When Hurt Hangs On

At the ripe young age of 59, I had my left knee replaced. My doctor wanted to wait until I was older, but I got tired of dealing with the pain and the limitations. (And by the way, I hope this is bringing a tear to your eye). I was in the hospital for several nights and then went home where I did my rehab and PT with the aid of my loving wife.

In case you’ve never had your knee replaced, I can testify to the fact that when it’s over and you begin your recovery, it hurts. A lot. And the PT hurts. A lot. But it wasn’t too long before I was up and around, walking a mile each morning to strengthen my knee, and within a few weeks the pain was gone, as expected.

When it comes to pain, I wish it was that easy all the time, but it’s not. Pain, whether physical or emotional, doesn’t always go away quickly.

I’ve been thinking recently about how Christians deal with people who have what I call “long-term pain.” What I’m referring to are situations where the hurt hangs on for a long time, even months or years. For example, consider the impact of a job loss, a financial reversal, a relationship failure, or some other kind of disappointment that has life-altering consequences. I’m not including illness here because while long-term or serious illness is certainly life-altering, we tend to do pretty well with this category. But it certainly could be included.

I’ve found that at first we give people room to process their grief and disappointment, but only so much room before we forget that their hurt still lingers (because of the way in which their lives have been changed). Or we lose patience because we don’t feel they’re processing their hurt the way we think they should. But imposing our timetable for people to move beyond their pain is simply not reasonable.

May I offer a few suggestions on how to deal with people with long-term pain? These are suggestions not only for those of us in ministry, but I believe they should be taught to the congregation as a whole.

First, don’t expect people to follow a template for “recovery.” We’re all different, and what rolls off of one person’s back may not roll off another’s. A lot depends on our makeup and how much of an impact the loss has had on our lives.

Second, we’re commanded to weep with those who weep (Romans 12:13). R.C Sproul, in his commentary (Romans: The Gospel of God) writes:

This is another of those injunctions, however, that is much easier said than done. It takes real sensitivity, real grace and discipline to listen and watch for the moods of other people, and to express empathy. Empathy means to feel with another person. Paul is not referring to sympathy, but empathy, where we enter into the feelings of others.

Empathy is more than merely acknowledging that someone is hurting. Empathy means that we work to gain an understanding of why the person is “weeping.”

There are some situations in which we may look at someone and wonder, “What’s their problem? Why haven’t they gotten over (fill in the blank)?” Empathy finds out the answer to that question, asking it in a way that is not judgmental. Be willing to listen to the person’s story, even if it sounds like the same thing they’ve been saying for months (years?).

Third, point people to the Psalms of lament. There are so many places where David tells God about his pain. And in each case David concludes that God is his source of strength. And it’s good for people to see both. It’s good for them to pour out their hearts to God without any shame for telling God the same thing over and over. It’s also good for them to realize that God is with them in the midst of their pain.

For example, there isn’t a hurting Christian alive who can’t relate to the words of Psalm 69:

1 Save me, O God! For the waters have come up to my neck.

2 I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.

3 I am weary with my crying out; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God. – Psalm 69:1-3 (ESV).

Fourth, don’t ever, and I mean ever, tell someone “Well, at least you don’t have it as bad as so-and-so.”

Has anyone ever said that to you? How did that make you feel? Right! That’s why we shouldn’t ever say it.

No matter how well-meaning we are, we’re minimizing how someone feels, almost telling them they have no right to their pain. And if we stop and think about the logic behind that statement, there’s really only one person in the world who has any “right” to hurt because person “A” doesn’t have it as bad as person “B” but person “B” doesn’t have it as bad as person “C.” Oh and person “C” doesn’t have it as bad as person “D.” And so on . . . .

Not only that, when we minimize someone else’s pain in this way we minimize God’s work in their lives. If suffering is part of the process God uses to sanctify us (Romans 5:2-5, for example) then we have no business telling someone that what God designed to be used in their life is comparatively insignificant to what someone else is going through.

Finally, I would recommend that everyone who works with people read Ed Welch’s superb book Side By Side: Walking With Others in Wisdom and Love. It’s one of the most helpful books I’ve read.

Yes, there are times to gently call people to put aside self-pity. But before you take that approach make sure that you understand why whatever loss or disappointment they have had has led to their sorrow. And do that without passing judgment.

If you are a younger pastor, learning how to lovingly deal with the hurts of your people can have a great impact on your ministry. It is likely that, as a younger man, you’re going to be ministering to people who are older than you. Sometimes two or three times older than you. And one of the best ways of building a connection is a sincere interest in their well-being after they’ve gone through hard times.

Let’s do a better job dealing with those who have long-term hurt and pain. Let’s not run from them, but let’s engage them, bearing their burdens, and leading them to see God as their refuge as he displays his love through our caring.

Tools of the Trade – August 12, 2019

A Weekly List of Links and Resources for Pastors

Mondays are for odds and ends that I find helpful. I scan some key blogs and newsletters each week and will link to articles or announcements that are relevant for pastors. But occasionally I’ll toss in a story or something else. I’ve done that today.

This Week’s Tools of the Trade

Tim Challies linked to my blog post on “We Shepherd Sheep, Not Beasts of Burden” from the middle of last week (August 7th, 2019). I had over 1200 hits and hope that some of those who visited will come back again. Tim has been uniquely used by God to “inform the reforming” (his tag line), and has been blogging every day since the Reformation. Or thereabouts. I normally won’t link to his page, and I try not to link to articles he’s already linked to, but his daily column from Friday, August 9, contains reference to several links that I had planned to list here. So rather than duplicate his work, let me just point you to Tim’s site. In addition, he had an article on ten new books for August. Some of them are very relevant to pastors.

In my August 7th post I referenced an article I had read. Logos Bible Software’s blog asks the question “Do your sermons make your congregation think you’re angry?” Worth the read – and some reflection.

My friend Glenn Jago sent me a link to an article that was in Christianity Today that dovetails with what I was trying to say in the post on “We Shepherd Sheep . . .” Tim Challies linked to it, but don’t miss it.

Michael Horton wrote a great piece on mental illness, which is something that we will likely have to deal with as we minister to others.

Here’s another article on how we view our church: “Pastor, Your Sheep Are Not An Accident.

It’s possible to preach a narrative passage and never get to Christ. But it’s also possible to preach a narrative passage and force it to say something it doesn’t. This article speaks to preaching from the Old Testament without preaching mere moralism.

Some of you may be just starting out or in the early years of ministry. But how will you finish? Here’s something worth reading by two veteran pastors.

Ligonier Ministries (R.C. Sproul) posted an article by Sinclair Ferguson on whether it is right to be discouraged. It’s worth reading.

When the Plane Didn’t Land

My wife, Laura, has a sneeze that can raise the dead. When we were first married it was a point of contention between us because I couldn’t imagine a person not being able to sense a sneeze coming on and then somehow mute it. But I soon realized that she can’t.

Some of her sneezes are epic. We were in a Best Buy one time and she came out with one of her “greatest hits.” As the sound of the sneeze rattled off the corrugated steel ceiling, someone on the other side of the store called out, “God bless you!” Laura taught 6th grade for a number of years and it wasn’t too far into the school year before she scared her class by a sudden sneeze.

Some years ago we were vacationing at a Christian conference center. We went during a week that was convenient for my schedule and also for hers since she was teaching. On occasion the conference would have a family week with a speaker who would focus on home schooling. We have nothing against home schooling, but our kids were grown, so it wasn’t the most relevant topic. But we’d attend several sessions.

One night we were listening to a talk that was going on way too long. In addition it was all over the map. The speaker was clearly excited about his topic, but he was plucking random Bible verses out of the air to support his points. We were ready to leave but he wasn’t.

And then Laura sneezed.

It was one of her all-time best. And what made it have an even greater impact was that her sister, who was sitting next to her, was so startled that she screamed.

Loudly.

The speaker stopped. I’ll never forget his “deer in the headlights” look. People laughed, Laura and her sister were semi-horrified, but after what seemed like a good 15 seconds (which is a long time), the speaker resumed his talk and kept going for another 15-20 minutes. I have no recollection of the topic, but I will always remember the sneeze and the poor woman behind us, about 8.999 months pregnant, who was laughing (quietly, thankfully) so hard that she was crying.

I honestly believe that the speaker should have wrapped things up. But he didn’t land the plane. The voyage continued.

Now I’m not saying that if our preaching gets interrupted we should shut things down. But sometimes . . .

Comments Welcome!

I’ve said this before, but I am not a WordPress expert. I’ve tweaked the template I use to the best of my ability, and am generally happy with how things work with the exception of comments.

If you want to leave a comment, you need to click on the title of the article you want to comment on. At the bottom of that article you’ll see a place to leave a comment. It’s not accessible from the “home page” (the first place you go when you log on to foryoungerpastors.com). But I welcome comments and questions.

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We Shepherd Sheep, Not Beasts of Burden

Recently a friend asked a question about ministry. Then I read an article that touched on a similar topic. As I considered both the question and the article, I realized that they intersected with a concern that I have.

At the outset I’ll confess that I am not the world’s greatest writer. I don’t want to be misunderstood, so I’ve toiled over this blog post more than any other I’ve written. But perhaps some, if not all, of us can stand a bit of self-examination. So here we go!

Let’s begin by looking at Scripture. Here is what David writes in Psalm 23:1-4 (ESV):

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.

I referred above to a question and an article. The question I was asked had to do with challenging our people without beating them up. The article I read talks about how we come across to our people. These verses speak to both the question I was asked and the article I read.

I wonder if you’ve ever considered the relevance of Psalm 23 to pastoral ministry. There are several attitudes and behaviors exhibited by the shepherd that the New Testament says ought to describe elders/pastors/teachers. And that leads me to ask how well we emulate the model that the David sets before us.

In Psalm 23 I see tenderness. I see awareness of the needs of the flock and I see determination to provide for those needs. God, the Shepherd, is leading David to rest and refreshment. He is guiding David in the right path and protecting him from that which would bring him harm.

When it comes to motivating our people, we may need to be firm, yet we should always be gentle. We do not need to breathe fire, nor do we need to yell at them. Back in the day people might have been motivated that way, and in some circles maybe they still are. But that doesn’t make it right. Rather than venting at our people or trying to guilt then into some response, we are to follow Paul’s advice to Timothy: “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim 4:2, ESV). That’s what the Shepherd would do.

What do people sense when we preach and when we lead? Do they sense anger? Disappointment? Disapproval? There are times when we need to “reprove, rebuke, and exhort.” But we should never be heavy-handed. We do not have the right to bear a whip that punishes when our Shepherd carries a rod and a staff that guides and protects.

To summarize so far, people should never feel that we are angry with them when we preach. Be firm. Be pointed. Be clear. But be gentle and loving. In addition, when we challenge our people as we must, we are to do so with “compete patience and teaching.” The New Living Translation puts it this way: “Patiently correct, rebuke, and encourage your people with good teaching.” So, when we speak to the flock we speak with the care of a shepherd for his sheep.

But this all leads to a rather important question: do you see your people as sheep, or have they become something else? Let me explain.

More and more I find churches describing themselves by a desire to be influential. That particular word is not used, but it summarizes what is often found in the mission statements or purpose statements on church websites. And while there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be a light in the darkness, we are not thinking clearly if we trade our focus as shepherds for one that increasingly calls its people to more and more activity. In other words, to put it plainly, our people do not exist in order to accomplish our goals for our churches.

We exist for them, not them for us. Is it possible that some of us have forgotten that?

Have you ever heard a Christian author or speaker speak (disparagingly) about the so-called “holy huddle?” The “holy huddle” usually refers to the idea that Christians and churches are inward-focused at the expense of those who are outside of Christ. That certainly should not be true of any of us.

But let me suggest that those who raise what I think is often a straw man argument about this “holy huddle” kind of church forget that, unlike those of us in ministry, our people spend their days working in a messy world. They are immersed in an increasingly godless environment. They deal with far more “yuck” in the workplace than most of us in ministry have had to deal with for a long time.

Pastors are not required to sit through diversity seminars that promote a morality that is unbiblical. But our people have to do that. Pastors have the privilege of working on a daily basis with fellow-Christians. But the people in our churches work with those who can’t go a few sentences without using extreme profanity. If they are identified as Christians, they may be called Bible-thumpers. They are in a world that beats them down. They come to church on Sunday worn and weary. They are desperately in need of encouragement and sound teaching. They need a shepherd to lead them to where their souls can be restored. But do they find restoration or are they regularly being challenged and recruited for our next big thing?

Look, I get it. Buildings need building, parking lots need paving, and broken stuff needs fixing. There’s an ongoing need for workers. People need Christ. But we can never forget that our primary pastoral function is to feed, guide, and protect the flock. That takes precedence over whatever project we think needs to be done and whatever programs we come up with. And here’s why: God clearly wants your people to grow to be like Jesus. But it’s very possible that he doesn’t want your church to be larger and influential. He may want your church to be overwhelmingly ordinary. And the irony is that if we neglect the care of our people, or subordinate the task of building them up, we may end up failing to equip them to be lights in the darkness they live in five or six days a week.

In no way am I advocating that we abandon a godly desire for our church to accomplish much for the Lord. We don’t want to ignore lost people around us. But as pastors, if our dreams (or ambitions) – however noble – for impacting our world are the main driving force of our ministry, we will end up viewing our people more as the means to accomplishing our goals than as people who need quiet waters, green pastures, and restored souls. Our people will become beasts of burden, constantly called to work harder.

Where that happens our forgetfulness of our primary role will only come back to hurt us in time. And that’s because it’s going to lead to a church full of tired, discouraged sheep.

May God give us the grace to shepherd the flock that has been entrusted to us.

Great News for Pastors (and Everyone Else Too!)

My intent is to post on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. However, I am a software junkie of sorts and have been experimenting with a some different blogging tools. I’ve settled on one called Ulysses. You can pick up the basics pretty quickly, but from what I’ve read the program has a great deal under the hood.

One thing I’ve learned about Ulysses is that if you press the “publish” button, your writing gets published. This is great if you’re ready for prime time, but not so good if the post is still in process or you want it to be posted at another time.

On Tuesday (yesterday), I had written a post for today and ended up not being attentive enough. So it published a day early. Which is hardly a major issue, but it’s not a good idea to leave too much time between posts. With that in mind I will post this brief quote that I hope will be an encouragement, whether or not you are in vocational ministry.

There’s a devotional book based on the writings of Martin Luther that you can get at Amazon. On the January 7 reading, reflecting on 2 Corinthians 5:21, we read these words:

”You must rely on these and similar verses with your whole heart. The more your conscience torments you, the more you must rely on them. For if you don’t and try to quiet your conscience through your own sorrow and penance, you will never find peace of mind and will finally despair in the end. If you try to deal with sin in your conscience, let it remain there, and continue to look at it in your heart, your sins will become too strong for you. They will seem to live forever. But when you think of your sins as being on Christ and boldly believe that he conquered them through his resurrection, then they are dead and gone. Sin can’t remain on Christ. His resurrection swallowed them up.” (Emphasis mine)

Whoever we are, whatever vocation we find ourselves in, the simple fact (as you well know) is that we are sinners.

May God encourage you with Luther’s thoughts on God’s word as you wrestle toward holiness!

What if I Don’t Like My Pastor’s Preaching?

When this blog was still in its prenatal stages, a young friend sent me over forty questions he thought younger pastors would have about ministry. Many of them, like this one, are rather provocative. Perhaps you find yourself in this situation or know someone who is.

My answer assumes that you’re an Associate or Assistant Pastor. And the first part of my response will not be very helpful to you if you’re stuck in this situation. But it might help someone contemplating taking a position in a church.

If you are considering serving on the staff of a church, I would suggest that you listen to several – and I mean several – sermons before you accept the position. It might be a very attractive opportunity. But you and your family will also be attending the church, so you also want to consider the same factors you would if you were not in ministry and you were looking for a home church. And that includes the quality of the preaching you’ll hear each week.

But you’ve made the decision, and you find yourself in a position where you are regularly struggling with the preaching. What do you do?

First, some things not to do:

Don’t stage a coup
You may laugh or recoil at the mere suggestion, but it’s not that far-fetched. You can unintentionally plant seeds of discord in your church by sharing your thoughts with the wrong people. You (and your wife) cannot risk saying anything to people within the church.  If you do plan to talk about it, you need to find someone who can keep the matter in the strictest confidence. Never put yourself in the place of undercutting your pastor. That means that you don’t entertain other people’s criticisms of his preaching, regardless of how you feel. Certainly James 4:11-12 applies here.

Don’t give him books on preaching. 
That’s just not gonna cut it.

So what can you do? What are your options for dealing with this?

First, check yourself. 

What I mean is check your own heart. Is it just a matter of preference, or do you feel you could do a better job? You know what? You might! But nurturing that attitude will do nothing good for you or your church. It will affect your relationship with your people, your relationship with your Pastor, and God’s blessing on your own preaching. Run from this!

Second, identify why you dislike his preaching.
Look, every preacher has a different style, you included. That’s why we all have favorite preachers. How we preach is the product of several factors: what they taught us in school, what we picked up (often unwittingly) from other preachers, and our personality, just to name a few. If you don’t resonate with his style, remember that you can still learn and grow if he is teaching the Bible clearly. And try to avoid comparing him to one of your favorites. You wouldn’t want someone comparing you in that way.

Next, pray for him. 
Preaching is hard, and like athletes, pastors go through slumps too. From my experience and from talking to other pastors, sometimes our sermons just seem to fall flat. As you know, most pastors have a lot to do besides preach. Sometimes those other responsibilities end up impacting our preaching. And then there are personal things that the pastor is going through, or church problems he is dealing with.

But remember: God prospers the preaching of his Word. Your pastor might not be the greatest orator or the greatest theologian. But if he is faithful to the text, God will use him. You don’t have to love his style of preaching, but challenge yourself to find something to take away from the sermon.

If you still feel that the preaching is seriously deficient, I believe that the best response is to begin (quietly) to look for another place to serve. Senior Pastors have a right to expect loyalty from their associate staff members. In most cases, the Senior Pastor will have been there longer than you have.

Your job is not to rescue the church from what you consider less-than-stellar preaching.  If you are talking about preaching heresy that’s one thing.  But if you are unhappy with the “how” of your Pastor’s preaching or the things he emphasizes, that attitude will only deepen with time. Sooner or later that will make itself known. And you don’t want that.

If you can’t cheerfully live with the situation, then pray for an opportunity to move on, be humble and respectful, and be open to the possibility that what you consider deficient is not so much deficiency but a difference of style or personality. And if you leave, don’t drop a bomb by criticizing the preaching. Keep that to yourself.

In the meantime, guard your own heart and pray for the man God has placed in the role of preaching each week.