Walking into a place and paying money for a person to physically assault your body seems to go against every natural fight or flight instinct we have within us. Yet this is something that is done everyday. The last time I experienced this was 2 months ago. Walking into this place knowing that the end result would benefit me did not alleviate the slight anxiety of the process. Paying for a massage in China is an experience I hope all of you have time to experience. As my wife would say, “you would make a memory.” The pain, the body twisting, elbows in your back and sometimes the standing and walking on your body seemed to be an appropriate analogy for those of us in ministry. Chinese have a phrase during a massage 好痛 (hao tong)- “Good pain”- but it can also mean “very painful”. If life is pain and more specifically that ministry serving God is painful, then we should anticipate that a life in service to God will involve disappointments, failures and loss in ways we thought we would be protected from.
The more I read, Leadership Pain by Samuel Chand, the less I wanted to continue. Pain is to be avoided. This is the thought that kept coming back to me as I read story after story of leadership experiencing pain and heartache described by pastors and leaders. My heart was heavy as I saw myself in several of these stories of brokenness and redemption. The idea of good pain, or pain that is good for you, seems to be an oxymoron. As a pastor, we have always joked that the church would be great without all the people. So good pain or very painful (as the chinese would say) is apropos to describing the part of growth no one desires. “As Chand states in every chapter, ‘You’ll grow only to the threshold of your pain.’ this is both thought provoking and challenging, but also it encourages us to raise our threshold of pain….growth = Pain.” 1 I think it is easy to preach or even say that the Lord can use our pain, our hurt, our betrayals to build his kingdom and his glory when we let him. When the reality of this pain is lived out, then we see where our faith truly lies.
I have counseled so many times that God humbles us and uses pain to mold us into the person He sees us to be. I do believe that and have seen him work in my own life in ways that I cannot explain. I have seen God work through tragedies and disappointments but how do we live a life that desires changes and not flinch at every transition waiting for the hammer to fall? “The goal, then, is sometimes to avoid pain, sometimes to relieve pain, sometimes to create the pain of growth, but always to learn the lessons God has for us in the midst of our pain.”2
In a culture that avoids direct confrontation, there is a subtlety that has to be navigated. In a culture where “saving face” is more important than the truth that is told, having honest and open conversations can be challenging. When I first moved to this country, I was told that about 90% of what a stranger tells you is a lie and the deeper your relationship becomes corresponds to the greater percentage of truth. This is also played out in ministry in some key ways. Within an authoritarian culture where what you say and express could have negative consequences for your community, conflict is handled in different ways. Direct confrontation is usually seen as damaging to a person and a relationship. In our context, a deep connection with a person usually yields trust and private conversations can take place as long as they do not come across as argumentative. So some times an issue needs to be divided into small bits that can be handled over several days or weeks. Like moving a large ship, it needs to be handled in little nudges. I do not run from conflict and have always felt that if someone needed to be confronted then we need to do this sooner than later. I have had to learn to be more intentional and subtle in my approach. There have been times I have used that fact that I am a foreigner as a way to be direct. I have said things in Chinese like, “you know I am foreigner and I do not know all the polite language to talk to you about an issue. You know me, you know my heart is to love you, but I want to talk openly…” I have done this with individuals that I have a long-term relationship with. Chand says, “…ignoring pain is leadership leprosy. It may promise the short-term gain of avoiding discomfort, but it has devastating long-term consequences.”3 “Pain isn’t an intrusion into the lives of spiritual leaders; it’s an essential element in shaping the leader’s life.”4 I do believe avoidance is very asian, but can also be very damaging.
“Don’t run from your pain. Don’t deny it exists. It’s the most effective leadership development tool the world has ever known. You’ll grow only to the threshold of your pain, so raise it!”5 I think much pain comes from our own understanding of situations of conflict. Another common way Chinese deal with conflict is indirect communication. When we were running an English center, we had a good friend that worked at the university come to us and ask if we were preaching at our English center. She said that a religious affairs police officer wanted to know. Now where we work one only answers the question that is asked. I answered that at our English center we only teach English. She did not ask about our home or other locations. This is a common practice to have someone in leadership ask a friend to confront another person on their behalf. As you can imagine, this can also cause some misunderstandings. At this particular time, I was happy not to be confronted by the police, especially if their questions were more poignant and direct.
Leadership pain comes in all forms. Some is self-inflicted due to culturally insensitive statements or believing we are right without considering alternatives. Leadership within a second culture or even training others as leaders has its own set of challenges. “Pain isn’t an accident in God’s world. Even when it’s self-inflicted through doubt and sin, God graciously weaves the strands of these experiences into something beautiful—if we’ll let him.6 I have seen God work through the pain of those that have been called, been brought back to restoration, and others we are still waiting to see the outcome but in all circumstances, God’s hope shone brightly.
(sorry for no pictures, having internet issues)
1Borrett, Mark. “LEADERSHIP PAIN: THE CLASSROOM FOR GROWTH.” The Journal of Applied Christian Leadership 9, no. 2 (2015): 102-03.
3Chand, Samuel. Leadership Pain: The Classroom for Growth (Thomas Nelson). Kindle Edition. Location 406
4Chand, Kindle Edition. Location 461
5Chand, Kindle Edition. Location 3932
6Chand, Kindle Edition. Location 2220