I grew up wanting to be a leader. By my high school years, I set my eyes on the class presidency. Losing handily as a sophomore, I eked out a small victory over a crowded field the following year. After a landslide victory my senior year, I was sure that I would conquer the world. At the same time, God was clearly telling me that my life’s purpose was far greater than conquering the world. I wrestled with the nuances of this call during my college years, but it was clear that God was calling me to some form of pastoral ministry.
Surprised by Pain
Just a couple of years removed from college, my young family embarked on the journey of a lifetime when I accepted the call to pastor my home church in Beaver, West Virginia. We would go on to spend over seven years learning the ropes of pastoral ministry. It was joyful, yet challenging. Due to God’s grace and many merciful congregants, I survived. In fact, I feel that our ministry flourished on many levels. At the same time, I was struggling as a leader.
Early on, I adopted the principles of servant leadership. I embraced the carefully tested strategies of church transformation. I sought out mentors and read everything I could on pastoral leadership. Still, I felt inadequate as a leader. In hindsight, my primary problem was that I did not know how to process pain.
I do not want to imply that my first pastorate was wrought with pain; in fact, it went about as smoothly as I could have hoped. That is, until we announced our call to another church. For more than seven years I had successfully navigated potential landmines like a pro. Growing up in this congregation allowed me to understand our unwritten rules as well as anyone else in the church. But everything changes when a pastor announces their departure. I will never forget May 2010; it was the toughest ministry month of my life. I was simply not prepared to handle the various emotions related to this ministry transition.
No Pastor Avoids Pain Entirely
Fast forward a couple of years and I am in a doctoral class. I still remember a discussion in which Ed Rogers shared one of the most profound thoughts on ministry pain that I have ever heard. I remember him telling the class (and me specifically) that a pastor cannot lead until they acknowledge there are individuals in a congregation who would rather have someone else as pastor. In other words, pastors will always face a certain level of opposition in ministry. It will range from subtle to overt and it may not always manifest itself in tangible ways, but pastors must inevitably learn to lead through opposition rather than simply avoiding it.
Until this point, I held a strange, irrational thought in which I believed that I could reach a level of competence in pastoral ministry where any problems would be minimal and congregational unity was guaranteed. I never would have stated it quite like this, but I now shamefully acknowledge that I felt most church conflicts could have been avoided if the pastor was simply better equipped to handle them. In other words, I had mistakenly equated pastoral competency with successful, harmonious ministry. But on this day, the Holy Spirit reminded me that ministry will ALWAYS be accompanied by challenges. And these challenges inevitably bring pain.
Pastoral burnout is a real thing. Statistics abound on the number of pastors who say they simply cannot go on. The cycle continues as naïve, young pastors accept these challenges only to travel the same journey as their predecessors. How do we manage this gloomy reality? Is there a way forward so that pastors can get through ministry with less pain and agony?
I was recently introduced to a book aptly titled, Leadership Pain. Samuel Chand not only examines the depth of pastoral pain, but he also reaches an important conclusion: a leader’s potential is directly tied to their ability to experience pain. At first this was a disappointing thought. (Oh no, more pain!) But growth always involves some form of pain. Notice the following connections explained by Chand:
Growth = Change
Change = Loss
Loss = Pain
Therefore, Growth = Pain
Processing the Pain Without Becoming a Casualty
So, if our job as a pastor is to help individuals and churches experience transformation, then pain will always be a part of the process. With this in mind, there are several things we can do to process the pain without becoming ministry casualties.
1). Be confident in our calling.
This means knowing exactly what God is calling us to do. If we do not fully grasp the extent of our calling, our primary focus will be on the pain we are experiencing. When we know God’s plan, we can more easily remain focused on accomplishing the task at hand. In all fairness, discerning our call is rarely simple. However, it is an essential piece of leading transformation.
2). Count the cost.
Just as Jesus taught a parable reminding us to calculate accordingly, we need to set realistic expectations of what we will encounter in ministry. Decisions must be weighed wisely. Even more importantly, such decisions should be made without specific regard to personal pain. While this is a piece of the equation, the most important question is whether this is the correct step at the present time.
3). Maintain Boundaries
Boundaries are essential if we are to adequately manage the pain we encounter. A pastor must be vested in their ministry, but the same leader must be able to distinguish their own identity apart from their role. When a person’s identity becomes too intertwined with their position, they will experience extreme highs and lows. The euphoria will be almost addictive during the good times, but our pain will be magnified through each challenge. I was somewhat aware of the potential boundaries issue when I became pastor of my home church, but I believe that each pastor really only learns how to differentiate their identity from their role as they experience such challenges in real time.
4). Remember who our enemy is.
Opposition to our pastoral authority does not make an individual our enemy; I must be willing (and wanting) to love everyone that God has placed in my care. Satan is our only real enemy. He seeks to create division and stifle the transformation God has called us to lead. So, while my position may place me at odds with someone else, I need not treat them as an enemy or adversary.
Pastoral ministry is difficult. Pastoral ministry done well is even more challenging. Yet it is through these challenges (and the resulting pain) that we become better leaders who are more effectively able to guide transformation. A healthy perspective of pain will allow us to have longer and more fruitful ministries. My prayer for pastors and leaders reading this is that you would be able to channel the pain you experience in healthy ways so that you can find joy in ministry and in your relationship with Christ.
Allan is a member of the Project on Rural Ministry's Appalachian Cohort. He currently serves as pastor of The Baptist Temple (ABC-USA) in Fairmont, WV. He previously served congregations in Sutton and Beaver, West Virginia. Allan and his wife, Rose, have three children.