When you became a pastor, were you “signing up” for despair and pain?
To be honest, it is part of the equation of leading.
Have you modeled healthy leadership during seasons of pain?
Sometimes we do, and there will be times when we flat-out make mistakes. In those scenarios, we mend offenses.
Likely, many of you have already been through hard times. And for others, the reality is they are just ahead of you.
Pain on earth is inevitable. So how do we, as pastors and preachers, lead with integrity and authenticity through those times?
Whether we like it or not, our challenges will come through our speaking and mannerisms when we preach. Some might be better at hiding pain than others. There will be people in your church who notice something is going on.
Most of us don’t have the luxury of taking a break from teaching while facing hardships. There might be opportunities to get someone else to preach here and there, but often our hurtful times aren’t planned – they just happen.
That said, what does it mean to be a good pastor/leader/shepherd in difficult or painful times?
Let’s explore how to actively lead while experiencing pain.
Pain is Part of Leading
It might be easier to speak publicly about seasons of pain 5, 10, or 15 years after they happen, which seems to be common for pastors. But what does it look like to lead with authenticity and wisdom amid your hardships?
We must face the fact that pain is a reality in this life.
Many might think that pastors don’t get hurt and pastors don’t hurt people. Well, both of those statements are false. Both are possible and happen often.
A positive thing about going through pain is that it grows our compassion and relatability with our congregation and those around us.
When you experience different challenges and hurtful situations, you have a level of expertise and credibility with your people. Often, they are more likely to trust you and respect your leadership.
But how is it best to navigate pain in those moments when your life isn’t going great for whatever reason?
You may have heard it said, “If you preach to people in pain, you’ll always have an audience.”
If that’s true of people in our pews, then it’s true of us.
Preachers bring their entire selves to leadership moments. We are real people with real problems like everyone else. It is ok if there is a need for counseling or an authentic meeting with your board to explain what you’re facing.
Pastors are real people.
Different Kinds of Pain
A few types of pain that we all face include categories such as:
- Interpersonal: dealing with or involving other people (relationships)
- Personal: internal (your own heart/your identity)
- Situational: life circumstances out of your control (closely affects you or those you love)
- Nasty emails from those you see at church
- People you love leaving the church
- Overall decline in attendance
- Toxic relationships
- Financial shortcomings
- Board and staff turnover
- General disappointments
- Struggling with your calling or purpose
- Loss illness in your life or those you’re close with
How Hard Times Shape Your Preaching
Preparing the Preacher
When thinking about your sermon plan, you not only want to prepare for your message but prepare yourself as well.
Preparing the preacher is the ongoing work of anyone who’s teaching. Anyone can prepare a sermon, but the sermon is drawing from a personal well of life experience, education, etc.
Check out another resource that references this concept, Preaching Through Christmas and Easter.
The best gift you give in your leadership, preaching, and family is your transformed and transforming presence.
Preaching is very draining. Why? It’s giving yourself. You’re giving your presence away as you preach.
If you’re giving of yourself and you’re in pain, that’s going to come through. And it should. It’s ok.
We are real people, not just brains on a stick. It doesn’t mean we share all the details of what we’re facing with the congregation.
It still takes evaluating in wisdom who, if anyone, should hear details.
Preaching Isn’t Just Transferring What You Know But Also Who You Are
As pastors, we go beyond information. We offer our whole person when we preach.
The apostle Paul said to the Thessalonian church: “we shared with you not just the gospel, but our very selves.” (1 Thessalonians 2:8, paraphrase).
We bring more than a transfer of knowledge to the preaching moment. We bring our person, our presence, our love, our affection — our whole person.
Think about how Jesus lived as a real, dynamic person. Get him off the 2-D flannel graph and paint a full, HD picture of who He is. He dealt with real emotions, feelings, situations, and dynamics.
You might want to listen to our podcast episode, Preaching Through the Gospels, for more reference on this.
Did Jesus feel tired or was he hurting during some of His preaching moments? He was a real person that brought His real self to the ministry. We know He experienced a full range of emotions by how it’s laid out in the gospels.
Consider Paul’s hardships. When he boasted to the Corinthians, it was about his trials, pain, and difficulty. Thirty-nine lashes, shipwrecks, the pressure of the churches, and more…
It was like he was saying, “You want proof that I have real spiritual authority? Here it is.”
What marks our ministry’s credibility is pain.
Our pain will show up in ministry and will impact it in positive ways. The Lord can use our hard times to sanctify us and make us more Godly.
When you’re in pain, you’re more sensitive to people in pain. That can come through in positive ways when you’re preaching.
On the other hand, if you’re not processing it well, you might lash out, respond in anger, or do something else. Like the saying says: hurt people hurt people. And that can become true, so it is important to seek help and counsel when you find yourself in a painful season.
Either way, the pain is going to impact you, and who you are is going to come out.
There are times when we crumble under the weight of the trial and hurt. In those times, it can be super advantageous to reach out to a trusted friend and share the burden of what you’re dealing with.
Something useful to remember in these moments is the acronym HALT. It stands for:
Check in with yourself and ask if any of these things are occurring when you feel off. It’s usually a combination of at least two on the list. It can give you perspective as to why you’re feeling what you are.
After you identify what you’re feeling and why you need to recognize that you have the Holy Spirit inside you and His Word to guide you. Ask yourself what you can do at that moment to be true to the call and move forward.
What can you do differently in the future to help guard against this happening again?
The Hope of Resurrection
It’s also good to remember that the way of following Jesus is into death with the hope of resurrection.
Typically we want to skip the dying part and experience resurrection. Who wouldn’t? And there is a real triumphalistic, “rah-rah, everything’s awesome” vibe in a lot of Christian subcultures these days, which is pretty incongruent with the gospel and following Jesus.
And we can contribute to that as pastors when we give off the idea that we’re always winning.
Yet the reality is Christianity is a series of dying to yourself, dying to your preferences, dying, dying, dying…
But, remember, it’s ALWAYS with the HOPE of resurrection. The Lord will redeem our hardships.
Our suffering as pastors is part of what God uses to help all His people suffer well. Our familiarity with it is crucial – not just for our growth and sanctification – but for the discipleship and development of our people.
When to Play Injured, When to Go on the IR
There are different pain levels, suffering, and injury.
Identify if you are hurt or injured.
In sports, being hurt means you can keep playing, while a true injury means you need to stop and remove yourself from the game for a while.
This is important because if you’re dealing with a true injury – be it spiritual, emotional, or other – if you don’t make time and space for healing, it’s only going to get worse.
In attempts to figure out whether you’re hurt or injured, every person and every situation is a little bit different. You’ve got to know yourself and your tendencies. But don’t just push it away and say, “I’m fine. I’m fine.”
A good resource to check out is this episode, when we talked about the need for taking a break from preaching. Time off is vital.
You need time to refresh, rejuvenate, and restore – personally, spiritually, and professionally. Time off will often give you the perspective and space necessary to evaluate and perhaps even bring some other people into the dialog.
Good questions to ask when leading through pain:
- Where is the pain coming from?
- Should I step back or lead through it?
You may need a trusted friend to help you identify if you’re playing injured.
So many pastors just push through when a break would be super beneficial.
On the other hand, some of us are more sensitive to hurts and pull ourselves out of the game too often. In that case, we also need someone to encourage us to keep playing and not quit.
Either way, you must find a confidant or a small group of supportive people who have permission to speak into your life and protect you – people who can help you find counseling; advocate for some time off; or help you in the best way needed.
Most pastors are hurting about something day in and day out. Navigating these hard things takes wisdom and the Holy Spirit.
The reality is, if you start to play injured and not just hurt, you’re going to hurt yourself and others. The pain is only going to compound. You could even get to a place where it’s irreparable.
Yes, you’re called to follow Jesus into death. But you don’t necessarily have to burn yourself out for the kingdom. There’s no wisdom in that for the kingdom in the long term.
Jesus died for the church so you don’t have to.
Dealing With Pain
As mentioned earlier, there are various types of pain, and getting the right language around what you’re dealing with is an important place to start.
How am I feeling? Why am I feeling that way?
If you go to the doctor and tell him you’re in pain, he won’t have a diagnosis from just that statement. He asks you where it hurts, what it feels like, for how long, did it start somewhere else, and whether it is spreading, etc., so he can appropriately diagnose and assist you.
The antidote to your pain will depend on the problem.
Is it spiritual discouragement, marital struggle, fertility, physical health, negative congregational relationships, or something else?
How you deal with it depends on the type of pain you’re experiencing. There is no “one size fits all” when dealing with pain.
Pain that is not healed is transferred.
It is where it gets difficult as a pastor because people think you’re the one that’s supposed to have all the answers. You’re helping everyone else with their pain.
To heal it takes:
- Humility (sometimes lots of it)
- A culture where other leaders understand that it’s ok that their pastor needs some help
Fear, shame, and embarrassment keep a lot of us from actually dealing with the pain.
Everybody’s waiting for things to get easier. It’s not going to.
Sometimes we’ve just got to get through it, but if that’s always your answer, you’re going to have a lot of things that you should be dealing with that you’re not.
Take that first step. Seek out a trusted friend and confide in them.
How to Choose Who To Share With
It can be hard to know how to handle taking a step toward healing as a pastor – not because you are special, but because the position you’re in is a unique calling.
What to share, who to share with, and how deeply to share can be delicate because most of the people you’re in a relationship with you’re also shepherding.
People can know the real you without knowing the full you.
There should be thoughts, feelings, and activities reserved for the closest people in your life. That is healthy.
Ways to Damage Your Leadership & Ministry amid Pain
- Tell everyone (not wise)
- Tell no one, stay alone (dangerous)
To be fully authentic, you don’t have to be fully transparent.
That’s how the Lord is. We truly know Him, but we don’t fully know Him. You know part of the real God, and that’s the part of the relationship He’s allowing you to know right now.
We should have a couple of people who know us fully. But not everyone needs to know everything. (It seems people overshare everything right now due to social media.)
There’s a difference between privacy and secrecy.
With secrecy, nobody knows – you’re hiding.
Privacy means the right people know.
When going through pain, you need some people to know.
If you decide to share publicly, you need to use wisdom. Figure out who would be best to know about what you’re facing. Is it your wife, your kids, or your church members? On what level is it best to share?
And remember, get permission from your family member or church member before you share publicly if the story involves them.
When you share, do it in a way that isn’t trying to manufacture pity. Share in a way that will be helpful to others – they can do something by applying it to their own lives.
“People would rather follow a leader who is always real rather than a leader who is always right.” – Craig Groeschel
So it’s ok to share when you’re hurting, but it has to be appropriate. Bounce it off some people first.
Check Your Motives
Be careful about using the pulpit to process your pain.
Vulnerability can be good if you have the right motives. Ask yourself why you might want people to know about what you’re going through.
Negative motives are:
- To receive pity
- For others to be impressed by your vulnerability
Leading Well Through Pain
It’s easiest to go into the pulpit in good times and easy to harken back to struggles we have had in the past.
As pastors preaching through pain, how do we lead actively and wisely when we are in the midst of it? Sometimes it’s wise not to share much, and sometimes it’s pride.
Let’s work toward incorporating more vulnerability into our preaching as we move forward – actually talking about our pain while it’s happening. That’s what everyone else is expected to do.
Whether it happens from the pulpit or elsewhere, there’s a balance to be found in the pain. The pulpit isn’t a good place for therapy; don’t process your pain on your people.
But you can talk about how you’re truly feeling. You are human with current doubts and struggles. Allow people to know you’re real by sharing things that don’t make you look good.
We want the next generation to see pastors as real people, not elevated beings on a pedestal who never make mistakes or experience pain.
Remember, we bring our whole selves to the pulpit. Authenticity can be valuable and credible as we lead our people in the Lord.
Look for moments to build those things in your ministry.