Monday, January 18, 2010

The Role of Pain in a Healthy Approach to Ministry

I consider myself to be somewhat "connected" to the world outside...not just the people around me who I do know, but those whom I may have never met but exists in similar circles (musicians, worship leaders, youth workers) through the miracles of modern technology. One website I frequent is basically a forum for youth workers and other ministry personnel to come together and ask questions and debate various topics. I recently posted a debate about an upcoming youth event which was met with a lot of criticism. And I began to examine why my approach to ministry is different from a lot of people who serve the church in the same capacity I do.

From a loss standpoint, I grew up in a pretty sheltered way (and for that I am thankful). I never had to go through the pain of my parents divorcing when I was young or losing one of them in an untimely death. Having no siblings, I never sent a sibling off to war or felt the loss of losing one of them. I had lost grandparents, but their deaths were timely for the most part and time had given them an opportunity for life. My life for the first 25 years, although not perfect, was in many senses ideal. But the quarter-century mark was not a good time in my life. I went through a divorce and lost my wife of nearly 3 years whom I'd been in a relationship with for nearly 5 years. For the first in my life I hurt in a new way. And not only did I hurt, but no one in my circle of influence was able to stop it. Not my parents, not her parents, not my pastors, not my friends. I was left there in a town with no family and few friends to weather the coming storm. In that time I hurt in ways I never had before and had an overwhelming desire to kill that pain.

Just prior to my divorce, our church had lost its senior pastor and I was the only ministerial staff person. My best friend had moved out of town six months before as well, and I remember the feeling of having never been that "alone". My church really did not know how to minister to me and take care of me. In that particular denomination, divorce is kind of a "hush hush" subject and people have all kinds of views on it. Also, during this time, I was serving as a youth pastor, a choir director, and was going to seminary full time. The pain of divorce, the lack of community, and the shear stress of personal and professional pressures put me on a roller-coaster ride for the next two years. This ride came to a screeching halt the weekend I graduated from seminary when I found myself in another life-changing situation that was beyond my control.

Spiritually depleted, emotionally broken, and just plain exhausted, I resigned from my church staff position a couple of weeks after getting my Masters Degree in Christian Education. Having no plan or job, I moved back in with my parents at age 27, trusting God that he would show me the next step of the journey. During this time I became a part of a great church and was able to make a decent living selling insurance for a very good company. But I was hungry for ministry. Two years to the day after starting at the insurance office, I took a position as Director of Youth Ministries here at First United Methodist Church in Palestine. The Methodist Church was a good fit for me because it didn't carry all of the stigmas I'd experienced before. They were just excited to have me on board. That was nearly four years ago. And my ministry now is completely different than it was when I was in my early 20s. The thing that makes my approach to ministry different is the pain I experienced.

In Scripture, the greatest stories of triumph (Moses, David, the missionary journeys of Paul) are the ones that stared the darkest fates in the face and rose victorious by God's grace. Having been through trials, I approach things differently with my kids hoping that when they face the gut-wrenching pain of loss in their life they will be able to weather the storm better than I did. I don't try to convince myself that we live in a perfect world and that if we follow Jesus everything will turn out right. God has a way of making things harder on us in such an amazingly wonderful way. I also worry less about the smaller things and worry more about whether or not they are "getting it" when it comes to faith in God. I also try really hard not to isolate them from things that are in the world. Many people in my line of work feel that by talking about something, we are somehow promoting it. Jesus talked about a lot of social and moral issues in his day, but by giving lip service to these issues he was in no way condoning them. I would rather a student encounter a taboo message under the leadership of Christian adults who love and care for him than to have him run across it late at night when surfing the internet or watching movies at his friends house. If I can't be the one to talk about these issues with him, then who can?

I am thankful that God has placed me on this amazing journey of life and this amazing journey of ministry. Since my hour of darkness, he has since blessed me with a new wife and family. But I can't erase the scars of what happened. And to not learn from those experiences and to not pass that knowledge on would be doing a disservice to my students. I feel my ministry now has more focus than it did prior to this dark time in my life. I now teach with the goal that when my students hit rough water they cling to it rather than abandon it. And personally, there is no substitute for the role it had in my life and ministry. If you are in ministry or any area of service in your church, what personal experiences have shaped the way you carry out God's call on your life?

No comments: