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 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)

Rediscovering Nouwen | On Power and Intimacy

I’m continuing to reflect on Henri Nouwen’s 1972 book The Wounded Healer. Now 46 years later, it’s as important as ever to wrestle with Nouwen’s invitation, particularly when it seems that our political and ecclesial leaders operate more from a posture of power rather than intimacy, particularly as we see our own propensity to live from places of self-protection and power rather than vulnerability.

I’ve read a bunch of biographies of Nouwen over the years and I’m struck by how transparent he was about his woundedness, his neediness. His deeply subjective and experiential spirituality irked clerical authorities as well as colleagues at Yale and Harvard, even as his Catholicism remained quite conservative and as he resisted controversial subjects. His fragility rattled new friends who expected him to be the solid, stable sage. His neediness impacted close friendships, some of which were ruptured. And yet, his autobiographical and self-disclosing style was far from narcissistic. His writings are so popular, even today, because he names our secrets, he reveals our fragility, he exposes our brokenness. We see our stories in his.

It’s striking to me that Nouwen was tenured at Yale although he never finished his PhD! We strategize to rise through the ranks. We edit resumes to highlight our successes. We compile degrees and credentials and titles and achievements. When we do attain power, we’re careful to protect it. With power, it becomes even more important to hide our secret compulsions, our simmering anxiety, our burdening needs for approval and affection and belonging. Nouwen was invited into spaces not because he had the degrees but because he put words to our deep longings.

In another book, Nouwen muses on Christian leadership, writing:

The long painful history of the Church is the history of people ever and again tempted to choose power over love, control over the cross, being a leader over being led.  Those who resisted this temptation to the end and thereby give us hope are the true saints. One thing is clear to me: the temptation of power is greatest when intimacy is a threat. Much Christian leadership is exercised by people who do not know how to develop healthy, intimate relationships and have opted for power and control instead.  Many Christian empire-builders have been people unable to give and receive love.[i]

Nouwen believed that the temptation to power, to success, and to relevance was greatest in those most out of touch with their own humanness – their needs for intimacy and connection, their fragility and fears. He believed that those most out-of-touch with their own stories would be most likely to project their psychic trauma onto others.

Image result for henri nouwen

Henri Nouwen

As we examine ourselves, it’s important ask: Why do we pursue power? What deeper needs are we attempting to meet through its attainment? Why do we crave position? Achievement? Success? Is there a deeper ache we’re neglecting to notice?  Indeed, testimonies of life-crises among those who’ve attained it only to discover an inner emptiness and lack of satisfaction ought to remind us that there is so much more available, if only we’d allow ourselves to be seen and known. The masquerade is exhausting. Show your true face, and be free.

[i] Henri Nouwen, In The Name of Jesus (Chestnut Ridge, NY: Crossroad, 1989), 60.

Becoming a Wounded Healer

“The great illusion of leadership is to think that one can be led out of the desert by someone who has never been there.” Henri Nouwen

I’ve been re-visiting an old friend recently – Henri Nouwen – who is easily in my Top 5 most formative modern spiritual writers. The lanky Dutchman was a complicated man, a priest whose congregation was everyone, a psychologist whose greatest riddle was himself, a giver who could hardly get out of his own way, an outsider whose popular writings were ridiculed by his academic colleagues, and a prophet whose theo-autobiographical style connected with the masses.

I’ve seen myself in Nouwen, at times. He could be both compelling and awkward, dynamic and insecure, manic and depressed, spirit-filled and empty. His paradoxical life isn’t one we necessarily aspire to – after all, who wants to wrestle with the deep anguish of self-rejection, as one biographer calls his “primal wound”? It’s his honesty we aspire to. It’s a canon of writings that might be rightly called The Confessions of Henri Nouwen. 

It’s the life we’re not allowed to live, because fragility is weakness. I’ve long resented my own fragility.

It’s the life we’re not allowed to live, because loneliness is a sign of relational awkwardness. How often have I been lonely and not reached out?

It’s the life we’re not allowed to live, because trained priest-psychologists are supposed to have it all together. Place a check there, too.

It’s a life of a wounded healer, as Nouwen called it, a life in which our loneliness and fragility, awkwardness and anxiety, shame and insecurity, are not always hidden. To be sure, we’ll try to mask it. But those who know us best see right through us. And, paradoxically, when we risk being seen, we find that our presence is a gift. Others feel like a space is created for their own fear and awkwardness. Others find freedom in our spacious presence.

I’m drawn to Nouwen because he brought his wounds into the light to be healed. Somehow, he lived something I often only proclaim but fear living – that to be known intimately by another, to risk vulnerability, is to encounter the possibility of healing. I continue to crave the respect of academic colleagues, so I play the part as well as I can. I continue to crave the affirmation of ministry peers, so I play the part as well as I can. Nouwen seems so wounded that, in one sense, he couldn’t really get out of his own way. And yet, his great ‘genius’ is his radical, intentional engagement with the text of his own life. He was a master exegete of his own story.

He is a ‘wounded healer’ precisely because he brings his wounds into the light. Image result for the wounded healerOften, those who are wounded remain unhealed. Many become ‘victimizing victims’, not wounded healers. We hide, we numb, we settle, we avoid. The gift of Nouwen’s The Wounded Healer is its prophetic call to do the hard work of healing, to engage our own stories, to acknowledge our repressed needs, to name our deepest longings. This is a huge risk, especially for pastors. Congregations want the Put-Together-Pastor, not the wounded healer.

And yet, I’m more and more convinced that if we refuse to do the work, if we refuse to engage the pain of our own stories, we become wounded wounders. The plague of the narcissism, as I’ve written about, emerges when we’re disconnected from ourselves, from our longings. It’s ironic, because a condition which appears most self-centered is actually a condition of radical self-disconnection manifesting in a person utterly out of touch with his own needs, his own longings, his own story.

What if pastors were wounded healers whose stories were the fertile soil for connection with lonely, addicted, insecure congregations?

What if we lived so freely that confessions of our fear and loneliness were welcomed, even easy to offer?

My plan in the coming weeks is to reflect further on what it means to be a wounded healer on the heels of the year 2020, two decades (if you can believe it) into the new millennium. Nouwen’s 1979 book was a gift, but it was written 40 years ago. What might Nouwen have to say to us today? Let’s explore this together in coming posts…

 

Believing Women in an Age of Narcissism

(Trigger Warning: If you’ve been sexually abused or assaulted, please bear in the mind that this piece includes disturbing details of sexual trauma)

Step back from the political drama for a moment and consider a woman I saw for counseling years ago (with details changed). She’s 39, and I’ve just officiated her wedding to a really extraordinary man. She didn’t think she’d get married, but then he came along – the one she never expected. She’d actually waited; she was a virgin, though she’d rather say that many years before – perhaps around 7 or 8 years old – she felt a strange call to be a nun. She was quite content single, and single-mindedly devoted to friends and faith in a God whose love she experienced through the mystical lens of Song of Solomon. But then he came along.

I pronounced them husband and wife, we all celebrated, and they set off for an adventure among the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Park. It was early fall – the colors were bursting and radiant – their hopes were high. That night, my phone rings. It’s 11:30pm or so…I’m about asleep. He is in a panic, “Chuck, something is wrong with Sondra. I don’t know what’s happening right now.” I hear moaning, howling…dark, disturbing sounds, and I realize it’s her. “We began making love. I was gentle. I was. We felt so connected. And then I touched her, you know…and her body went catatonic. She froze. And then in an instant she screamed ‘Get the fuck off of me.'”  

This isn’t Sondra if you know Sondra. My training as a clinician tells me she’s experienced a body memory, a memory not accessible by mere mental recollection but triggered often by a touch or sensation. Sondra and I spoke briefly, as I asked her to breathe and as we did a practice to get her reconnected to her core self. We decided they would stay and enjoy the beauty of that area, but wait on sex until we could meet again. Jeff was so tender, so understanding, so self-sacrificial. They returned a week later.

Fast-forward a year into therapy. Sondra’s memory was of a time when she was maybe 6 or 7, recalled from the feel of her surroundings and the room she lived in while their family weathered financial struggle and stayed with her Grandparents. That moment a year before had triggered a long-lost memory of a shadowy figure, the smell of cigar on his breath, touching and even penetrating the innocent little girl several times over months of living there. It was her Grandpa. Her favorite Pa-Pa. The gift-giver. The cuddler. A sexually violent and abusive man.

Fast-forward two years. She’s ready to speak. Grandpa is a legendary missionary in their denomination, still a frequent speaker in churches throughout their region. At their local breakfast establishment, he’s sometimes called “The Mayor.” By now, Sondra has told her mother, her older brother, and some close friends. She has support. We have a plan. With her mother and brother and me by her side, Sondra will confront her Grandpa.

“Liar,” he says. “You lie. Why? How could you do this to me?” He storms out. Sondra was ready for this, but she was not ready for the phone calls she’d begin to receive from Grandpa’s friends and allies.

Whore.

Liar.

Bitch.

Ungrateful granddaughter.

Apostate.

His pastor calls Sondra. He isn’t curious about her. Rather, he begins by talking about the many contributions Grandpa has made to the Kingdom and community. “Surely, you’d want to think twice about making dubious accusations from so many years back. Our memories are quite fallible, Sondra. And you’ve always had a penchant for the dramatic.”

Sondra is just one story of dozens I’ve held. As I said, I shifted details to protect her. I’ve seen this same scenario play out time and again, though. Don’t believe her. It happened so long ago. She’s not credible. 

I believe, because I’ve walked alongside women who hold these stories so tightly for fear that telling them would only unleash a torrent of accusation. When a woman tells a story, she often does so after slow and deliberate consideration. Many know the risks. But they feel like it is time…perhaps many years later…but it’s time for them. With that trauma, I don’t judge their timing. Who would?

Memories of sexual trauma from long ago can emerge in an instant. During sexually traumatic experiences, our psyches have an extraordinary defense mechanism – we can psychologically/emotionally disconnect from the moment. An hour later or a day later or even 20 years later, we might remember – that happened? Memories can surge back in a moment, triggered by a sight, a sound, a smell, a touch, a picture, a look.

++++

My policy is believe first. In 20-plus years of pastoral and clinical work, I’ve only seen one case of false accusation. The reality is – false accusations happen only rarely, and often under certain conditions. Thankfully, a thorough process revealed a self-serving lie by a cruel (false) accuser, whose lie came at no cost to the accuser personally, a reality almost every accuser can’t relate to. There is always a cost. As we watch the news unfold right now, we see the great cost to Dr. Ford, Judge Kavanaugh’s accuser. I’m also quite sure the accusation(s) must be jarring to the judge and his family, as well, but anyone walking into one of the most powerful, lifetime appointments in government ought to expect anything along the way. As I’ve said time and again to those who feel they are being falsely accused, participate (humbly!) in a process. One’s character is often revealed in these trying moments.

What do I mean by believe first? Would I deny due process? Absolutely not. But the problem is that we often do not DO process. We defend and self-protect and malign, but rarely do you see those accused humbly engage a process. As in the very public case of Dr. Ford right now, the response by many Republican defenders of the judge shows just how de-humanizing and humiliating this can be for a credible accuser. The lack of basic emotional intelligence and compassion is astounding. The politicization of a woman’s story on both sides is horrifying. I’d expect her to be asking: Is anyone really for me in this? Most engaging in this current judicial firestorm couldn’t pass a basic pastoral care class I offer.

By “believing” do I mean affirming her story with utter, infallible certainty? No. Often, those who accuse are themselves fuzzy on details and mired in self-doubt. No, belief begins with empathy. It means holding their story, their experience. In clinical work, it often does not mean bringing an immediate accusation. As in the case of Dr. Ford, a memory revealed years back will take time to process and unfold. The survivor will wrestle with all kinds of feelings – self-doubt, self-blame, confusion, rage, disconnection. It takes time to get to the point Dr. Ford got to. But, given the public details, hers is a credible accusation. And despite disagreements around timing, she deserves a thorough process. If we are not first human, what have we become?

Remember how the women who brought accusations against Bill Hybels were villainized? I suspect it’s difficult for us to believe that well-established “family” men are capable of these things. But as one who holds many “secrets” from many confidential sessions over the years, I’ve seen many, many men who’d otherwise be viewed publicly as saintly reveal past indiscretions and private battles. Even the most polished and put-together can be deeply broken. Have we not learned that lesson?

And a final word to wrap this up – I have seen more than a dozen men who’ve actually revealed to me an instance of abusing or assaulting a woman in the past. Through painful self-revelation, they slowly come to grips with their own brokenness and violence. We process, with grief and repentance, until they are ready to do the hard work of contacting their victim/survivor (unless I find myself in a case where mandatory reporting is demanded). In most of the cases I’ve been involved in, when the men called women who they’d hurt in the past they were surprised by the responses. In a few cases, the women had no recollection (and at least one entered therapy to deal with that, because this is how memory works). In a few more, the women remembered, but had minimized it or blamed themselves. Still, in others there was immense gratitude, relief, and even some measure of forgiveness. These were all painful processes which could not be microwaved, but required slow, thoughtful engagement.

Believing an accuser’s story is a tricky thing, in other words. We’ve got to be willing to move with patience and empathy into the slow process of disclosure, mindful that maligning or accusing only further solidifies a story she (or he) tells herself – that she’s the problem. And in this culture of narcissism, particularly in the ecclesial and political spheres, that’s even more tricky. If narcissism is characterized fundamentally by a protection of power and an absence of empathy, then we are seeing this on full display among those who are supposed to be wise leaders. And sadly, we are living in a time when it seems that only a few “wise people think before they act; fools don’t—and even brag about their foolishness” (Proverbs 13:16).

Grace (and the abuse of grace) for narcissists and abusers

I live daily with a paradox. On the one hand, grace is audacious, extravagant, immediate, and all-embracing. On the other, grace is painful, reconstructive, surgical, and slow. Grace is the deliverance from Egypt and grace is the long, grueling journey through a blistering wilderness.

I live with this paradox because of the work I do. With my multiple hats – professor, pastor, therapist, spiritual director – I become a conduit of God’s lavish grace, a steward of it, a surgeon of the soul in need of it. And because grace refuses simplification, refuses to be reduced to a get-out-of-jail-free card, we must hold the paradox when we work with particularly complex people.

I’m thinking right now of pastors I’ve worked with over the years whose narcissism was so entrenched in their psyche that lavish grace needed to work itself out over years and years. Some time ago I worked with a pastor whose masks of charm, personal fitness, and a keen intellect propelled him into success, but who was utterly disconnected from his true self. Revelations of abuse and sexual infidelity came as a shock to his adoring flock, many who were quick to say, “Who of us is without sin? Let us forgive as he taught us to forgive.” This pastor’s narcissism, now armed with a new mask of repentance, quickly turned the narrative from his sin to his redemption story, one his flock was happy to embrace.

I recall sitting with his wife weeks after as she struggled. “I feel like God calls me to forgive him, but I can’t help but feel like he gets off the hook and I’m left beaten and bruised. I’ve even had people tell me that I was to blame for his infidelity. Was I?” Mired in guilt and shame, she felt like she’d be failing him and failing the church if she didn’t quickly forgive.

As I sat with the pastor, he had many reasons for his actions – many years without a sabbatical, burnout, lack of emotional support from his wife, a ‘weak’ elder board. He was quick to say, “I failed.” But he never got specific. In one session, I asked him for permission to say something hard to him. He agreed. I offered this to him: “What would it be like to say this to your wife: For years, I emotionally abused you by mocking your effort, your appearance, your faithfulness. I played the part of obedient pastor, but in secret I abused and tormented you. When pornography was not enough to anesthetize away my shame, I intentionally and meticulously groomed women who adored me for back-rubs, blowjobs, and sex in my office, on the floor right next to my desk and our family picture.”

He sat silently, head down, as if it was the first time he’d considered something other than a narrative that would preserve his shiny veneer. I suspect he was weighing his options, as he always did, so very fearful of an ultimate confrontation with himself. He looked up at me, steel-eyed: “Chuck, can I say something to you? What would it look like for you to take the Gospel seriously, to help me gain my esteem back and to help my wife forgive me?”

I’ve had some version of this same story play out about a dozen times with pastors and/or ministry leaders of some kind.

This man needed the grace of wilderness. He wanted deliverance from Egypt and a quick flight over the wilderness to the promised land. He ultimately chose the latter. And he used his story as a real, live grace story.

When we treat grace like a bandaid rather than the major surgery it often demands, we trivialize it. Real transformation is a slow-cook process, especially for narcissists and abusers so hidden from their true selves and so prone to re-configure the masks for the sake of a new narrative and to avoid the pain of self-confrontation. The wilderness of grace is the place where the narcissist’s false self is dismantled, but it’s also the place where the systems and structures that buttressed and supported it are confronted and dismantled.

I sometimes wish I knew more about St. Paul’s three years in the wilderness. Once a murderous moralist, he was confronted by the living Christ on Damascus Road. Something new was born in him that day, but we know that he did not immediately take to the streets to evangelize. Some like to imagine these three years as an intense Bible-study training program. I like to think of them as a time of deconstruction – of old narratives, of the masks that served him in his old life, of an ideology of tribalism and abuse. I imagine that leaving his old life behind cost him dearly – relationships, reputation, income, so much more. When he did return, we know that he still had an edge, that he could be oppositional, that his words of reconciliation didn’t always match his relational style, that he wrestled with his inner contradictions. But he was an honest man – honest about his story, the toxicity of his old life, and his need for grace.

Grace is not about saving face. Grace often plunges us into the depths of despair. It requires the loss of everything that buttressed the old self. As much as we’re culturally conditioned to good, old American quick redemption stories, we’ve got to reclaim a biblical imagination for the wilderness of grace. I’m suspicious of those who are quick to return to ministry, quick to write their redemption story, quick to embrace the adoration of their devoted followers. Those who I’ve seen do the real, hard wilderness work of transformation go away for years, and have no expectations for what will happen. All is given to the surgical work of grace under the care of experienced practitioners.

I reconnected with someone like this not long ago. I hadn’t seen him in years. His ministry fell apart when he cultivated a relationship with an old girlfriend on Facebook, and began secretly meeting with her. He resisted the wilderness of grace, at first. He scrambled to save his marriage and ministry. But he had a wise community. They held him firmly, in painful love, and showed him a desert path. They knew this Facebook affair was just a symptom of deeper unhealth. They held his wife, and didn’t allow her to be gaslit in the process. He completely left ministry, quit social media, and gave himself to the work prescribed for him, which included finding a completely new way to make ends meet. His church entered into a hard season of honesty, as well, mindful of its need not just to grieve but to address what allowed this pastor to slowly spin out-of-control.

It’s seven years later and he looks great. His marriage is healthy. He’s decided to start coming back to ecclesial gatherings, ever under the watchful care of his therapist and a few close advisors, with a tempered curiosity about re-entering ministry. Because so much of the old, addicted self is dead, he doesn’t feel the drive he once did to change the world. He wonders what it might look like to serve a small congregation somewhere, but he’s profoundly attuned to his family’s needs and hesitations about this. Seven years into the work, he suspects he has another seven to go. He’s in no rush. In fact, he’s waking up to a life that is so much more beautiful than he knew before, and little matters more than waking up each day whole and healthy, and loving and being loved by those closest to him. He says that for the first time in his life, he feels like Jesus smiles at him.

He’s a man who has experienced an extraordinary Grace.

 

*all of my stories are an amalgamation of several stories, with details changed.

 

Bill Hybels and the Future of the Church After #ChurchToo

When I read Phyliss Tickle’s The Great Emergence five years ago, I couldn’t help but think of that oft-misquoted line about Mark Twain’s imminent demise: “Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” I’d read Regele’s The Death of the Church more than a decade before, but after watching the so-called Emergent movement emerge and stumble, never quite getting traction as an ecclesial reformation, I had my doubt that the behemoth of the American Christendom church could die.

That was all before #MeToo and #ChurchToo.

Intellectual critiques of church as Empire are powerful, but it often takes experiential learning for change to happen. Many pastors (like me) who were trained in the 90’s and fed a diet of Peterson, Brueggeman, Wright, and others like them learned to ask hard questions about Christianity’s collusion with Empire. Some of us experienced painful lessons in churches that were run like corporations and led by clergy-CEO’s. There might be a quiet advocacy for marginalized women, abuse victims, or the silenced, but it felt like nothing would ever change. Even in my early experience of a supposedly-accountable Presbyterian context where polity was a friend, the systems preserved the powerful and the influential. Ideas weren’t enough to change entrenched systems designed to protect the powerful.

If there is to be a great emergence of some kind, a new reformation, a dying-and-rising of a new kind of church and a new kind of Christianity, the moment is now – at least for the American church. It was never about becoming more progressive or more conservative, I don’t think – it was about us, our character, our health, our willingness to give ourselves over to the dying-and-rising necessary for growing up. The big new idea wasn’t going to change us fundamentally – it would take a revelation that we have a disease within us to wake up to our bad habits, seek out the treatment we need, and encounter profound change.

Revelations of scandal and coverup in the Catholic church have been trickling out for years. Televangelists have been exposed as counterfeits. And megachurch and movement leaders in the evangelical church like Mark Driscoll, Darrin Patrick, and Tullian Tchividjian have experienced their own reckonings for abuses of power. But these were not enough to shake us, evidenced in remarkably quick restorations inspired by a cheap form of grace. However, the revelations about Bill Hybels in this #MeToo and #ChurchToo moment are exposing much more than the ‘sin’ of one leader. The church is waking up to the nature of systemic sin, the embedded narcissism of institutions, the impotence of those called to govern and hold leaders accountable. This time it’s not just about the man – it’s about an entire system.

We’re slow to wake up. When I consult with churches entrenched in narcissistic systems and led by narcissistic leaders, I often see a kind of collective “Stockholm Syndrome” among staff and leaders. If I pull a thread and things begin to unravel, I watch as one-by-one they awaken to the toxic waters they’ve been immersed in. Narcissistic leadership in the church is especially toxic because, unlike politicians, we tend to believe that the pastor is saintly. Narcissistic pastors are adept at waving their magic spiritual wands, putting those that follow them in a trance. It is gaslighting, plain and simple, as followers, staff, and leaders question themselves well before they question the omnipotent pastor. When the thread is pulled and the systemic narcissism begins to unravel, the wake-up can be abrupt and deeply painful. Those around the narcissistic leader will question themselves, their faith, even reality as they’ve known it. This experiential crisis is the only hope for lasting change in the church.

When scandal hits Mars Hill and Mark Driscoll, we take notice. But when scandal hits Willow Creek and Bill Hybels, we wake up. It hits us in the gut. Bill Hybels? Willow Creek?

The thread has been pulled, and we are all beginning to see the toxicity of narcissistic systems. Our systemic disease is no longer a story for Christianity Today, it’s a story for the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. Our illness has been exposed and the watching world has taken notice. The icon of ecclesial leadership has fallen, and it wasn’t just a misdemeanor offense. The sins of Hybels are not just his, but an entire system is implicated – other pastors in the system, governing leaders in the church, allies outside the church, and more. This isn’t a Hollywood scandal we can gawk at, this is our scandal, our reckoning, our moment to wake up.

Academic conversations about a great emergence or the end of Christendom have made for interesting conversation, but Willow Creek is our moment of experiential learning, our opportunity to die a painful death to our collective ego, grandiosity, celebrity worship, and more. Willow Creek is happening in small rural churches, suburban multi-sites, and city center churches, in black churches, liberal churches and evangelical networks. Many of us who’ve been working in and consulting with churches for decades have seen this virus at work, subtly spreading it’s disease. Now we see that it’s not just about a few fallen men, but about a collective.

It’s systemic narcissism.

It’s embedded in our structures, rampant in our institutions, spread throughout our networks and denominations – it’s the toxic ecclesial water we swim in. It protects the powerful, mocks and silences victims, and covers it all in a shiny spiritual veneer. It’s en-trancing effect led the evangelical church to overwhelmingly vote for a morally-vacuous narcissist whose manufactured daily reality show reveals how prone we are to being gaslit, how ignorant we’ve become to unhealth, to moral bankruptcy, to sin. It’s time to remove the blinders and look long and hard at our disease. Our collective disease.

This is an experiential moment of reckoning for the Christian church – for Catholics and Protestants, for progressives and conservatives, for each of us. We can’t not take a long hard look at our church, our pastor, our institution, our network, our denomination. We can’t chalk this up to a few bad eggs, a few big egos. We’ve got to wonder – together – how did we get here? What about us even craves narcissistic systems and leaders? Why is our American culture a perfect petris dish for narcissistic systems and leaders? How do our structures and systems cultivate this quick-spreading virus?

Our addiction to success, to grandiosity, to winning has gone unchecked. We forgot that we were followers of a suffering servant, bearers of the Cross, participants in a cruciform story. Willow Creek became the ultimate how-to-do-it-and-succeed counterfeit story. That isn’t a knock on everything it is and was, just a gut check for every pastor who thought – why isn’t my church growing like that one is OR if only we could discover their secret formula. Again, it revealed a lot about us. If you’re reading this as a post about Hybels or Willow Creek, you’ve missed the point – this is about us. Their story reveals ours.

What’s next? I hope it’s something beautiful, something remarkable – not the next-big-thing but a real death-to-resurrection story for the church in the United States. It won’t happen if we ignore our disease, though. How might you begin?

  1. Begin with you. What are your blindspots? Where are you unhealthy? How might you be a participant in systems that are unhealthy? Who in your life is brutally honest? (Ask people how they experience you) Are there repercussions for those who are honest with you?
  2. Start learning about systems – how they function in health and unhealth. Read Friedman’s Generation to Generation or Richardson’s Creating a Healthier Church or Steinke’s How Your Church Family Works. Understand how your own family-of-origin story plays out in your current system.
  3. Learn more about narcissism. Become curious about your own. Follow this track and learn about narcissistic systems, about psychological abuse, about gaslighting.
  4. Seek out the resources at NetGrace, become Grace Certified, and follow and read people like Diane Langberg. Lindsey/Justin Holcomb, and Wade Mullen.
  5. Engage in 360 review processes in your church, org, networks. Invite consultants in to advise and assess the health of your church or org.

That’s just a modest start. Keep exploring, but don’t ignore the hard work of personal change and honest engagement with the systems in which you participate. Become stewards of the healthy dying – in yourself, in your church, in your org’s – so that we may become witnesses of something beautiful and new.

 

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.

 

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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