Naive pastors and the unexpected pain of pastoring
The Bible talks on several occasions about suffering. And you don’t have to be a Christian, or even a spiritual person, to know that the world has too much suffering for inexplicable reasons.
But, what do you do with that reality? Some teach that one should detach from suffering but that could become confused and conflated with Buddhist teachings. I believe suffering can be accepted in a healthy way (or unhealthy ways, too, for the record.)
Suffering and pain is plain and simple a part of life. (Not to split hairs, here, suffering and pain are not identical, but I’ll be using these 2 words interchangeably as I unpack my ruminations.)
Pain is a signal to your brain that something is wrong. There’s the obvious physical pain, whether it’s a paper cut, or a hand accidentally touching the stove. And there’s the less obvious pains of high blood pressure or emotional pain from loss of a loved one, frustration over relational strains.
For the naïve pastor, it’s easy to take a cursory reading of the Bible and advise someone who is experiencing pain in the midst of suffering to have more faith, to pray, and to persevere. Saying and dispensing the correct answer can come across flat and hollow. Yes, that’s true truth, but there’s so much more.
There’s 2 parts to consider here. First, how does a pastor counsel someone in suffering. Secondly, how does a pastor go through suffering decently well.
The Unknown Secret of Spiritual Growth
One of the first book that I recall bring this to light is Sam Chand’s book on leadership, titled Leadership Pain: The Classroom for Growth. The book is well worth the read and there’s a bunch of great Sam Chand quotes online. But here’s the quote that seared into my understanding:
“You’ll grow only to the threshold of your pain.”
The corollary is that one’s leadership capacity is proportional to how much pain one can suffer and endure and go through. Whoa.
In my own experience with suffering and pain, I held on to the truth in James 1:2-4, not only to know it cognitively but to know it experientially and live it viscerally and painfully.
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.james.bible/james-1/
That’s the side of spiritual growth that most publications and preachers don’t talk about, because these are hard sayings. It’s much easier to program a curriculum or deliver an inspirational or motivational pep talk. It’s much harder to speak about this truth, this secret truth, that there is an essential part of spiritual growth that can only come by going through suffering with faith and perseverance, even if it’s just hanging on and not giving up on God, believing that God doesn’t give up on you. Now, don’t go foolishly looking for suffering, it’ll come, just you wait.
When A Pastor is Going through Pain and Suffering
Suffering happens to pastors too, because they’re as human as anyone else in this world. I’ve blogged about how pastoring is one of the hardest jobs in the world. There’s that extra degree of difficulty in the work itself.
Then there is personal suffering that’s very much the same kind of thing that everyday people go through too, like suffering of a loved one, financial strains, unresolved conflicts, trauma of many kinds, death of someone close, and diseases that are untreatable or treatable. And most recently, there’s a growing awareness of mental health challenges among pastors that tend to be under-addressed.
Because of the pastor’s role in a congregational setting, there may be parts of the pastor’s life that cannot be freely and openly addressed in a public context, depending on the church polity and culture. This isn’t exclusively to pastors, but it comes with expectations of those in leadership positions.
Pastors need a safe place for her/him to have support in processing and resolving the stresses of ministry work. Staying healthy is an absolutely essential thing for fruitful and effective ministry, because without it, the collateral damage is catastrophic. Tragically, pastors have died by suicide, like Jarrid Wilson and Andrew Stoecklein. Other kinds of catastrophe damage terribly too, like abuse, trauma, and scandals.
Where Pastors Can Get Personal Help and Support
Where can pastors find personal support for whatever it is that they’re going through? That can be challenging because of the economics of the matter, since most pastors are underpaid with limited budgets. There are nonprofits and ministries that specifically serve pastors and church leaders for their personal and spiritual health. Some of that may come with denominational and network associations too. I don’t have the bandwidth to track and build a list of all those ministries.
What I can do is share about one that I’m familiar with. That is Standing Stone Ministry. Founded by Jim & Debbie Hogan, this ministry provides shepherding for shepherds through confidential relationships and retreats. Their book, Shepherding Shepherds: The Standing Stone Story, tells about how all of it works.
Learn more at standingstoneministry.org and let them know DJ sent you.