I take a lot of comfort from the fact that the apostle Paul was no stranger to the relational pain of ministry. Things didn’t always go well for him. Paul often felt alone, abandoned, rejected, and hurt by the people he felt called to love and serve. Look at how honest he is about the relational pain of ministry is 2 Timothy.
You are aware that all who are in Asia turned away from me, among whom are Phygelus and Hermogenes. (2 Timothy 1:15) But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have swerved from the truth (2 Timothy 2:16-18) For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. (2 Timothy 4:10) Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will repay him according to his deeds. Beware of him yourself, for he strongly opposed our message. (2 Timothy 4:14-15) At my first defense no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me. May it not be charged against them! (2 Timothy 4:16)
That’s a lot of hurt in one letter!
In the next post, we’ll talk about how Paul was able to keep going despite all of the relational pain of ministry. But, for today, I want to make one simple observation – Paul is able to talk about the relational pain of ministry without any shame. He isn’t trying to sweep this under the rug, gloss over it, deny his emotions, or explain it all away. He’s starkly realistic and at times shockingly willing to use real names. He doesn’t hide behind generalities and spiritual platitudes. Demas deserted him. Alexander did him a lot of harm. Hymenaeus and Philetus allowed gossip to morph into heresy. Phygelus and Hermogenes were out (and they obviously took a lot of people with them!). He was on trial for the gospel and no one showed up to offer encouragement.
While Paul no doubt felt sadness and hurt over these losses and woundings, he didn’t feel shame. He didn’t make the automatic assumption that he did something wrong, that he was a failure, that he never should have become an apostle, that he’s the problem, that he should just quit. In other words, he didn’t interpret the actions of others exclusively through the lens of his personal failure. He was aware that there’s always more to the story and he was aware of his weaknesses and shortcomings as a leader. He was able to bring his sin and the sin of others to God in a way that liberated his soul from shame.
Do I think we need to be careful not to abuse this idea as leaders? Yes, when people leave our churches, community groups, and ministry teams, we should be willing to ask questions about how we could have done better, about ways we could have served them better, about ways we need to grow. The point of what Paul is sharing here is not to give pastors, elders, and leaders in the church license to constantly blame others.
The point is to remind us that relational pain is part of ministry and we can talk about it without shame. We can talk about it in ways that are honest, specific, and ultimately redemptive. We’ll do more of that in the next post. But for today, here are a few questions that might be helpful to process in your journal or with a close friend:
- When have you felt the relational pain of ministry? Describe the hurt you felt.
- What story did you tell yourself to make sense of the pain you were feeling?
- Was your sense of pain also accompanied by a sense of shame or guilt? How so?
- Who are you able to process the relational pain of ministry with on a regular basis? Who are some of the people that could become these kinds of friends?