In almost 35 years of pastoral ministry, I’ve experienced my own moments of tragedy and suffering, and accompanied others through similar terrain. As a regional pastor, I’ve witnessed the joys, routines, aggravations and, sadly, traumatic separation and loss. Throughout all of this, I’ve noticed the various ways we all seek after an explanation, a story we can tell ourselves about what happened and how on earth God is in the midst of it. Spiritual directors, counselors and trusted friends guide us and provide much needed help. Gathering trusted resources for this kind of work is critical. I believe Daryl and Sara Van Tongeren’s new book is one such vital resource.
Born of their own personal experience and years of research and practice, this book offers a vulnerable and well-crafted “existential positive psychology framework” to work with those who suffer. Although this book was written primarily for professional therapists, it’s easy to connect the dots to our own personal journeys as pastors and for work with other pastors who experience pain and loss.
The conviction undergirding this book is that “suffering is an inherent part of life that must be engaged,” not a problem to be solved. The framework they develop is to cultivate meaning at the intersection of the existential concerns of the sufferer (groundlessness, isolation, identity and death) and the positive psychology resources (virtues, relationships and religion). Their framework describes five “phases of darkness.” The five phases are Sunset (the sting of suffering), Dusk (into the darkness), Midnight (deconstruction), Dawn (reconstruction), and Daylight (living authentically).
The guiding principles underlying this framework are the following: pain is not bad, suffering is an existential issue, suffering and flourishing are not mutually exclusive, cultivating meaning is the key to flourishing in suffering, and flourishing in suffering is a continual process. Knowing this much can help regional pastors in their overall posture when working with pastors who suffer.
Since the book is not written exclusively for Christians, there may be places of discomfort or disagreement. For instance, the authors are honest about the deconstruction of their own faith and the need to let go of certain aspects of previous beliefs. They expose ways in which Christian communities can impair healthy engagement with suffering. The book challenges those who want to offer easy answers or fix grief with spiritual band aids. Their personal stories and suggestions challenge some common pastoral practices which may leave the reader squirming. Still, their deeper insight offers a more abiding hope.
I find hope in their invitation to be more vulnerable with our suffering - more open and raw, like psalmists before God. But vulnerability is not encouraged as an end in itself. Rather, guided by a trusted companion (therapist, pastor, friend) honesty about our suffering can lead us through the darkness to new realizations of life. As they state it, “The centerpiece of a flourishing life is the development of existential resilience by cultivating sources of meaning that can withstand future suffering.”
Meaning is central to the journey of pastors who suffer. Daryl and Sara define meaning as “the subjective feeling that my experiences and life make sense, matter, and are purposeful.” Meaning has these three components: coherence (does this make sense?), significance (do I matter) and purpose (why am I here?). When we suffer, “coherence translates events in ways that make sense; significance helps people transcend themselves and connect with others; and purpose transforms experiences, including pain and suffering, into something greater.
Though The Courage to Suffer is written to therapists, it has much to offer regional pastors in our work with hurting pastors. Centrally, it offers us a process of guiding the suffering pastor in their meaning-making. Around pastor-church separations for instance, we can observe how the pastor, the church, the classis and most onlookers are interpreting what happened. The meaning-making machinery can divide a church, and it can bring healing. Pastors wrestle with feelings of doubt, humiliation, failure, anger, bitterness and disdain. The hidden narratives of their own formation often skew the interpretations of the present. As the authors state, “Suffering makes it challenging to find meaning, but meaning is what is needed to flourish.”
Though regional pastors are not professional therapists, they are spiritual guides. Courage to suffer invites us to guide suffering pastors to flourish. The beginning of that work will be to listen for what doesn’t make sense, how they feel they do not matter, and what purpose is in question. Of course we know the meta-narrative that undergirds each of our individual stories—the great theological and biblical truths.
Good pastoral work remembers that while listening and posing questions that will encourage—the process of moving through the darkness of pain and suffering and stages of what Daryl and Sara call “the phases of darkness” to a new sense of coherence, significance and purpose. Patient listening for understanding and connection is a critical skill to develop. Offering probing, inviting questions (“what meaning are you making out of what’s going on right now?” And “what other possible meanings can you think of?” And “what is a more empowering meaning for you and the church?”) can open up conversations beyond the entrenched divisions that have occurred in the anxiety of the moment. The enduring hope of our work is to guide the suffering pastor into new understandings of how their story fits the eternal story.
In the epilogue of the book, the authors state, “The story of suffering is never simple; rather, it is wrought with pain, loss, and questioning, as well as with courage, growth, and intentionality. It is not something to triumph over, but rather an inescapable part of life. We will all suffer. How we do so matters.” I would discourage reading this book if you are looking for an easy technique, or a 5-step process for ministering to sufferers. If, instead, you desire building a stronger framework for suffering and resilience, Courage to Suffer will not disappoint.