Leading Peacefully While Surrounded By Anxiety

With anxiety about the Coronavirus and its impact growing daily, missional leadership is more needed than ever. Bishop Todd Hunter equips us with a Pauline imagination for leading our churches and communities from a place of peaceful confidence.

by Bishop Todd Hunter

Missional leadership in this time of anxiety can seem like facing a heavyweight prize fighter who comes at us with steady jabs of guilt and demoralizing right hooks. We feel defeated as we wonder, How, in the midst of fear, uncertainty and constant change, can I lead my church in missional living? I’m barely holding it together myself.

I empathize. Strong and effective, yet peaceful and gentle missional leadership in our present situation takes some focused determination. But if you look a bit deeper, we are dealing with the same root issue. Just as before, the most prominent challenge of missional leadership is the swift changes in our culture. These cause social, mental and emotional reactions which often produce siege mentalities rooted in desperate fear.

In the face of such fear, it is essential that the Church learn to live into a powerful simultaneity: to love our culture, and to resist worldliness and worldly reactions within ourselves. We do this best when we have genuine, intuitive confidence in the wisdom and love of God constantly at work in culture, bringing his creation to the fulfillment of his Divine intention. This is the basis for our peaceful confidence, today and always.

Responding With Peaceful Confidence

My favorite example of confidence funding a posture of composed poise is the missional heart and evangelistic leadership of the Apostle Paul. Listen to what animated his heart and gave him an imagination for missional leadership:

Even though I am free of the demands and expectations of everyone, I have voluntarily become a servant to any and all in order to reach a wide range of people: religious, nonreligious, meticulous moralists, loose-living immoralists, the defeated, the demoralized—whoever. I didn’t take on their way of life. I kept my bearings in Christ—but I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view. I’ve become just about every sort of servant there is in my attempts to lead those I meet into a God-saved life. I did all this because of the Message. I didn’t just want to talk about it; I wanted to be in on it!

I Corinthians 9: 19 – 23, MSG

Let’s unpack four key phrases from this famous “I have become all things to all people” passage.

1. I Didn’t Take on Their Way of Life.

 Most churches have canceled services and church activities for a period of weeks to help slow the spread of COVID-19. But we must still come close to people in creative and discerning ways. Proximity is the only possibility to engage in positive love, to carry out one’s will for the good of the other. We must get close to brokenness, to confusion, to fear, to hurt, etc. Mission by nature has an intimacy attached to it. It calls for walking through Samaria, not around it; for sitting at a well and doing the unthinkable: conversing with a Samaritan woman. It may involve a woman of poor reputation weeping on one’s feet. But this all can be done without taking on the way of life of those to whom we make ourselves a neighbor, without taking on the anxiety paralyzing the culture around us.

2. I Kept My Bearings In Christ.

What gives you personal and ministerial bearing? Can you imagine having a posture or inner stance that allows you to be peacefully and gently present to missional moments like the Coronavirus pandemic? Paul found his bearing in Christ. En Christo (Gk) is a key Pauline phrase. The phrase has important soteriological implications—everyone knows that. But I want you to consider that being in Christ also funded Paul’s imagination for mission. Being in Christ gave him peace in his sufferings. In beating, flogging, stoning and shipwreck, Paul had a confident place to stand in which he could be God’s ambassador and work for the good of the other.

Can you imagine having a posture or inner stance that allows you to be peacefully and gently present to missional moments like the Coronavirus pandemic?

In good and bad, in sickness and in health, in ease and hardship, and in close proximity to sin and sinners, Paul modeled a core missional practice: Keep your bearings in Jesus. This is a call for us to fully differentiate as followers of Jesus and ambassadors of the kingdom, but then to stay present to missional moments as a non-anxious presence.

3. But I Entered Their World.

As we’ve discussed, Paul’s spiritual model places two imperatives before us. The first is negative: Don’t take on the way of the world. The second is positive: Keep your bearings in Christ. If we were having a meal with Paul, we might ask him: “Paul, why were these things so important to you?” I can hear him answering, “Because it is the only way to enter the world—to be present to that which is actively contrary to God’s will for humanity.” We must enter that world in order to follow Jesus, who precisely lived up close with the real, broken world. He touched lepers. (If someone had the Coronavirus, would Jesus have touched him?) He talked to and dined with the wrong people. He healed those thought not to deserve it.

“Jesus,” Paul might say, “is the one I am trying to emulate. His example gives me the mental model for both staying close to sinful people and for staying put in Christ.”

4. I Tried to Experience Things From Their Point of View.

Missional acts by definition involve the other. Others matter. What others think, feel and experience during times of anxiety is important. Without the loving intention to understand others, we will not live faithfully as ambassadors of God’s kingdom. Paul’s practices are hard to adopt if we don’t like or better love our conversation partners, the people who inhabit current culture. Sadly, fear of the other—other people, other perspectives, alternative future outcomes—marks our day.

What others think, feel and experience during times of anxiety is important.

A great missional goal is to move from fear of the other (illustrated in racism, immigration, migration, sexual and gender issues, and most recently, those thought responsible for “transmitting” the Coronavirus, etc.) to a confident, peaceful love of the other. Jesus so clearly loved and respected his conversation partners and their present points of view that he always started interactions with them based on where they were, not where he wished they were. Right? Think again about the woman at the well, or Zacchaeus, or Nicodemus, to name only a few.

The Church at Peace for the World

Lesslie Newbigin, with his typical great insight, wrote: We do not do mission best by trying to hold back the revolution of our time, but by bearing witness within that revolution of its true meaning. In Newbigin’s day, the big issue was communism. In ours, it might be human sexuality, globalism, epistemology, technology, a worldwide pandemic, or all of the above.

For a number of years, I have been wondering about peacefully bearing the witness Newbigin commends. I am just beginning a new book, the theme of which is peace. Talking recently to my friend and colleague, the Rev. Dr. Scot McKnight, I recounted to him that I wanted one section of the book to have the theme, “The church at peace in the world…or with the world.” Scot, doing well his job as Canon Theologian for my diocese, said: “Todd, I like the phrase ‘The church at peace for the world’ better.” I immediately saw the vision and agreed with him. The four Pauline phrases we have considered above give us a powerful imagination for a way of being at peace for the sake of the world…this broken world of people who are terrified by changes brought about by a declining stock market, a contagious disease, financial instability and upset to our supply and demand.

We must be at peace ourselves to lead others in peace. Being at peace for the world happens best when we experientially know that God is always already present…and that he has promised I will be with you…and that the kingdom of God is not far off but is a this-worldly reality…and that humanity remains God’s project. Those notions produce in us, the people of God, gentle and peaceful habits of heart from which we love extravagantly, take joyful risks in mission, tell the truth in love and forgive generously now, no matter what is happening in our culture. In so doing, the Church cultivates a distinctiveness that points to the world’s future, while living and working [peacefully] in the world’s present.[1]

We must be at peace ourselves to lead others in peace.

How are you responding to the missional opportunity of the Coronavirus? Let us know

[1]The New Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Pastoral Theology, p. 904.

The Rt. Rev. Dr. Todd Hunter is the founding bishop of The Diocese of Churches for the Sake of Others and founder and leader of The Telos Collective. He is past President of Alpha USA, former National Director for the Association of Vineyard Churches, retired founding pastor of Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Costa Mesa, CA, and author of Christianity Beyond Belief: Following Jesus for the Sake of Others, Giving Church Another Chance, The Outsider Interviews, The Accidental Anglican, Our Favorite Sins, and Our Character at Work.