This month marks fifteen years in full-time ministry as a pastor. Having successfully navigated a career in engineering before becoming a pastor, I can say that engineering was much easier for me. I believe that pastoring is a calling, which isn’t to say that engineering is any less of a career, but rather that if someone thinks that they could do anything else other than being a pastor, they should try that first.
In those fifteen years of being a pastor, I have experienced lots of difficult times. I lost my parents. I experienced a church split. I sat through ordination exams….twice. Throughout those difficult times, I have seen myself grow. Of course, I would much rather have grown through simpler means than the ones that grew me, but that wasn’t the plan.
In my work as a pastor, I have experienced seasons or experiences of pain. Unfortunately, these seasons or experiences aren’t unique. I would guess that if you were to talk with other pastors, most of them would agree that they have had these seasons or experiences as well.
These experiences are mostly unavoidable. Sure, some of them could be avoided for a period of time, but if you live for any length of time, you will most likely face them all at some point.
Based on my own experience, these have been among the most painful things that I have experienced in ministry:
The pain of tragic loss
When my best friend from college lost his six month old to cancer, it was among the most difficult things that I ever had to face, and it wasn’t my child. I tried my best to be a friend who loved and cared without trying to offer cliche advice.
When my friend called to ask me to do the funeral, I knew that it would be one of the most difficult things that I would ever have to do.
Trying to wrap your head around the pain and hurt in this world without throwing out trite answers is tough. Yes, sin has tainted the world, but that’s not the most helpful answer that a grieving family wants to or needs to hear at the height of their pain. Helping families cope with loss is one thing, tragic loss always seems to make it harder, at least in my opinion.
The pain of people leaving your church
This seems so small in comparison to the point above, but as I’ve talked with other pastors, I haven’t met one of them who has said that they enjoy it when people leave their church. The more personally connected you are with the people whom you shepherd, the harder and more painful it is when they choose to leave. While I have never been divorced, I can say that having friends walk away from my church is the closest thing that I’ve felt to a divorce.
No matter how long I’ve been a pastor, it always feels like a shot in the gut. People tell me not to take it personally, but it’s really hard. When you pour your life into something and someone walks away from it, it’s kind of hard not to take it personally.
The pain of seeing someone waste their potential
Leaders should have a knack for seeing potential in people. I’ve seen this in good coaches, teachers, supervisors, whoever. When that potential is identified, a person is made aware of that, and that person just shrugs it off, that’s painful to me. I see that as a person embracing mediocrity, not being willing to do the hard work of growing but instead being content to remain as they are.
I wish that I could say that this was limited to those who are young and foolish, but sadly, my experience has been that I’ve seen it mostly in people who should know better, people who have even grown up in the church. There’s not much worse than seeing someone who believes that they are a mature and growing disciple of Christ with thirty years of experience when in reality they are just an infant who has repeated the same year thirty times over.
The pain of having people say things about you that aren’t true
I can fully admit that I am stubborn. I can also admit that I have a hard time letting go of things. But one of the most difficult things that I have struggled to let go of is when someone says things about me that aren’t true. It’s not just the saying of untrue things, it’s also the unwillingness of people to actually hear or learn the truth.
This has mostly happened when someone had a preconceived notion about me or when someone has generated an opinion about me based on a very limited experience. No matter how hard I’ve tried, there is no convincing them that they should take a second look and get to know me. I become a justice monster then I feel that injustice is being done to me.
There may be a lot more painful things in ministry, but a decade and a half into this, these are the top four experiences that have been most painful to me.
Like I said, I’ve seen growth come out of all of these experiences, but it’s been painful growth, growth that I would rather have come any one of a hundred other ways.
How about you? What have been some of your most difficult growing experiences?