Ministry and the Pain Tolerance for Those We Minister To

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Heavy load muleMinistry comes with pain…all life comes with pain but when you minister there are certain burdens that you carry for or with others that come with the territory. It is often difficult to know when is the time to carry someone’s burden for them and when it is time to carry it with them. Paul got at this in Galatians 6:2-5 where he wrote,

Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves. Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else, for each one should carry their own load.

I think it is unrealistic to think we can fully bear the burden of another person but I think we can bear it with them rather than for them. The temptation in ministry, however, is quite strong to try to take the load fully off of people and take it on ourselves. This can come out of our own personal anxiety that tries to keep people in the congregation free from their own anxiety, depression, fear, etc. It is an attempt to alleviate the pressure and help people feel “ok”…that kind of “ok” that really isn’t “ok” but we act like it is. This is that “How are you today?” “Fine” kind of ok. For some of us ministers, it can come out of our own lack of self-confidence, or emotional maturity thinking something is wrong with us if something is wrong with them. It can be a blurred boundary and lack of self-differentiation between ourselves and those we minister to, where there feelings too easily become or at least expose our feelings.

I see this in my parenting. This morning as I dropped one of our boys off for his last day of the school year he had a look on his face that I couldn’t tell if it was sad or something else. I asked him, “Are you ok?” Followed up with “Are you sad?” After asking those two questions I realized that I was implying it is not ok to be sad…that something might be wrong with you if you are not happy and cheerful all the time. It is my own co-dependent nature to try to jump in and keep someone else from feeling something uncomfortable when God formed us to feel uncomfortable…to even necessitate uncomfortability to grow spiritually, emotionally and socially.

It is not wonder that adolescence is extending well into the young adult years and emotional maturity is lacking these days because I see it in myself and I even see it in how I parent my boys and at times in my marriage and ministry.

It is important that we build up a pain tolerance for others, especially when we minister. This doesn’t mean we act calloused. This doesn’t mean we act cool and unattached from people. This means that we recognize that times of anxiety, pain and discomfort come with the human experience and are often precursors to exponential growth in our lives. If we don’t do this, we constantly and consistently train the congregation to dump their problems on the “professionals” to fix it and we prevent them from their own work of learning to resolve matters for themselves. In short, we can perpetuate immaturity in the congregation and in our families and even ourselves by jumping/reacting too quickly to sooth the discomfort and train people to see us as the fix it people rather than for them to see that ability in themselves. When that happens get ready for a ride on the crazy train.

Here is what Edwin Friedman wrote about our pain tolerance for others,

“Raising our own threshold for the pain another is experiencing can often motivate the other to take more responsibility for his or her life. There is even the possibility that the challenge of having to deal with their pain will, in the most natural way, make their own pain threshold rise as well. By the same token, to the extent that our threshold for another’s pain is too low, perhaps because we are unable to distinguish theirs from our own, their threshold for their own pain is likely to go down as well, and with it their own motivation for maturing. This is precisely what I was referring to above when I said that many marriages break up because their counselors cannot tolerate the couple’s pain.” – Failure of Nerve, 85-86

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