Things I didn’t learn in Seminary | Part 1: All the Sadness

I have the privilege of leading and coaching several young men and women who are pursuing local church ministry. One of my favorite things to do is pass on the lessons “I didn’t learn in seminary”. This series of essays is a reflection of those conversations in written form. I trust they will be helpful.

“Prepare to be sad…a lot.”

This is a surprising, but important aspect of pastoral ministry that aspiring ministers of the gospel need to understand. I know, I know – what a buzz kill! Hear me clearly: there are tremendous joys and happiness that go along with pastoral ministry. Celebrating a young couple’s marriage or newborn baby is a special privilege. Seeing life and hope restored in people’s lives through the transforming power of the Gospel will forever be a deeply satisfying joy.

At the same time, it is also true that you are constantly exposed to the deepest pain and saddest moments of people’s lives. There are seasons of ministry when this feels like a weekly, if not daily occurrence. You are on the front lines when…

  • A family faces the tragic death of a loved one.
  • A marriage falls apart.
  • Anxiety and depression riddle hearts.
  • A bad decision has led to a harvest of regret.
  • Relationships have gone south.
  • A prodigal walks away from loving parents.
  • When small groups break up.
  • When people walk away from the faith.

It goes much deeper though because you experience your own loss and pain. You experience the sting of betrayal, personal disappointments, failure, and discouragement – all while carrying the burdens of others. You will be the ‘pastor’ everywhere you go – football parties, the gym, Home Depot, or kid’s school. You begin to feel a sense of heaviness when people say, “Can I talk with you about something?” (To non-pastor readers – this is okay. We are privileged to be there when you need us.)

Alas, it goes even deeper. If I might offer a brief bit of real talk – Sometimes the sadness you experience is the direct result of something you did.

  • You dropped the ball on a project.
  • You forgot to follow through on a promise and disappointed people you care about.
  • You said something that wounded a friend.
  • You made a leadership blunder that led to people being disillusioned, offended, and angry.

Have I provided you with a thorough buzz kill? OK, I thought so. Now, let me provide a little hope. We begin in Isaiah 53:3. “He was … a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief…”

(Use your imagination for a moment…)

Me: “Hey Isaiah, tell us what the Messiah is like!”
Isaiah: “Are you sure you want to hear this?”
Me: “Of course! Tell me everything!”
Isaiah: “OK. Well, Although he had done no violence, ‘He was oppressed, and he was afflicted…’” “Not only did he have his own sorrows and grief, ‘he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.’”

Do you see how extraordinary this is? When we experience disappointment and heartbreak. When we turn to prayer for our sadness and grief – we do not pray to a God who has never been touched by such things. As the author of Hebrews reminds us,

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin. – Hebrews 4:15

There are two very hopeful elements in this passage. First, Jesus sympathizes with our weakness. As David said, “…he knows what we are made of, remembering that we are dust.” But also, he has walked dark roads, been tempted by the devil himself, born the grief of humanity – yet without sin. In other words, not only does he understand our plight, he can do something about it as well!

He is both Sympathizer and Savior. He remembers that we are mere “dust” and rescues us from our brokenness. Contemplate on this:

  • Jesus wept with his friend’s sadness. (John 11:35)  
  • Jesus felt exhausted after the demands of ministry (Matthew 14:13, Mark 6:31, Luke 5:16)
  • Jesus was moved to tears because of the compassion he had for those blinded and hurt by sin. (Matthew 9:36)
  • Jesus was physically and emotionally overwhelmed when facing the agony of the Cross. (Luke 22:42)

Dear Ministry Leader,

You are human. Pastor within your humanness. Embrace the call to be sad and experience sorrow. But, do so knowing that you do not have to carry these burdens alone. You do not have to be anyone’s savior. And never forget – Jesus is your savior too.