Ministry in the Midst of Pain
- 2004 16 Oct
How many times as youth pastors do we talk about subjects that we've never experienced or about which we have very little knowledge? You ever skim a book right before you spoke on some theological topic? Or searched for material to include in a talk on alcoholism, drug abuse, sexual addiction or some other topic where you wanted to sound like an expert when you've never actually experienced the issue. I've done it on more than one occasion. One of the topics I've always talked about but never experienced deeply is pain…until recently.
Pain is a huge part of many of our teens' lives. Often I'll hear heart-wrenching stories from teens that leave me with this what-do-I-say-next look on my face. I grew up in a fairly good family with two parents who were strong Christians. I was pretty sheltered and had a fairly easy life. Of course, there were normal issues and problems, but I'd never say there was any huge crisis or pain in my life. So through my first four years of ministry, whenever the topic of pain, trials, and tribulations came up, I never had first-hand knowledge to fall back on. That changed quickly last February.
My wife Jill and I had our first son Kyle in September of 2000. I was so pumped. The day after he was born we watched our first football game together—the Bears and the Vikings. I remember it being one of Cade McNown's best pro football games.
One of the things I felt I'd missed out on as a kid was my dad coming to most of my little league games because he had to work lots of hours to support our family. So one of the biggest things I'd been looking forward to was having a son who could share my love for sports; I could coach his little league team and any other sport in which he was involved.
After a few months we realized that Kyle was progressing slower than normal. We went to a doctor, and he suggested that we get Kyle involved in therapy. He assured us that even though this was a little abnormal, Kyle would catch up and be "normal." By the time he was 2, he was still struggling with walking, so the doctors began to run all sorts of tests.
It was a long, involved process, but eventually we found out he had Muscular Dystrophy. Specifically, he has Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. It's the most common form, and it breaks the muscles down at a steady rate. A person with Duchenne MD will be wheelchair-bound between the ages of 8-12, and life expectancy is about 25 years.
All of a sudden my worst fears were realized. My son's best years of his life were right then. I was both angry and sad. My dreams for my son were shattered. The doctor also gave us news that it could be hereditary, and any other boy we have could have the same disease. It doesn't affect girls, so our daughter won't have the disease.
So there I was in a place that I couldn't fathom, with a son whose muscles were going to deteriorate right before our eyes, and there was nothing we could do about it. Man, I was mad. Mad at God, I prayed, "How in the world can you do this to me? You called me into ministry and this is the deal I get?" As I began to process my feelings, I started reading the Bible about those who'd been called by God. The story of Joseph is a great one about people being faithful to God through difficult circumstances; his life wasn't exactly easy before he became Pharaoh's right hand man. Jeremiah has always been one of my favorites. Here was a guy God called, but when poor Jeremiah told the truth, people thought he was crazy and didn't listen to him; in fact, he really didn't see much accomplished in his lifetime. As I read through these stories, my perspective began to change. Of course I'd read through these stories before, but now I was reading them with a different perspective. In a very real way, I could now relate to the struggles and the trials that these people went through.
A friend of mine mentioned the story of Abraham and Isaac, mentioning that God was just testing Abraham and that all worked out in the end—the lesson being that if I have Abraham's faith then God is going to heal Kyle. That is a great theology if it's true. I don't know the plan God has for Kyle's life. Do I think God will heal Kyle? I don't know. Does God have the ability to heal him? Absolutely. If God doesn't heal Kyle, is my perspective of God going to change? No. I want God to heal Kyle, but I know that God is faithful to those who follow him. As James 1:2-3 reads, "My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance."
Am I to the place where I consider it pure joy? No, not even close. I'm working on coming to a place where I have peace with it. The reality is, though, it's a choice for me to serve God no matter what my circumstances and situation. Did God remain faithful through this? Is God still someone in whom I can put my absolute faith? Those are questions for which I have the head knowledge of answering a resounding "yes," but my heart can only answer in a much more timid voice.
As I think about my future and the hardships our family will go through, I get tired. I cry. I get discouraged. I'm not going to fool myself that this is going to be an easy life. Then I have to go to the whole point of why I exist. Why am I here? Is it to have a perfect family and coach little league? I'd sure like that stuff. But my purpose is to accomplish God's will.
As soon as I heard that Kyle had Muscular Dystrophy and learned abut his outcome I thought, "Well, my days as a youth pastor are over. This is just too hard." God knew before I went into ministry what I was going to have to go through. I still ask the question, "Why?" But I'm determined to do what God has called me to do. There are many days when I want to give up, but God has put so many people in my life that it has become clear this is what I'm supposed to be doing. God has and I believe will continue to use this situation. I can now talk about pain in a whole new way. In going through my wish list of trials, this one would've been at the bottom. For some reason though, God knew that through this I'd be able to reach other people.
And all of us have a story. Many youth pastors have been through painful situations in their pasts and in their presents. And these situations can be used to give God glory, provided we don't hide them, cover them up, or pretend like life doesn't bother us. Pain is a very real part of everyone's lives, including youth pastors, and we miss great opportunities for ministry when we don't expose this part of our lives to teens.
Ben Polhemus is currently the youth pastor at Real Life Community Church in Portage, IN. In his spare time he helps local musicians with concerts and promotion, and he's a die hard Boston Red Sox fan. He's married to Jill and has two children, Kyle and Ellyse, and a third on the way.
This article is from Youthworker e-Journal, Vol. 1, No. 2. Used with permission of Salem Publishing. The Youthworker e-Journal is a twice-monthly e-mail newsletter that will bring you timely information and articles designed to help you be the best youthworker you can be. Click here to subscribe. For information on how to subscribe to Youthworker Journal,