Facing fear

I’ve been pondering a question for a while, “What am I afraid of?” It’s one of those questions people are tempted to give quick answers too, like “spiders!” I’m not sure the quick answers, however, are good reflections of what people are really afraid of. I think people are alarmed by spiders [1]. Fear, however, is something I define as something which shakes the core of your being.

So, what am I afraid of? Simply put, I’m afraid of being left behind.

No, I’m not referring to the awful apocalyptic novels based on the equally terrible rapture theology prevalent in many Protestant churches. What I’m afraid of is putting down roots some place and then turning around one day to see nothing but tumble-weeds blowing around behind me.

As far as fears go, this is a powerful one for a pastor to experience – especially in a church desperately staving off decline. As with many smaller congregations, we suffer from noticeable “membership churn.” People come into the congregation for a season or two, and then get called away to continue their journey elsewhere. This really isn’t any different than what happens at a larger church, but when you have 40–60 people present on a given Sunday the departure of a family or two over the year is agonizingly noticeable. This is what sparks my fear, “Oh my gosh we can’t keep losing people.”

The worst I felt was a two summers ago when we lost about 10 people through a combination of moves, deaths, and congregational migration. My heart sunk, because I simply couldn’t see how the church could continue. Attendance was down, energy was down, hope was fading. I was at that moment many pastors get to at some point. I saw the light at the end of the tunnel was absolutely convinced it was an oncoming train.

That summer was a low point, but that fear gets acerbated fairly regularly – particularly on holiday weekends when folks take their long weekends and enjoy a nice break away from the community. I don’t begrudge people those breaks, but as I see even more empty pews on a Sunday the fear creeps in. People are free to move their religious setting fairly easily – they don’t have to change their address, employment, or social circles. If I were to do a similar move each of those would go into instant upheaval. If the congregation were forced to close, or if people decided my journey as the pastor of central had run it’s course, the pain of that upheaval would be all the more intense. This makes me afraid.

To be honest, I think it’s a fear many pastors share. It’s what gives us pause before we speak prophetically to our congregations, makes us painfully aware of who the “good givers” are, and makes us want to be liked by the congregation. So if I’m afraid, how do I do ministry? It’s an important question.

Fear can be debilitating. As I described above, I experienced the influence of fear a couple of summers ago – it locked me up for several weeks. I continue to have moments where fear gives me pause – both at Central and at denominational events. While some people would consider admitting such fear is a sign of weakness, I consider it part of the process of handing it over to God. Yes, I’m afraid of being left behind as the structures in which pursue my calling collapse around me. God, however, isn’t. I have a calling on my life, to help people grow in their pursuit of Jesus and his Kingdom, and the comfort of that calling from Jesus overwhelms my fear of circumstances. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit in, and though, me.

My fear is real, but Jesus’ hope is greater – and that is why I am able to continue on my journey.

What are you afraid of?

  1. While I’m not alarmed by spiders, I don’t blame anyone who is freaked out by them.  ↩