I pastor out of fear way too much. Odds are, if you’re a pastor and you’re reading this, you do too. I didn’t really grasp how much this affects my heart and ministry until a few days ago when I was listening through Paul David Tripp’s Dangerous Calling again. I’d realized in the past that, sure, I’ve got anxieties, and occasionally I’ll have a day when the weight of tasks left undone or forgotten starts to mount, but I never understood just how much fear has been in the driver’s seat. Though I’d heard about fears in ministry, in passing before, I don’t think anybody’d named it quite as clearly since I’d found myself plunged hip-deep in it over the past couple of years:
Perhaps this is a not-too-often-shared secret of pastoral ministry; that is, how much of it is driven not by faith in the truths of the gospel and in the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ but by fear. It is very tempting for the pastor to load the welfare of the church on his shoulders, and when he does, he ends up being burdened and motivated by an endless and ever-changing catalog of “what ifs.” This never leads to a restful and joyful life of ministry but rather to a ministry debilitated by unrealistic and unmet goals, a personal sense of failure, and the dread that results.
This is dangerous on many levels, not only for the spiritual health of the pastor, but for the Gospel and the congregation in his hands.
Tripp points out an angle on a story I’d heard over and over again, but never really thought of as a piece of pastoral theology. Looking at Galatians 2, with Paul’s confrontation of Peter over ceasing to eat with the Gentiles because of the circumcision party that had arrived, Tripp points out that Peter’s failure is due to fear motivating his ministry, not faith. Peter’s theology wasn’t jacked. Paul knew that he knew that justification is by faith alone, not by Judaizing works. Still, out of fear of approval, or power, he was practically selling out the Gospel in his ministry.
Pastors, we can’t, absolutely can’t let this happen to us, or allow it to go on any longer than it already has. It’s absolutely normal to have some fear. Fear can actually be healthy at times in tipping us off to dangers we need to engage. That said, fear of anything but God should never control us. In what follows, I want to briefly list and summarize the four main fears that can cripple your ministry according to Tripp, and then list his four tips for overcoming, or not letting them topple your ministry.
4 Derailing Ministry Fears – Every pastor has or will face one or all of these fears at some point in their ministry. They’re all pretty obvious, but it still helps to name them and know they’re coming.
- Fear of Me – Ministry exposes your junk pretty quickly. In the midst of finding out the wretchedness of pride, anger, inadequacy, weakness, and surprising wickedness of your own heart, it’s very easy to get discouraged. Looking at yourself long and hard in ministry can lead to a crippling fear of self that will side-track your ministry through discouragement. Of course, this makes the mistake that Gideon made in thinking the battle depended on the strength of his own arm, instead of that of his mighty God.
- Fear of Others -This classic fear is the “fear of man.” The problem with pastoring people is that it involves people; all sorts of people. Fans. Critics. Lovers. Haters. Quiet supporters. Vocal opponents. Barnabas. Demas. It’s surprisingly easy to find yourself pastoring defensively, out of a desire to silence or win over your critics, instead of a desire to please and praise God. Check your heart to see whether your closed door policy or the argument of that particular sermon was shaped by God’s wisdom or a very human fear of others.
- Fear of Circumstances – We are not the authors of our stories in the ultimate senses. God decrees the times and places we’re born–and a whole of difficulty afterwards. It’s very easy for the circumstances of life to unsettles us and destroy our confidence in God’s promises. Yes, God’s church won’t fail, but when the budget’s a little tight and that denominational fight’s coming up, it’s easy to let fear of present reality control our thoughts. Tripp reminds us that “Faith doesn’t deny reality. No, it is a God-focused way of considering reality.”
- Fear of the Future -We live in the reality of not knowing what the future holds. We are not God, we have not authored history and so what is to comes is still a vast, dark abyss to many of us and it haunts us. We live in fear of the future, struggling to believe God’s promises to be good despite the uncertainty. This can lead to sinful attempts to control, manage, and damage-control styles of ministry that do not result in fruitful congregational care. Instead, we are to entrust ourselves to the God whose will for the ages is Christ crucified and resurrected, a sure hope for the future.
4 Ways to Get Back On Track So how do we get back on track? Well, Tripp has four key steps, not silver-bullet, quick-fixes, but regular disciplines that will cut to the heart of your ministry fears, drawing you back to a ministry rooted in faith in Christ.
- Own Your Fears – Lying to yourself doesn’t help. Fears have greater power when they go unnamed. Instead, be honest, humbly take your fear to the One who is bigger than your fears. Let grace into the equation.
- Confess them and Repent – Doubling down on your sin doesn’t help, but only blinds you to the places it has its grip on your life. Confess the ways that fear has dominated your ministry, apologize those whom it has harmed and ask God to reveal the places where idolatry has led you to fear and sin.
- Watch your Meditation – You’re constantly preaching to yourself. Only God knows your thoughts better than you, keep a watchful eye on the words your heart is uttering to yourself. Watch to see where fear is creeping in, where the weight of human opinion and circumstance is crowding out the weight of God’s glory.
- Preach the Gospel to Yourself – This is the only way to stay rooted and firm. We need to tirelessly remind ourselves the truth of the Gospel of our salvation. This Gospel is about a big God who saves us from problems beyond our reckoning–demon and death-sized problems. He can surely overwhelm what overwhelms us. This Gospel is about an acceptance that was purchased in the face of powers of hell and the weight of infinite guilt. What could ever separate us from our Lord?
It is as we remember these truths and are filled with awe of the God that we serve, that our human fears will take on their proper proportion, and we can begin to serve in faith, not fear.
Soli Deo Gloria