Only once has a physician said to me, “This is going to hurt.”

The anesthesiologist prepping me for eye surgery then produced a long, curved hypodermic needle that looked like it should have been used on horses rather than on the human eye.

I’ll spare you the gruesome details. Suffice it to say that, even though I was flying high on morphine at the time, it was the most painful thing I’ve ever experienced.

But, as a result, I was then able to submit to much needed outpatient surgery. The “cure” wouldn’t have been possible without the preceding pain.

As in surgery, so in life. Getting better is often preceded by intense pain.

God Inflicts Pain Preceding Change

Thus was the experience of Israel’s sojourn in Egypt immediately before the Exodus.

After four centuries of habitation, the Israelites were well adapted to life in Egypt. Even when stripped of their favored status and forced into slavery, they adapted. We have a remarkable ability to get used to almost any living conditions, don’t we? And the Egyptians had grown accustomed to the vast number of Hebrew slaves providing free labor for their many building projects.

There were two groups in homeostasis. An equilibrium, a status quo, was established between the Hebrew slave population and their Egyptian masters.

Pain had to be inflicted on both groups before they would change.

Pain, for the Egyptians, came in the form of the escalating plagues that wrought death and destruction throughout the land. For the Hebrews, it came in the form of escalating hardship. Gathering straw, formerly the Egyptians’ responsibility, fell on the slaves. But the daily quota of bricks remained the same.

Eventually the pain became unbearable for both groups. The Hebrews were willing, finally, to listen to and follow Moses and Aaron out into the Wilderness. The Egyptians were willing – reluctantly – to let the Jews leave.

Pastors Must Be Willing to Inflict Pain

It is a sad truth: God’s people are generally reluctant to make meaningful change for the sake of God’s mission. Those who lead God’s people (and who must answer to God for their leadership) are occasionally called to the singularly unpleasant task of inflicting pain.

This is a tough pill to swallow, particularly for pastors who score a high Social Service interest on their Birkman profile. These pastors are especially sensitive to the welfare of others. They derive great personal satisfaction and affirmation from providing pastoral care.

Nonetheless, the pastor of a stagnant or declining church will necessarily inflict pain merely by introducing needed change. Beyond that, there may be occasions when a pastor must deliberately inflict pain in order to focus attention on the underlying disease afflicting the moribund congregation.

William Willimon, summarizing Heifetz, links effective leadership with a willingness to precipitate conflict when necessary.[1]

Good leadership requires a leader who is willing to learn the specifics of the leadership context, who is willing to address the conflicts between the values people say they hold and the reality they face. Then the adaptive leader must be courageous enough to orchestrate conflict so that people might learn new ways of thinking and acting.

A Personal Example

One church I served as an intentional interim pastor was divided over a significant theological issue. The previous pastor had cobbled an amicable truce that probably would have fractured under the next settled pastor.

One group could accept a pastor who held views sympathetic to the other side – as long as he was gracious and didn’t make the doctrine a “hobby horse.” The other group could not accept a pastor who sided with the others. So, for one group this was a “make or break” issue but the other group was of the “we can live with this as long as the pastor doesn’t push this front and center” mindset.

I couldn’t leave them in that condition.

I stepped into the role of lightning rod so both parties could discuss this issue while directing their anger at me. They were able to work out an understanding and suitable arrangement that would be conveyed to the next settled pastor.

That church is thriving today. They moved past the issue. I can’t take all the credit, and some of this was – with due deference to God’s sovereignty – a bit of dumb luck on my part.

Had I not inflicted pain on the congregation, it is likely the church would have seen a mass exodus of one group or the other when the next settled pastor assumed the office.

Meaningful change that moves a stagnant church off plateau is generally preceded by pain. It is the pastor’s job to inflict that pain – cautiously, judiciously, and if no other option seems to be available.

A New Paradigm?

Those who cherish the “soul care” model of pastoral ministry – caring for the needs of and (in some degree or another) catering to the whims of the congregants – will probably push back on my point.

If you find yourself reacting negatively to the notion that your God-given task may include deliberately inflicting pain, ask yourself why that’s the case? Where does that negative reaction come from? What is the underlying personal value that’s being challenged? Is that a biblical value that should inform ministry?

Remember, pastor, your responsibility is the effective ministry of the church (Ephesians 4:11 & ff), not simply the care, feeding, and welfare of individual members.

A tough balance, for sure.

But sometimes what those people need is a bit of tough love from their pastor.

Are you up for it?

[1] William Willimon, Pastor: Revised Edition: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry, Kindle Edition, Loc. 5707.