It Hurts

deerThe church is hurting.  Yes, there are glorious triumphs and inspiring moments. But while some transformational ministry is going on, our congregations are experiencing both acute pain and chronic pain these days.

This article by Sarah Drummond was written about the shifts that Andover-Newton Theological School – the oldest seminary in the nation – is experiencing as they move to the campus of Yale Divinity School in the coming months.  These are Drummond’s words:

The Pain Chronicles (Picador, 2010), author, historian, and memoirist Melanie Thernstrom describes the phases of acute pain by using the illustration of a deer who has broken her leg.

  • First, the deer experiences a fast and sharp pain that communicates to her, Get away from what’s hurting you.
  • Second, she enters of phase of diffuse and duller pain that tells her not to make things worse by moving around.
  • Third, she goes through hormonal and cardiovascular changes that force her both to slow down and tend the wound while also preparing her to take off running, even through pain, if a threat emerges.
  • Fourth, she becomes sleepy, as her body knows it has to rest, and white blood cells rush to the wound’s location. The same internal chemical rush sends sharp pain if she touches the wound, so she knows not to. 
  • Finally, her brain’s hypothalamus suppresses all urges except for caring for the wound, as the brain privileges other needs and intentionally forgets about hunger and thirst.

Thernstrom goes on to make two observations about acute pain: she points out that humans are the only creatures who add a phase to this cycle, which involves analysis, asking, Why me? Only humans wonder what the pain might mean, immediately and in the future. Second, Thernstrom carefully distinguishes acute pain from chronic pain. Where the former plays an important evolutionary and adaptive purpose, the latter accomplishes nothing at all and is, in itself, an illness.

Drummond goes on to identify both the chronic and the acute pain in her seminary community.  We in congregational life experience these too.

Chronic Pain in the Church results from long term discomfort that tends to get managed rather than cured.  As the following realities set in, we come to accept that this pain will  – most likely – be with us for the rest of our existence on this earth:

  • “People don’t come like they used to.”  
  • “Our choir used to go on tour and now we can barely gather a dozen singers.”
  • “We used to have Sunday School full of children.”
  • “Our church once had a thousand members and now are pews are empty.”
  • “We can’t afford a full-time pastor.”

It hurts and it’s been hurting for a while now.  People (and institutions?) with chronic pain are more susceptible to anxiety and depression.  We feel sad because it feels like the best years are behind us.

Acute Pain in the Church results from a more immediate hurt. There is hope for the future.  The ministry will go on.  And yet it’s miserable when:

  • A beloved pastor leaves.
  • A pillar of the church passes away.
  • There’s a fire in the sanctuary.
  • The congregation leaves a familiar but dated building to erect a new structure.

Many of our congregations are in pain:  some in chronic pain that’s been part of their lives for a long time now.  And others are in acute pain that will feel better with time if they tend to the pain well.

One of the missions of our denominational structures is to assist congregations through chronic pain and/or acute pain.

Which kind of pain is your congregation experiencing these days and how will we treat it so that the story of Jesus is honored?

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