Too far to fall: The pastor’s worst fear – Failure

Failure. It’s a f-word of pastoral ministry. It’s the worst fear, the deepest dread. “I’d rather be diagnosed with a fatal disease than fail,” one candidate wrote on his psychological assessment. “Failure – that’s just too far to fall,” said another.

I was fired in 2003. It was my greatest vocational humiliation. After serving a church for six years, I was invited into a brief elder meeting after teaching my regular Sunday adult course and told that reconciliation and relationship with the lead pastor would be impossible, that my termination was the only recourse. Sara found out as I walked through the front door of our home in tears. Our two babies were there. We’d recently put a deposit on a new home build. There was no goodbye, no thank you. I was not even allowed to keep my own Rembrandt painting – The Return of the Prodigal Son – the one Sara had gifted me after framing it. The prodigal wasn’t being asked to consider a return, I suppose.

It took years to reconcile this – to forgive, to bless that church, its pastor, and the leaders I’d grown to trust and love. But the sting of failure and rejection stayed with me for a long time. I had failed. At least, that’s how I narrated it. It was my worst fear as a pastor. Perhaps, even more bitter for this tender Enneagram 4 was that I felt utterly misunderstood. The short blurb in next Sunday’s program didn’t acknowledge the tears I’d cried for people in that place, the above-and-beyond care I offered, the new initiatives I started, the relationships we forged, the promises not delivered. Never before for me had rage and shame kissed in this way. Image result for shame

Failure.

It’s 15 years later, and the sadness still lingers. Each time a pastoral candidate answers my question “What is the worst thing that can happen to you in ministry?” on a psychological assessment, I hear my own voice in their responses. I hear the terror of potential failure. One pastoral candidate said, “I can never imagine it and I’d never recover from it.” Another said, “It would be so humiliating letting down myself, my extended family, my church.” Still another said that the question provoked so much anxiety that answering it was impossible.

In those days after, I wondered if we would make it. I vacillated between rage and self-contempt. I dreamed of payback. I felt the sting of my Presbytery’s silence in the face of what I considered an injustice. I scrambled to launch a counseling practice, hoping that I’d be able to pay the bills before our severance was done. I had little trust that the God I called sovereign and loving and gracious could hold all of this. My contemplative practices died on that day I was fired, replaced by frantic efforts to do the job God had failed to do for me.

I realized that my heart was bitter, and I was all torn up inside. (from Psalm 73, NLT). 

It’s 15 years later. Another young pastor asked for a Skype call this week, and as we talked he said something I hear quite often, “How have you managed to “make it” unscathed in ministry? Everything you do I want to do.” Honestly, I’m not sure who I’d be today without it. What if that first call was a “big win,” in which I was celebrated and sent? What if I wasn’t thrust into a dark night where my smaller box for God was exploded? With what credibility could I have written Finding God in the Wilderness Places (Leaving Egypt)? Would I have gotten the therapy I needed? Been called out on my own stuff?

What if I didn’t fail?

Richard Rohr titled a book Everything Belongs. I turn 48 in a few short days, and while I thought I’d have things figured out at 40, I now know that 50 will not likely deliver either. I do sense that it all belongs, though. Each detour on the journey was beyond my control or prediction. My girls have endured two cross-country moves and seven different houses. I’ve shifted denominations. I’ve been given tremendous opportunities to be at the forefront of new initiatives. I’ve faced shadow sides of me that frightened me.  I’ve chosen to make some unorthodox moves that I sensed would grow me – risks I’m not sure I would have taken without failure.

I titled a little Lent devotional I wrote a couple of years ago Falling Into Goodness. It was my way of theologically reconciling what I’d come to terms with emotionally. God wasn’t at the top of the ladder but in the dust. Jesus wasn’t waiting on the altar with an award, but embracing me as I wept and wept and wept. When I went to places of self-sabotage, I felt a mysterious presence. When I succeeded, I felt gratitude and a decent dose of humility, knowing that I’d fallen so far. As Augustine might put it, “God was more near to me than I was to myself” all along. Or as the father said to the older brother, “Everything I have is yours.” Just breathe. Just relax into the arms of Goodness.

I got a text from a student yesterday who is scared to fail. I wondered how to respond. I thought – maybe experience is our only teacher. I wanted to say something wise, even proverbial. And then, I knew. I had only the words of one deeply acquainted with suffering, a saint of the dust, Lady Julian of Norwich:

All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.

 

The myth of Narcissus and the hope of Redemption

The little boy is terrified. Everyone is looking to him to lead, and he’s not sure he can. Tears well up as he folds his arms and starts rocking. Everyone is looking at me. His heart races. His jaw clenches. I hope I don’t pass out. His face burns with a fire that reaches up through his chest and wraps itself around his head, squeezing. I can’t do it. I can’t. I’m too scared.

And then in an instant he declares, “Welcome friends!” as the congregation stands, eager for his leading. Everyone is looking at me, and it feels so good. His heart races. Adrenaline releases like lightning through his tense body. The little boy fades as he commands the stage. “God is good, isn’t he?!” he exclaims. They love me.

The little boy or little girl lurks within each of us. Our fears lurk within. Our shame lurks within. A sense of deficiency lurks within. If we are relatively healthy, we befriend our fear, our shame, and our deficiency, becoming an integrated person. If not, we flee from these emotions like threatening strangers, living instead from a contingent self, polished and put together, disconnected from our core, true self where God dwells. But while this contingent self feels the momentary bliss in its detachment from the inner storm, it is in truth not free at all but stuck on never-ending hamster wheel, acting out the same script day after day.

The myth of Narcissus tells the story well. While the story is often told as a tale of excessive self-love, it is precisely self-love – a healthy self-love – that Narcissus was lacking. It is instead a story of being stuck, immobilized, fixed in a death-dance. In his youth he ran free, hunting in the forest, loved and desired by young women. But he would let no one touch his heart. Such is the wound of shame. One who is ashamed cannot connect. He is untouchable.

Narcissus finds himself thirsty one day and makes his way to a clear pool for a cold drink. It is in the water that he sees his reflection, an image so striking that he reaches in to embrace it. But the image is lost when the water is disrupted, as it is with each future effort, leaving Narcissus all the more desperate. Immobilized, he pines for the image which will never return his love, eventually succumbing to the neglect of his basic needs.

Terrence Real articulates the tale’s meaning well when he writes:

People often think of Narcissus as the symbol of excessive self-regard, but in fact, he exemplifies the opposite. As the Renaissance philosopher Marsilio Ficino observed in the 1500s, Narcissus did not suffer from an overabundance of self-love, but rather from its deficiency. The myth is a parable about paralysis. The youth, who first appears in restless motion, is suddenly rooted to one spot, unable to leave the elusive spirit. As Ficino remarked, if Narcissus had possessed real self-love, he would have been able to leave his fascination. The curse of Narcissus is immobilization, not out of love for himself, but out of dependency upon his image.

Narcissus becomes dependent on his image. He is trapped in a vicious narcissistic feedback loop. The name Narcissus comes from the Greek narc, which means numbness, a kind of stupor. It is the sting of addiction Narcissus experiences.

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Healthy self-love would have motivated him to befriend every wounded and weary part of himself. Self-contempt motivated him to search in vain for what he thought he needed to live, only to die from neglect of what he really needed. But even this story is not without hope, for out of the death of Narcissus emerges a flower. Everyone is capable of a redemption story, and every redemptive story of a narcissist is a story of death to resurrection, death to ego-centricity and resurrection into vulnerable intimacy with God and neighbor. Perhaps this was the story of King David and St. Paul?

In one sense, narcissism is an addiction to self – not our True Self, hidden with Christ in God, but a grandiose, entitled, part of us that takes over like a rogue sailor who declares mutiny. One who is diagnosably narcissistic is out-of-touch with their deepest core, inaccessible, immobilized, incapable of real intimacy. They inflict pain on those closest to them because they cannot love, because they are not living in Love.

But I learned a long, long time ago not to forget that God is in the business of redemption stories. Even after multiple toxic experiences with narcissistic men that left me angry, cynical, and at times plotting creative plans of payback and revenge, something in me refused to let the story of judgment overcome the Story of Hope. In twenty years, I’ve had narcissistic clients and parishioners (particularly angry husbands who blamed me for enlightening their wives to abuse) rage on me, stalk me, threaten to sue me, send me threatening letters, have their lawyers send me letters, subpoena my files, threaten my employment, attack my reputation, spread false rumors, and more. But to do this work, you’ve got to be able to see beyond the proud, manipulative, and grandiose false self to what Buechner calls “the original, shimmering self…buried so deep.”

The Dutch Jew murdered at Auschwitz, Etty Hillesum, gives me the capacity to hope even when I’ve lost it. From the cozy confines of my clinical office, replete with all of my privilege, I can sit back and judge, I can label, I can decide who is worthy of hope and who isn’t. Etty Hillesum, however, had no such privilege. Her captors and would-be murderers were her enemies, and yet her own deep union with God and newfound intimacy with Jesus did not allow her to write anyone out of the Story. These words from her breathtaking journals pierce me every time I read them:

Like us, they too, are bearers of the Divine image however deeply marred and buried it may be, and so they are people to whom we belong. To remove from the mind the label of ‘enemy’ is like removing the blinds from a window and letting the light in. If you will not hate them, then you may begin to see them.

I can think of few narcissistic debris fields more ugly than that of Hitler and his henchmen. I’ve seen so much debris in my years, so much abuse, so much hopelessness, that sometimes my own soul chooses cynicism and despair over hope and love.

But there is a larger Story, and a prodigious God who seems hell-bent on a revolution of Love. I participate in this redemption story in fits-and-starts, because my own spirit bears wounds. Yet, the reminder is that I, too, am Narcissus, stuck in a much smaller story, narrowly focused on what I can control rather than open to the Mystery of Love. As Rilke says, I must be defeated by continually greater things.

Perhaps the redemption story must begin with my death. Maybe I must plunge into the pool of water, and be raised again. Then, maybe I will have the eyes to see what Etty saw, “bearers of the Divine image and people to whom we belong.”

When Narcissism Comes to…Church Doctrine (Part 1 – Introduction)

When Narcissism Comes to…Church Doctrine (Part 1 – Introduction)

(v. 2)

Narcissism is not merely a psychological phenomenon. It’s a theological one, too. It concerns how we speak of and participate in God’s life. In the coming blog posts, I’m going to highlight how this impacts key doctrines and themes that are often used and abused by narcissists, especially narcissistic pastors, for the sake of their self-protective strategies. This in turn leads to what I often call the “narcissistic debris field” in churches and among Christians who once trusted their unassailable leader, but now question faith and wonder about God’s goodness.

I may not get to everything I’d like to get to, and I want to save some of this as further content for the book I’m writing (When Narcissism Comes to Church). But I’d love to hear how you resonate with the themes I present. How have you seen this play out? What are ways you’ve seen theology used and abused? Offer your thoughts in the comments section or via email.

This is not intended as a criticism of any particular doctrine – that would make for a much longer essay, and one I may not be qualified to write. It is to ask the questions: how do our psychological needs lead us into particular doctrinal stances? How do our self-protective strategies prompt us to re-frame doctrines? How might we become more reflective about our theology, not less, in pursuit of psychological health?

So, let’s first summarize the biggies, and I’ll go into more detail as I can in the next few weeks.

A theology of sin – It may be ironic that pastors, churches and denominations that claim “a high doctrine of sin” often protect, hide, and defend the sinner. I may see this more because of my familiarity with and work within Reformed contexts, but I’ve never seen a high doctrine of sin jettisoned more quickly than when a narcissistic pastor’s reputation is on the line. Sure, the doctrine comes in handy when the elders are tracking down folks having premarital sex or preparing their statements on homosexuality. But quite miraculously, the get-out-of-jail Grace Card seems readily available to the charismatic, grandiose, and inspiring leader who…well…probably just had a bad day. More often than not, I see sin reduced to bad behavior/actions. Sin is something he did wrong (but, of course, he repented and all is well…more on that to come). They do not see sin as a complex matrix of motivations, attitudes, and actions which are rooted in hiding, self-protection and self-preservation (Gen. 3), requiring a deep commitment to self-understanding over a long period of time. They do not have categories for psychopathology (Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Histrionic Personality Disorder, etc) which are deeply resistant to change, constantly morphing into new shapes and identities, and requiring long-term care. Picture an iceberg where only aImage result for iceberg small shard of ice is visible above the waterline. This is the sin they treat, ignoring the massive mountain of ice beneath. And in so doing, the debris field of damage within and without is ignored.

Repentance – A shallow view of sin leads to a shallow repentance. Shallow repentance looks like admitting the troubling behavior and committing to not doing it again – case closed. And thus, shallow repentance leads to quick restoration. After all, who wouldn’t believe the sincerity of a pastor who preaches so wonderfully and charismatically, and who has influenced so many? Shallow repentance can look like blame dressed in the garments of personal responsibility – “I’m really sorry that hurt you.” Shallow repentance can also look ‘raw and honest’, at times – see my blog on fauxnerability. It can be accompanied by words that seem spiritual – “Saul lifted up his voice and wept…I have sinned” (see 1 Sam 24; Matt. 7:3). But it’s another manifestation of narcissism’s grandiosity and incapacity to connect with the true self. It is repentance as self-preservation, not as confession “with grief and hatred of one’s sin,” as the old Puritan once put it. And narcissists do this really well! Even more, shallow repentance only repents of the above-the-waterline behaviors, for looking beneath is harder, more timely, and would likely reveal a depth of deceit within that he doesn’t want to see. (PS: Notice how quickly these pastors demonize therapists, and switch from one to another in order to find one who will collude.)

Forgiveness – All of this (above) leads to an expectation that the narcissist and/or abuser will be forgiven (which also means restored). In this, the burden quickly switches from abuser to victim, as anyone impacted is asked to forgive quickly and fully out of a spiritual duty. Anything less than full forgiveness is narrated as angry, petty, grudge-holding, and un-spiritual. Within this is a pitifully vacuous theology of Grace – again, grace as a get-out-of-jail-free card. Ah yes, it’s dressed up in pretty words like Wild, Lavish, Unconditional, Prodigious, and more. However, if you’ve done hours of interviews with staff members like I have who’ve worked under these Grace-preaching folks, it’s not pretty at all, as they will tell vastly similar stories of abuse, gaslighting, rage, manipulation, deceit, addiction, and more. Grace extended to one who is diagnosably narcissistic is indeed a reminder of God’s lavish love for every broken sinner, but is made manifest in a careful and loving process geared to each particular situation, and with expert clinical consultation.

Sanctification – I’ll need to do some more work around this, but I have a theory that Protestantism’s centuries-long failure of imagination for sanctification has led to a tragic fissure between doctrine and life, manifesting in moralism/legalism (sanctification as law-keeping) on the one end and libertinism on the other (sanctification as enjoying your get-out-of-jail-free card). I think that one of the many reasons I and others have gravitated toward the larger tradition (Catholic and Orthodox spirituality) is for a more rich imagination for spiritual maturation, for character, for discipleship – theosis! I think that one of the reasons we see narcissism so embedded in evangelicalism, from the evangelical love-affair with Trump to our obsession with grandiose pulpiteers, is because we lack a substantial spiritual theology with implications and practices for becoming more fully human. We’ve given this over to the therapeutic community, detached from the church, which privatizes the whole thing. I’ll have much more to say on this, I suspect.

Guilt and Shame – We also have an inadequate understanding of the theological and psychological dynamics of guilt and shame. I have a working theory that narcissistic pastors are driven by shame (which, of course, they don’t see) but obsessed with guilt (which weighs on them mightily, leading them to preach against it with their Audacious, Robust theologies of Grace). Often, their theologies are adopted in service of quieting the devastatingly loud voice of shame within, which they misinterpret as guilt, leading to the adoption of overly juridicial atonement theories. Because they dismiss guilt as a manifestation of the law, they fail to develop a mature conscience, and this emotional stuntedness appears in secret battles with addictions (sex/porn, alcohol, nicotine, etc.) and an incapacity to relate healthily. They don’t realize that their real battle is with shame, which also exists beneath that behavioral waterline, and which drives their compensatory, grandiose, empathy-deficient false self. Every single narcissistic pastor I’ve seen shows up strikingly in a pulpit, but is stuck at a much younger emotional/developmental age in a way that creates a damaging debris field. The process of growth takes a lot of time, which makes me wonder about these quick turnarounds I’m seeing among recently scandalized pastors. Note: I’m writing for the community I know best, but I’ve seen shame-fueled NPD manifest in the theological constructs of Pentecostals and Progressives, Episcopalians and Emergent.

Ecclesiology – I’ve seen the most narcissism in contexts of church plants, non-denominational networks, and low-church settings. Yes, I’ve seen it among high-church Catholic priests I’ve seen, too. But more often than not, those with NPD like the freedom of starting something new (which means building their own leadership team, where power dynamics and inadequate training come into play). They like networks where structures are loose, polity is underdeveloped, seminary ed isn’t required, and accountability is low. They like the freedom and flexibility of creating worship experiences that center on the personality and sermon of the preacher. If they are grandiose and charismatic enough, they can and will find their way into more accountable settings, but they’ll use their power and ecclesial protectors to shield them from real accountability.

God’s Sovereignty – Often, shame-based narcissistic pastors will adopt an overly transcendent and distant theology of God. The God who “holds one over the pit of hell as a spider” (not implying Edwards was a narcissist, btw) is a theology that actually revealsImage result for god as judge one’s psychology, one’s view of himself at the depths. But out of touch with his shame, he externalizes his self-deprecation in a theology that has a “theoretically” high view of sin (see above) and an overly transcendent view of God that distances himself from real vulnerability, with God and others. The last part of the last sentence is loaded, and requires unpacking, which I don’t have the space to do here. But a narcissist is incapable of real vulnerability, and an intimate encounter with Jesus requires it. With anyone I’ve ever worked with who is diagnosably narcissistic and has, with lots of time and therapy, grown into self-awareness and maturation, there will be an inevitable question they have about whether or not they ever knew God. (I’ll remind them that God is so kind that he has always known them and never left them…it was they who, addicted to the false self, lived apart from God). Note: what psychological needs might an overly immanent picture of God emerge from?

OK, that’s a start. There is so much more ground to cover. What about a theology of gender? A theology of divorce and marriage? A theology of victimization? What else?…let me know! I wanted to begin with the big categories.

Ultimately, this is a challenge to mature theologically, as well! With John Calvin and Augustine, I believe that self-knowledge is a prerequisite for any healthy God-talk. When theology and psychology become friends, wonderful things happen. I could name a number of more recent books by theologians that are beautifully self-reflective. How does this post invite you to reflect more carefully on your own theology? How does the theological tradition you are in reflect your own psychological needs or dispositions? What about this post connected with you, and needs further reflection on your part?

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