What Should Pastors Do with Personal Pain?

Every leader carries personal pain and baggage not only from his or her family of origin, but also from previous ministry experiences. For some, that baggage may feel like a light daypack. For others, it may feel like a 100-pound duffle bag. What we do with it affects our personal well being and the well being of our ministries. In this post I suggest ways pastors and ministry leaders can deal with personal pain.

Several factors influence how heavy baggage from your pain feels.

  • Your overall emotional health. If in your current ministry you are stressed, you won’t have much internal reserve before you redline. You’ll ‘spill over’ more easily when jostled by ministry demands and conflict.
  • Your personality type influenced by your genetic makeup. Some people are genetically pre-disposed toward pain which is reflected more in anxiety and depression than in others. Our genetic makeup accounts for about 1/3 of our ability to be happy and enjoy life.[1] The remaining 2/3’s, however, gives us lots of leverage to change, manage stress, and bounce back from difficulties. It’s called resilience.
  • Your previous ministry setting. If past ministries were difficult, you’ll need to pay more attention to your ministry pain.

If dealing with personal pain seems self serving, look to the words of Jesus Himself. In response to a Pharisee’s question about the greatest commandment, Jesus said, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matt 22.37-39, NIV) So, Jesus’ own words remind us we should love ourselves and be kind to ourselves which encompasses processing our own hurts and pain. Research tells us that pastors who are kinder to themselves when they fail or don’t meet others’ expectations, are less prone to burnout.[2]

I learned this insight several years ago when I transitioned to a church in California from a church in Atlanta. After we moved I was surprised when I began to grieve. I recall one day as I assembled an outdoor tool shed how deep feelings of sadness suddenly swept over me. I wasn’t sad about my new role as teaching pastor. The new possibilities exited me. However, my emotions reminded me that I must deal with my feelings of loss from leaving the church that my wife and I had planted fourteen years earlier.

In a later ministry setting in Chicago I faced significant conflict with two leaders that left deep wounds. During the year and a half between that church and my new church in Canada, I had to process this this pain that I had carried from that church.

So how can we deal with our ministry pain?

First, admit that you probably still carry some leftover baggage from prior ministries. These questions may help bring to the surface unresolved issues that could potentially hinder your current ministry.

  1. With whom have you experienced the greatest conflict or the greatest hurt?
  1. How have you dealt with those conflicts? Passively, aggressively, biblically?
  1. When you think of that person(s) do you feel significant anger, rage, or bitterness rise into your awareness? Or are the emotions more akin to mild disappointment and sadness?
  1. Do you feel that any of those conflictual relationships lie unresolved and that resolution remains possible? Or do you feel that you did what you could to resolve the issues?
  1. How would you rate where you stand in relation to this person(s)/issue(s): distraught, hurting but managing, coping OK, or in good shape with occasional twinges of loss or pain?
  1. Is God prompting you to do anything to resolve these past issues?

Second, take specific steps to deal with the emotional baggage. When my pain was most acute prior to my coming to Canada, I sought professional help. I consulted a counselor for several sessions and I hired a coach who helped me process my woundedness. An objective third party can help you see issues to which you may be blind. I recommend that every ministry leader find a good friend. In this post I describe what to look for in a safe, healthy friend.

As you process your pain, God may want you to initiate an act of kindness toward the person(s) who may have hurt you in any prior ministry. God prompted me to do that after I heard a sermon from a pastor friend.

During my consulting/writing days prior to my move to Canada, our family joined a local church near the small lake house we had moved into. I immediately bonded with the pastor and I volunteered to serve. Each Sunday I learned something new from his solid preaching. One day his sermon dealt with turning the other cheek toward your enemies and loving them despite the pain they may have caused you. Like a lightning bolt, I felt God impress me to send a restaurant gift card to both leaders who had hurt me the most at my prior church. I included a kind note with each card. After I took that simple obedient step, I felt God begin to close that painful chapter in my life, although I can still feel an occasional tinge of emotion when I recall those experiences.

God used my pain to teach me. He can use your pain to teach you as well. However, we must never allow pain to fester in our souls. I encourage every pastor to inventory his our her prior ministry experiences and bring out into the open any stuffed or hidden pain. If you don’t deal with it now, it will leak out, insidiously drain you, and quite possibly derail you.

How have you dealt with ministry pain?

Related posts:

[1] “Can Happiness Be Genetic?,” Psychology Today, accessed November 20, 2015, http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/media-spotlight/201302/can-happiness-be-genetic.

[2] Laura K. Barnard and John F. Curry, “The Relationship of Clergy Burnout to Self-Compassion and Other Personality Dimensions,” Pastoral Psychology 61, no. 2 (May 21, 2011): 149–63, doi:10.1007/s11089-011-0377-0.

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