Among dentists there’s 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. He’s 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 people’s fear.
- Dealing With Fear
It seems, he explained, that when people are anticipating being on their backs, face-up, staring into the dentist’s face or the ceiling that such experience incites great fear.
- “In my first few years of practice,” he recalled, “I couldn’t understand what was going on. Some of these people were very high-profile and well-respected community leaders known for their courage, leadership and charisma.
- But somehow, when they were in the dental chair, they fell apart. It mystified me. They would even treat me in ways that I never, ever expected from these “respected” socially high-standing, well-educated community leaders. It really took me off guard. Once I understood what was happening—and it took a couple of years—I could deal strategically with the fear.”
- Issues Which Precipitate Fear
As we discussed this further we shared the possible reasons for this fear. Stress triggers fear and often puts people into a Dr. Jekyl-Mr. Hyde stress shift. (For further insight see Ministry Health Article #81 “How To Deal With Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde”). Being out of control also triggers stress in even the most resilient of individuals.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?
- Key One: Understanding What Is Happening
As in any stress circumstance, a key to reducing stress is understanding how individuals deal with fear. In his early years of practice Dr. Jackson decided he would go out into the community and get to know these individuals better. He watched how they performed in public, in front of crowds, how they related to both acquaintances and to their closer friends.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 altered—and corrected—perception 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.
- Key Two: Dealing With The Fear
Dealing with the fear was a critical issue for him personally and professionally. Unless he could develop strategies for helping others cope with their fear it could have several possible consequences.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.
- Risking Via Active Listening
The way to directly deal with the fear did not, however, mean to abrasively confront it. Nor did it mean to blame, shame, accuse, or otherwise abruptly direct the fear issues to the patients. Instead, what he found most effective was the use of “I” messages. Active listening was, in these stressful fear-filled situations, the most direct but caring way to deal with the issues.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 with—and going through—fear.
- Haitian Chicken Fears
As I listened to my favorite morning radio talk this morning, its co-hosts jokingly suggested another answer for the “Why did the chicken cross the road?” dilemma. They described how in Haiti one chicken wandered into a road. Drivers, believing the chicken was possessed by an evil spirit, stopped their cars but refused to get out of the car to chase the chicken off the road.Traffic was stopped cold—in both directions—all 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.
- Keys To Your Ministry To Fear
So often it appears that the fears and the things which trigger fear in ministry are inconsequential, minor, or just plain stupid. As ridiculous as they may seem, Christian ministers–and all leaders–have to deal with the same kind of irrational fears that dentists and other professionals experience almost daily.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 can’t accept and don’t accept that reality of their peculiar fears in their lives, their fear can easily become part of our fearful reality and that of our congregation’s.
- Dealing With The Reality Of Fear
Pastors, in many ways, can effectively deal with fear in much the same way as Dr. Jackson described. Effectively dealing with others’ fear, of course, always requires that we first deal with our own fears. Perhaps that is where most ministry to fear breaks down. Perhaps it is at this point where pastors and others in ministry can inadvertently become catalysts for escalating fear in others.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 God—even as He seeks us—to 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 people’s 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 dentist’s 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 God’s 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 God’s necessary tool to incite pain for beneficial change, may be necessary to incite and motivate positive change.
As God’s 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 fear—in whatever form it takes. But there is a point at which the ministry must aspire and grow toward God’s 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 can’t always control fear. In fact, we virtually never can. Since fear is emotive—and not rational—it 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 God’s nature to transform and teach us through even this extreme pain, the patience which we learn in this pain gives us greater awareness—and resiliency—to our own fears.
- God And Your Ministry…To Fear
Like it or not, the primary context of Christian ministry is in an environment full of fear. Fear is the most obvious symptom of a totally, inextricably sinful world plagued by the curse of Adam and Eve. Though it results in numerous dysfunctions, the focus of Christian ministry all comes down to sin…and the resulting fear it engenders in everyone’s lives…including our own.Perhaps the best way to minister to other’s fear is to minister to your own first. This means to intentionalize a strategy for dealing with fear. A trusted confidant—such as a dentist—can be a great help. Family members, especially one’s 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.
- A “No Fear” Ministry
Of course, most important is for us to recall that the essential message of the Gospel is “no fear.” Jesus’ ministry and His proclamation of the Kingdom of God was all about “no fear.” From His sermon on the mount in which exhorted others not to worry to His own experiences of facing fear of demonic proportions—even death—he had no fear.Martin Luther King, Jr. once said,
- “He who fears death cannot change the world.”
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.
- The “Gospel Of Zechariah”
The priest Zechariah refused to believe God’s greatest promise that he would have a son even in his old age. When his son, John the Baptist, was born, he not only recovered his speech. He also recovered a deeper understanding of the Gospel. In his words of prophecy in response to the Lord’s greatness he wrote,
“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 Gospel’s working in his life—and others’—to “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 God’s 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.”
That’s the Gospel according to the priest Zechariah. God’s 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. God’s 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 God’s calling—and promise—was to enable him to serve God without fear.
- Your Ministry To Fear
How do you deal with a ministry to fear? Does it overwhelm you? Do you sometimes fail at least as badly as Zechariah? Ah, yes. It sure does. It happens to all of us…and seemingly more often than not.God’s 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 God’s calling to strengthen and build you up to a confident, non-anxious ministry to fear?
Pray that God would enable you to serve Him—and His people—without 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.