How can church leaders confront the fear that prevents congregations from dealing with controversial issues or taking necessary risks? Adam Hamilton, pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, outlines perspectives and strategies drawn from his new book Unafraid: Living with Courage and Hope in Uncertain Times.
Successful people are willing to do the things that unsuccessful people are unwilling to do. And the same is true for congregations. Yet most are so paralyzed by fear that they don’t do the things that would lead to success.
Almost every great experience in life requires a measure of risk. This was certainly true in 1990 when my wife LaVon and I started the Church of the Resurrection. Many key leaders in our conference said it would never work. “It’s underfunded. It’s undercapitalized. You really shouldn’t do this because you’re going to fail and end up the pastor of a four-point charge.” Their admonitions were an example of how fear can keep us from taking risks. But in the end, I thought, “What’s the worst thing that can happen? If this doesn’t work, I’ll serve a four-point charge. But I think God is calling me to do it.”
Discernment by nausea
Jesus talked about there being two paths — one that is wide and broad and leads to destruction and one that is narrow and hard and leads to life. Congregations and individuals often come to this type of fork in the road. One path is easy and safe and doesn’t require a lot of risk taking. The other path is difficult. It feels risker. It makes us a little sick to our stomach. When confronted with these two paths, it’s usually the path that makes us a little queasy that is the right path. It leads to the greatest reward and the greatest impact. I call this the principle of “discernment by nausea.”
Over and over again, I’ve seen at the Church of the Resurrection how the best things have happened despite our fears because we pressed through our fears, and that led us to see amazing results. For example, I was a little nervous when we started our preschool at Church of the Resurrection. At first, we only had four children register and I thought it was a disaster. But today we have a waiting list and thousands of kids who have been through the program.
Some local churches must stare down fear when the community has moved to the other side of the highway and they have to decide whether to give up their building and move somewhere else. Other churches need to learn to stomach fear when launching a new program. One of a leader’s most important responsibilities is to teach people the importance of taking calculated risks.
Overcoming the fear of confronting divisive issues
In 2016, the general level of fear and anxiety in American society was higher than any time since just after 9/11, due largely to the political environment and the rhetoric of the 2016 campaign. We live in a very polarized time when the Far Right and the Far Left have set the agendas for everyone else. In most congregations, we are afraid to talk about the issues that divide us whether it’s gun violence or refugees or immigrants or sexuality.
We have to figure out how to escape this fear and confront these issues in ways that acknowledge differences and help people hear one another. If we just get up on our high horse and preach one side of an issue, we end up alienating the portion of our congregation on the other side. I have found that it is far more helpful to take time to understand where different people are coming from, to acknowledge legitimate concerns on all sides, and then to seek common ground based on a reading of Scripture. More often than not, when I’ve approached issues in this way either in preaching or in studies, people say it helps them see things differently in light of their faith.
What people most need in a time of anxiety is a non-anxious leader. When leaders convey anxiety, people feel more anxious. It’s just amazing how quickly anxiety spreads within groups. But it works just the opposite too. Sometimes one person can play a key role in tamping down fear by simply saying, “I know this seems scary but here are the reasons I’m not afraid.” Leaders can convey a non-anxious presence, not by giving false reassurances, but by naming the things to focus on in the face of fear.
After the 2016 presidential election, some people at Church of the Resurrection were quite happy with the outcome and others were quite anxious. I told those people, “I’m not afraid. I’m not afraid because we have checks and balances. I’m not afraid because America has survived interesting people in the presidency before. But I’m also not afraid because I believe God actually walks with us on this journey and that there are enough people of faith who will stand up for people who can’t speak up for themselves, and because in the end God’s Kingdom is bigger than one particular party.”
Fear is mentioned often in the Bible, but over and over again we are told, “Do not be afraid, for God is with you.” People of faith need to remember what Frederick Buechner said, “The worst thing is never the last thing.” There is always hope. And God is still God.
- “Moving beyond Fear,” a Leading Ideas Talks podcast episode featuring Adam Hamilton
- Fostering the Courage to Lead by David McAllister-Wilson
- Take the Next Step: Leading Lasting Change in the Church by Lovett H. Weems, Jr.
- More Than a Nonanxious Presence by Patricia Farris