BY REV. JENNY SMITH
So that title might be a bit much, but many days, it feels true. Let me tell you why.
I was 17 years old, living in Anchorage, Alaska, when I experienced significant pain in my forearm. I assumed it was sore from volleyball practice and thought nothing of it. A few days later, I drove down the hill from my high school to the parsonage (my dad was a pastor at St. John UMC at the time) and collapsed on my bed in tears. I’d barely made it through volleyball practice, and the pain was overwhelming. My mom was a school nurse, so off we went to several doctors to find some answers. Our journey ended at my family doctor’s office when she said, “Fibromyalgia.” The pain and tender points were present all over my body. I got a hug, some pamphlets, and out the door we went.
It’s safe to say my teenage world fell apart. I made the difficult decision to quit my volleyball team, playing piano, drums, and percussion as I entered my senior year of high school. Those relationships shifted and I was left with one social place I could fully participate—church. As I slowly got used to a chronic pain diagnosis, I spent more time at church and said yes to a couple of leadership opportunities. A few months later, the beloved Marcia Trott (active at Edmonds UMC until her passing), sponsored me on a Chrysalis weekend in Washington. Something was shifting in my life, but I didn’t quite have language for it yet. Other wonderful adults in Alaska sent me to Exploration in Dallas in 2000.
Two turning points happened in Dallas. It turned out my small group leader also had fibromyalgia. Sitting in a hotel hallway, listening to part of her story brought tears to my young eyes. If she could figure out life, then so could I. I arrived at the closing worship gathering where they invited people forward who felt a call to ordained ministry in The United Methodist Church. I knew right then and there; I was in. All in.
Why is chronic pain my superpower? Living with chronic pain and serving in ministry taught me sustainability in my 20s in a way I might not otherwise have learned until my 30s and 40s. At 37 years old, I’ve already got 20 years under my belt of practicing sabbath, setting boundaries, managing stress, listening to my body, burning out, and starting over. I’ve learned over and over that I can’t keep the same pace as the culture around me. I’m no good to anyone when I’m exhausted, stressed, and in pain. So in a way, fibromyalgia saved me. Or at least it gave me a set of life skills that serve me every single day.
Chronic pain is lonely. It’s often invisible. I struggle in the moments I have to pull back and conserve energy. I sometimes wonder if I’m making it up and just need to try harder. But then my body gently reminds me that limits are a good thing. There’s freedom in setting boundaries. I get to give my full self to a few things instead of doing all the things.
People ask what helps, and my answer is always the same: I keep stress low, eat healthy food (80% of the time!) and move my body. My daily rhythms prioritize exercise and quiet space for prayer and reflection. Therapy, spiritual direction, and mindfulness do wonders for my emotional and mental health. Palms up, a contemplative rhythm, gives a framework to my days that I find immensely helpful.
Living with chronic pain gives me compassion for my colleagues who work to balance it all and share how they fall short. I love conversations with clergy around sustainable rhythms and boundaries. We need each other fully alive and in this incredible work together! Chronic pain gives me a superpower for supporting this part of our ministry as a covenant community.
Fibromyalgia is my superpower when it comes to meeting new people in our faith community. So many walk some difficult health journey at some point. When a pastor shares that they’re figuring something out too, the connections are powerful.
Do I wish chronic pain skipped my doorstep? Sure. But since it didn’t, I’m committed to caring for my one body with kindness and grace so that I can be a vessel for the Spirit to do what the Spirit wants to do in the world. Here’s to this journey we all make together. We’re all just walking each other home.