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A book about pain (light on the pain)

Written by: on April 13, 2018

In 1991, Jerry Sittser was a young theology professor making his way up the academic ranks. One night, on a lonely stretch of highway in rural Idaho, he was driving the family minivan, packed full with his 4 children, his wife and his mother. A drunk-driver, going 85 miles per hour, came across the dividing line and hit them head on. Sittser’s next moments changed his life forever, as he watched almost in slow-motion, as his mother, his wife and his 4 year old daughter were all killed in the accident. His other children were also badly injured and would need years of physical, emotional and spiritual healing.

This is pain.

In his classic book A Grace Disguised, Sittser makes the central argument, that pain does not have to diminish us or defeat us, it can also be the way in which we grow. He writes, “The soul is elastic, like a balloon. It can grow larger through suffering. Loss can enlarge its capacity for anger, depression, despair and anguish, all natural and legitimate emotions whenever we experience loss. Once enlarged, the soul is also capable of experiencing greater joy, strength, peace and love.”[1]

This is the soul-ful and deep side of this topic, which is also explored in much sunnier and optimistic terms by Samuel R. Chand in his book Leadership Pain: The Classroom for Growth. Chand is a self-described “dream releaser” and “change strategist”, which gives us a clue right away as to the kind of book that he has written.

Using the self-confident tone of many “world-changing” leadership books, Chand eagerly shares his core insight. He writes, “Know this: you’ll grow only to the threshold of your pain. To grow more, raise your threshold.”[2] This core idea is a good one and something that every leader needs to learn along the way. Painful losses, staff problems, financial strain, interpersonal conflict are all a part of growing up as a leader and developing in important ways.

In this sense, this is a helpful book. It takes a single powerful idea and runs circles around it to make sure the point it clear. However, I have some significant critiques of this book as well. First of all, the overall tone is so “happy go lucky”, that it seems as if it is not quite based in reality. This is a “pep-talk” for the leadership team. This is the “pick-me-up” that anyone who is down could use. But this is certainly not a “deep book”, or one that attempts to go much further than is comfortable.

Along with the core idea, a second strength of the book is that it uses real life examples from various leaders who share their stories. Some of these are household names among Christian pastors, such as Craig Groeschel, but others are relatively unknown pastors who have a story to tell. Inevitably in these mini-testimonials, the pain that people face or deal with, centers around building campaigns, fund raising, staff interactions and problems that pop up during seasons of growth. In other words, Chand’s book is centered around the notion that the pain you will experience is largely around the ups and downs of organizational life, more than from a personal life. There is also a distinct bias here toward the large, showy, “famous” or well-known.

Unlike Sittser’s book, which is also based on a personal testimony, (but one that delves into real, soul-shattering pain), Chand keeps it light. The pain described in this book is quickly transformed into a “win” for the team. It doesn’t step into the deep end of the pool, where death or divorce, depression or drug abuse lead to a real crisis of faith and self.

In an earlier reading, McIntosh and Rima put it this way, “The critical factor in how our dark side will impact our leadership is the extent to which we learn about its development and understand how it influences us. If it is true that each of us will develop a shadow, or dark side, then what are the signs of its presence in our life.”[3]

In a sense, Chand is building on this “dark-side” theme by suggesting that “pain” if left unexamined does us not good (and can really harm us). It seems that pain has great power and possibility for us as leaders, but we must harness it and learn to use it if we are to reach our potential.

This resonates with the writings of Richard Rohr who says, “if we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it.”[4] The painful experiences of our lives, whether they are merely these “business-y” examples given in the book, or the deeper hurts that change our lives forever: they must be dealt with by leaders, to understand their power and to grow through the pain.

The surprising part about this book, which is about “pain”, is that it is such light and easy reading. The core idea and the accessible personal stories are ways for a broad audience to engage with this topic. But for those who yearn for more, or who want to think theologically about this topic, Jerry Sittser and his life-altering car crash, offer much heartier fare, but also require more work.

Personally, I would consider using Chand’s book with a group of church leaders, staff or fellow pastors, just as a way to introduce the topic. But for someone who is experiencing real pain, or real loss, or true tragedy, I would direct them deeper into the pool than Chand is willing to go.

[1] Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 48.

[2] Samuel R. Chand, Leadership Pain: The Classroom for Growth (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015), 21.

[3] Gary L. McIntosh and Samuel D. Rima, Sr., Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership: The Paradox of Personal Dysfunction (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1997), 50.

[4] Richard Rohr, Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality (Cincinnati: St Anthony Press, 2008), 24-25.

About the Author

Dave Watermulder

11 responses to “A book about pain (light on the pain)”

  1. mm Jay Forseth says:

    Brother,

    You did an amazing job with bringing in so many outside sources. My favorite that you used was Richard Rohr, who says, “if we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it.” Spot on!

    Have you tried to avoid pain in your ministry? I admit I have, to the point of kicking cans down the road, which I have learned, only makes the pain worse later.

    I agree with you about using this book with church leaders, in fact I plan on doing just that with my 107. Great suggestion!

    • Dave Watermulder says:

      Thanks, Jay!
      Yea, I’m also kind of an expert in kicking cans down the road! I think it just comes with the territory–we don’t want to engage with those hurtful conversations or hard decisions. That is totally true. I have grown over the years in my own ministry as I have gone through some of these hard times and situations and dealt with stuff that I never would have chosen… This is why this could be a good resource for a staff team, I think.

  2. mm Jason Turbeville says:

    Dave,
    As a guy who has gone through some pain in ministry I actually found the book to be a fairly good representation of dealing with and using pain in ministry to grow. I found it like you to be something I would like to use with my staff.
    Jason

  3. Dave,

    I share your pain! 😉 Yours is a well-reasoned critique of the offering Chand provides.

    Thanks for starting off with Sittser’s tragic example. His is a story of deep, personal pain that is not an easy place to exit from. That kind of story is the one that more closely resonates with my experience. Taking life’s incomprehensible events and learning to live with the brutality of the experience, not by sugar-coating, but by integrating them into a well-rounded theology of suffering is a helpful approach we can emulate.

    • Dave Watermulder says:

      Mark,
      Yea, I think you said it really well here in your comment. The main idea of this book is a good one, and the examples given are fine, but I think there’s a larger theology that needs to develop around how to deal with issues of suffering and loss. Not to “fix” them, per se, but to sit with them and be present through them.

  4. Shawn Hart says:

    Dave, I too agree that I would probably not use this book in the avenue of someone who is dealing with pain or loss. I did however see the benefit to it in regard to training future ministers. I remember undergraduate work, and the idea of being a “youth minister” was this optimistic goal for life to bring young souls to Christ. However, they really should have prepared us for what ministry would really feel like some of the time; pain and disappointment. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE being a minister, but some days you just want to crawl into bed like Daniel did.

  5. mm Dan Kreiss says:

    Dave,

    I believe you are correct in your assessment of the type of pain Chand describes throughout the book, it is pain that stems from church growth or staff conflict and not anything of the sort you described in your opening story. Perhaps this is why he keeps it light, and possibly to sell more books, for who would want to read about deep pain hoping to find some nugget of leadership potential in its midst? I don’t know that I have experienced much of the pain described by Chand in the text but probably wouldn’t know it if I had. Perhaps ‘pain’ is the wrong image to use for leadership challenges he describes. As a pastor what would you say are the distinctions between the pain of leadership in your church and your own personal periods of pain? How does God use each differently in your experience?

  6. Dave Watermulder says:

    Thanks, Dan,
    Yes, I think your comment is right on. I’m thinking that there is a substantive difference between the pain of organizational difficulties and struggle, and the personal side, which most/all leaders and people get into at some point. So, that’s where my interest would be, I guess, but this is more on the organizational/business side, if you will.

  7. Chris Pritchett says:

    Dave this is a brilliant post. First of all, I did not know that was Jerry Sittzer’s story. I’m speechless about that. You also graciously highlighted the strengths of the book while offering clear critique of its weaknesses. I thought you did well to hold this light book in conversation with Sittzer’s. I enjoyed reading your post.

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