Managing Congregational Pain

NervesAny of us who’ve lived in Cancer World know all about pain management. Sometimes simple verbal venting helps relieve the suffering.  And sometimes a morphine pump is required.

If the pain is joint-related, moving those very joints that slow us down alleviates the suffering.  If the pain’s excruciating, we might want to numb out with narcotics.

Many of our congregations are experiencing chronic pain these days because the church has changed/is changing.  And change hurts.

Pastors retire.  Church friends die.  Families leave.  Children fall away.

Boomer pastors rue the fact that the rules of institutional church leadership have changed and they don’t know how (or don’t want to know how) to shift.  Lifelong parishioners wonder why their children and grandchildren have forsaken church (i.e. God.)  Churches are invisible in towns where they were considered essential for the well-being of the community.

Yes, there is pain in our congregations, but the pain can be managed in a way that brings new life.

Last week at Kellogg , we discussed leadership in light of the need for some pain management.  How can we manage the pain that change brings?

  • We can ignore it.  “Maybe if we ignore this ____ (toxic person, hole in leadership, monumental budget shortfall)  it will simply go away.”  Or it could worsen.
  • We can numb out.   Some of us go through the motions of following Jesus.  We still ‘come to church.’  Or we simply disengage. If we are serious about our spiritual lives, this is probably not the best method of pain management.
  • We can keep moving.  To get out of bed hours after surgery sounds like a terrible idea, but that’s what the doctor recommends. Yes, it hurts, but moving makes us stronger.  Maybe we are slow to move towards changes in worship.  Or maybe we don’t particularly want to exercise our faith in new ways.  But it makes us a stronger community.
  • We can change our daily routines.  (Who doesn’t hate this one?)  Diabetics must shift what they eat or die.  People with damaged hearts have to make lifestyle changes.  Addicts have to quit doing what we do that makes us sick. It used to be that we in the Church could ‘eat anything.’  Now we need to be more intentional about our spiritual practices.  Sorry, but this is totally true.
  • We can become curious. Some pastors are frankly too tired or stuck to want to learn how to lead a 21st Century Church.  But what if we became as proactive as the cancer patient who wants to learn everything about her disease?  It’s not just about reading new things. It’s also about talking with people who are not like we are – with the intention of learning from them, not criticizing them.  Why do you like to tweet?  What do you love about organ music?  What does it mean to you that the choir members no longer wear robes? Why do we go to Mexico for mission trips?  Don’t get angry.  Get curious.
  • We can have hard conversations. Read this and then talk with each other.  Transparency, pastoral care, and creativity are essential when people are in pain.  We need to have those tough conversations to move forward in ways that honor and support each other. With the longtime church treasurer:  “After giving 40 years of your life to the church, what if we looked ahead to five years from now? Would you be willing to mentor an assistant so that you will be free to pass this responsibility on to someone else after you no longer want to do it?  And it would be more efficient for the church and safer for you to shift from doing the books by hand.”  With the new pastor:  “You are doing a good job in a difficult situation since everybody loved the retired pastor and he still lives in town.  They are used to a pastor who does home visits every week and your style is different.  How can I help you get to know the church better?”  To the cranky elder:  “I know that you love this church and even though we haven’t always agreed with each other, how can we work together to build this congregation?  I know you want to leave a strong church for your grandchildren.”
  • Pray.  Sometimes there is nothing we can do but sit with each other and/or sit with  God.  Pain is part of life, and – for followers of Jesus – we believe in a God who knows all about pain.  But prayer can alleviate suffering in ways that we cannot understand.

I’d like to make a specific pitch here.  I believe that pastoral leaders of all levels of experience could use a coach.  I’m not talking about a coach that tells you how to be as awesome as he/she is.  I’m talking about someone with training to encourage you through painful seasons in your congregation’s life.  It’s not too late to adopt this as a new year’s resolution.

Every parish pastor I know is serving in the thick of congregational change.  Yes, it’s painful.  But we can not only manage it.  We can thrive in it.

6 responses to “Managing Congregational Pain

  1. Amen, Jan! Our pastoral team has turned to Gregg Dana for advice – first to learn how to reach out more effectively to marriages in crisis, and now to learn how to deal with chrnocially toxic people. There’s a relief when we admit we don’t know what we don’t know!


  2. Reblogged this on preachtruthyoumoron and commented:
    Worth considering—


  3. Opportunities to reflect with colleagues and gifted facilitators/coaches/counselors, is also good, a la and I am increasingly convinced that understanding one’s self in relationship to family systems (in your own family, congregations, etc) is a vital clergy life-saving/extending skill.


  4. Pingback: This Week’s Links « Timothy Siburg

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