegiance to his professional code of ethics.
Active listening, however, requires a patient, non-anxious demeanor on the part of the one using it. It also entails a bit of risk. The risk of disclosure, the risk of disagreement, the risk of inciting more fear are but some of the risks involved. But the negative risks pale at the prospect of the greater positive benefits: a healthier, more trusting and positive healing relationship between professional and patient.
The other positive benefit is another one of the most important for any professional: risking lets the patient know that you will be honest and up front with them while respecting their boundaries and fears.
This leads to what is perhaps the greatest benefit in helping others confront the fear: letting them know that even though the treatment must be done and that the fear is unavoidable, that that you are aware of, care about, and will still unconditionally accept and support them even with their fears. It is this sense of teamwork, support, partnership and camaraderie which is one of the strongest and most resilient resources for dealing withand going throughfear.
Traffic was stopped coldin both directionsall because people were afraid the chicken was possessed. After nearly a half hour of waiting, the chicken finally crossed to the other side.But traffic could not resume until the local priest came and did exorcism rites on the roadway to exorcise whatever supposed evil spirits remained from the chicken's presence.
The key is to remember that fear is largely irrational. By this definition it will appear stupid, illogical and ridiculous. Yet how many times do we find ministers in the same role as the Haitian priest of having to exorcise the "demons" of fear after the chicken crosses our parishioners paths?
Though the demons may or may not exist in each and every situation, the fear is very, very real to our parishioners. If we cant accept and dont accept that reality of their peculiar fears in their lives, their fear can easily become part of our fearful reality and that of our congregations.
Dealing with our own fear requires that we first have a Gospel-based confidence of faith. Characteristically the Scriptures often introduce the message of the Gospel with the words, "Fear not." Like our parishioners, we cannot face fear alone. We must first seek Godeven as He seeks usto be near us even in our fears.
Second, we need effective people-driven strategies for dealing with fear. Dr. Jackson habitually takes additional time to know his people, their context, their family, their lives, their joys, sorrows and needs. This, I believe, is the mark of a true, caring professional.
Virtually every people profession has a holistic aspect to it. Dentists cannot simply isolate periodontal treatment from other related areas of their patients lives. Doing so, however, must be done in the strictest confidentiality, great care, and in the context of the highest ethics and loving motivation.
Pastors, like dentists, also cannot simply isolate spirituality from the rest of peoples lives and be effective in ministering to the flocks fear. To know them is to love them. To love them is to be able to create a base for helping perfect love cast out all fear.
Third, we need to recognize that the dentists patients fear issues are also ours. Often pastors and dentists serve the same patients. Though in different contexts, the fears are often . very similar. And so are the questions.
1) Would I be better or worse after the treatment or ministry initiative?
2) How much pain would be involved during the implementation of these changes?
3) How long will the pain last? Will I and others be able to tolerate it?
4) How many treatments will be necessary before its over? Can we survive them?
5) How much time would it be to realize full healing? Will I ever get over it? and
6) After this is done, what will I have to do next? Will we have to go through this again? What if we fail? Then what?
Fourth, we also need to keep the focus on the big picture of Gods calling for us and our ministry. The big picture is that we cannot keep everyone without fear. That is simply impossible. Some fear, insofar as it is Gods necessary tool to incite pain for beneficial change, may be necessary to incite and motivate positive change.
As Gods change agents, we must realize that, ultimately, the ministry to fear serves the ministry of change. Because change is always painful, the ministry of fear must be ever-present, ever-vigilant, ever-ready to non-anxiously deal with the fearin whatever form it takes. But there is a point at which the ministry must aspire and grow toward Gods calling, even in times of great fear, difficulty and uncertainly. This, perhaps, is one of the most fearful experiences in ministry for pastors and other leaders as well as parishioners.
Fifth, we need to realize that we cant always control fear. In fact, we virtually never can. Since fear is emotiveand not rationalit is primarily incited by irrational, unforeseen circumstances and covert dynamics. Personal, intra-personal, and inter-personal dynamics can incite fear in systems in surprising and sometimes sabotaging ways.
Most frustrating is when fear is experienced at such a high level that, like the forest fire burning out of control, sometimes the only thing to do is to patiently wait it out. But, true to Gods nature to transform and teach us through even this extreme pain, the patience which we learn in this pain gives us greater awarenessand resiliencyto our own fears.
Perhaps the best way to minister to others fear is to minister to your own first. This means to intentionalize a strategy for dealing with fear. A trusted confidantsuch as a dentistcan be a great help. Family members, especially ones spouse, parents, in-laws or others can also be helpful insofar as they have the capacity, confidentiality and shared interest for fearless ministry. Staff members can also be a great help.
Perhaps the greatest detriment for dealing with our own fear is to minister in the context of a highly anxious, fear-driven ministry. The key strategy here must be that we go outside of this context to seek the strength, counsel and support needed to keep breaking down the uni-dimensional self-view which causes us to see ourselves in an undifferentiated way from those we serve.
Martin Luther King, Jr. once said,
A ministry of fear cannot change the world either. But simply saying one has no fear does not make it so. Even for clergy. Martin Luther King, Jr. said it and lived it. His disciples, the prophets, and so many others in the Kingdom of God also experienced the fear.
Fear is the legacy of ministry. But so is the power of the Gospel which overcomes that fear.
"Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and has redeemed his people. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago), salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us--to show mercy to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham: to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days." Luke 1: 68-75 (NIV).
His reflection centered on his profound understanding of the Gospels working in his lifeand othersto "redeem his people," to "raise up a horn of salvation," and to save us from "our enemies all from the hand of all those who hate us."
His recollection was based on his now profoundly deepened understanding that this is the essence of the "oath He swore to our father Abraham." It is the essence of Gods covenant to priests, ministers, and to all people, that He will "rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve Him without fear in holiness and righteousness before Him all our days."
Thats the Gospel according to the priest Zechariah. Gods promise to rescue, deliver and bless our ministry is the core of His promise to the patriarchs and to His ministers of every age, epoch and millenium. The purpose for this grace-based promise is to "enable us to serve Him without fear in holiness and righteousness before Him all our days."
For Zechariah, the issue of fear was, then, an issue of faith. It was an issue of whether He really trusted that God could give him what He promised even amid seemingly impossible circumstances.
Zechariah failed that test but not completely. Gods grace led him to a more profound personal understanding and a more radical spiritual transformation of his experience of grace. As a result, he understood that to have the Gospel meant many things. It meant the assurance of salvation. It meant grace was his unconditionally. But, relative to his ministry before God as a priest it meant that Gods callingand promisewas to enable him to serve God without fear.
Gods purpose for you is to "enable you serve Him without fear in holiness and righteousness before Him." For that reason He deals with you in the same way He dealt with Zechariah. But instead of making us dumb, He directs us to the courage and calling He has given to us in our hearts. This calling, which goes to the deepest part of our heart, mind and soul, resides where the fear would take hold.
The key to realizing our calling is to let Christ minister to that fear within you so that you can minister to others fear. Can you trust His promise? Can you realize Gods calling to strengthen and build you up to a confident, non-anxious ministry to fear?
Pray that God would enable you to serve Himand His peoplewithout fear each and every day in His righteousness and holiness.
Thomas F. Fischer
- Editor's Note: A special thanks to Dr. Lawrence P. Jackson, D.D.S., Midland, Michigan, for sharing his thoughts in this article.
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This page was revised on: Tuesday, October 05, 2004 11:02:22 PM