By Samuel R. Chand
It’s inevitable, inescapable. By its very nature, leadership produces change, and change—even wonderful growth and progress—always involves at least a measure of confusion, loss, and resistance. To put it the other way: leadership that doesn’t produce pain is either in a short season of unusual blessing or it isn’t really making a difference. So,
Growth = Change
Change = Loss
Loss = Pain
Growth = Pain
When leaders in any field take the risk of moving individuals and organizations from one stage to another—from stagnation to effectiveness or from success to significance—they inevitably encounter confusion, passivity, and outright resistance from those they’re trying to lead. It’s entirely predictable. Any study of business leaders shows this pattern in the responses of team members. Pastors’ teams and congregations are no exception. The long history of the church shows that God’s people are, if anything, even more confused, more passive, and more resistant when their leaders point the way to fulfill God’s purposes. Organizational guru Peter Drucker observed that the four most difficult jobs in America are, in no particular order: president of the United States, university president, hospital CEO, and pastor. (I’ve been in two of these roles: pastor and university president.) If you’re a church leader and struggling in your role, you’re in good company!
The normal human response to pain is to do anything except face it. We minimize the problem (“Oh, it’s not really that bad”), excuse those who have hurt us (“She didn’t really mean it”), or deny it even happened (“What conflict? What betrayal? What hurt? I don’t know what you’re talking about!”).
But pain isn’t the enemy. The inability or unwillingness to face pain is a far greater danger. I grew up in India where I saw thousands of lepers. They are often missing noses, ears, fingers, and toes—but not because their flesh rots away. (That’s a common misconception.) Various body parts become severely damaged because they don’t sense the warning signs of pain to stay away from dangers. Dr. Paul Brand worked with lepers in India and the United States. In The Gift of Pain, coauthored by Philip Yancey, Brand tells the story of four-year-old Tanya. When her mother brought Tanya to the national leprosy hospital in Carville, Louisiana, Dr. Brand immediately noticed the little girl appeared totally calm as he removed her bloodstained bandages and examined her dislocated ankle. As the doctor gently moved her foot to assess the extent of the damage, Tanya appeared bored. She felt no pain at all.
Tanya suffered from a rare genetic malady called congenital indifference to pain, a condition very similar to leprosy. In every other way, she was a healthy little girl, but she felt no pain at all. Years earlier, Tanya’s father left because he couldn’t handle the stress of raising her—he had called her “a monster.” Dr. Brand observed, “Tanya was no monster, only an extreme example—a human metaphor, really—of life without pain.”
Tanya and millions of others without the capacity to feel pain endure a severe, involuntary handicap, but the rest of us often choose to be numb and suffer the consequences. Many leaders think they have to put on a happy face (or at least a stoic face) for the people in their organizations, so they refuse to admit their discouragement, disappointment, and disillusionment—even to themselves—or they try to delay their pain. They tell their worried (and maybe angry) spouse, “As soon as the building campaign is over, the new music program is in place, the new staff member is hired, or some other benchmark is achieved, I can slow down and the stress will subside.” For pastors and all other leaders, ignoring pain is leadership leprosy. It may have promise the short-term gain of avoiding discomfort, but it has devastating long-term consequences.
For church leaders, pain is pervasive and persistent. People who are involved in any form of church leadership, and especially pastors, see more of the underbelly of life than members of any other profession. Insurance agents see those who come to them for protection against loss, bankers and mortgage brokers see people who have financial needs, doctors treat physical problems, and mechanics look under the car hood—none of them look into people’s heart like a pastor does. None of these people see people at the apogee and perigee of their lives—times of greatest celebrations, like weddings and births, and times of deepest loss, like divorce, disease, and death. Pastors are exposed to the highest hopes and the deepest wounds of those in their care. And it’s not temporary; it’s from the womb to the tomb.
Making friends with your pain is part of leadership. Our pains tell us we’re moving in the right direction. New pains will always be a part of your life as you continue climbing the ladder to your destiny.
Do you want to be a better leader? Raise the threshold of your pain. Do you want your church to grow? Do you want your business to reach higher goals? Reluctance to face pain is your greatest limitation. There is no growth without change, no change without loss, and no loss without pain. You and your organization will grow only to—and not a step beyond—your pain threshold. If you’re not hurting, you’re not leading. Your vision for the future has to be big enough to propel you to face the heartaches and struggles you’ll find along the way.
 Paul Brand and Philip Yancey, The Gift of Pain (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 3–5.
This article is excerpted from Chapter 1 of Leadership Pain: The Classroom for Growth by Samuel R. Chand.
Leadership Pain is available at all major booksellers – order now!