Shame and Grace in the Pastor’s Life

The God of biblical faith is the God who meets us at those moments in which for better or for worse we are being most human, most ourselves, and if we lose touch with those moments if we don’t stop from time to time to notice what is happening to us, and around us, and inside us, we run the tragic risk of losing touch with God, too.  Sad to say, the people who seem to lose touch with themselves and with God most conspicuously are of all things, ministers. Frederick Buechner, Telling Secrets: A Memoir

A friend emailed the other day with a tragic story of a pastor-friend whose recent affair has blown up his family.  In my world, this is an everyday occurrence, and one I can become numb to until it hits home, even closer – to a friend, to a student, to myself.  And then I’m pummeled again with the reality that I’m human, you’re human, we’re human.  We’re fragile.  We’re afraid.  We’re ashamed.

But are we allowed to be?  To be sure, one of the characteristics of most pastors I know is a highly-honed and well-developed Inner Critic which will not allow him or her to fail.  Let’s not be naive – we get into this profession because we’re prone to want to perfect others, and this is part-and-parcel of our own perfectionism.  Few pastors I know are immune to shame and guilt, and they’re on the sociopath spectrum.  So, let’s acknowledge first that we’re really hard on ourselves.  We work hard to please, to perform, to compartmentalize every seemingly unacceptable part of ourselves.

But let’s take it an (honest) step further – we’re not allowed to be human.  Few of us will keep our jobs is we dare say what we secretly think, feel, and do.  As Wayne and Hands say in Spiritual Wholeness for Clergy, most pastors hide behind the masks of hero or clown.  The hero will always come through.  The clown will always make people feel good.  And with good reason.  People want our personas.

To do what we do, we need to cut ourselves off from our hearts, from our stories.  That surge of anxiety or emptiness that emerges from deep within as we’re reading Scripture before our sermons – well, stuff it back down.  Don’t dare bring it up, then, there, anywhere.  Or, if you do (like, with a therapist, perhaps), make sure you couch it in the most optimistic way – “This doesn’t happen very much…I mean, I’m really pretty stable, but every so often…”

We do everything we can to transcend our humanity.  Though we may say, “Gospel, gospel, gospel,” we live far from “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  And so we perpetuate Adam’s first sin.  Instead of embracing our humble human estate, we feel shame at it, and compensate.  Rather than listening to our aching bodies and souls, we reject them in favor of the glittering, always-on persona.

The Catholic theologian Johannes Baptist Metz offers us a way back home, to our bodies, to ourselves:

Understood correctly, our love for ourselves, our “yes” to our self, may be regarded as the “categorical imperative” of the Christian faith: You shall lovingly accept the humanity entrusted to you! You shall be obedient to your destiny! You shall not continually try to escape it! You shall be true to yourself! You shall embrace yourself! Our self-acceptance is the basis of the Christian creed. Assent to God starts in our sincere assent to ourselves, just as sinful flight from God starts in our flight from ourselves.

Could we be ok being human?  With whatever that entails?

It’s really hard for me.  Lately, I’ve been off.  Just off.  I traveled a lot, speaking here and there.  I felt present and whole for a while, and then I started getting tired, and anxious, and disconnected.  I went into a kind of survival mode to survive it.  I remember the night this started.  I was in a Chicago hotel bar having missed a flight to a gig I was supposed to do.  Part of me was grateful to have a respite from being ‘on’.  I drank a few too many martini’s, ate a crappy meal, and woke up feeling worse the next morning.  Headache.  Nauseous.  I raced to the airport to get my break-of-dawn make-up flight only to realize it was cancelled.  I sat in O’Hare, almost incapable of self-care or self-reflection.  I simmered in anger, anxiety, and nausea.

For the next few weeks, I did my best to survive – to give decent talks, to be present to people, to fulfill my obligations.  A friend of mine talks about performance in baseball language.  I wasn’t swinging and missing, but I was hitting singles and doubles.  My Inner Critic was mad at me.  I wasn’t ok with this.  But even in regular times of quiet and contemplative space, I couldn’t get beyond the war between my Inner Critic was waging inside.  And so, I continued to feel worse – physically, emotionally, spiritually.

In these times I feel powerless to stop the inner torrent of shame.  Do you?  Am I alone in this?  The onslaught of people dependent on me (including my family) didn’t allow me much space to listen, to sit, to be.  I brought my anxious, scattered self on a trip to Europe with my family, and it jolted and jerked within in a way that left me tired, restless, anxious, angry, and resentful.

All throughout, the deeper voice within – God’s voice – kept saying, “So what?  You’re human.  It’s ok.  Your talk stunk.  Your failure to get back to people promptly disappoints.  Your anxiety feels horrible.  OK.  So, there you go.  You’re not superhuman.”

Can we listen to that still, small voice within whispering grace?  Can I?  Can you hear that voice, or is the noise too loud?

And even more, is there a limit on our grace – to ourselves, to others?  Because, believe me, pastors feel that there is a limit.  Perhaps we can tell you about a struggle with wanting the nice car our neighbor has.  Perhaps we might even admit an occasional battle with generalized “lust.”  And nowadays, we’ve developed a whole ‘gospel’ language that allows for general self-disclosure – “I’ve found my esteem in man and not God.”  But let’s be clear, here:  This does absolutely nothing at the soul level, and may only endear us to those who say, “Oh, our pastor is soooo honest.”

Is there a limit?  Can we say more?

Are there places where we can name the constant, burdening anxiety that drives us to drink too much?

Are there places where we can name the terrorizing rage we feel within at certain people?

…the emptiness we feel when we preach?

…the chasm between us and our spouse, which prompts us to wonder if we could get divorced and still remain in our position?

…the online chatrooms and peepshows and porn?

…the personal financial crisis we’re having as we cast vision for our church’s fiscal health?

…the health issues which seems to arise from our constant anxiety?

…the powerlessness and subsequent rage of being overlooked as a woman in ministry, or racial or ethnic minority?

…the secret you’ve kept despite being married, about being gay, about being in love with your best friend?

…the suicidal plans you’ve dreamed up as an escape from the prison of your life and ministry?

…the feeling of utter incompetence in your role?

…the loneliness?

Can we bring these things to our leadership team?  Our elders?  The church planting committee?

Most pastors I know would offer a resounding NO.  It’s not safe.  It’s not ok.  And so we hide.  And if and when something comes out that reveals our hiddenness – an indiscretion, a scandal – we’re targeted with people’s anger and disappointment.  I know few leaders in these situations who have said, “My church leadership actually came to me and said that they feel somewhat responsible for cultivating an atmosphere where I couldn’t be honest.”

So…finally… are we being thoughtfully and wisely preventative as churches?  Let me offer a few thoughts.

– Does your church leadership have a open-door, no-judgment policy for your pastors if she or he ever needs to come clean?  (This does not mean no consequences…but it does mean a safe, non-judgmental place where the pastor can be heard.)  Will counseling be paid for?  Is therapy even ok?

– Do you have a regular sabbatical plan?  Do pastors expect to have the church’s support to get away every 5-7 years with the blessing of the church and with some financial help, as well?

– Is there attention given to the daily rhythms of pastoral life, with ample time away for solitude, with the phone and email off?  Is this ok?  Or will it be perceived as lazy by the church and its leadership?

– Is there a process or people who can give feedback when they sense the pastor is not very present, or angry, or anxious, or checked out, or too busy?

– Is there an expectation that the pastor is connected to another pastor, a spiritual direction, a coach, and/or a therapist…and is there ongoing attention paid to how that conversation is going?

– Is there an atmosphere where the relational strategies (for good or ill) of the pastor and leadership can be talked about, owned, acknowledged, and spoken about with candor and grace?

As Buechner says, there are moments in which for better or for worse we are being most human, most ourselves, and if we lose touch with those moments if we don’t stop from time to time to notice what is happening to us, and around us, and inside us, we run the tragic risk of losing touch with God, too.

May we be attentive to these moments, as disruptive as they are.  May we see the moments when we’re humbled, humiliated, and HUMAN as sources of life and depth and as opportunities to be known, and not as moments to run from.  God give us grace for this hard road.

6 comments

  1. Chuck, thank you for sharing this. If Thomas Merton speaks about a clean window allowing the light of the sun through, then this piece of writing is a clean window that honestly names what we all feel and experience in different ways. “Could we be ok being human?” I do hope so, and your transparency only increases my hope. Thanks again.

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