July 16, 2020

Pastoral Suffering

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Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure on me of concern for all the churches.

– 2 Corinthians 11:28 NASB

* * *

When I read about the Apostle Paul’s sufferings, I find it hard to relate.

2 Corinthians 11 is Paul’s resumé of his sufferings in the service of Christ. There, he writes about being imprisoned and being beaten more times than he can count. Three times he reports having found himself shipwrecked. Hey, I saw Life of Pi — that is no cakewalk, tiger or no tiger!  The apostle was exposed to countless dangerous and life-threatening situations including being without food, water, and shelter, the most basic necessities of life. Paul suffered exposure, people. About the only exposure I’ve ever suffered is when the clean laundry didn’t get brought upstairs and I’ve had to sneak downstairs wrapped in a towel to retrieve it. Not Paul. As an apostle, he trekked long distances on foot on dangerous roads, and in no way was it comfortable. Along the way he had to ward off wild animals and thieves and nurse an overtaxed body while sleeping on the ground under the stars. He had to deal with the challenges of all kinds of terrain and weather and seasons.

Paul also dealt with a host of interpersonal challenges and sufferings. He didn’t just face competition from the church down the street, he had to escape slander, smear campaigns, and plots on his life from false teachers who proved to be his literal enemies. As part of a new religious sect, he faced misunderstanding, ridicule, and persecution from every side — not Jewish enough for the observant Jews, not Gentile enough for the pagans.

Paul suffered, folks. Real suffering. When he says in 2 Cor. 4:11, “We who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh,” he is not speaking metaphorically. The words “I die daily” (1 Cor. 15:31) are not about dying to self, or some other such “spiritual” nonsense. Paul literally and actually laid his life on the line every day so that others might live through Christ.

I’ll be honest. I know nothing — absolutely nothing — about that kind of suffering. I’m not sad about that, and I’m not about to go seeking it.

However, this list of sufferings for Christ’s sake has something else in it to which I can relate:

Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure on me of concern for all the churches.

That is a breathtaking statement. First, the Apostle Paul calls all of those traumatic experiences of suffering we just discussed merely “external things.” Friends, if I went through only one of those trials, in the celebrity Christian culture we have today I’d be set for life with book contracts and appearances on every Christian media outlet. Churches would invite me to speak and market my appearance: “Come hear the amazing story of the man who spent a day and night in the deep! Learn what it means to risk it all for God!”

An external thing, says Paul. The normal kind of bump or bruise one should expect when following a crucified Savior.

But now, he continues, let’s talk about the real suffering, the real challenge. I can’t stop thinking about the people in the church. Every single day there is this huge weight on my shoulders, my heart, and my mind; a weight of anxiety and concern. I worry about them. I’m preoccupied with their well being. I’m afraid they are going to be led astray. I fear they’re going to make stupid choices and fall into sin. I can’t escape this sense of responsibility, “the daily pressure of my anxious concern for all the congregations” (CJB).

Well sure, I can relate to that. I don’t know a sentence in the Bible that sums up what it feels like to be a pastor better than that one. And it is this “daily pressure” that is one of the facts I have to deal with in my own heart and mind as I discern God’s will for my choice of vocation in the months ahead.

Right now, I serve as a hospice chaplain. When a person hears that, he or she often responds to me with a visceral reaction: “I don’t know how you can do that.” There is a notion that working in hospice, with those who are dying, being around death and loss and sadness and grief all the time must simply suck the life out of a person. Folks on the outside looking in think it must be so emotional, so draining, so hard.

That has not been my experience. On the contrary, working in hospice has provided me with an emotional respite. Compared to working in the church, working in hospice is an emotional relief. I have found it deeply satisfying and life-affirming to support people at such a significant time in their lives. It is emotionally taxing for them. It is hard for them. For me, it’s a privilege.

Now certainly, our team members make connections and grieve and find the work heavy at times too. But in the end, these are not our families, our loved ones, our shared histories, our lives, our regrets, or the things we left unsaid. At times, hospice workers are likened to “angels” and the comparison may be apt. We are “messengers,” sent at an important time to minister in the moment. We may have intense interactions with people, but at the close of the day we get in our cars and go home.

images_Paul-amberNot so with shepherds (pastors). As I’ve said often, being a pastor in a local congregation is like being the owner-operator of a small business. It is something you never leave and something which never leaves you. The operation requires constant attention and focus. “The daily pressure of anxious concern” is what fills your heart and mind.

It’s all coming back to me these days, even with my current limited involvement in pastoral ministry.

I’m only a couple of weeks into my summer of helping my home church while our pastor is on sabbatical. I lead worship and preach on Sunday. I am helping out with church work on Fridays. That’s all. Pulpit supply and a bit of pastoral care and oversight. Two days a week. And I’ve been at it for a couple of weeks now.

But I’m already feeling it — the daily pressure of anxious concern.

With each interaction I learn more about problems in the church, thoughts and feelings people have regarding various matters, needs that are not being met, folks who are struggling, work that is going undone. I’m trying to remember names, engage people in conversation, build relationships. I’m trying to get a handle on the big picture of what’s happening in the congregation so I can preach with sympathy and insight.

I go to work most days for hospice, but I’m a “double-minded man, unstable in all [my] ways” much of the time. I told a friend I don’t know how bi-vocational pastors do it. I told my wife I know why Paul recommended the single life.

Do I want this? Can I do this? Is this the best thing for me, my family, the Church, the Kingdom? Am I ready to spend the rest of my career riding the emotional roller coaster of serving in parish ministry?

Paul’s description of “pastoral suffering” may lie at the heart of my discernment process.

Daily. Pressure. Anxious. Concern. The Church.

Maybe I should just go out and ask for a good flogging, or get in a shipwreck.

This stuff ain’t for sissies.

Comments

  1. From my 35 years experience, you got it right. I used to turn off lights and lock doors after the final service of worship each week in an attempt to get at least a sense of closure. It took about 10 months after retirement to begin to sense what a weekend is. I never understood it when people said, “Have a nice weekend.” Pastors know what I mean. As always, thanks for your post, and I pray for you in both of your ministries.

  2. Steve Newell says

    Years ago, I heard a pastor say that it is his responsibility to bring life to us so that we may learn how to die.

  3. Perhaps this why the Apostle Paul thought it was better for some, especially those in the ministry, to remain single.

    I have to say, I go back and forth on this issue. My father is a pastor, and I can see many of the same concerns in him that you mention here. Although, I will say, I think my dad is blessed in the sense that his personality doesn’t make him as prone to worry as other people. But still, the comparison of a church to owning a small business is right on. I remember more than one family vacation cut short growing up because of a something that came up at the church. Honestly, I have to say that I think it’s one reason that all pastor’s kids kind of have some sort of resentment towards the church.

    I guess my question was and still is, is this sort of thing healthy for people in the long run? I have seen men who have come very close to having their souls crushed by being in the ministry. If God calls them to it, and they know they’re we’re they’re supposed to be, I guess it’s the path they must walk. Man, but sometimes, it just seems like it’s not what God intended. I have to also say that I have met pastors who have hero and/or martyr complexes. The way some pastors talk of God it’s almost like they imagine him as the plantation owner and they’re the indentured servants or worse yet, slaves. I think some pastors come out the other end of a pastoral career actually angry and bitter towards God.

    I’m not saying these things to cast aspersions on anyone who is currently a pastor, please understand. I just think being able to have some healthy introspection and soul-searching around one’s calling is a good thing.

    • These are good and necessary questions. How much of this anxiety is sourced in my own obsessiveness or need for approval, and how much is intrinsic to the pastoral task itself?

      Good to ask them, but good also to simply count the cost.

      Think about those who own family farms, for example — probably the closest thing we have to “shepherds” today in our society. The work never ends, the animals can never care for themselves, you can’t just plant the crop and forget about it. There’s never really a day off. This is simply the nature of the work.

      So yes, it will be necessary to discern if I’m making it harder by being OCD about it for the wrong reasons and perhaps with work methods that might be improved upon. Still gotta get up and tend to the flock.

      • Chaplain Mike ~ my grandmother used a simple phrase “when in doubt, don’t.” I know that is very simplistic in you situation but there is a good reason that you are questioning. Surely you know that God called you to your hospice ministry and that you are “wired” for it. And we can all confirm that you were called to be the Internet Monk, As many of us have stated you have been our pastor. You truly have a God given gift for writing. A profound gift if I may say so. You do reach and pastor more people through this venue than as a local church pastor. Is the Spirit “checking you”? Are your questions your answer. I will pray that you hear what the Spirit is saying to the pastor – that’s my translation!

  4. My pastor often reminds us that he is a dying man preaching to dying people.

    The world wrings it’s hands because in the midst of life, they die.

    Because of Christ Jesus, in the midst of death, we live.

  5. Marcus Felde says

    In a week, I’ll be preparing a sermon on Luke 8:26-39, which concludes with Jesus’ injunction to a man who begged Jesus to allow him to become a follower after being rescued from horrible suffering: “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you. So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.”
    It’s not about how much we do (or suffer) in the cause of Christ, it’s about how much God has done for us. Paul is boasting IRONICALLY about his sufferings, because suffering is actually the opposite of action. (Latin passio vs. actio) Today, the church often boasts of its achievements “God’s work, our hands!!”–when in fact we are called to boast of what God has done for us, not the other way around.
    Our personal suffering is not a function of our faith, but of whatever befalls us on our faithful path. So we should never look at our sufferings–except, perhaps, with Paul to use them to poke fun at people who brag about what great ministers they are because “they” have accomplished so much. We should look at Christ’s sufferings, not ours. If in the course of our duties as congregational pastors we have great apparent success, we should take it lightly. Likewise the sufferings which may come our way. I think Paul was laughing off the beatings, frankly, and mocking his successful succesors. When he did boast of accomplishments, it was in a self-disparaging manner: “I don’t think I did baptize any of you; wait, I think maybe one or two; I can’t remember; whatever!”
    “We are called, not to repeat the atonement, but to accept it.” Heard that somewhere.

    • Good perspective. I agree that Paul was making an ironic point in response to the “super-apostles” and their shining resumes.

      When he gets to this last point on his list, however — his daily anxiety and concern for the churches — I think he’s deadly serious. Not in a self-promoting way but by way of contrast to the “ministers” who really didn’t care about people. Paul is expressing his love for the Corinthians above all and saying that their well being is preeminent in his heart and mind. He is fighting a battle for their very lives and he wants them to know how a true pastor feels about the people. His heart yearns for them. His anger burns when he sees them being led astray by charlatans. His concern for them is all-consuming. In contrast, all the “super-apostles have to offer is shiny rhetoric and a good show.

      • Marcus Felde says

        Agree with what you say, but I still think he was having a good time. “Rejoicing” in it all. I would guess that any pastor who complains–and means it–about what a burden his/her ministry is, and how it has been one long travail, is probably too aware of him/herself and not aware enough of, at least, the irony of it all–that, because of the resurrection, we are in fact NOT “of all men most miserable,” but “happiest of all,” even when it looks tough from the outside. Isn’t it more “fun” to worry about a member who is suffering, than to worry every day (like a friend of who abandoned Breck for seminary) about, e.g., getting more viscosity in the bottle, and a more attractive color? People all worry about stuff, even those whose biggest worry is that their streak of good luck might end.

  6. I often ask my self holding a different office is it supposed to be that way. I think probably the answer is no. Almost everywhere every office is suffering.apostolic teaching.net discusses this and the effect really brings out the responsibility in brother Schambachs book God speaks to pastors it really brings out a reality not commonly seen. many times it causes me to weep eph 4 states one church but what is the reality of the day.1 st and 2nd Corinthians states all have a part I guess the biggest difference is between making converts instead of disciples not discerning the Body and submitting to one another as unto the Lord. The greatest suffering will be for those God destined His people to touch and yet many of His people never made it to the appointed place in time.

  7. The pastoral life actually is more challenging than the shipwrecks in open waters and the shipwrecked lives in our churches, if we take Paul seriously. If we imagine Paul as someone to imitate, he was not looking for sympathy. He actually counted all this as joy since he was ‘living Christ’. And the only way for us to keep doing this is to understand Paul’s conclusion in all those sufferings: “My grace is sufficient for you…” The joy we receive from that grace is not an easy joy. It is often not a joy that even makes us smile. It is a profound joy in celebrating the resurrection, even as we face death each day. Having recently returned to stateside ministry from 25 years of ministry in a foreign country, I’m not sure which is more difficult: the dangers of a tropical jungle, an urban jungle in Texas, or the jungle in my own sinful heart. I simply know that I could survive none of those jungle without Jesus’ word and work of grace in me.