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.”
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.” 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.”
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.” 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.
 Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 48.
 Samuel R. Chand, Leadership Pain: The Classroom for Growth (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015), 21.
 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.
 Richard Rohr, Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality (Cincinnati: St Anthony Press, 2008), 24-25.