There are only a few moments in our lives when our understanding and role as leaders change dramatically. The first for me was being inducted into my first pastoral position at the young age of 23. The next came when I became a husband at the age of 25, followed by becoming a father at the age of 28. Each of these moments in my past radically changed who I was as a leader. While I have changed pastoral positions several times and have also changed churches once, my leadership paradigm remained relatively unchanged until summer of 2020 when I was diagnosed with cancer.
In June 2020, twenty years after that initial leadership role of becoming a pastor, I was diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma, an aggressive and deadly liver cancer with a single digit survivability rate.While I have tried to maintain life as normal, this type of diagnosis inevitably impacts life, and mine has been no exception.Ironically enough, I am the pastor of care at our church and the one responsible for caring, supporting, and walking alongside those in our congregation who are suffering.
What happens when we, as the pastors, are the ones suffering?
You may not have terminal cancer, but we all live in this broken world which groans as it awaits the redemption and hope that is only found in Christ (Romans 8:22-23). Until then, suffering is part of that groaning and therefore, part of our lives and ministry.
As we lead our churches through times of suffering, let me share four principles I am humbly learning while going through my own suffering.
1. TEACH AND MODEL A THEOLOGY OF SUFFERING IN YOUR CHURCH
Did you ever wonder why Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:8 only pleaded three times for his thorn to be removed? Why wasn’t it four, five, or one hundred times? I read this passage in awe of Paul, thinking that I was missing something, but eventually concluding that God desires my contentment in Christ over the removal of my suffering.
We must teach, preach, and model that Christ’s grace is sufficient. I can share that throughout my battle with cancer, Jesus has been so gracious and loving towards me, despite my own sin and brokenness. I have come to know Him in a way like I have never experienced before in my life. While I wouldn’t trade the mountain top experiences, and while I sure wish I could trade this experience, I know that without cancer, I would not be able to see Jesus and love Him as clearly as I have during this time. In some ways this valley experience has provided much better views of eternity and life than the mountain top experiences ever hoped to.
We need to pray for our people, and we need to pray for God’s healing hand over physical or spiritual issues. However, let’s prioritize, as Paul did, contentment in the sufficiency of Christ while also praying for healing. This may not always be what people want to hear, but it is what they need to hear.
2. BE VULNERABLE
Recently in pop culture, we have seen several examples of people who chose to keep their cancer private, such as Chadwick Boseman and Norm McDonald. While I respect their choices, I wonder if their silence reflects a society that is not ok with vulnerability. Vulnerability is often misinterpreted as insecurity and weakness, and therefore vulnerability may cause us to miss out on opportunities where strength is the desired trait. Biblical vulnerability, as modeled by David in the Psalms and Christ in the garden does not stem from weakness, but rather strength. I realized early in my diagnosis that I needed to show strength by being vulnerable. I needed my church to pray, support, and care for me and my family, but it would require a level of vulnerability that is quite uncomfortable. It means that I need to be ok being served, while I am usually the one who prefers to serve. Our vulnerability during suffering models how we want our congregants to respond both in heart and action to suffering. So, express your sorrow, accept help, show contentment, and at times be ok with not being ok.
3. IT’S OKAY THAT YOU DON’T HAVE ALL THE ANSWERS.
In the past few months, my cancer has spread and my prognosis has worsened. I don’t have answers to the whys and am past feeling that I need to have a spiritual response to all these difficult questions. As we lead our churches somewhere between brokenness and redemption, our congregations and communities do not need all the answers. They need pastors who walk with them, grieve and lament with them, and model a hope that is rooted in the gospel during the most difficult of times. Many of our Old Testament heroes of the faith knew what it meant to lead while not having all the answers. Moses in Deuteronomy 29:29 wrote “the secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” And we cannot forget Job in chapter 38 when God spoke “where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.”
4. MAKE ETERNITY A PRIORITY!
Church leader, when eternity becomes a priority, whether through study or through an unfortunate event, the sideways noise that so often consumes our attention (look no further than the past 2 years) can often become so overwhelming that it distracts us from our focus on Christ and eternity. Jesus in John 14 just finished informing his disciples of his impending death. Jesus, acknowledging their stress, fear, and anxiety over his news, reminds them to remember eternity and not to let their hearts be troubled. We must appeal for eternity in the hearts of those in our church; we must appeal for their security, hope, and affections to not be temporal, but to be eternal.
In elementary art class I created a little man made of clay. I will often carry him in my bag or my pocket as a reminder. He is a reminder and often an illustration of God’s goodness amid our brokenness. As you look at him, he is fragile, he lost his arm when he was little, his face is a bit distorted, and let’s just say this was his creator’s first time working with clay. But he belongs to me, he is precious to me, he is valuable! I created “Little Man,” as I call him; therefore, I love him. Little man outside the safe embrace of my hand, my pocket, or my shelf is not safe and should be fearful when he’s not with me. I have a much different perspective than he does.
The application should be apparent, and I close with this – while being broken and fragile, it is impossible for us to understand why and how God in His sovereignty acts, but we can always hold on to God as good because He created us. He sacrificially loves us. He is our affection for eternity. And finally, He is completing His good work in us (Romans 8:28, Phil. 1:6), even if it remains blurred to us during our times of earthly suffering.