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The Suffering Leader: A Transforming Relational Process
By John Grys, D.Min,
As a pastoral candidate interviewing at a new church, I was asked to preach for the congregation as part of the process. After the message, I was given the opportunity to engage in a Q&A with the congregation. As someone who does contract graduate and post-graduate teaching, I always enjoy that kind of repartee. Following the brief interaction, I met a few of the congregants. One man, about my age, came up to me afterward and inserted into my world a new reality for interviewing and preaching, “Pastor, I just wanted to let you know while you were preaching, I was Googling your name.”

Wow! I quickly did my own mental Googling to see if I could remember writing, posting, publicly saying anything that would get me into trouble with this man. “And you don’t need to worry,” he added (was it that obvious on my face?), “I thought your message was spot-on and we’d love to have you here.” Whew…air once again filled my lungs. This new context defines the world in which pastors now roam the earth. And when you combine this context with leading, the mixture can potentially lead to unbelievable pain.

I would like to suggest the following as a working definition for what leadership can be: Leadership is a transforming relational process involving two or more individuals who are freely associated in the pursuit of a common purpose. Three words provide sufficient cause for examination in light of this shifting context: “transforming,” “relational,” and “process.” This transforming relational process within the context of a Googling world and church serves as a particular mixture contributing to the suffering leader.

The contextual sources of suffering can be many: a betrayal by a longtime supporter who cannot bear the tension they feel; the spouse who must navigate between their own identified career and the weighted expectations of congregants; the children who don’t quite understand why it is that people are not nice to mom; the conference leaders who drive the pastor instead of leading the pastor; the church elder who would rather place more stock in what an Internet site says about the leader than what they actually know after six years of life together; the financial constraints arising from exorbitant school loans and a wage scale that can’t possibly make up the difference; other congregants who now determine your value not by who you are but whether you comply with their internal litmus test; the attempted leading of the congregation to pursue mission without the employing agency providing coverage to that innovative pastor; the weighted expectations of congregants based upon what they can watch on YouTube versus what they find in the leader’s preaching—all these and more can supply an endless storehouse of sources that can bring any pastor worth their salt to a dark night of the soul.

Now, while all these may contribute, it is precisely this transforming relational process that brings a weight to bear in the very soul of the leader. “The Word became flesh” provides the biblical language describing the relational nature of leadership. Leadership is relationship. The Word was not satisfied with a leadership defined by positional authority. The Word descended from His position. The Word got his sandals muddy, His robes dusty, His hands bloody. Relational leadership is just plain messy.

Pastoral leaders are asked to engage this transforming relational process within a world suspect of leaders, even more of leaders from more traditional social institutions. Authority in the past resided in the position, in the expert, in the specialist. This is no longer the case, especially among the younger generations. And this shift has radical implications. Specific to the suffering leader, however, the shift is extremely significant. Authority now resides in relationship and not solely in position. The bonds of trust (the largest denomination in the currency of leadership) are anchored in this transforming relational process within the social context of distrust and anxiety.

Leaders can easily revert to one of two defaults in this context. The first will be for positionally authorized leaders to dig heels in and shift (unconsciously) to a driving model of leadership. The shift away from a model of leadership that builds the relationship now pivots to a model of pushing through an agenda that leaves in its wake broken souls and communities. The agenda may arise victorious on the other side of the introduced chaos—but the capability of the people to engage with the victorious agenda has been significantly reduced. It is to this Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke, “He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.”[1]

The second can be equally as devastating. The leader can begin to hide in plain sight. The pastor no longer seeks to lead but more significantly seeks to keep his head down. The leader begins to organize the life around the prevention of one more phone call, one less email, one fewer text. Over a long period of time, the leadership mantle of the pastor has been suffocated by the necessity of less connection and more retreat.

There is a third way and it tends to be the way less traveled for one very good reason: the third way can be described as the suffering leader. To resist the urge to fight, force, and drive or to hide in plain sight and abide in this transforming relational process requires more than people possess within themselves. The suffering leader cares as much about the people he leads as the vision he pursues. The delicate balance between vision pursuit and leadership as relationship invites an unsettling tension. The suffering leader resides within this tension. Why? Because it can be precisely within this tension where the ongoing work of transformation occurs. As Andy Stanley suggests, “Tensions are not to be resolved or solved, but managed to leverage the dynamics for progress and growth.”[2]

Why would I write so much about this? Behind all the bro-hugs, back-slaps, and handshakes extended in our pastoral gatherings, there stands a silent cultural presence eroding the soul of pastoral ministry in the North American Division. A joint study by the General Conference, North American Division Ministerial and Family Ministries Departments examined the question of pastoral seminary training, the demands placed upon pastors by congregants, and the impact this has upon the pastor’s family. Their conclusion? “[T]he front-line leadership in the Seventh-day Adventist church, pastors and their families, experience levels of stress that are not sustainable for the future health of the Church.”[3] The silent suffering that many pastors carry cannot be ignored. The transforming relational processes bear a strong resemblance to someone swimming through an ocean of peanut butter. And for a pastor to pursue a model of leadership as identified above, the suffering is real. 

Ultimately, this is not the end of the story. The suffering, while real, is not unique. There is a trajectory to the suffering, to the leading, if leaders are willing to remain in the third way. This trajectory is captured powerfully by the writer of Hebrews when he wrote, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”[4] Tracing this trajectory can be crucial for leaders to thrive and not merely survive in the suffering. And central to the trajectory for the suffering leader will be focus. As Jewish rabbi, Harold S. Kushner, asserts in the preface of the Viktor Frankl classic, Man’s Search for Meaning, “Suffering in and of itself is meaningless; we give our suffering meaning by the way we respond to it.”[5] The suffering leader finds meaning primarily through a laser-like focus on this Jesus who is the prototypical Suffering Leader. With all that swirls around the life of the leader, pursue the focus on this Jesus. Do whatever is necessary. Do not wait. The temptation in the moment will be to regurgitate the conversation, to relive the feeling, to hold on to the bitterness, and to allow the bitterness to turn into a quiet anger.

For myself, this refocus to Jesus takes on various forms. No doubt, my first response is a return to the life of Jesus and to study (not read), to consider, to reflect, and to make a matter of prayer. Of course, it would be better for me to make this a daily routine as a preventive action. But when the sense of suffering shifts from chronic to acute, a strong response is required. My favorite passages to return to is the story of the wilderness temptations and the scenes surrounding the end of his life. I camp there. No sermon prep. No Bible study to share. No devotional to prepare for a school board meeting. It is just God and I. Meaning.

Secondly, there are certain songs I return to again and again as part of this re-focus. My wife and I recently traveled to our first district where the wife of a head elder who had adopted us in our early years was dying. We were traveling to say good-bye…for now. I found a song meaningful to me in moments from the past and replayed that song over and over. And suddenly, meaning in Jesus arose from a heart of pain. I listened until my soul found rest in Him.

Third, I return to certain writings as a means of transporting me from the current ocean of peanut butter to a place where I experience my current story against the backdrop of a metanarrative. My go-to passage is the chapter from Desire of Ages entitled, “Gethsemane.” I also return to the aforementioned Man’s Search for Meaning, specifically resting in the passages I’ve highlighted on my Kindle.

But, here is the point, whatever draws you back to a focus on this Jesus…do it and don’t wait. Focus firmly planted in Him can protect the leader during the suffering that naturally occurs between the “joy set before” and “enduring the cross.” All the while, there is this knowing that the trajectory will finish at the throne next to Him. The suffering leader must remember there is a wider community (“a great cloud of witnesses”) that endures as well. Jesus developed a band of twelve that would be His human support through His suffering. Suffering leaders today can do no less. Find the community. It can be a formal community like a pastoral small group. It can be an informal community like a set of life-journeying friends. Whatever it is, know that the suffering leader cannot endure isolated.
And yes, know that when it is all said and done, the suffering leader will not be defined by the suffering but by the position next to Him on the throne given to her by the Suffering Leader. The trajectory does not end with last night’s board meeting, last week’s betrayal, or last year’s departure of key leaders. The trajectory ends next to Him who is present now.
John Grys serves as the associate director of North American Division Ministerial Association with specific duties of Pastoral Professional Development.
[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, New York: Harper & Row Publishers, Inc., 1954, p. 27.
[2] Facebook Post, The Global Leadership Summit, January 2, 2016
[3] David Sedlacek and Duane McBride, “Seminary Training, Role Demands, Family Stressors and Strategies for Alleviation of Stressors in Pastors’ Families: Final Report to the North American Division Ministerial and Family Ministries Departments in conjunction with the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists,” unpublished paper, September 8, 2014.
[4] Hebrews 12.2, New International Version.
[5] Harold S. Kushner, Preface, Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, Location 28, Kindle Version.