Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Pain of Ministry

I haven’t written anything for a couple of weeks. Avoidance perhaps? Not really. How about guilt? Ah, now you’re getting a little warmer.

Psychologists have a specific term for this: “survivor’s guilt.” After any traumatic event, like war or a fatal accident, those who are still alive and return home feel guilty. Sure, they may have wounds themselves. But at least they’re able to hobble back to the place they call home; others don’t have even that privilege.

In the last few weeks, we’ve been through a pastoral transition that has been really painful. Not ugly, like they can easily be. But really painful. The most pain is shouldered by a great family who has made LakeView Church their home this last year. Good people who invested their energies and entwined their lives into this spiritual community in the belief that it would be their home for a whole lot longer than a year. We all shared that belief and hope. And now they’re moving on. To where, they do not know.

And that’s incredibly painful for them and for many of us—for different reasons and in different ways.

While there’s so much I love about the church, I hate the reality that things like this ever happen anywhere. More than that, I hate that this has happened on my watch in our church with people I really do care for. It’s not that my pride is wounded that I wasn’t able to navigate us to a better outcome (well, maybe it is, just a little). It’s that, while the leadership has been walking lockstep together through all this, at the end of the day the success or not of the staff is my responsibility. And I have to wear that and eat it and live with it and submit to it. But I can still hate it. And I can still dream: if only our church was a little bit bigger and we had an Executive Pastor who handled personnel and I could stay above the fray!

So now you can add survivor’s envy to survivor’s guilt.

I never heard about either of those conditions in seminary.

But I did hear about one painful leadership situation. Ok, Scripture has way more than one. But one in particular comes to mind. In Acts 15, Paul and Barnabas have been enjoying doing effective ministry together but something almost unthinkable happens between the Great Apostle and the Son of Encouragement:
36 Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the brothers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” 37 Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, 38 but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. 39 They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, 40 but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord.
One can only imagine all the angst and turmoil that accompanied this rupture. It must have been one of the lowest points in ministry for both of them. It must have just devastated everyone who was part of their “circle.”  And yet I am so glad that it happened, and that the Spirit of God, through Luke, recorded it for us.

I’m so glad for this passage, not for justification, but because it’s a God-given reminder that ministry is often attended by pain. Certainly we should never seek to create pain. And when it seems unavoidable, we should try and ameliorate it. But we should never be surprised by it, as if such a thing is never possible in the church or among Christians. Paul and Barnabas show clearly that it is.

They also show that our Sovereign God can ultimately bring about his good purposes from circumstances that are less than ideal. What had been one mission, was now two. Paul headed in one direction with Silas, Barnabas in another with Mark. And the work of the kingdom spread.

Perhaps most significant of all is that, about a decade after this event, Paul writes an astonishing line to Timothy from his prison cell. At the end of his life, he asks Timothy to “Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is useful to me in my ministry” (2 Timothy 4:11).

What I love about this little snippet tucked away in the pastoral epistles is that it says there is hope. There is hope that even in the midst of the pain that invariably accompanies ministry, there can be healing. There can be forgiveness for the hurts. There can be restoration. There can be a recognition and even a celebration that God works in and through us all in diverse and amazing ways.

In others’ pain, and in my own, that’s what I’m praying for. With one exception. Let’s not wait a decade. Let’s let it start now.