Ministry is deeply painful at times. For those in full time ministry as well as for those who serve in leadership positions as volunteers. Any board member who has had to walk through difficult times in a local church knows. Every pastor bears scars, some that feel raw for years. Missionaries know the pain of cross cultural misunderstandings (as well as nationals working with missionaries) or even conflict on their own teams. At 52, I bear numerous scars from 27 years of full time ministry.
The pain experienced in ministry is often different than other pain. After all we do what we do for God, not ourselves, which makes the pain feel unfair. Further, believers can be even more unkind than unbelievers. How we treat one another is often unconscionable. But, too often the stakes are high so we put a stake in the ground and in our conviction, take the arrows or missiles of others.
How we deal with the pain of the past has a direct influence on our ministry in the present. It can either help and inform our present and future ministry or it can cause us to withdraw, live with bitterness, bring cynicism or cause us to approach relationships with distrust. How we deal with past pain matters to us today.
Here are some principles I have learned in dealing with the wounds of ministry.
First, treat your past wounds as what you see in your rear view mirror. We glance at the rear view mirror as we drive but we focus on what is in front of us. If you drive with your eyes on the rear view mirror you will crash. The same is true if we focus on our past wounds - we will crash.
Paul had as many or more wounds than any of us will ever have. Yet he was able to say, "Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:13-14). His eyes were on the future, not the past.
Second, learn from the past. Pain is one of the greatest teachers. It teaches us to persevere. It teaches us how to deal with people. It forces us to examine our own motives. There is no question that our most significant growth comes through pain. So treat it as an unwelcome blessing that we can learn from.
Paul writes in Philippians 3:16, right after the above reference, "Only let us live up to what we have already attained." Live out, he says what we have learned. Live up to the growth we have experienced. Rather than seeing pain as our enemy, see it as a friend, learn from it but keep your eyes on the present, not on the past.
Third, remember that we do not ultimately serve men but our Father. People will always let us down (as we will let others down). People will take shots. People will be unkind at times and life isn't fair - especially in ministry.
Again, Paul, through his experience gives great perspective. "I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me (1 Corinthians 4:3-4)."
His point is that we worry too much about what others think of us when what should concern us is what God thinks. Not everyone will like us. Join the ministry club of Jesus, Paul, the apostles and everyone who serves in ministry. We often carry around the burden of knowing that there are those who not only don't like us but speak against us and some who actually try to do us harm.
But Paul reminds us that it is not about us, but about the call of God on our lives. Don't carry the burden. Let it go and remember that we ultimately answer to an audience of One.
Finally, where we have wounded those who have wounded us - it often happens in conflict, do what you can to make it right. You cannot control the response of others, but you can seek to make right relationships that are broken. Again, Paul tells us to live at peace with all men as far as we are able.
If we can gain Paul's perspective, pain becomes a friend that molds us, grows us and matures us. But we focus on the present and future, not on the wounds of the past. Keep those in the rear-view mirror.
It is not about trying to forget pain. It is about keeping our wounds in proper perspective.