This week I want to share a personal story about confronting intimidation and fear. Very few people in my life have tried to intimidate me. Fewer have succeeded. Once, however, while I was a seminary student working temporary jobs between semesters, I worked for a man who tried to intimidate me. That job didn’t last long. A great reason to do temporary work: it can end quickly when it is not working.
My job was to staff the front desk of the office and answer the phones as the temp receptionist. One day during a break I was in the back of the office speaking to a friend who was in a crisis. I really didn’t take or make many personal calls on this or any temp job. But for some reason I was speaking with this friend who was having a very difficult time. And my boss came into the break area. It seemed clear that he wanted to listen in on what I was saying, and I clearly didn’t want him to. I tried to wrap up the call as delicately and quickly as I could.
During the time while I worked there, Mr. J was very complimentary and encouraging, asking me to consider taking the job on a longer-term basis. However, after the strange eavesdropping and non-interaction in the break room, his attitude changed. Later the same afternoon or perhaps it was the next day, he came to the reception area with a different approach.
An Unwelcoming Reception (Desk)
It’s an awkward set up. I’m sure you’ve seen one like this where to speak over the desk the receptionist needs to be standing or else visitors peer down upon the receptionist. Mr. J was peering down at me, and he began asking a series of questions that I really didn’t want to answer. I don’t remember many of those questions except that they had to do with his effort to get information about me and may be about why I’ve been having a private phone call on my break.
The more he asked the more resistant I became to answering his questions. My answers got shorter and shorter. I’m sure my nonverbal language was extremely defensive. Finally, he insinuated (I don’t remember his words) that if I worked for him, then I had an obligation to answer his questions. The questions were not about my work as a receptionist, and I knew I did not have any such obligation.
What he was doing was intimidating me and trying to control my behavior and push me into submitting to his line of questioning. My defensiveness was an effort to keep control of my emotions, which in the moment I mostly did. Or at least I didn’t cry. I remember the feeling of that moment far more than the words that we exchanged. Both anger and fear were rising up in my body. That is where we experience our emotions: not just in our minds but in our bodies. I felt brittle and like I might explode. I worked hard to keep all of this suppressed and hidden.
Fortunately, this interrogation was near the end of a workday. For some reason my spouse Lynn was picking me up. I think perhaps we were leaving town on that Friday? I’m not sure the reason, but what I know is when I got into the car, it didn’t take long for the flood of emotions to come pouring out. All the anger and disgust and resistance to this man who was trying to intimidate me and make me feel afraid.
Intimidation is an Abuse of Power
This kind of intimidation is sadly common in workplace settings. It does nothing to foster trust. And instead it creates deep divides and reinforces unfair and unnecessary systems of power. Mr. J was abusing the power that he held. If there was a rule about personal phone calls that I was breaking, then I will never know. Because that was never said. And even if that were the case there was no need for him to intimidate me so as to convey that information.
This week I took a survey for Baptist Women in Ministry. (If you are a Baptist woman in ministry please consider taking it.) The questions were good; and they involved many aspects of ministry life, including difficult things that women face on a regular basis in congregational life and other places of ministry. While I was taking the survey, I thought about how many women I know who have told me painful stories of times when they were dismissed, overlooked, intimidated, or harassed. Each of these strategies for ignoring or keeping women out of power play on fear.
Meanwhile those in power in the very same churches and ministry organizations may preach a gospel of love that casts out fear (I John 4:18). Yet they depend on fear to keep control of women and other people in the system. They depend on fear – and sometimes they resort to fear tactics – to keep power in their own hands.
Practical and Theological Responses
Fortunately for me, I had the option to say no and never go back to working for Mr. J. Thinking back, I’m guessing the position was open because he had a habit of intimidating people (mostly women) sitting behind the receptionist desk. I have no idea the depths or particularities of his need to intimidate. But I can imagine he simply thought he was in the right because he was the most powerful person in the office. It seems likely that he believed it was his freedom and right to demand what he wanted from anyone else working there. Working “for him.”
I also remember that he insinuated that he could give the temporary agency a poor evaluation of me. Tell them that I was uncooperative. And as I recall I phoned the agency right away when I got into the car that afternoon. (These were the days when mobile phones were mounted on a stand between the seats.) And I told the agency I would not be going back and that they shouldn’t send anyone else there either.
He underestimated me. Twenty-five-year-old me may not have had the courage to confront him in the moment. But I was not going to give fear the final word in our exchange either.
I may have been young and only just beginning seminary, but my theology was strong enough to know that I, nor anyone else, deserve to be intimidated. This is not to say I’ve never tried to intimidate anyone myself. Surely I have made that mistake at times. We all make mistakes. And that is why we need forgiveness. And as Maya Angelou says, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
Learning in Practice Across Time
To be sure, in my early life, I was more distant and less approachable as a person. This contributed to why people were less likely to try to intimidate me. I was also unlikely to put myself in situations where someone would confront me. So no heroics in the way I handled myself with Mr. J.
Telling a story like this, however, helps me think about how much differently I approach similar situations now. For one thing I respect fear and the information it gives us about the situation. Fear has a real purpose in our lives, and it keeps us from stepping into oncoming traffic or taking risks that endanger ourselves or others.
And as ministers and spiritual guides, fear (as with other emotions) gives us information about what people are coping with. As for situations like Mr. J which are meant to be intimidating, I’ve also expanded my range of options for responding. I am different, more approachable. Now I am more likely to lean into someone using fear tactics. I’m more likely to confront the behavior more directly, disarming the intimidator. A better response than defensively trying to hold my feelings in check. And I can also do that work with more kindness as well. This is one of many ways that learning in practice across time can change us and the ways we respond in difficult situations.
Cathy Confronts Fear
Here is the story of Cathy, a catholic woman discerning her call to ministry. In the process she encounters her fears. She also encounters grace and blessing.
You can learn more of Cathy’s story in Pastoral Imagination and in this article: “Living Testaments: How Catholic and Baptist Women in Ministry Both Judge and Renew the Church.” If you would like a full text of the article, please contact me. For months, it was open source, but it is not any longer. Finally, here is a question for your week. I hope you will take time to think it through.
— Three Minute Ministry Mentor (@3MinuteMin) November 15, 2021