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Leading In the Face of Fear

By Rick Lawrence
Vibrant Faith Executive Director

In John 21 we encounter Jesus’ disciples after His resurrection but before His ascension—they are disoriented, confused, and frightened about their future. That seems counterintuitive because, after all, Jesus has risen from the dead! But we underplay how surreal that must have been for these men, and how unimaginable their future must have looked at the time. Unsure of what to do next, Peter suggests that they return to what they know best:

Simon Peter said, “I’m going fishing.” 
“We’ll come, too,” they all said.
So they went out in the boat, but they caught nothing all night.

What do we know about what was going prior to this little fishing trip? Well, these men feel like they’ve lost their life’s purpose, and they know the Jewish leaders and Roman authorities want to quash whatever Jesus started. They’re in danger, and they don’t feel the protective covering of Jesus’ presence as they once did. They’re afraid. So, in the midst of these chaotic and incredible events, the disciples decide to go fishing… Why? These are professional fishermen returning to their profession—they’re hungry for a comfort-producing normal. But they fish all night and catch nothing. Even “normal” is out of their grasp…

  • How is fear leveraging these disciples right now? Put yourself in their shoes…
  • Where in your life or ministry do you relate to “fishing all night without catching anything”?

At its crux, life (and ministry leadership) is centrally about confronting and overcoming our fears. We have fears pressing in on us from outside, and from inside. And we live in a culture of fear that is hard to ignore and hard to escape. Metaphorically, we are with those disciples on that boat. We have fished all night and caught nothing… And we’re afraid. And Jesus is expecting us—us!—to plant and lead the church, “going into all the world, making disciples…”

As healthy leaders, we must learn how to respond to fear, and lead others through fear, with self-differentiated strength. Self-differentiated leaders do not bargain with their fears—instead, they move through them with courage and conviction, maintaining their independence from the “anxiety of the moment.” They’re able to do this because they are maintaining an intimate attachment to Jesus, the source of all self-differentiated strength.

Jesus, incognito, calls out from the beach to His frightened friends with a playful question: “Fellows, have you caught any fish?” When He hears them answer the way He knows they will, He responds with: “Throw out your net on the right-hand side of the boat, and you’ll get some!” And, of course, they haul in more fish than their boat can handle. And they realize who has played this prank on them… Jesus, smiling, invites them to bring their catch to the shore for a fish breakfast. He is not worried. And that’s exactly the presence they need at that moment.

Leading in the midst of fear is centrally true of Jesus, who was born into fear (Herod’s “slaughter of the innocents” was a holocaust targeting Jesus) and executed on Golgotha in a climate of fear. In between these fixed points, Jesus’ ministry leadership was marked by fear…

  • The common response to His miracles and healings and exorcisms was fear.
  • The common response to His teaching, among the religious elite, was fear.
  • And the common reality for all those who followed Him was fear, because the things He said and did put their lives in constant jeopardy.

Jesus reminds His disciples that, even as the enemy of God closed in on Him with murderous intent (“the ruler of the world is coming”), He did not feel leveraged by the threat (“he has nothing in Me”). Jesus is the model of self-differentiated leadership, a fixed source of non-anxious strength in the face of fear. And leaders who reflect His self-differentiated presence are, like Him, reminiscent of healthy human cells—they maintain a strong core nucleus while defending their boundaries. They are differentiated from other cells, therefore resist invasion from outside forces. Cancerous cells ignore the boundaries of other cells and grow uncontrollably and indiscriminately—they do not have a cohesive nucleus, and attach themselves to healthy tissue like a vampire.

We all have our own stalking fears, and central to our calling as followers of Jesus and leaders in ministry is our response to the leverage of fear. It’s what fuels our presence, and our presence is the lever Jesus uses to bring transformation…

Rick Lawrence is Executive Director of Vibrant Faith. He’s the general editor of the Jesus-Centered Bible, and author of 40 books, including The Jesus-Centered Life and the new daily devotional Jesus-Centered Daily.

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