Excerpted from ‘Preaching to People in Pain’ (Baker Academic)
Preaching to People in Pain
By Matthew Kim
In nearly 10 years of serving in pastoral ministry as a youth pastor, college pastor and senior pastor, I can count on one hand the number of times that a church member asked me how I was doing and actually cared enough to listen to my pain and suffering. Why has this lack of care for pastors become so normative in our society? The minister, as perceived by the average churchgoer, is the person who does the work of ministry, but rarely does he or she need a form of “listening ministry” from others. Yet pastors are human too. As Chuck DeGroat observes:
“Lost pastors can make it a long way on the fuel of the false self. They may be successful, influential, endearing, charming and smart. But beneath the veneer are people deeply afraid, lost and lonely, powder kegs of unmet and neglected needs. They have stories that have never been explored, pain never acknowledged, violations of others unconfessed.”
In the seminary context, I have seen similar one-directional exchanges occur between students and me, also leading me toward the conclusion that opportunities are few and far between for Christian leaders like pastors, professors, teachers, counselors, and others to disclose their spiritual, physical, relational, emotional, economic and other ontological selves. Perhaps you have encountered comparable indifference from your congregants or students. They assume that—while you are not always perched on a spiritual mountaintop—you are doing just fine in your soul. The truth is that perhaps the most sequestered person—struggling the most at any given time within a congregation—is the pastor himself or herself. Yet, is your prolonged silence eating at your very existence?
Isn’t it refreshing to be able to admit aloud, “I am human too,” or to be able to say freely, “My pastor is human too”? Depending on your church culture or ethnic culture, divulging one’s pain and suffering as a minister of the gospel may be simply taboo. However, suffering and pain are no respecters of persons. Some of the most horrifically painful stories I have heard are from pastors who have undergone or are presently experiencing immense suffering.
In preparing to write this book, I surveyed several church pastors about preaching on pain and suffering. One pastor battled a brain tumor and experienced a form of chronic pain resembling “cluster” headaches for over a decade—one of the worst pains known to humanity other than childbirth. Yet a different pastor is haunted by the hollowing effect of his parents’ divorcing and remarrying, each more than once. Another pastor struggles to make sense of the heinousness of systemic racism and how the gospel challenges our sinfulness. One pastor laments the daily grind of having a child who suffers from a genetic disorder that has required numerous surgeries. Another pastor tries to make sense of birthing a child with Down syndrome later in life. One pastor shares about his wife having numerous miscarriages. Another pastor expresses the agony of internalizing the collective suffering of his congregants. One pastor that I know of lost his wife and children in a horrific car accident. Stories of suffering endured by pastors are endless. Pastors are not immune from encountering unspeakable tragedy and hardship. If we believe in the power of the local church, why, then, are we so reluctant to share struggles with our beloved Christian communities?
Part of the pastor’s dilemma is how our culture reacts to the suffering of others. People frankly don’t want to hear about it. Consider how we, at least in North America, commonly greet others. We ask a person, “How are you?,” but it’s merely a courtesy acknowledgment of their existence, just in question form. We expect the other person to respond with some trite retort such as “Good” or “Can’t complain.” In other words, we don’t really want to know how the other is really doing. Admit it. Suffering is often painful, raw, shocking, gut-wrenching, lonely, maddening, exposing, annoying, confusing, and even volatile. The pain of others exacerbates these and other feelings of being downtrodden.
At the same time, not all suffering is identical. The mystery of pain is that no two people experience pain identically even in the midst of very similar trials. Pain is also polarizing and perplexing. There are generally two converse attitudes toward suffering. Either people love to tell others of (i.e., vent and revel in) their misery and feel entitled to complain or grumble incessantly as if they are the only ones on the planet going through the hells of life, or people may try to conceal it from others because they feel ashamed or don’t want to be judged. It’s no wonder why pastors often err on the side of silence.
Moreover, Christians often minimize suffering by putting on a happy face upon entering the sanctuary and fellowship hall on Sunday morning. Such is the existence of the average pastor. We may feel like being transparent about our hardships, but then we wonder if such vulnerability may somehow undermine our leadership or pastoral authority. We might plow ahead by telling ourselves, “There is no time for wallowing in my agony when there is gospel work to be done.” But as theologian Kelly Kapic points out in his book Embodied Hope, “We can acknowledge the struggle of being a follower of Yahweh, the creator of heaven and earth, and having to deal with suffering as it is: real, tragic, and heartbreaking.” In many ways, suffering is the great equalizer. At some point, every human being suffers and experiences pain—both Christians and non-Christians alike. Pastors and preachers are no exception. We cannot allow ourselves to stand “above the congregation” as if we are better than they. We can admit and share our pain and suffering with judiciousness.
Since pain is ubiquitous, the pulpit can be a place to address the topic strategically with biblical, theological sophistication as well as with cultural sympathy and empathy. But merely mentioning the pain while offering a few flavorful biblical tonics is not the end or the catchall solution. We pastors and preachers must make ourselves available to our people postsermon. It’s not prudent to preach on pain from Scripture, dumping our demons on our listeners, and then run off to the fellowship hall for refreshments. We must walk with our people in their pain, through their pain, and after their pain, and even in moments when hopelessness resurfaces and they relapse into their pain.
Excerpted from Preaching to People in Pain by Matthew Kim, ©2021. Used by permission of Baker Publishing BakerPublishingGroup.com.