Pete Aird is a GP (Family Doctor) working in the NHS in England. He told Gavin Matthews all about the ways he shares his Christian faith through work, in person and online.
Solas: Hi Pete! Tell us a little about your job? What are your roles and responsibilities?
PA: Hello Gavin! Well I am a just a jobbing family GP! I’ve been in this practice in Bridgewater in Somerset for almost 25 years. I have about 1800 patients who are registered with me and I seek to co-ordinate and manage their healthcare. I deal with as much as I possibly can here in Primary Care, but then refer on where appropriate. I work treating people for mental health issues; increasingly so since the pandemic started. Covid infection rates in Somerset have been comparatively low, and we haven’t had more than about half a dozen people who have been significantly unwell with it. We’ve had a few deaths, but only one outside a nursing home where the real problems were focussed. But mental health and anxiety issues are huge, especially about jobs, security and ultimately a fear of death. When people have no hope beyond this life, it’s easy to understand why the threat of death is such a huge thing. I was also GP trainer for many years, but relinquished that responsibility a couple of years ago.
Solas: And of all those things, what’s the best part of your job? What gives you job satisfaction?
PA: Undoubtedly it’s relationships – both with patients and staff. It’s a real joy to be in one place for almost 25 years, laying down roots; knowing people is lovely. My best friend is the one Dr who has been in the practice longer than me who I’ve known all that time. I’m a Christian, he’s an atheist and so we give each other a bit of gip about that! Knowing patients in the long term is great too. I saw a lady this week with her new baby, and first saw her as a patient when she was two years old! Science and medicine is not my primary interest actually, people are though; and it’s in knowing and helping them that I get job satisfaction. I wouldn’t want to be a surgeon, doing complex interventions but never getting to know the patients!
Equally I haven’t warmed to the remote-consulting we’ve had to do during Covid. I’m looking forward to seeing people again!
Solas: tell me about some of the challenges you face in your work, and then about how your faith in Christ helps you to navigate those challenges of work?
PA: Well there are a few issues around medical ethics which are a challenge for a Christian, most obviously around termination of pregnancy. That’s not something I have anything to do with. Early on in my career I did the referrals, but didn’t sign the form but attached a letter which said “Down to matters of conscience I cannot sign the form”. I felt that that was my little statement. However I felt a little uncomfortable doing that and after reading Corrie ten Boom’s book, “The Hiding Place” about the way her Christian family paid a high price for hiding Jews from the Nazis, I decided I couldn’t even do that. Corrie and her family did what they thought was right – and the consequences followed. I thought it was wrong to be involved in terminations so I told all my partners that I was no longer going to do referrals and if they didn’t want me in the practice anymore then so be it. But they were all absolutely fine with it, so now everyone in the practice knows that’s my stance. So there are a few ethical issues, but most of those are pretty few and far between.
A lot of GP work isn’t really ‘medicine’ as such, but involves a lot of supporting people through life. People sometimes say to me, “I’d love to have a Christian GP” but I’m not sure about that. I think it was Martin Luther who said he’d “rather be governed by a competent Turk, than an incompetent Christian.” And I think that’s right. You shouldn’t want to be treated by a Christian doctor, but by a good one! The two are not mutually exclusive I hope!! If you come to see me with pneumonia, what I would say and what my atheist colleague would say to you would pretty much the same. However a lot of what I see is related to unhappiness, marital problems, which are often brought to the doctor for want of anyone else to take these issues to these days – especially as the churches are not the source of wisdom and support that they perhaps were a hundred years ago. So of course, what I say to a patient who has sadness and dissatisfaction with life may differ from what my non-Christian friend and colleague says. And occasionally my faith does come up. Now it wouldn’t be my role in the workplace to offer to pray for people when they are diagnosed with pneumonia or cancer. That said, there have been patents who are Christians and are aware that I am a Christian and asked me to pray for them. And inevitably if a patient asks for my advice my faith will shape what I say in some way. So for example a lot of people are attempting to be “awesome”. The gospel begins by saying, “Well, actually you’re not, and it’s OK – of course you’re not, but there is someone who was, and that is what will make it right, rather than you trying a bit harder or trying to achieve what you can’t!”
Sometimes when I ask a sad patient what they most want out of life they say, “I just want to be happy”. So ask them, “What makes you happy?”, and that’s where the problems come. I don’t think that happiness comes from looking within, but looking without. So I have occasionally said to someone, “Have you ever been to the top of a high mountain, or seen a wonderful rocky coastline with waves crashing majestically and thought, ‘could you sit there and look at that for ever?’” And they’ll often say yes! I’ll point out that they were happy, and it had nothing to do with them but rather they were admiring splendour, rather than being splendid themselves. Now if you want to be infinitely and eternally happy, you need something which is infinitely and eternally great and eternal to enjoy. At that point, where the conversation goes is up to the patient. If they ask, I’ll say that “to answer that, I’d have to involve my Christian faith, are you Ok with that?” If they say no, that’s it – but sometimes someone will want to know more and I reply, “Well I believe God is the one who is infinitely great and eternal and happiness can be found in Him. That doesn’t mean that you don’t try and do your best but also accepting that our best will never be enough.”
A lot of my writing in GP online forum’s picks up that theme, “you’re not amazing – and you don’t have to live on that constant conveyor belt of trying to prove that you are”. It’s Tomlin who said, “The trouble with the rat-race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat.”
The third issue is that sometimes when things just get crazy-busy; it is helpful to remember that God is in control of this, not me. God is ultimately responsible for the life of every patient, not me. I’ll do my bit, but finally he decides who lives and dies. That relives a lot of pressure because if it was all down to me it would be overwhelming. All my patients will ultimately die, and if trying to keep them all alive was all my responsibility that would be impossible, so it’s a relief not to have to carry that whole burden.
Solas: So you are clearly known as a Christian at work. What kind of reactions have there been to that?
PA: No one objects, I don’t get hostile comments from staff. My best-mate and colleague who is an atheist said this week, “So when they find life on Mars, how will that change your God-thing, then?” There will be questions to answer if there is! Another guy said to me as we Ieft for the Easter weekend, “Have a good weekend, oh no sorry, it’s Good Friday tomorrow, Christians are supposed to be miserable then!” He was being tongue-in cheek, I don’t get real hostility just some good natured gip!
It’s amazing how much people just do not understand the gospel though. If I say something wrong they’ll quip. “Oh, well, you won’t go to heaven now.” They think that if you do anything naughty you get disqualified! That’s something that concerns me too about patients who profess Christian faith – a lot of them still think that it’s functionally all about good works. I had someone recently tell me she was worried that God would reject her because she had been a smoker, and it was my privilege to tell her what the gospel really is.
When I share Christian insights in the “Resilient GP” group on Facebook, I get cheeky comments sometimes. I recently posted something comparing the “What would Jesus do” slogan with “What has Jesus done?” I got some disagreement, and Facebook isn’t usually a good forum for debate, but you can sow a few ideas there. So, very little antagonism.
I’ve had one complaint about talking about my faith with a patient which was sad. The complaint didn’t even come from the patient (who was very positive about it) but from a family member. My partners at work are all atheists, but they are happy for me to share my faith – as long as I do it sensitively and appropriately. On a couple of occasions they have sent patients to see me because they have come in with some kind of ‘religious’ issue.
Solas: Have you ever had anyone push back with any particular objections (such as faith is incompatible with science), or is it more “that’s nice for you but not for me’?
PA: Lots of the latter – that truth is subjective and you should just believe whatever you feel. My atheist colleague likes to debate science and suffering. I’ve thought the suffering issue through extensively and written on it. I’m less up to speed with the scientific issues, although I did read Richard Dawkins The God Delusion, and was amazed about how little he knew about Christianity. Then a lot of his criticisms of religion I would endorse too. These discussions are the result of a 24year long friendship. Even when I was called a “Bible-basher” last week by a colleague, it was with a laugh and a smile!
Interestingly some of the non-Christian staff I work with engage positively with my more overtly Christian posts online. There are plenty of bad things about Facebook, but one of the nice things is that I can post something and people can read it if they want to, or ignore it if they’d rather! But I think that it can be used to invite people to think and occasionally people have contacted me to ask more about the things I’ve posted about the gospel.
My Facebook presence is somewhat strategic. I wrote a series of posts for “Resilient GP” based on “The Christmas Carol” which went down really well. They weren’t overtly Christian posts. They were influenced by my Christian faith but weren’t directly Christian and got a really good response. But writing is not all about me, or how many “likes” I get. People need to like Jesus, not me!
So I decided to be more overtly Christian and the first time I did that I was a bit nervous. I did it winsomely, not obnoxiously – and having built up a little following I was interested to see if I would be heard saying something more Christian. I sometimes put up a link to my blog page too where there are a lot of direct Christian messages. At peteaird.org, there’s medical stuff, Christian stuff and some poetry too. I don’t preach Jesus every week on the “Resilient GP” forum, as that would be inappropriate as that is not the purpose of the group. Nevertheless, there are a lot of Drs who are struggling, and my faith is definitely something that has helped to make me resilient, and so I can share that. I don’t know how effective this has been, I can just be faithful.
Solas: What’s your motivation for sharing Jesus?
PA: It’s just such good news! I once went to a truly great Somerset Cricket game – it was amazing, and I told everyone about it. CS Lewis said, “We want to praise that which we delight in”, so why wouldn’t you want to talk about the best thing? The gospel is unquestionably the best news – eternally. If you love people then you don’t keep good news from them. Imagine if a Dr had a cure for cancer but was too embarrassed to tell people about it! I do want people to know. It’s not because I judge people, or want them to try harder or do better, it’s just the best news for them to hear. It’s important to make clear that I don’t think I’m better than them, but that I need forgiveness too.
Solas: What advice would you give to a younger Christian starting out as a GP who wants to be faithful to Christ there?
PA: Don’t leave it a long time before telling people that you are a Christian. It is much better to be up front from the beginning. If you don’t get a job because you are a Christian, just do the right thing anyway – God will decide whether or not you get the job. Be faithful to God, it’s not wrong to tell the truth and be yourself. Also, if all you ever talk about is your faith you won’t get very far. So, be interested in other things, and in people. You are a whole-person of which your Christianity is a major part and you need to represent that, rather than just irritate people if you only talk about one thing. Care about people even in small things, my colleagues disagree with me but don’t object to me – perhaps because I have lots of normal conversations with them too. Workplace evangelism starts with personal relationships, not sermons!
Solas: That is really helpful, thankyou!
PA: Lovely to speak you!