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Reality-Based Ministry

Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A.

Number 354

Fantasy can be fun. Letting one’s imagination run wild can sometimes give individuals a sense of relief or euphoria from the routine of daily living. Small children often engage in fantasy in their play, even developing imaginary friends. These fantasies are healthy and facilitate a child’s ability to develop various developmental skills needed later in life.

Fantasy can also be destructive. When one mixes fantasy with anxiety the letting one’s imagination run wild can produce numerous unhealthy results.

When asked, “What are the marks of healthy churches?” participants often respond, “A healthy church is where there are no problems, no back-biting, no rumors, no conflict and where everyone is happy.”

Such responses are based in fantasy, specifically anxiety-based fantasy. Often it appears that those offering such responses have several commonalties.

1)     They are idealists;

2)     They are anxious people;

3)     They are maintenance minded;

4)     They are conflict-avoidant individuals who would rather flee than fight;

5)     They have high perfectionistic expectations for others and themselves;

6)     They avoid conflict;

7)     They are “nice” people who don’t want to hurt anyone;

8)     They are not competitive;

9)     They tend to have difficulty talking, trusting, and sharing their feelings with others in healthy, intimate relationships;

10) They have higher levels of emotional sensitivity and reactivity;

11) They are typically more concerned with the immediate circumstances of the present than the long-term prospects for the future.

Fantasy: A Way Of Coping With Anxiety

In a painful, unpredictable world people often find that they are subject to overwhelming forces and situations. The “real world” with all its tears, rejection, abandonment, death and decay is a very difficult reality for many to deal with. The greater the difficulties one experiences the greater the tendency they have to experience levels of anxieties with which they may find it difficult to cope with reality at various levels. Thus various forms of fantasy-based defensive mechanisms will be used to deal with painful realities.

Fantasy can be triggered by both internal and external stimuli. External stimuli might include addictive substances and processes which incite the “fantasy world.” Drugs, alcohol and other substances as well as addictive involvement in activities of various kinds all help to divert attention from reality to fantasy. Internal stimuli lending oneself to fantasy may include numerous internal factors. Some of these stimuli may be chemically-based affected by the presence or absence of various hormones, pheromes, etc. Personality tendencies,  developmental maturity and previous life-experiences also influence these internal tendencies toward fantasy. 

Melancholic Anxiety

One such fantasy-tending personality profile is the melancholy personality type. Melancholies characteristically seek a perfect world. Their almost obsessive drive for perfectionism and control are key indicators of an emotional process that is driven by the need to keep reality “in check.” Higher-level melancholics find resilience in predictable rules, regulations, systems and procedures. For melancholics tradition is not just a thing to be admired, upheld and preserved. It’s a defense mechanism to guard against the uncertainties which reality all-too-often presents.

In order to avoid the overwhelm which so easily triggers their high anxiety levels, melancholies adopt several kinds of behavioral patterns. First, melancholics become excessively routinized, predictable and committed to certain patterns of actions and behaviors.

Second, melancholies place an extraordinary amount of effort into retaining family cohesiveness and centrality. Instead of viewing the family as the launching pad for the exercise and development of healthy individuality and freedom  alternating with a mutually-enjoyable relationship reciprocity among family members, melancholies perceive family as a complex line of defense against anxiety. As the pioneer wagons would gather in a circle against various attacks, melancholies fuse family members around them in a complex system of strategic relational bonds.

Third, melancholies repeatedly use certain forms of affirmation or de-affirmation to keep relationships in predictable equilibrium. Guilt, shame, never-good-enough behaviors, threats of rejection, conditional love and other such anxiety-based parenting styles are but some of the indicators which the perpetuate anxiety-based family “glue.”

Other denial mechanisms such as projection, blame, scapegoating and splitting may also be found in generous portions to help the melancholic avoid having to deal with anxiety. These elements are indicators of emotional processes which melancholies use to ensure that, when anxiety arises, the family will circle around to protect the melancholic from the anxious reality.

Melancholies do, however, work very hard in relationships. They, among all personality types, appear to have a notable depth and intensity. Elaine Arons notes,

“They fall in love hard and they work hard on close relationships….on the average [they] have a more soul-shaking underlying experience” of developing relationships. (Elaine N. Aron. The Highly Sensitive Person in Love. New York: Broadway Books, 2000, p. 15).

Their ability to pick up on the subtleties, to reflect on the nuances of others and to reflect on the charms of others. Whether its love for others or for their church, it is the same capacity to share, serve, commit, sacrifice and tireless, devoted energy to do everything possible to make these relationships and associations perfectly conforming to their fantasy which also brings with it higher sensitivities and propensities for anxiety. For some, the degree of tireless effort is proportionally reflective of their anxious desire to fulfill their fantasy in an imperfect world of hurtful relationships and less-than-perfect churches.

Fourth, as other introverted personality types, melancholies prefer to deal with the “inner” world of the soul than the outer world of people, places and things. The hymn writer wrote, “Change and decay in all around I see.” Feeling overwhelmed and unable to deal with world-wide change and decay, melancholies retreat to the inner world.

There, in the depths of their own mind, they can avoid the control of others and create their own world of fantasy. There they can imagine that everyone lives happily ever after. There they can imagine that all is well. In their own mind they can escape to a quiet corner of the world where they believe they are unthreatened, unscathed, and unaffected by the outside world.

When melancholies experience the real world and its unavoidable pain, they often attempt to retreat into their fantasy world. As they continue this pattern they realize that either they must learn to deal with the reality or go deeper into their own fantasy world. The former is extremely painful; The latter is excruciatingly so. The anticipation of the pain raises the already high levels of anxiety characteristic of this emotional process.

This anxiety may rise to extreme levels when the anchors of their lives—family, career, and the church—are threatened. When these anchors become the focus and source of their anxiety, their anxious responses often trigger a plethora of other anxiety-based issues they may have. When this occurs in churches, this melancholic anxiety base can, in itself, be both a source of anxiety as well as a trigger for greater anxiety.

Its Not Just Melancholies!

Melancholies are not, however, to be singled out exclusively as culprits for anxiety. All personality styles have triggers which result in anxiety. Cholerics have high expectations to achieve mastery in controlling things and resources. Sanguines have high emotional need to have a plethora of people who like, respect and follow them. Phlegmatics also nurture sometimes life-long reliance on a small group of trusted individuals. Break down the walls of the Cholerics kingdom, throw rejection and abandonment into the path of the Sanguine, and remove loyalty from those on whom the Phlegmatics rely and anxiety will result.

The resulting trauma from such unexpected “doses of reality” may trigger any personality into extremely high levels of anxiety. When this anxiety occurs every personality will be faced with a choice. Will I deal with the anxiety using fantasy or reality? The path taken will greatly influence the subsequent anxiety experienced in each individual’s emotional process.

Elaine N. Aron in her book, The Highly Sensitive Person In Love, writes, “There is a strong drive in all humans and other animals to maintain an optimal level of arousal” (The Highly Sensitive Person In Love, p. 132). When this optimal level is disrupted, all-too-often unpredictable levels—and manifestations—of anxiety may emerge. As the various anxieties emerge so will the intensity and multiplicity of anxious responses. The responses suggested may be based in reality, fantasy or a combination of both.

Highly Sensitive People (HSP’s)

Elaine Aron describes anxious people as “Highly Sensitive People” or “HSPs.”

“HSPs are that fifteen to twenty percent of the human population born with a nervous system genetically designed to be more sensitive to subtleties, more prone to deep reflection on inner experience, and therefore inevitably more easily overwhelmed by outer events…I am not talking about a little quirk here, but a major, normal, inherited difference in how the entire nervous system functions, affecting every aspect of life. It is present in about a fifth of the populations, and to some degree in a much larger percentage; thus is people were matched randomly, the change of a relationship being affected by the trait is at least thirty-six percent”  (The Highly Sensitive Person In Love, p. 3).

The implications of this observation are enormous for organizations, especially churches.

·        20% of all members in “normal” congregations are HSP’s;

·        One-Third of all married couples will have a strong HSP component;

·        Leaders ought to expect that any congregational gathering (whether board, committee, task force et al) will be composed of at least 33% of HSPs; and

·        Various congregational groupings may be have significantly more or less HSPs depending on the nature, focus and function of the ministry group;

·        Since not all HSPs will be involved in various boards, committees and task forces there will be a significant number of congregational HSPs “not in the know” who will tend to respond as HSPs.

·        HSP dynamics are a daily and unavoidable aspect of any people-oriented organization, including churches;

·        Ministries and organizations may experience disproportionately more or less HSPs depending on numerous factors including:

a)      the dominant and sub-dominant emotional process of the congregation;

b)      the founding circumstances of the congregation (e.g. schismatic? Intentional? Etc. )

c)      the patterns by which new members joined and members are “clustered” (e.g. en masse, individually, in groups, in families, by support for specific ministry foci, etc.)

d)      the focus and ministry orientation of the congregation (e.g. support group oriented, education oriented, music oriented, etc.);

e)      the ministry life and lifestyle of the congregation (e.g. is it traditional? transformational? Contemporary? Etc.)

f)        the greater community, ethnic and cultural context of the ministry;

g)      the theological emphases/de-emphases of the organization (e.g. charismatic, fundamental, moderate, rational, spiritual, etc.)

h)      denominational influences and positions which influence various attitudes of inclusion or exclusion of certain personality types, individuals, behaviors, etc.

What does all this mean? It simply means that there are many, many sources for a whole variety of anxieties in congregations. Since there is such a great deal of anxiety, congregational leaders must be cognizant of congregational anxiety and, more importantly, how individuals, groups and organizations deal with it. Do they deal with their anxiety with reality or fantasy...or a mixture of both. If a mixture, is it 80/20, 70/30, or 50/50? And does the same mixture hold for other areas of ministry too? Likely it will not.

Certain issues such as worship and giving typically elicit the highest levels of anxiety while other issues may not elicit the same kinds of response. Sometimes its not the issue that elicits the unexpected “lopsided” mixture of reality and fantasy to deal with anxiety. It’s the person who is responding.  

HSP patriarchs and matriarchs of all stripes seem to somehow skew the normal distribution of anxiety to their direction in sudden and surprising ways. To watch how such individuals continue to maintain an impressive track record of influence is often simply to observe the way they are able to elicit anxious responses of other HSPs. The more one can stand back, observe, watch and learn how the anxiety works in an organization, the greater the leaders’ chances for managing anxiety it in an effect manner.

Pastors As HSPs

If Aron’s statement that fifteen to twenty percent of all individuals are HSPs, then fifteen to twenty percent of all pastors are HSPs. Furthermore one-third of all clergy marriages will be HSPs. This also effectives congregations, too.

The degree to which these leaders use fantasy to address their anxiety will greatly influence their leadership style and ministry. Lay leaders often burn-out, get frustrated or leave a church because of dashed fantasies. The same can happen to pastors. In pursuit of their “dream” leaders may not have the capacities to contain their anxiety when congregational members rain on the pastor’s parade.

T his frustration is especially evident when congregations may initially aspire to the vision of growth and mission. As they recognize the price for growth and mission, they may respond in anxiety. As H. B. London observed, “It only takes a week to bring down in a church what has taken a decade of sweat and blood to build.”

For the pastors of such churches the resulting anxiety is often overwhelming. It represents the failure of anxiety management systems and may bring on an unprecedented and overwhelming experience of brokenness. For them changing churches may not be the answer. It may simply mask the deeper problems of learning to deal effectively with anxiety in others and themselves.

Pastors, too, must recognize that their fantasy-based expectations may be the fuse for ministry frustration, burnout and resignation. One pastor complained to a denominational overseer regarding the chronic conflict, lack of financial support, the anti-mission sentiment experienced in the congregation, and the general spirit of indifference to pastoral leadership. “What else would you expect from sinners?” the denominational overseer replied.

No Resilience In Fantasy

There is little—if any—resilience in fantasy. Resorting to fantasy may hide the pain of the moment but the emotional cancer will continue to grow. Why? Because the root of fantasy-based emotional system is in shame, guilt and uncertainty of the self. Net Results on-line “Healthy Pastors Take Care Of Their Inner Self” seminar (also reproduced  in Ministry Health) describes this in greater detail.

Friel and Friel in Adult Child’s Guide To What’s Normal (Deerfield Beach: Health Communications, 1990, pp. 17-20) provide what may be the most helpful illustration of this. Using the illustration of an iceberg they demonstrate how the basic elements of the anxiety-based fantasy-driven emotional process is the fear of abandonment, shame, guilt and codependency.

Essentially these all are evidenced by a clear sense of identity, self-definition, self-differentiation and healthy boundaries. These items comprise those parts of the iceberg submerged below the surface. Above the surface, however, are various emotional tendencies indicating resistance, struggle and/or the denial of reality. These include chemical disorders, eating disorders, depression, relationship addictions, stress disorders, and a whole list of compulsions. Any or all of these states can be seen in those pastors and ministries which are losing—or have lost—their resilience and joy in ministry.

Adapting Friel and Friel’s iceberg describing healthy, reality-based individuals, those with healthier reality-based ministry and approaches to life experience a confidence that they will never be abandoned by God, they are never alone, and that the forgiveness of Christ not only releases them from shame but gives absolute freedom in the Gospel to realize what God has called them to do. This is what one observes is seen below the surface.

Above the surface this healthy iceberg results in a permeative spiritual freedom overcomes fear of rejection, abandonment, criticism, incompetence or failure. Most importantly it gives, nourishes and deepens their roots in the absolute confidence of ministry strength and victory based on the reality of God’s presence, power and grace. 

When Jesus sent His disciples out He didn’t urge them to deny the fear. He didn’t call them to fantasy. Instead, He said, “Fear not…” In a most profound sense Jesus’ exhortation was not only an exhortation to courage but a courage based on a deep sense of conviction, calling and trust in God’s ever-guiding presence.

Resilience Affirmations

Even as Jesus’ disciples became more experienced in their ministries, Jesus appears to encourage their development of “Resilience Affirmations.” Paul’s epistles contain numerous resilience affirmations. Affirmation in his Epistle of Joy, Philippians, include “I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me,” “For me to live is Christ, to die is gain.” I Corinthians 15 “Know that your labor for the Lord is not in vain” is one of the many standouts among his corpus of resilience affirmations.

What things do these resilience affirmations have in common?

1)     They have the recognition that Christian ministry is a ministry to the real world.

2)     Real world ministry is beset with pain, hardship, rejection, abandonment, and failure as well as the enticing entrapments of success, pride and self-aggrandizement.

3)     A recognition that without God one’s calling, ministry and very existence would be meaningless. One’s life and ministry has value only in the grace of God and through the cross of Jesus Christ.

4)     To the extent one bases their ministry on fantasy they give up the real strength and power that God gives for resilience in the real ministry world.

Building on these affirmations perhaps pastors desiring to be reality-based may have “Resilience Affirmations” such as:

1)     I am a child of God by grace. I don’t deserve anything I am or have.

2)     God’s gift to me is that has given me a calling to serve where I am to proclaim to Gospel of Jesus Christ to whomever will hear it.

3)     God’s purpose for giving me the calling to where I am is to transform my soul and my relationship with Him through the unique—and sometimes difficult—circumstances of my present calling.

4)     Running away from my calling simply indicates that I believe the fantasy that the grass is greener on the other side.

5)     The more I learn not to flee or become reactive when I’m anxious the more I will learn the truth about myself and God.

6)     God never gives a commission without giving the promise of His presence (Matthew 28:18-20; Matthew 10:1ff; Exodus 3:1ff; Isaiah 6; Jeremiah 1:6ff et al).

7)     Often the greatest and most intense realization of the power of God’s presence in ministry comes when we trust Him in our anxiety.

When individuals, congregations and ministry leaders start to realize that these affirmations direct us to the real experience of power in ministry and away from the anxiety of ministry frustration and failure, they develop a God-pleasing resilience. It strengthens them for the moment…and for a long-term ministry.

Unfortunately, perhaps too many pastors and other church leaders are too prone to reject the resilience of reality-based ministry for fickle faithless fantasy. Those who do will fall flat on their face and fail.

The Church: Fair Game For Fantasy?

Perhaps what is most amazing about the Christian church is its propensity toward fantasy. Strangely enough this tendency is found in both liberal and conservative churches. Even those churches which hold high to the truth of the Word of God in all that it says and teaches have this tendency toward fantasy. 

This is not a recent trend by any means. It has been perpetuated in the Christian Church for millennia. Perhaps pastors, church leaders and the laity have all been affected—and infected—by this fantasy. The result? They may become ineffective. 

Christmas: An Example Of Fantasy

Christmas is a prime example of fantasy. Without wanting to resort to Ebenezer Scrooge’s cynical, self-serving anti-Christmas perspective, one need only reflect on many of the songs of Christmas to discover how fantasy has invaded Christmas.

·        How many people have "chestnuts roasting on an open fire?"

·        Does anyone hear "sleigh bells" outside their door?

·        What percentage of the world’s population actually has a "white Christmas"?

·        If Christmas is, indeed, a "silent night, holy night" why are law enforcement officials on the job investigating break-ins which occur on Christmas Eve?

All sentimentality aside, who has ever seen flying reindeer? Given two billion children under people, even if all of these children under the age of eighteen were not "naughty" but "nice," how could Santa possibly visit even just the 15% of children that don’t believe in Santa—Muslim, Hindu, Jewish and Buddhist?

Pastors know how difficult it can be to get in even 20 or 30 more home visits a month. How is Santa going to visit 91.8 million homes in less than 12 hours, plus or minus a few to adjust for time zones? It just ain’t real. It’s fantasy.

The Christmas Fantasy Exposed 

Dirk Talasse in his article Santa Claus: Scientific Inquiry Into the Virginia Postulate posits that it in order for Santa to make these visits the total Christmas trip would be 75.5 million miles at the speed of 650 miles per second…nearly 3000 times the speed of sound. Given that "conventional" reindeer can run approximately 15 miles per hour—with a tail wind, tops—something seems strangely out of whack. Just imagine the "G-forces" that Santa would experience from over four million pounds of force. (I hope none of the gifts fly off the sleigh!)

One must also, however, consider the drag of a sleigh carrying approximately 321,300 tons of toys (estimating one small toy for each of the children in the 91.8 million homes). Of course, we all know that Santa himself, at well over 300 pounds, doesn’t help lighten the payload either. Can nine reindeer—including the magical one with that funny red nose—do the job? Not at all. Talasse estimates that one would need over 353, 430 reindeer to provide enough "horse" power to pull this off. And the deer still can’t fly.

If this whole consortium of deer, sleigh, tons of gifts and a jolly fat man in a red suit could get off the ground, the combination of speed and the resulting heat from air resistance would create heat far more intense than that experienced by space vehicles during re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere. Absorbing 14.4 quintillion joules of energy per second, the entire reindeer team would vaporize in 4.26 thousandths of a second.

Unfortunately, Christianity also promotes the fantasy. As if being overwhelmed with the out-of-control materialism which marks Christmas isn’t enough, how can intelligent, thoughtful Christians imagine that "the little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes" could in any way be true? Did Jesus not cry? How else did this holy infant make His needs known? Telepathy? Dreams? The bat qol?

Perhaps the biggest problem with fantasy is that it becomes a substitute for reality. When the fun of fantasy—including the Christmas fantasy—begins to take on a quasi-reality, this fantasy becomes an instrument of denial. Perhaps the biggest problem with Christmas is that so much of what we hear, experience and celebrate is based on a denial-based fantasy. 

The Reality-Based Christmas

The real message of Christmas is quite different from the fantasy. Jesus, the newborn member of the human family, was not "cutchy-cooed" and loved by all. Members of the family didn’t even want Him. How many hundreds of relatives did Mary and Joseph both have in Bethlehem?

Yet not one family member appears to have helped in the least. Naked, hungry and without a place to stay, the worst thing was not that there no room in the inn. The worst thing was that no family would help or assist in any way. "He came to His own, and His own received Him not." So much for the fantasy of the "family get-together." 

Within days of His birth, still in the "euphoric" twelve days of Christmas, Simeon announced that this child would die a horrific death. This news of His ignominious fate certainly did not result in a chorus of "Deck the Halls."

Perhaps isolated outside the village limits of Bethlehem, the Christmas family did not have a tree, lights or gifts. All they had was a crisis…and too little to make do. A Baby was being born…and all they had was a place with animals, hay and a manger.

But the Baby, nonetheless, was born—rejected, isolated and alone in a sinful world bent toward His destruction. Remarkably, this one called Immanuel gave us what we needed most: a rooting in the reality that God IS with us. 

The Ministry Fantasy

As many are driven by the Christmas fantasy, many in ministry are driven by a ministry fantasy. We believe that everything should be perfect, celebrative, loving. There should be no conflict, no disappointment, no rejection and no pain.

Isn’t it interesting how the Christmas fantasy has so much in common with the ministry fantasy. As the Christmas fantasy obscures, occludes and hides the reality of Christmas, so the ministry fantasy also obscures and hides the reality of the experience of ministry.

Fantasy Vs. Reality

What are the differences between “fantasy” and “reality?” Putting aside various philosophical ontological perspectives, “fantasy” is basically that which is not real. It is, as Webster’s College Dictionary notes, “a product of the imagination, an illusory image.” “Reality” however is “realistic” in that it is “true to life.” It is objective, “self-existent” and not subjectively derived or dependent on speculation.

Perhaps a more concrete way to detail the differences between fantasy and reality is to make a direct comparison of the many characteristics of each.







Seeks immediate gratification

Delays gratification



Evades responsibility

Welcomes responsibility



Requires no work

Requires live-long efforts

Passive--It will come to me

Pro-active--I must take the initiative

Unhealthy character-based

Healthy character-based



Resists transformation

Anticipates/accepts transformation

Self-contained, fully realized

Leads to further dreams

Looking to "arrive" in life

Life is a never-ending journey

Based on moment by moment externals

Based on internal character of the "soul"

Happily ever after

Trial-generated joy

Unchanging state of being/self

Process of continued transformation

Seeks control

Requires letting God control



Can't let go

Lets go and lets God

Expects Security

Expects to deal healthily with anxiety

Expects perfection

Strives to improve the imperfect

Avoids "talk, trust, feel" intimacy

Based on healthy relationships

"Love means never having to say you're sorry"

Love based on unending forgiveness

Denies fears

Requires courage to overcome fears

Avoids pain

Recognizes pain transforms and strengthens

Goal: to "arrive"

"Goes to where no man has gone before"

Seeks to re-live past

Goal: face the unknown

Destined to disappointment without hope for possibilities for growth

Constantly looks for growth possibilites


A reality-based understanding of Christmas provides a healthy basis for ministry. The reality is that both Christmas and ministry entail rejection, disappointment, dashed expectations, neglecting God’s gifts, etc. The sending of the infant Jesus to be our Savior gives us the greatest reality. In spite of what we experience, God really is with us. As long as we do not give up that reality, the reality of a ministry rooted in the proclamation of Law and Gospel will do exactly what God intends: destroy the fantasies that perpetuate sin and create real faith, real ministry, real hopes and real confidence and victory over anxiety.

 As the Christmas song proclaims, "The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight." Real Christmas and real ministry is full of hopes and full of fears...virtually every single day.  The reality, however, is that Christ’s presence with us overshadows that fear. That is the message the angels gave at the very first announcement of Christ’s birth: 

"Fear not, for behold I bring you great tidings of great joy which shall be to all people. Today, in the city of David, is born to you a Savior, Christ the Lord."

That is the reality of Christmas. That is the reality of ministry. This reality is greater than any fantasy. It is the reality of grace, of comfort, and of joy.

 Even as God has been with us in past millennia, His promise is to be with us in the coming millennium. "Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel has come to you, O Israel!" 

Perhaps as we preach that reality we will give strength to ourselves and our hearers and realize a healthier resilience in ourselves and our congregations.

Thomas F. Fischer

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This page was revised on: Tuesday, October 05, 2004 11:03:36 PM