working through pain

Experiencing Hell In Youth MinistryI had a hell of a summer.

In June I woke up to some weird darkness in my own life. I’m not going to tell you about it. This is only partially confessional. But it was the kind of thing that makes you stop and say, “I should probably talk to somebody about this.” So you talk to your wife, because your wife is awesome and lets you do things like not change clothes through Lent. That helps. You talk to a priest. Not because he’s a priest–because he’s a friend that happens to be a priest. That helps. Then one day you’re at a counselor’s office with a youth helping establish a relationship of trust between them. The youth leaves and you stick around for couple of shopkeeping things, and the next thing you know it’s your session. Two and half hours later, you’ve unloaded your soul and emerge hopeful but feeling like you’ve poured your heart through a colander.

This sort of afternoon makes it difficult to maintain the brave exterior of ministry.

I was shell-shocked. I felt hollowed out emotionally. I made it through my Wednesday night stuff reasonably well, but was facing leading a family retreat that weekend. I was at a bit of loss for how to proceed. You can’t close up shop. But you also can’t appear to be “less” to the church at large. Ideally, sure you could. But this is real life. Weakness smells like weakness.

I am fortunate to have a great relationship with my pastor. He’s a real friend. I gave him one of those it’s-nothing-but-I-need-to-meet-with-you-in-person phone calls that make pastors nervous. I was able to confide fully in him without fear. At the same time I sent an email to a youth parent couple that has been incredibly supportive in my five years in this church. My message was simple: I need your prayer through the retreat we are leaving for on Friday. I can’t tell you why right now, but for the first time in my ministry I feel completely incapable of leading and I don’t know how I’m going to get through this retreat. Thanks.

That one wasn’t entirely without fear; the mom is on our staff-parish relations committee. But I didn’t know what else to do. I was able to confide in them as well after we’d returned from the trip. (They remain completely supportive.) Four months later, I’m mending. And transforming. But it’s been a brutal, brutal four months. A very short list of people know what I’m dealing with. I’ve shut down in some relationships. I’ve hurt a friend deeply in my process. In the past few weeks I’ve been easing out of social media. Not for keeps, just for a bit. And all of that because of something that really only involves me. What the heck would you do in ministry if you hit a life circumstance that involves somebody else too?

I think you’ll find there aren’t a lot of road maps in ministry for this sort of thing. If I didn’t happen to have the relationships in place that I did, I could have been done at this church. Not because I’d done anything wrong. Nothing illegal happened, no vows were broken, no terms of employment were violated. But the sheer emotional weight of dealing with something about me, something at my core, could have wiped me out.

That would have sucked, huh?

So I’m fortunate, because I’ve already got people I can go to with anything. But if I ever find myself in a new ministry setting, I’m going in hunting–hunting for the people I can go to with my pain. They have to exist, or we’re done before we start. Has it happened to you? Are you ready for it? Have you even thought about it?

I hadn’t. I wish I had. I got lucky.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *