Guest Post: Seeking to Understand the Rise, Fall, and Loss of Young Pastors by Robert Stewart

Bob was born to medical missionary parents in Burundi, Africa.  The father of six, he and his pastoral counselor wife, Shari, share a psychiatric practice in Louisville, KY and have long worked in the support and care of missionaries and pastors both here and abroad.

A hundred years from now I’m sure that our descendants will know about the Coronavirus Pandemic of 2020-21 just as all of us (or a lot of us, at least) remember tales of the Great Flu Pandemic of 1917-18.  And by then, hopefully, the great political, cultural, and religious polarization of these times will be just a very sad remembrance and not a never ending curse.  But, what about the horrific epidemic of promising young evangelical pastors who burst onto the scene and rise like meteors only to fall into disaster and suicide?  Will this also be recalled as a tragic period of darkness from which the conservative church learned much and recovered? Or, will our reflexive need to not explore, to explain away and to quickly move on all serve to guarantee that a century from now sensational clergy loss will continue to corrode and undo the work of the church?

At least (five) high profile young pastors of whom I’m aware have taken their lives during these past twelve months alone.  As painful as this topic is to discuss I believe that we absolutely must force ourselves to do so if we’re ever understand what’s going on here.  We shouldn’t be trying to address this crisis until we better understand all the cultural, characterological, spiritual, and biological issues which influence it.  After the space shuttle Challenger disaster stunned the world in 1986 all shuttle flights were grounded until the underlying cause (defective “o-rings” in the right side solid rocket booster) could be understood and resolved.  Seven astronauts died unnecessarily in that incident.  Almost that many young pastors (or maybe more) have died in this past year.  And, the many opinions about why don’t add up to any real comprehension which could guide us towards life saving solutions.  It just seems unconscionable to continue on as usual amid the carnage.

So, how might we begin the quest to understand and solve this crisis with an inquiry as focused and complete as the one which solved the riddle of the Challenger?

We know that NASA went back and reviewed multiple video tapes and reams of computer data to understand what went wrong to cause the Challenger catastrophe.  Similarly, I think we might go back and review data we have on the pastors, the churches they founded, the people who surrounded them, the impacts they had on the culture and the impacts the culture had on them.  Is there anything we can learn from their character styles, their gifts, their liabilities?

Here let me make the disclaimer that I’m a Christian physician, someone with a great grief and concern about this issue, and not an investigative reporter or a Lee Strobel.  But, I’ve worked with missionaries and pastors for the last thirty plus years.  I’ve consulted with and worked beside other pastors and professionals with supportive roles for a number of these young church planting pastors.  As such, I offer here observations and viewpoints which are an amalgam of my own direct experiences and those of others doing this same work.

From this view there emerges a number of trends which stand out, especially in retrospection.

The first is that they tend to be both extremely bright and charismatic. This shouldn’t be surprising as we look at the huge successes these young pastors enjoyed right out of the gate.  They were often non-conformists whose giftedness permitted them to avoid the usual post-seminary trek up the ecclesiastical ladder.  They seem to have had a knack for understanding how to connect with younger people who were suspicious of the traditional church.  They launched churches from spaces rented from schools, warehouses and theaters.  Trading traditional suits and clerical robes for skinny jeans and untucked shirts, using plugged in musicians in place of choirs, and displaying virtuoso homiletic skills these pastors began rapidly adding new members even as large traditional churches were losing them.  Constantly outgrowing existing spaces meant planting new churches and finding new subordinate pastors who could mimic the founder’s formula for success (and stay subordinate).  The seminaries and older clergy and theologians had no choice but wonder about this phenomenal new trend even when they had reservations.  The Christian media was all over it and even the secular media had to periodically report on these seismic changes rocking the Protestant landscape.

The hugely popular performance based ministries of these young upstarts caused many admirers to refer to them as rock stars.  Such a reference now seems poignantly fitting because riding a towering crest of intoxicating success just like secular rock stars leaves little time or inclination for introspection and for dealing with one’s demons and the brokenness with which one entered ministry.

Both professionally and through the reports of others I’m aware of a number of young pastors who decline multiple opportunities to do the hard work of probing their wounds, exploring and finding the words to express previously hidden grief’s and attendant feelings, learning to become truly open and vulnerable, and grappling with primal shame.  As a prescribing psychiatrist I’ve sometimes found them eager to embrace a mood diagnosis and a prescribed medication when they’re in the depths of profound depression or paralyzed by an episode of panic which seemed (to them) to have come out of nowhere.  But, almost invariably, as soon as the chosen treatment and a new round of external successes had them on their feet again they were ready to abandon not just the medication treating their mood disorder but also any other therapeutic interventions to which they’d agreed to back when they were in the valley of the shadow.  And, consistently, these now “healed” pastors never came in to discuss with me in therapeutic partnership the pros and cons of terminating treatment.  No, sadly enough, it was usually predictable that they would just one day not show up for a scheduled appointment.  Inquiring texts to them would be ignored and I could often detect their dodging a conversation if we ran across each other in public.  At least until the next emotional crisis when the whole cycle would be played out again.

A recent eulogy for one of these violently deceased pastors referred to him as an “orphan”.  I suspect that an in-depth psychological post-mortem on these now lost to us pastors would reveal that there’s a common theme of parental loss, neglect or absence.  I also believe we’d find a universal confusion about what mature masculinity might look like.  As a result, through no fault of their own, these young orphaned men had no choice but to show up as culturally pleasing caricatures of masculinity.  In my and others’ experiences these guys have tended to be caught between asking for and rejecting older male presence and guidance in their journeys.  So, there seems to be this pattern of getting close to but never embracing the deep work required to heal their psychological, spiritual, or masculine selves.

The late Dallas Willard is credited with a quote that seems most applicable here: “God, pleased don’t grant me more power than my character can handle.”

I feel sure that Willard would append to ‘power’ the intoxicating effects of abundant success and adulation.  Because, it seems likely that another etiological “o-ring” for these pastors who rose so majestically into the morning sky only to erupt into heart wrenching spirals of smoke and wreckage was the combustible presence of serial successes and the clamor of adoration.  I imagine that for a rock star standing in the blast wave of deafening applause it’s extremely difficult to attend to offers of advice and input whether it’s from peers, (true) elders, or the Holy Spirit.

And, ever aware of what sells to a ravenous, ever growing group of followers, the book publishers appear to eagerly court these young pastors for books on almost any topic.  The pressure these companies can bring to bear on a hot new writer can’t be over stated.  Deadlines have to be met and new books have to be hyped with constantly updated posts on multiple social media platforms.  All the while the young pastor, who received no business training in seminary, is now trying to be the CEO for a multimillion dollar multi-site organization and burning too much midnight oil because of the drivenness to every week show up with another home run sermon.  I posit that behind the trademark hip, cool, and affable stage presence there too often lies emotional exhaustion and a lurking insecurity hidden not only from us but also from the young pastor himself.

Space flight has always been a deeply inspiring yet complicated and risky undertaking.  And so is church planting.  As with every other human undertaking, we enhance the chances for future success to the degree to which we first prepare for the planned endeavor; then dissect, come to understand, and thereby learn from the inescapable missteps; and seek out with a willingness to seriously utilize input which catalyzes the growth and safety of the enterprise.

And here’s a final observation from the perspective of this layman and caregiver to wounded pastors.  I find myself wondering if our seminaries are placing more emphasis on the Great Commission to go out and preach than they are on the other commission to “Tend my sheep”.  Sheep tending, or shepherding, is messy and un-applauded work.  In earthly terms, it doesn’t pay well, doesn’t sell many books, and is a poor road to notoriety.  In fact, unless the shepherd also gives us a new translation of the Bible as Eugene Peterson did, only a relative few will ever know him/her compared to, say, a rock star.  But, after four decades of working with wounded and suffering people I am crystal clear that the world is full of billions of people hungering to be known, to feel the presence of enduring compassion, and to experience the benefits which come only from the hard, unsung work of loving.

This is a broken world into which we’ve each been born and wounded. There’s a very real, gloves off, life-and-death cage fight here between the darkness and the light.  And, the darkness is stealing unfed, disillusioned lambs both left and right.  We so desperately need shepherds, ordained and not, to not just go out to find lost lambs but to nurse them, not just on the Word, but also with the hard work of continuing presence and non-judgmental loving.  And, both my heart and my experience have convinced me that the shepherds can also be in deep need of finding, binding, feeding and, yes, protecting.

In C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters the mentoring devil explains to his apprentice that he shouldn’t waste too much time tempting the individual sheep away from the light because if he can score a single shepherd then he’s captured countless sheep in just one stroke.  Don’t we have enough evidence already that successful pastors have targets on their backs?  Therefore, I challenge us as a church to come around our pastors to form a protective circle of love which provides nurturance spiritually, emotionally and physically.  By spiritually I mean ceaseless praying, honest encouragement, and provisions for straight forward and non-shaming accountability by someone respected, trusted and older who is in no fashion dependent on the pastor.  Emotionally means that we take for granted that our pastors, like ourselves, arrive with their share of brokenness; that we’re expectant that (and will be supportive of) they’re embarking on a journey of self discovery and healing for as long as it takes (which is usually years).  And, by physically I’m not referring to gym memberships, although I’m a huge supporter of such things.  No, I mean the awareness that as part of being embodied souls we have biologies which regularly get broken just as our minds and souls can.  Genetic proclivities, childhood and adult trauma and loss, and the stresses of everyday living can pull our pastors into handicapping levels of anxiety or mood disorders which can run the spectrum from nagging to paralyzing.

In 2020 we have lots of common grace in the form of excellent pharmaceuticals and other interventions for the alleviation of these kinds of affliction.  Sadly, of the many pastors who eagerly quote the depressed and wounded Nouwen from the pulpit, few it turns out are willing to copy his authenticity and themselves accept treatment for these treatable illnesses.  It takes a huge capacity for denial to not grasp that pastors who take their own lives are, among other issues, struggling with unmanaged mood disorders.

In summation, to pastors around the world I’d like to be so bold as to offer some proddings and encouragements both professional and paternal:

  • Be crystal clear about how you’re measuring success in your calling.
  • If you haven’t already, embark on a personal quest to understand how your genetic makeup, gifting, liabilities, traumas, losses, successes, role models, and life experiences have all come together to make you who you are today. Begin to grapple with the issues which hold you back from who God put you here to be.
  • Grasp that each and every last one of us is struggling with some kind of addiction. If it’s not alcohol or pornography it may also be work, success, or approval. Also seek to grasp for the sake of others and yourself the mutually sustaining blind-loop of shame and addiction.
  • Embrace the challenge to hear and be curious about opinions which differ from your own. Your progress here will be an energy saver for you and others, enhance the quality of everyone’s work product, and make you less lonely as a pastor.
  • Practice the art of admitting you’re wrong because being wrong is a recurring and inescapable part of being a human. The ability to honestly own error demonstrates maturity, self confidence, and the absence of narcissism.
  • Similarly, practice the relationally restorative art of asking for and giving of forgiveness. We have to assume that our Lord had good reason for making it central in the prayer he gave to his disciples.
  • It’s proven that mammals lower than ourselves are able experience anxiety and depression. So do humans like ourselves who are subjected to a much larger array of losses, insults, depravations and challenges.  Therefore, determine now to be the first to have true empathy for and to demonstrate sincere compassion for such suffering in your family members, your staff, your parishioners, and yourself.
  • Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankel, was the one who so simply stated that despair occurs in the presence of suffering devoid of meaning (D=S-M).  Sudden overwhelming or unremitting despair in His creatures who comprehend both their free will and their mortality can go on to decide to end their own lives in suicide. Be committed to the detection and treatment of depression, the alleviation of suffering where possible, the confrontation of despair through the compassionate application of the spiritual, and the willingness to overcome the awkwardness of inquiring about suicidal thoughts and plans.
  • Be willing to love and embrace the brokenness in yourself with the same grace and non-judgmental acceptance with which you’re able to show to others in theirs. In fact, your own modeling of this will alleviate more human suffering than you’ll ever believe.
  • Practice authenticity and the integrity of true vulnerability, not affected vulnerability more spoken from the pulpit than lived among one’s family and peers. Because, I’m convinced that this capacity is central to our becoming more and more real such that we may one day, a la C. S. Lewis in The Great Divorce, become real enough to tolerate the overwhelming reality of heaven.

Bob Stewart

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Our Heroes Fail Us

Years ago, I heard Henri Nouwen on an old recording tell the story of his path from teaching in the Ivy League to living in a community of people with disabilities in Toronto. He tells the story of a female associate of Jean Vanier who surprised him with a visit on a busy day for Nouwen while at Harvard. “I bring you greetings from Jean Vanier,” she proclaimed, standing at the door of Nouwen’s residence as he anxiously asked her pardon while scurrying away to some obligation. When he returned later, the pleasant aroma of a freshly prepared meal served on his own china greeted him.

Nouwen didn’t even recognize the china. His busy life was interrupted that day by a simple greeting. He asked again why she was there, and again she said, “I bring you greetings from Jean Vanier.” Vanier’s greeting was, indeed, an invitation to a new vocation for Nouwen, who did not immediately jump to it. As the story goes, a depleted Nouwen would later make his way to Trolly, France for a needed respite only to conclude the God, in fact, was calling him away from his busy and lonely life into community.

That compelling story of Vanier’s non-manipulative compassion for and invitation to Nouwen drew me to consume all-things Jean Vanier. That was in the late 90’s. Many of us considered him a living saint, and when he passed CT published a wonderful interview with biographer Michael Higgins where he noted that “…he was a man who suffused joy—joy emanated from him, joy to find him. He loved being with people. And he didn’t love being people because he was particularly sociable, he loved being with people because they helped him to realize his own humanity. They help to heal his wounds. They helped him to accept his vulnerability.” Stunningly, he went on to say, “I’ve never written a biography of someone who is so utterly without ego than Jean Vanier.”

A hero falls

I woke up on February 22, 2020 to a text from a student who’d taken a class with me on Vanier and the ministry of presence. She was distraught, dismayed. I clicked the link she sent with the title “Findings of L’Arche International’s Inquiry into Jean Vanier.” My heart sunk. The credible investigation found that Vanier engaged in six “manipulative sexual relationships” under “coercive conditions” from 1970 until 2005. Vanier, who taught so many of us about community, belonging, intimacy, compassion, touch, and vulnerability violated all of it by abusing frightened and fragile women.

Six women. Excerpts of statements they made are sickening, stomach-turning. As a therapist, I’ve counseled dozens of sexually abused women. Vanier’s twisted form of spiritual and sexual abuse can’t be rationalized away as a one-time slip up, a consensual liason. He used his status, his persona, his influence, and his charisma to lure, to justify, to silence. He used and twisted the Scriptures in some cases. A man who taught about the importance of healthy touch for the most vulnerable among us compelled vulnerable women, without intellectual disabilities, into non-consensual touch. This is no small story of an unfortunate encounter. This is a long-term pattern of spiritual and sexual manipulation, coercion, and abuse.

I’m rarely shocked anymore. I’ve been studying narcissistic abuse within churches for years, caring for those who’ve been hurt by pastors they trusted, denominations they took vows in. But when I heard this news, I was shocked. It took a full 24 hours for tears to come. And with tears, sadness, anger, even rage. I paced my kitchen saying, “Why, why, why, why, why?” I do not know the six women, but I know well the confusion abuse victims feel.

Was it me?

   I felt like I had to.

      But I didn’t say no.

          Part of it felt good.

                Did I ask for it?

                      I felt seen, chosen.

                              I feel disgusting, used.

                                        I want to be sick.

                                                 I want to die.

I remember the woman I worked with who after three years still struggled to trust me, a male therapist. She wondered if I’d violate her, perhaps when she finally let her guard down. It reminds me that this kind of betrayal of trust cuts to the core, inflicting wounds that aren’t easily healed. These six courageous women bear wounds in unseen places – soul scars – a trauma not easily healed.

Beautiful and Broken

Each of us is complicated story of beauty and brokenness. We’re image-bearers brimming with dignity and self-deceived, shame-laden saboteurs of trust. The “Prince of Preachers,” Charles Spurgeon, once proclaimed during a sermon, “Appear to be what thou art, tear off thy masks. The church was never meant to be a masquerade. Stand out in thy true colors.” Who among us doesn’t hide?

At the same time, aren’t we all looking for heroes of the faith? We venerate great saints, we follow charismatic pastors, we adulate popular authors we’ve never met but whose writings hold something of our fragile stories of suffering or doubt or shame. Do we not long for examples to aspire to, exemplars of a better way?

Just recently, I taught a course on Vanier and the ministry of presence. In a lecture a remember saying something to the effect, “I know we’re all sinners in need of grace, but Vanier may be the exception.” I was joking, of course, but was I really? When I was a young pastor, I had a little wall with pictures of my heroes – Buechner and Peterson and Nouwen and Merton and, well, Vanier. Scrolling through social media, I read cynical takes about how Vanier’s fall is proof that, once again, no one can be trusted. I see one friend chastise another grieving friend for making an idol of Vanier. Someone parodies the Hebrews 11 “heroes of the faith” passage by filling in the names of fallen leaders of the church over the last few years. I think back to my course and with no small amount of shame I recall how glowingly I spoke of Vanier and wonder if I set up my students for heartbreak.

We are beautiful and broken people in a beautiful and broken world. I long for the “all things new” during times like this more than others. I turn 50 this year, but sometimes I also long for the wide-eyed idealism of my 20’s. I remember lauding Reformation hero Martin Luther as a seminary student before finding out about his anti-semetic writings. I was inspired by the Anabaptist theologian JH Yoder’s vision of a peaceable kingdom before I learned that he did violence to the souls of women. What do we do with slave-owning theologians and institutions as well as unfaithful icons of racial justice? And how do we hold the revelation of a good friend’s double life, a pastor’s suicide, a mentor’s disappearance from our lives?

Living in the already-and-not-yet is painful. Creation groans, and we along with it.

Pain and Resolve

After the revelation of Vanier’s double life, a friend texted me saying, “We’re all just a mess.” Yes, we are. We’re all beloved dust, jars of clay. I believe this. But, it’s important not to dismiss the particularly devastating impact of a person who abuses his power. Indeed, we’re all sinners in need of grace. But not all of us are trusted megachurch pastors or movement leaders, bishops or bestselling authors. When an influential pastor or leader uses his position of power to lure women into sexual relationships, this is a profound violation of personal trust, ecclesial vows, and a sacred call. We rightly call it abuse, even an abuse of power.

I’m reminded of the words of Ezekiel:

The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. (Ezekiel 34:1-4)

I never thought I’d quote this passage in a piece about a beloved mentor-from-afar like Jean Vanier, but times like this require a deadly seriousness. Writing to a community who thought of their founder as a saint, Tina Bovermann of L’Arche USA noted that the work of discovering the truth about Vanier came with a “with a mix of pain and resolve,” pain for both the victims and for those who’d likely be crushed by the revelations, and resolve “because truth matters…because the real value of every person matters.”

When leaders betray us, particularly powerful and influential ones, we spend a lot of time jockeying about in conversations about the leader’s fall and far less holding in prayer and compassion those who are survivors of his abuse. Even more, organizations and churches sometimes default to self-protection, offering confusing rationalizations or hushing victims with non-disclosure agreements (NDAs). In the last year, we’ve seen significant examples of influential churches and networks fumble opportunities for a full reckoning, transparency, and compassion. And yet, Saturday’s revelation about Jean Vanier, while heart-breaking, came with the gift of hope. L’Arche confronted these allegations directly, commissioning a thorough investigation even at the expense of the legacy of its founder and the disruption they’d endure. They chose transparency over obfuscation.

Perhaps, a new legacy emerges from this, a legacy of “pain and resolve” which challenges churches and Christian organizations to, once-and-for-all, dismantle toxic cultures of celebrity and create cultures of safety, humility, and cruciform love. Perhaps our grief can propel hopeful action, manifesting in cultures and systems that are accountable, honest, and healthy.

In a lovely piece written just after Vanier passed, Bethany Fox wrote of L’Arche, “Being a community that honors the embodied and emotional aspects of being human is part of what makes this a place to live that—while imperfect—becomes a ‘school of love’ even in its difficulty.” Though Vanier has fallen in the eyes of most, the “school of love” L’Arche models lives on. L’Arche was never about him, after all. It was always about its core members and a unique ‘school’ where mutual respect, self-giving love, and holy reverence for the image of God in each of us is displayed.

And, it’s an invitation to all of us to become students in this school, imperfect as it is, but aspiring toward a better humanity. L’Arche shows us, in their pain and resolve, just how we love amidst difficulty – with honesty, integrity, transparency, for the sake of the most vulnerable. That is a hopeful takeaway in a moment that feels heavy with grief.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Narcissism is not a “leadership style”

I had a sick, here-we-go-again feeling while reading Kate Shellnutt’s Feb 7 piece on the removal of Steve Timmis as leader of Acts 29. But what stopped me in my tracks was this paragraph late in the piece:

According to a copy of a 2015 letter sent to Acts 29 president Chandler and obtained by CT, five staff members based in the Dallas area described their new leader as “bullying,” “lacking humility,” “developing a culture of fear,” and “overly controlling beyond the bounds of Acts 29,” with examples spanning 19 pages.

Having been down this road before with Mark Driscoll and others, you might expect that the piece would continue, “After considering the report of the staff members, Chandler placed Timmis on leave pending an investigation of Timmis and his church culture.” We might expect some measure of sobriety given some painful history.

Instead, Kate writes:

During a meeting with Chandler and two board members to discuss the letter, all five were fired and asked to sign non-disclosure agreements as a condition of their severance packages. They were shocked.

And then, what follows is a line I’ve heard countless times in church planting assessments and in organizational consultations and staff reviews:

Chandler told CT that, at the time, he saw it as a clash in leadership styles, not as indicators of abuse.

Let me be crystal clear: bullying, controlling, and scaring are not characteristics of any “leadership style” I find worthy of “Christian” leadership. These descriptors do not remotely approach the character of a Jesus-following leader. These pastors described an abusive pastor and abusive culture. And because of this, Chandler will rightly be called to account for what transpired. 

I want to emphasize what is so often overlooked:

Five Acts 29 staff members lives were unalterably changed because of this decision.

These are the pastors I often talk to on the other side of this predictable and abusive process of being silenced. Some have spouses and children. They all bear trauma in their bodies and brains. Sleeplessness. Paranoia. Shame. Rage. Indecision. Depression. Anxiety. Suicidal thoughts. 

Some cope by jumping back in too soon, and others by too-much-drink.

A good many face financial hardship.

Some never pastor again. 

Most lose relationships forged during their time serving the church.

All suffer profoundly. 

For me, this is what hurts the most. I’ve sat with pastors like these in their quiet rage and cathartic tears and I can’t emphasize enough how lost and forgotten they feel. 

So five years later, what does Acts 29 owe the pastors/families impacted by an abusive leader over the course of many, many years? What does it owe the wider network and the many pastors who serve with integrity and humility? 

A first important step is to welcome in an outside investigator like GRACE. Many churches/networks conduct in-house investigations that perpetuate the same patterns of self-protection. That can’t happen here. Sadly, Acts 29 must face the reality that this history repeats itself too often, and must commit to ending this pattern of abuse. What if this network became known not just for its planting but for its commitment to thoroughgoing and systemic healing, reconciliation, and ongoing health? 

To facilitate an effective investigation, all pastors fired should be released from their NDA’s immediately and invited to tell their stories. I can’t emphasize this enough – the culture of church NDA’s is vast and toxic, reaching beyond Acts 29 but often found in church planting contexts. We need to start talking about this phenomenon – why it exists and how it shows up in particular ecclesial contexts and who is harmed. 

With this, and for the sake of transparency, the leaders of Acts 29 must welcome new information, however disruptive, unsettling, or embarrassing. In this process, Acts 29 needs to be ready to re-engage those hurt and harmed by abusive leadership, not merely with polite apologies but with reparation, if necessary. This should include commitments to support therapy and recovery. Each pastor’s story needs to be considered. This is painful and uncomfortable and timely, and so very necessary. 

I emphasize this because while much of the attention in situations like these is focused on the leaders responsible, often with great fanfare and social media drama, the traumatized survivors of the abusive leader are often forgotten. We ignore how being fired impacts one’s mental health, livelihood, reputation, and more. These are men and women with names, image-bearers whose dignity was attacked.  

Finally, I have friends who’ve planted and pastor Acts 29 churches. I’ve counseled Acts 29 pastors and led trainings. My friend Rich Plass has given years of effort to fostering emotional and spiritual health in this network. Some who’ve reached out to me are sick and confused and genuinely wondering if they can remain. I’m relentlessly hopeful, but serious deconstruction needs to happen before folks will trust again. 

If you’re a leader in Acts 29, I appeal to you not to settle for a polite apology. For churches to heal from this epidemic of narcissism, all must walk toward the light once and for all, to tell stories, to speak truthfully, to listen patiently, to repent fully, to deconstruct fully. Don’t let phrases like “but God is doing so many good things” silence an honest appraisal of the dark shadow side of your network. I know no other path to transformation than through the dark night. 

I’m hurting for you and praying for you. I don’t know the pastors who were fired, but tonight I’m particularly concerned for you. How are you caring for yourselves? How is trauma impacting your life, health and relationships? Who are you talking to? What do you need?

I’m an outsider, but I’ve got a big heart for good friends across this network who are in pain and confused right now. So, do the hard work. Move toward those who’ve been hurt. Don’t settle for bandaids…subject yourself to major surgery, the cruciform way. 

Follow the way of Jesus through a painful wilderness into a better future.

Grace and peace,

Chuck

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I am a longtime pastor, therapist, and professor of pastoral care and christian spirituality at Western Theological Seminary (MI). My latest book is born out of many years of experience – When Narcissism Comes to Church releases March 17. 

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When Advent Groaning Doesn’t Let Up In Time For Christmas

Jesus waits and longs with you.

I shared this thought recently with a woman whose Advent waiting has lasted a few years. The trauma of abuse, the ongoing pain of a divorce, and the seasonal expectation of all things joyful and triumphant were conspiring against her, manifesting in some desperation, even despair. In the prior two years, God had not magically broken through her loneliness and depression at Christmas. No star had appeared to guide her to the newborn Christ. No new and glorious morn. Just more aching, more longing.

Jesus waits and longs with you. The Spirit groans with you, in you, for you.

She, like me and so many of you, imagined God as the great Santa who brings lasting peace and joy to those who wait on him. So, I hope you’ll not dismiss it as silly or childish to hear that she thought herself unworthy, maybe even forgotten by the coming King on Christmas morning.

The congregation breaks out in song:

Joy to the world, the Lord is come
Let earth receive her King
Let every heart prepare Him room
And Heaven and nature sing
And Heaven and nature sing

But she doesn’t much feel like singing.

In fact, she kind of feels like sleeping. Like crying. Perhaps, like raising an angry fist.

Might her heart prepare room, even at Christmas, for the One who longs and groans, even with creation, waiting in eager expectation for the once-and-for-all renewal of all things? Might you – her friend, her pastor, her spouse, her coworker – offer space, offer permission, offer hospitality for her even in her groanings?

I love the liturgical rhythms of the church year, but the purpose is neither to manufacture an emotion or magically relieve our heart’s pain. For some – dare I say for many – Advent longing just keeps on keeping on. Christmas services at the local church may be the least hospitable for one whose Advent ache refuses to let up in time for joy to the world.

For those of you who find the holiday season particular painful, for the one who finds herself stuck in the bleak midwinter, for you whose Advent longing continues indefinitely, remember that the the Spirit groans with you, in you, for you (Rom. 8:26), even while others raise joyful and triumphant voices.

Can you “narcissist-proof” a system?

If you’re building an organization/community from the ground up, what are steps to ensure it has the best shot of narcissist-proofing itself? Are there parameters you can set for health on the front side?

Seth Haines asked this (@sethhaines on Twitter…a must follow), and I’ve been chewing on it since. His question took me back to conversations with friends from different backgrounds, some who’ve thought great systems and structures could safeguard from narcissism, and some who believed good doctrine (defined differently depending on who I talked to) could do it.

As I mused, I remembered the story of a pastor I’ll call Jake. Jake started on staff at a medium-sized seeker sensitive church, and it didn’t take long for him to realize he was working for an image-driven, stage-loving, leadership-guru pastor whose staff/system adored and enabled him and who only had time for Jake when he was pitching a potentially successful new initiative. This pastor employed all of the popular leadership techniques and created structures that buzzed with efficiency, but everything revolved around the grandiose ego of the lead pastor.

So when Jake and his therapist agreed it was time to move on, he transitioned into another associate role at a small Anglican church plant, a welcome new place of rootedness after his seeker-sensitive sojourn and a church connected to a global community. The liturgy moved Jake and Sarah, his wife. The music was indescribably beautiful – folksy and engaging and lyrically rich. But then, the Bishop and Jake’s pastor got into it. He watched his vestry passive in the face of the Bishop’s abuse of his new mentor and friend. Soon enough, the exasperated pastor left and the Bishop started filling in, barking his way through the once-rich liturgy like a field marshal.

Tired and confused, Jake found himself hopeful again when a young urban church asked him to join the staff. This church was theologically progressive, unlike the others. He served alongside a competent and savvy staff. The lead pastor, a winsome, energetic, tatted up rock star embraced Jake from the start. In her, he found an acceptance he thought impossible. But then she began confiding her lack of confidence in another staff member, questioning her loyalty. In fact, while being the favorite felt so different and even gratifying, at one level, he felt gross and used at another. And while the staff read all of the best church health books available, he knew he was trapped in an awful, sticky web of narcissism once again.

When Jake finally came to me, he was going to plant a church. I talked him out of it. I was pretty confident all of that ‘stuff’ was in him in such a way that he’d show up on day one with good intentions, but with a trauma-laden body capable of inflicting pain on others.

Seth asked, “If you’re building an organization/community from the ground up, what are steps to ensure it has the best shot of narcissist-proofing itself? Are there parameters you can set for health on the front side?”

And as I’ve pondered this today, and over years of navigating ecclesial and institutional narcissism myself, I keep coming back to a simple (maybe simplistic) gut-level response – healthy people.

  • Healthy people. People who’ve navigated the messy terrain of their own stories, and are honest about their beauty and brokenness.
  • Healthy people. People who create safe spaces wherever they go. They’re not inclined to lead by power but by creating space for empowerment. (This is code for “trauma informed”).
  • Healthy people. People who are differentiated. They are not pulled to-and-fro by every passing wind of relational tug-of-wars. They do not merge or disconnect.
  • Healthy people. People who know in their bodies the crazy-making, gaslighting feelings of an abusive, narcissistic leader or system. And are able to name it.
  • Healthy people. People who are secure. Safe in their own being and “in Christ” not merely as an identity marker but a lived reality. They don’t demand respect, but people give it to them. You sense the gravity of their person.
  • Healthy people. People who show up as a non-anxious presence. They show up in a room, and everyone else breathes a sigh of relief. Their presence turns down the anxiety volume.
  • Healthy people. People who are honest. They name reality. They are not afraid to lay their cards on the table, not in some act of gamesmanship, but because integrity is in their bones.
  • Healthy people. People who’ve done their inner work. They tell on themselves. On the first day of work they say, “This is me…the good, the bad, and the ugly…let’s live in the truth together. Feel free to name when I’ve hurt you.”

Seth may be looking for a more sophisticated answer, but I doubt it. He knows messiness. And he knows the long-and-winding journey to health. I think we’ve both been around long enough to be suspicious of idealized, naive answers to complicated questions like his.

And so, as I say often to people, do your own work. Do your work and show up, anchored in your deepest You (Catherine of Genoa), which is secure in God’s infinite love and goodness. My hope for health in churches and systems of all kinds is…well…you. All of you who’ve connected to Love and who live in love, not in some cheesy me-and-my-sweet-Jesus-pie-in-the-sky sentimentality, but in the Eph. 3:16-18 ground-of-our-being sense of it.

Narcissism feeds off of the lie that our persona (Jung), that our illusory self (Merton) is all there is. That’s paper thin. What the world needs is people of substance…grown-ups like you who show up not with some agenda but agenda-less (see Bonnie Bandenoch, The Heart of Trauma), calm and curious and compassionate and connected to the infinitely Secure source of all health and wholeness. People who reveal Christ simply in their being…and being present.

Be there. And you can be anywhere.

Grace and peace.

 

Resources…off the top of my head

Miller and Cook, Boundaries for your Soul

Cuss, Managing Leadership Anxiety

Herrington and Taylor, The Leader’s Journey

Badenoch, The Heart of Trauma

Allender, Leading with a Limp

Laird, Into the Silent Land

Cox, A Conscious Life

Haines, The Book of Waking Up

Me, When Narcissism Comes to Church (coming March)

The Deeper Acceptance We Long For

“We ache for self-acceptance, and it is often a friend accepting us as we are which enables us to begin to accept ourselves. But the acceptance has to be genuine. I want the deepest part of me to be accepted, not my sanitized, plastic, cosmetic self.

Only in companionship with fellow pilgrims can I begin to tell the difference between that in me which is more me than myself and that in me which is wearing the mask or the make-up of an assigned role. Without you as companion and friend I confuse the outer shell with the inner substance. That is why I sometimes get angry and frustrated with people who say, “Relax, and be yourself!” I know they mean well by this command, but it only serves to aggravate the problem. Only by the nurturing and probing of companions can the deeper self emerge. I remember being given a button to wear at a conference some years ago. It had one word on it: “BE!” and while I longed to BE with a capital B, I pointed out that I need Christian companionship, worship, and nurture in order to discover what it might mean to BE. On that particular day for me to BE would have meant letting a great deal of sourness and mean-spiritedness spill out. Maybe that was what was expected. Maybe that was what was expected. The point is that psychology has taught me that I have many selves, that there is a whole cast of characters in me who would like to BE. The Christian faith, on the other hand, assures me that in the fellowship of Christ I can trust that the deepest in me, behind the list of actors, is one whom God knows and loves.”

— Alan Jones in Exploring Spiritual Direction: An Essay On Christian Friendship

Ministry Exhaustion

My heart was hard, and my mind was fuzzy.

Nothing proved a comfort, and I remained for that wretched season

shut in on all sides, stifled, gasping for breath.

Regardless, the grace of God arrives

rushing to the soul

when its endurance is exhausted.

Of a dreary morning, I stood gazing round the courtyard, pleading God for assistance;

suddenly I turned toward the broad monastery and saw one

dressed as though a bishop

enter the open doors, as though borne on wings.

He touched me on the chest and tapped my tender breastbone saying aloud:

I waited, I waited patiently for the Lord

And he stooped down to me.

He heard my cry.

He drew me from the deadly pit, from the mire and clay.

He set my feet upon a rock and made my footsteps firm.

He put a new song into my mouth, new praise of our God.

He spoke these lines three times, tapping me each time on the tender breastbone.Image result for st dorotheos of gaza

Then, he turned and was gone, and instantly,

light flooded my mind,

and joy split my heart with an awful, aching sweetness.

–St. Dorotheos of Gaza, early church monk and movement leader (490-560)

 

In Search of a Spacious Place

He brought me out into a spacious place; he rescued me because he delighted in me. Ps. 18:19

Image result for stars at nightAren’t we all longing for a spacious place? Aren’t we all longing for a place to run free, to breathe deeply, to spin round and round with our arms wide open? Don’t we all desire relationships where we’re known and loved unconditionally and wholeheartedly?

When I was a teenager on Long Island, I used to drive to the marina in West Sayville late at night in order to catch the vast expanse of the starry heavens. When I felt constricted and closed in, that dock became my thin place, and my soul would expand.

This longing for a spacious place was the instinct years ago behind my first book Leaving Egypt: Finding God in the Wilderness Places. Egypt is called Mitzrayim, a narrow place, the kind of place that will suffocate you if you stay there too long. You know those narrow places – the abusive relationship, your couch (after binging cable news for 5 hours), the inner mental state of constant suspicion or comparison. There are many mitzrayim’s in our lives. For some of us, constriction is a daily, burdensome reality. I longed to paint a picture of that winding journey to freedom.

Years ago I got 5 minutes with NT Wright. No, I won’t call him my close personal friend “Tommy.” But intuiting my interest in psychology, he turned me on to the work of psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist, author of The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Through masterful research, McGilchrist demonstrates the unique influences of the left and right hemispheres of the brain. Even more, he shows how each has the capacity to create reality, impacting how we live and process daily life. What is most striking is his argument that the world we live in today operates primarily according to the left hemisphere. While the right hemisphere prefers mystery, covets connection, sees wholistically, and thrives in the “spacious places,” the left slices and dices, polarizes, and judges with sharp right/wrong, either/or thinking. The left knows only in part, but speaks with certainty. The right sees the whole, and stands in awe. I think Wright was hinting at the right hemisphere as a key to a Kingdom imagination.

The sad reality is that while both hemispheres are necessary for their healthiest contributions, you and I probably live most of life according to the left hemisphere. And that’s exhausting. It’s like living life in a perpetual Game of Thrones or House of Cards episode. We are constantly measuring, comparing, sizing up, scheming, and climbing. Think about left brain influence in our politics, our theologizing, our tweeting, our leadership, our church strategizing.

But we can’t shake the longing for something more. In early August, our family swam DAY_water-37and snorkeled with dolphins and sea turtles in the wild. As I peered below, more than 40 dolphins swam freely, rhythmically, and playfully, sometimes pairing off to dazzle us with an improvised dance. It was another universe below the waterline. I felt like I’d entered a dreamscape.

Every so often I evaluate what generates left hemispheric activity and what generates right hemispheric activity in my life. I can feel it in my body. I evaluate my work and relationships, social media engagements and projects through the lens of what cultivates spaciousness. You can do this too. But you’ve got to tune in to a deeper intuition, a bodily intuition which whispers more than shouts. You’ve got to pay close attention to the gradual revelation of capaciousness in your being. This counsel from Rilke to his young apprentice in 1903 may help:

…just keep on, quietly and earnestly, growing through all that happens to you. You cannot disrupt this process more violently than by looking outside yourself for answers that may only be found by attending to your innermost feeling.

I long for a spacious place, these days. I’m beginning to believe that if it’s not expansive, it’s not worth it.

While left hemisphere influence is crucial for everyday living, McGilchrist has convinced me that a fundamentally different inner orientation is necessary for real transformation. The kind of generative imagination needed amidst our current polarization won’t arise from our slicing, dicing, and scheming side. But because we’re literally swimming in the waters of left-brained addiction, real intentionality is required for a new way of living, a more spacious way of living.

I’ve led and now I train leaders, and my sense is that while I can equip them with knowledge and tools, there is a spacious consciousness, a curious silence, a non-anxious patience that I need to nurture within them. They need to plunge beneath the waters for a while to gaze at the dolphins or venture out late at night to peer at the starry sky so that awe and humility take root. They need to go on the wilderness journey where dark nights cloud the sight of their gods of certainty, purity, ego, and power, revealing one who is True.

Rumi once said, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” My sense is that is the spacious place where Jesus is Lord, where the broken are blessed, the mourners comforted, the hungry and thirsty satisfied. If McGilchrist is right, God has truly set eternity in our hearts. And perhaps, freed from constriction and opened to capacious connection, we can live as ambassadors who’ve tasted and seen a new and spacious land, and who long for others to taste it too.

 

 

 

a reminder to take care of you

The older I get, the more the old saying of Jesus “Physician, heal thyself” makes sense. I’ve spent more than two decades doing a lot of caring. But the more attend to myself, the more sadness I find, the more anxiety I feel, the more trauma I notice. The more I realize that I desperately need to take time to slow down, to feel, to notice the places of pain and, more importantly, the places of sacred presence, remembering that Jesus dwells amidst it all, loving each and every weary and wounded part. 

Part of growing up is becoming aware, and at least a part of this is choosing to feel your own pain and the pain of the world around you. Of course, in typical either-or ways, some choose to bury their heads in the sand while others choose complete immersion in the pain. It has always interested me that Jesus chose neither extreme. How many people in pain did Jesus walk by during his earthly sojourn? Many. How many could he have healed with a better time-and-ministry management strategy? Many. But neither did he refuse to engage the pain – he absorbed the sin of the whole world into his own body!

Somehow, we engage – sometimes at great cost – but we might also take the counsel of St. Teresa – to measure our efforts so as to not exhaust ourselves.

I weighed this over the past weeks as I grieved the untimely death of my father-in-law, just months after my mother-in-law. I felt a confusing array of emotions in me – sadness, anger, relief. We also celebrated my birthday, our 25th anniversary, and my daughter’s high school graduation with a hastily planned and wildly providential trip to Hawaii, made possible because my father-in-law’s passing caused us to cancel a long-planned trip and opened up substantially cheaper rates for flights to Hawaii. How could I hold joy, sadness, gratitude, anger, joy, relief, and confusion in this moment?

But then, the pain on the world doesn’t pause when you take a vacation. Each day, our family would process what seems to be a daily torrent of sad, confusing, enraging, and demoralizing stories. My daughters – 18 and almost 17 – are of a generation of information deluge. I don’t know how they can possibly process everything they take in. I want them to choose to hold the particularly painful stories with some kind of sanctity. And I know they wrestle with the obvious tensions. They feel, in their own young bodies, the weight of Christian school classmates who’ve told fellow students of color to “go home.” Like me, they struggle with the daily moral contradictions of political leadership. I’m a student of narcissism and trauma and a counselor to many – hell, I’ve got a book coming out on narcissism -and I barely feel capable of psychological and spiritual resilience myself, at times, as I witness this daily decomposition of human dignity and character. Somehow, each of us must assess our own threshold of trauma tolerance, and do the careful work of engaging, but also appropriately disengaging (without dissociating).

Physician, heal thyself. In other words, take care of you. Guard your heart. Even Jesus stepped away from the crowds for silence, for intimate conversations with friends, for a meal. Rest. Eat. Exercise. Vacation. Be silent in prayer. Breathe. Listen.

At least a part of what it means to be “in Christ,” I suspect, is to recognize you’re in Christ, not Christ himself, not the savior of the world. Don’t hesitate to enter the painful world and speak truth. But don’t be fooled into thinking your participation is the hinge upon which everything swings. The older I get, the more I realize that there was pain before me, that there is pain today, and that pain will outlive me. All of creation groans, longing for redemption. I do want to be present to it, but I also do realize that I’m limited. If I’ve learned anything from studying narcissism, abuse, and trauma, it’s this – if our wounds go unhealed, we will distribute our woundedness to others. Pain that isn’t healed is hurled in every direction. 

Take good care, these days. Invest deeply and passionately, and rest wholeheartedly. Pay attention, not just to what’s on the news, but to what you need. And always, rest deeply as the beloved one, held in unfathomable love forever.

Peace.

Hello Depression My Old Friend

May is Mental Health Awareness month.

May began by saying goodbye to my dear mother-in-law, whose mental health story is not mine to tell, but whose heartache was evident to all of us who had the privilege of knowing her.

Both on the long drive to Iowa and during our time there, I felt a deep sadness. I looked through old pictures hoping to find a radiant smile on Marlene’s face, but only found one very early picture where she seemed barreled over by joy. In her last decade, perhaps longer, dementia stole even more from her. Knowing enough of her story, I had this sense that it was all just so unfair, that her precious life marked by a gentle spirit suffered under the afflictive fog of depression, robbing those she loved of her innate radiance and joy.

We drove back late last week, Sara and the girls in our Highlander following me in my father-in-law’s 2007 Mercury Montego, now my youngest daughter’s ride. I spent most of the drive in silence. I wasn’t feeling much. I didn’t want much, not even an appetite for an Audible book, my normal driving-fare. I’d been doing a lot of attending to others in this season, but I couldn’t even attend to myself, let alone find God in the fog.

Depression.

You don’t even know the fog has descended. For most of us acquainted with it, depression is so familiar that it can feel like a comfortable old coat. I’ve worn this coat for as long as I can remember, saved by meds and counseling and a curious spouse and good friends who attend to me on occasion. Depression and anxiety are like really old companions who lurk in the shadows, coming out now and then to remind me of their presence. Sometimes I even greet my depression: Oh hello depression, I didn’t even see you old friend. How long have you been hanging around?

My depression isn’t marked by the deep ebb. It’s more like a rolling tide that swells with joy and gratitude for a season and then releases into malaise for the next. In depression, even small things feel overwhelming. This has the effect of increasing anxiety and, for me, compounding shame as I think about those I’ll disappoint or things I’ll forget and how there’s just something chronically wrong with me because of it.

In this season, it’s hard to pray. It’s hard to write. I judge many of the sentences that come from my mouth because the hazy fog disrupts my speech.

I don’t write this to solicit pity but because “if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is also yours” (Buechner, Telling Secrets). It’s because there are pastors and writers and theologians and counselors and chaplains who do the work of making sense out of this world for others, but who can only do it because we’re deeply acquainted with non-sense, with darkness and sadness and the familiar fog.

Buechner goes on to say that “it is precisely through these stories in all their particularity, as I have long believed and often said, that God makes himself known to each of us more powerfully and personally. If this is true, it means that to lose track of our stories is to be profoundly impoverished not only humanly but also spiritually.” And so we tell our stories. This is mine.

Image result for downcast soul

I’m in the gray ebb right now. But I’m functioning. Because I’m a helper, you’ll still experience me caring and think I’m ok. Because I’m from the Northeast, you’ll hear a quick sarcastic quip and think I’m ok…but maybe not as funny as I think I am. Because I hate disappointing you, you’ll probably get a late email with an apology and think I’m ok. But the reality for those of us who do the mental health dance is that we’re constantly tuned to “we’re not ok.” And we perpetually wondering if there will ever be a time when it will really be ok.

I’m aware of it now, so I’ll return to familiar patterns of self-care. The Psalms become a constant companion to give voice to hidden currents of sadness. I create space to feel sadness or rage or disappointment or despair. I try to share honestly with close companions, and I ask for grace when I can’t come through (as I just did with a colleague who asked me to speak at a commencement event). I exercise. I check my alcohol intake, but even more my motivations. I try to eat healthier and take my meds. I rest into the arms of the God-who-is-always-home, greeting me with a smile even as I feel sadness.

And I wait for it to pass.

But in the meantime, I greet this familiar friend. Hello again. Another day of the dance, huh? OK. Be gentle.

And I whisper a quiet prayer to remind me of what’s true:

Christ above me.

Christ below me.

Christ to my right.

Christ to my left.

Christ behind me.

Christ before me.

Christ within me. 

To all of you struggling, I lift a prayer for your downcast spirit (Ps. 43:5) and take some comfort knowing I’m not alone.