Only once has a physician told me, “This will hurt.”

The anesthesiologist prepping me for eye surgery brandished a long, curved hypodermic needle more suitable for use on horses than my eye. Although he had me loaded with morphine, the injection into my optic nerve was the worst pain I’ve ever experienced.

But when it passed, I could endure surgery. Without the antecedent pain, sight could not have been restored to my left eye.

As in eye surgery, so in life. Great pain often precedes restoration.

Pain precedes change

The Israelites had adapted to life in Egypt. Even stripped of protected status and forced into slavery, they adapted. The Egyptians grew accustomed to the supply of Hebrew slaves—free labor for Pharaoh’s building projects. An equilibrium existed between Hebrew slaves and Egyptian lords.

Neither group would forsake the status quo unless great pain was first inflicted. Pain had to precede change.

For the Egyptians, pain came in the escalating plagues that wrought death and destruction throughout the land. For the Hebrews, pain came in the form of escalating hardship in their bondage.

Only when the pain became unbearable, would they consider change. The Hebrews followed Moses into the wilderness. The Egyptians let them leave.

Pain softens resistance

Pastors of change-resistant churches may be called to the unpleasant task of inflicting pain. If conditions in the church, wise counsel from others and clear direction from scripture study so indicate, the pastor must warn them, “This is going to hurt” and then brandish the needle.

No pastor enjoys this. It is difficult for pastors who derive great satisfaction and affirmation from providing pastoral care. They care deeply.

But if they love Jesus’ mission, they must answer his question, “Do you love me more than these?” Pastors must lean into their own pain, coming to grips with the fact that their call may require them to deliberately inflict pain.

The purpose is to focus the members’ attention on the etiology of their decline: cherished values contrary to Jesus’s mission for the church. William Willimon links pastoral leadership to the willingness to precipitate the pain of conflict when necessary.1

Good leadership requires a leader willing to learn the specifics of the leadership context, who will 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

A significant theological issue afflicted one church I served as an interim pastor. The previous pastor established an amicable truce that could not last.

One group would accept a pastor sympathetic to the other side as long as the doctrine in dispute was treated delicately. The other would not accept a pastor who wasn’t with them. Some folks saw this as “make or break.” The rest could live peacefully as long as the pastor didn’t push the issue.

I couldn’t leave them in that condition.

I had to be the lightning rod who forced open discussion. By directing their anger at me both groups could discuss things graciously. They worked out a suitable arrangement.

That church thrives today. I can’t take all the credit, but I know that had I not inflicted pain, the church would have suffered a mass exodus when a settled pastor arrived.

A new paradigm?

Pain usually precedes the meaningful change required to revitalize a declining church. When no other option is available, the pastor’s job is to cause pain—cautiously and judiciously—to uncover the real issues.

If you react negatively to this notion, ask yourself why. What underlying personal value is being challenged? Which biblical value do you think is violated?

Remember, your responsibility is to provide what the church needs to minister effectively (Ephesians 4:12–16). Love and truth must balance; unity with diversity must be equalized. The welfare of individuals must be weighed against the church’s call to Jesus’s mission.

Plateaued churches need tough love from their pastors.

Are you up for it?


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