Big Idea: How do we deal with relational pain in ministry? Expect it, prepare for it, and bring it to the Lord.
An article came out a couple of weeks ago called “How to Destroy Your Pastor.” The author talked about the three times that he wanted to quit ministry. Once was when he had to dedicate a tiny baby who had passed away after being born three months premature. The second was when his wife was diagnosed with cancer. But the time he most seriously considered quitting took place in the living room of a church member. He writes:
He and I had been in almost constant conflict over the course of two years. I was at his house to try to figure out what the problem was, and how we might fix it. With my head in my hands, I poured out my heart to this man I considered my brother in Christ, sharing all the woes and fears that I had faced that year: the break-ins at my home, my wife’s cancer diagnosis, our meager attendance at church. My voice choked with emotion, I confessed to him, “I really could use a break, you know?”
He looked at me, and with a flat voice dripping with contempt, muttered, “You are just so … emotional.”
Speechless, I stared at him. I realized then that he didn’t see me as I saw him, as a brother in Christ. I was his enemy, worthy only of his derision, not his compassion. As he met my stare with a stony one of his own, I pledged to myself, “That’s it. I quit.”
He thought that his experience was unique, but then he started talking to others:
But as I spoke with other pastors, I realized that this narrative was an altogether common one. In conversation after conversation, fellow pastors told me their horror stories of how they too had faced poisonous and unwavering criticism from a single individual or, more commonly, a single faction of people. And this criticism had been so unrelenting that many of these pastors had left their congregations or the ministry altogether, sometimes both.
Of course he’s not alone. Every single one of us could get up and tell similar stories. The subtitle of the article this pastor wrote captures the truth well: “What threatens pastors most is not the attack that comes from outside the church, but the criticisms of cliques from within.”
A few years ago, Christianity Today published an excellent article by Ajith Fernando, who’s with Youth for Christ in Sri Lanka. Things are so bad over there that they’re doing prison ministry, figuring that they may as well improve prison conditions before they end up in them. Fernando’s article was called “To Serve Is to Suffer,” and I found it interesting what he wrote:
Several people have sympathized with me, saying it must be hard and frustrating to serve in a country wracked by war and hostile to evangelism. Indeed, we have suffered. A few months ago, one of our staff workers was brutally assaulted and killed. But I think the biggest pain I have experienced is the pain I have received from Youth for Christ, the organization for which I have worked for 34 years. I can also say that next to Jesus and my family, Youth for Christ has been the greatest source of joy in my life.
He goes on to say that the pain we experience from people is entirely avoidable. “We can avoid pain by stopping the relationship or moving on to something more ‘fulfilling.’ But what do we lose?”
I think these articles are right. The biggest source of pain most of us will experience in ministry is relational pain. What threatens us most is not the attack that comes out of the church, but the criticism and betrayal we experience within.
That’s exactly what we see as we look at 2 Timothy. Paul’s greatest pain doesn’t come from his Roman captors. It’s not hard to sense his pain and joy in relationships as you read verses 15-18:
You are aware that all who are in Asia turned away from me, among whom are Phygelus and Hermogenes. May the Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, for he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chains, but when he arrived in Rome he searched for me earnestly and found me—may the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that Day!—and you well know all the service he rendered at Ephesus. (2 Timothy 1:15-18)
You sense the same thing in chapter 4:
Do your best to come to me soon. For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry. Tychicus I have sent to Ephesus. When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments. Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will repay him according to his deeds. Beware of him yourself, for he strongly opposed our message. At my first defense no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me. May it not be charged against them! But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen. (2 Timothy 4:9-18)
It’s not too hard to piece things together, although we don’t know all the details. Paul has served for years in Asia. He has many friends as well in Rome. At his preliminary hearing, though, nobody has the courage to stand with him.
This is not an unfamiliar story. I’ll never forget the first time I experienced this myself. I was pastoring my first church. One of the deacons and his wife had become good friends. After a while, we started to notice that things were awkward. We would enter a room, and they would get up and leave. We could never figure out what the issue was, but it was clear that something was wrong.
One night we had a deacons meeting at the church. I can still remember where I was sitting. He came in and didn’t even sit down. I think I asked him if he was going to sit, and he got right in my grill and started yelling at me. I didn’t know if he was going to punch me or not. He spent a few minutes yelling a couple of inches from my face before turning around and storming out of the church. To this day I don’t understand everything that happened.
It’s not even close to the last time we’ve dealt with this issue. I bet we could open the floor right now and compare stories. “You think that’s bad? I can beat that one!”
I want to look at this passage today and think about how we can deal with the relational pain of ministry. As I think about it, there are at least three things that we can learn.
First: Expect it.
The classic marketing book Never Eat Alone was just revised. It has a pretty good formula in it:
SUCCESS IN LIFE = (THE PEOPLE YOU MEET) + (WHAT YOU CREATE TOGETHER).
If that is the case, then we have a pretty good shot at being successful. Because ministry is all about meeting people, and we are creating something significant together, we have an amazing shot at success.
But the statistics I shared earlier paint a different picture. 70 percent of pastors say they do not have a single close friend. I haven’t yet a pastor yet who hasn’t experienced hurt from the relational nature of ministry.
“The most difficult thing I have found in Christian ministry is opposition from people I thought were friends, or at least colleagues, fellow-workers,” says N.T. Wright. I don’t think there’s a pastor around who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. This is the very stuff of ministry. Kevin Miller of Leadership Journal writes:
If there were a binding contract to sign before entering ministry, the fine print would include: “The undersigned acknowledges that the pastoral ministry may be hazardous and subject the undersigned to expressions of animosity, including but not limited to calumny, slander, misrepresentation, and betrayal.”
I mean, look at Paul. He had a network. “He had people who were his life, people on whom he depended, people to whom he delegated responsibility, people in whom he trusted, people who were faithful, people who were unfaithful, people who were friends, people who were enemies, people who were old friends in his life, people who were new friends, people who were consistent, people who were inconsistent, people who were always ready to volunteer, people who were never ready to volunteer. They were all a part of his life” (John MacArthur).
Paul had the “people you meet” part of the success equation down. He’s spent years working in these churches. He’s in Rome, where he had built a significant network. At the end of Romans he had listed mention 33 names, 24 of whom were in Rome. What makes this even more impressive is that Paul had never been to Rome! He’d poured his life into people.
He’d also done some amazing things with these people. Alan Hirsch and Mike Frost talk about communitas, is the community, the brotherhood, that is born out of an adventure, an ordeal, a challenge or a mission. If anyone had this, it was Paul. I can’t imagine the depth of the relationships that he built while traveling through the Roman empire planting churches.
But now, at the climax of his ministry, and when he needed his network the most, that network had let him down. It was a fairly complete collapse — “all who are in Asia turned away from me…” (2 Timothy 1:15). But even a betrayal of a large number of people has some recognizable faces that come to mind. Paul mentions a few: Phygelus, Hermogenes, and Demas — even through there were more than these.
I’m guessing that the betrayal of Demas may have been especially heartbreaking. Paul mentions him elsewhere as a fellow worker (Philemon 1:24) and associate of Luke (Colossians 4:14). Those of us who’ve been let down by our coworkers know how bad that feels.
We need to expect that ministry will involve relational pain. C.S. Lewis wrote:
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.
Expecting it gives us a great advantage. It makes the second thing we can do possible:
Second: prepare for it.
Let me talk about the text, and then talk about our lives. As I read Paul in 2 Timothy, I notice a few things:
- He feels the pain of betrayal. This makes him human. It’s a relief, actually, because we don’t have to live in denial. Betrayal sucks and it hurts.
- Although he feels the pain, he still has it together. He’s not relationally disengaged. He’s reaching out and mentoring Timothy, and you still get a sense of optimism even in the middle of the most brutal of circumstances. He’s obviously not falling apart even when people have let him down.
- I also notice that he does a good job of mentoring Timothy to be prepared for betrayal himself. He repeatedly calls on Timothy to endure suffering, to ignore irreverent babble (2 Timothy 2:16), to confront difficult people. His advice at the end of chapter 2 is a crash course on how to deal with difficult people while keeping your head.
In other words, Paul has done some of the work necessary to stay relationally connected without being destroyed when relationships go awry. It’s work that all of us have to do.
When I entered ministry, I’d done a pretty good job with my first point: expect relational pain. But I had not prepared for it. I had no plan for how to survive the relational pain when it happened. In 2010 I took a Sabbatical and really began to learn about how to be prepared for this stuff — a little late, but better than never. I began to read the work of Edwin Friedman, a Jewish Rabbi, family therapist, and leadership consultant who writes about family systems theory. He writes about how to self-regulate emotions in the face of reactive sabotage. The well-differentiated leader, he writes:
…is not an autocrat who tells others what to do or orders them around, although any leader who defines himself or herself clearly may be perceived that way by those who are not taking responsibility for their own emotional being and destiny
… is someone who has clarity about his or her own life goals, and, therefore, someone who is less likely to become lost in the anxious emotional processes swirling about
…. is someone who can separate while still remaining connected, and therefore can maintain a modifying, non-anxious, and sometimes challenging presence… is someone who can manage his or her own reactivity to the automatic reactivity of others, and therefore be able to take stands at the risk of displeasing.
This is hard stuff. But there’s an increasing amount of really good material out there on the topic. One of the best new books I’ve seen is by a pastor in my denomination in London, Ontario — a guy we’ve stolen from the States. His name is Charles Stone, and his book is called People Pleasing Pastors: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Approval-Motivated Leadership. He summarizes Friedman’s work, by the way, so if you’re going to buy one book, this is the one.
Stone writes about the problem of being unprepared to deal with relational complexity in the church:
Seminary taught me about sound theology, effective evangelism, sermon preparation, discipleship methods and much more. But I didn’t learn how to deal with my own emotionality or that of others in the church. I didn’t learn how my brain contributes to my anxiety or how I fit into emotional processes. What do I do when the board treats me unfairly? How do I handle nasty rumors? How should I respond when I get an angry email or a scathing unsigned letter?
The problem? “An unhealthy response to anxiety, whether it’s ours or someone else’s, will suffocate, constrict and limit our energy, passion, drive and leadership.” But there is a solution. He gives some great advice on how to understand our own past and he culture of our church, clarify your values, understand emotional triangles, practice self-care, tame reactivity, and more. It’s a great resource for anyone in ministry.
If the most difficult thing in Christian ministry is opposition from people we thought were friends, or at least colleagues, fellow-workers, then we need to prepare ourselves to deal with this. We need to mentor our younger pastors on how to deal with this. We need to confront each other about our people-pleasing tendencies. Expecting it gives us an advantage, because we’ll go ahead and prepare for it. In his book The Art of Pastoring, David Hansen says we only really have three options when we’re caught in what he calls “transference hell” — when people project their unresolved junk onto us, which they will do. Here are our only three options:
- Leave the ministry;
- Stay in the ministry but stop loving people (and become a religious hack); or
- Grow up.
“The last option is the toughest,” he writes. “But growing up brings a remarkable reward for pastors: they become…a whole person.”
So expect it. Prepare for it.
Finally: Take it to the Lord.
This sounds like the part of the talk when I get all super-spiritual on you. It would be easy to sing, “We should never be discouraged. Take it to the Lord in prayer.” I’m not going to do that. I don’t want to pretend that our relationship with Christ can ever take away the pain of being hurt and betrayed. I think about some of the friends I know who’ve really been chewed up by churches. No matter how much you expect it, and how much you prepare for it, it still really bits.
I don’t want to get super-spiritual and minimize the pain. But I do think there is something we can learn from Paul about taking this pain to the Lord. I trust a man who’s experienced the pain of betrayal, and has still managed to stay healthy. I love what Paul says in chapter 4:17-18, because I don’t think it’s a platitude. I think what he says here is real:
But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen. (2 Timothy 4:17-18)
In the middle of all of this pain, Paul had a sense of God’s presence. He felt God’s strengthening. He still held on to the mission that God had given him. Even though he knew that he would die, he still knew that even then he would be safe. Tim Keller notices that the phrase “the Lord…strengthened me” is a phrase that usually means to nurse and bind up wounds. God doesn’t just stand by us, but he cares for us and heals us.
We just finished marking Easter. There is some hope in knowing that when we are betrayed, we are in very good company. It’s also great to know that no matter where we stand with others, we know where we stand with God. Ron Edmondson, a pastor in Kentucky, writes this:
You have to be confident in your calling. Ultimately our calling as pastors is not to a church, or even a church’s vision statement, but to a person: the person of Christ. When I consistently remind myself of who I am in Christ, I can focus my attention on pleasing Him instead of pleasing every member of my church. It’s a daily discipline, but this perspective allows me to better navigate through all the demands placed on me, discerning which ones help accomplish the mission of the church and which ones are merely a distraction.
Dan Allender reminds us that if we lead, we will at some point serve alongside of Judas and Peter, maybe more than once. Judases will purposefully betray us; Peters will deny us, even when they think they are incapable of doing so.
The most difficult thing in Christian ministry is opposition from people we thought were friends, or at least colleagues, fellow-workers. We need to expect this, prepare for it, and ultimately experience the knowledge of God standing by us, strengthening us, and rescuing us.
I often tend to think that the people I serve need to change. What I’m discovering is that the person who needs to change the most is me. I need to grow up. Problem people aren’t going away, so I need to learn how to stay emotionally and spiritually healthy around them. I need to be honest about the pain. I need to rest in God’s presence and healing even when I’ve been hurt.
In Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership, Gary McIntosh and Samuel Rima use a compost pile to illustrate the work of the Holy Spirit. Just as time turns garbage into something useful, the Holy Spirit takes our broken places, failures and unhealthy traits to transform them into traits more like his. How do we deal with relational pain in ministry? Expect it, prepare for it, and bring it to the Lord, trusting that he’ll make something useful out of it.
Lord, Thank you that you know about the pain of betrayal. Thank you as well that you stand with us and strengthen us in the middle of that betrayal. I pray that you would bind up the wounds that some of us are carrying here even today. Thank you that you make something useful out of our garbage, our broken places, and our failures. Do this now. I pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.