I remember lying on my bed, imagining myself in a fetal position, caught by the pain of the minister who was beginning to see the need to leave the church after 25 years. Twenty five years of ministry, twenty five years of loving the congregation and being loved, twenty five years of baptisms and births, of funerals and weddings, of life and death.
And now, the minister was seeing that the review had gone badly. Not that he was no longer loved. Just the slippage. Things weren’t working so well. The irritations were growing. The conflicts could no longer be resolved.
The meeting had been hard. I had to ask the difficult questions: The realization was finally coming that he would have to leave. And where would he find a place to minister with 5 years left to retirement?
I watched the shoulders slump. I listened as he spoke about the coming conversation with his spouse. I listened to the sense of failure he carried. The sense of betrayal by people he had loved and who had loved him. I saw the shadows in his eyes.
I held the pain as best I could. I tried to figure out an answer for the minister so that he could get rid of the pain.
Then went home and withdrew into myself.
And tried to make my pain go away.
And my questions flowed: Why on earth am I doing this work? I entered this work in order to help people, so why do I spend so much time with people carrying pain about which I can do nothing? Why can’t I fix it? Why can’t I take the pain away, why can’t I restore this minister to himself and to his congregation?
It is now seven years on, and I still spend a lot of time with people in pain, and I still can’t fix it.
But here is what has changed:
Seven years ago, I wanted the minister’s pain to go away, and I thought I ought to be the active agent accomplishing that. I can’t. There is nothing I can do that will take away the pain of the other. But here is the thing, even if I could, I shouldn’t. The minister I was working with needed to face that pain. That was where healing was to be found. The healing comes by entering the wound, not by trying to make it go away. And part of the problem is that the minister was hard at work trying to take away the pain of those who were in the congregation. A tenure of 25 years was actually surprising. Much of the current struggle was that the minister no longer had the strength to take on that pain, and now with that refusal, people were blaming the minister for their own pain. Just as I needed to let the minister face the pain and the lessons in it, the parishioners needed the minister to let them face their own pain.
This doesn’t mean that as leaders we shrug our shoulders and say, “Too bad, so sad, that is yours and I leave it to you.” Rather the people, the story, the pain, all need a container. As a consultant, it was my job to create that container for the minister, a safe space to experience the pain, to look at it, to explore its significance and what it has to teach, to discover where God is in that pain, and ultimately a space to integrate that experience of pain into the full reality of who the minister was so as to take the next step into whatever was next.
By failing to create that space, by trying to take the pain from the minister, I short circuited the minister’s opportunity for growth and learning.
This was precisely the minister’s own job with the folks in the congregation—to create a safe space for them to experience their pain, to look at it, to explore its significance and what it has to teach them, to discover where God is in that pain, and ultimately to integrate that pain into the full reality of who they are.
When the minister could no longer take on the pain of the congregation, they turned on the minister for what they saw as abandonment.
Over the years since that experience, as I have learned how to better hold my clients I have discovered something.
I have discovered a world of gifts as I walk with people who have decided to enter their wounds and learn from them:
The gift of courage to face the pain and enter it, the courage to learn the lessons of the pain and use those lessons for growth.
The gift of insight as people see clearly who they are, their brokenness and their wholeness.
The gift of lessons as they teach me how better to do my job.
The gift of accountability as they hold me to the standards I seek to hold them to.
Hard as this is, I wouldn’t trade what I do for anything.