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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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.

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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…

 

The Lost Pastor

I got the call again a few nights ago. It’s the same call I get quite often, often by anxious pastoral colleagues or overwhelmed elders or frazzled denominational executives. It’s a call I get amidst a pastoral crisis, and it arrives with a familiar cadence and pattern which goes something like this:

“Hey Chuck, I have a tough situation with Pastor so-and-so…we’ve recently discovered a pattern of so-and-so…we’ve only had an initial conversation but need help determining so-and so….and we need your help exploring our next steps.” 

Pastor so-and-so passed his ordination exams with flying colors. He can quote Barth and Bavinck. He’s got a “hot take” on cultural issues on social media. He’s a conversationalist who is the last to leave church on Sunday morning. By most measures, he’s a “success.” But (in truth) he’s a burning cauldron of neglected needs that manifest in sneaky and secretive behaviors which will likely cost him his pastoral ministry and maybe his family.

He’s the lost pastor. He’s lost in this sense – he’s lonely and busy and empty and radically disconnected from any kind of inner conversation with himself, with his heart, with the God who is more near to him than his very breath. As the 17th c. Presbyterian clergyman John Flavel wrote in Keeping the Heart, “There are some men and women who have lived forty or fifty years in the world and have had scarcely one hour’s discourse with their hearts all the while.”

Something akin to what I’m speaking of is narrated wonderfully in Susan Howatch’s great novel, Glittering Images. In the novel, Charles Ashworth is a conflicted Anglican priest and canon who meets with Jon Darrow, a spiritual director who confronts his false self, what he calls his “glittering image,” that public persona who plays the part all-the-while neglecting a deeper, inner conversation.

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As his spiritual director, Darrow does something remarkable. He speaks directly to the “glittering” part of Ashworth, saying, “He must be exhausted. Has he never been tempted to set down the burden by telling someone about it?”

“I can’t,” Ashworth replies.

“Who’s ‘I’?” Darrow responds.

“The glittering image.”

“Ah yes,” says Darrow,” and of course that’s the only Charles Ashworth that the world’s allowed to see, but you’re out of the world now, aren’t you, and I’m different from everyone else because I know there are two of you. I’m becoming interested in this other self of yours, the self nobody meets. I’d like to help him come out from behind that glittering image and set down this appalling burden which has been tormenting him for so long.”

“He can’t come out,” Ashworth responds.

Darrow asks, “Why not?”

In a moment of stunning self-clarity, Ashworth says, “You wouldn’t like or approve of him.”

With gentleness and honesty, Darrow responds, “Charles, when a traveler’s staggering along with a back-breaking amount of luggage he doesn’t need someone to pat him on the head and tell him how wonderful he is. He needs someone who’ll offer to share the load.”[i]

The back-and-forth between Darrow and Ashworth is quite remarkable. The lost pastor can make it a long way on the fuel of the false self. He may be successful, influential, endearing, charming, smart. But beneath the veneer is a man (or a woman) deeply afraid, lost and lonely, a cauldron of unmet and neglected needs. There is a story that has never been explored, pain never acknowledged, violations of others unconfessed.

Take Jim. He was a top seminary student and a star church planter who had just published his second book when his ‘sexts’ were discovered by his wife. He chalked it up to a foolish one-time mistake before years of porn were discovered on his laptop, and before several women came forward to describe their encounters with him. Jim thought getting counseling was silly. He reported a healthy family-of-origin, loving parents, a loving spouse. His sexual exploits were characterized as an “attack by the evil one,” which elicited empathy from his spouse and elder board, convinced that he was a special target of Satan because of his fruitfulness as a pastor.

But soon enough, we discovered little Jim, the eight year old version of himself, constant caretaker of his mother’s emotional needs and perpetually anxious about his father’s long business trips and secrecy about his work life. In the vacuum of truth, little Jim languished in loneliness and confusion until the age of 13 when, on a rainy April day, his father called to say he’d be staying in Brazil with his lover. Jim quickly became the surrogate father to his siblings and surrogate spouse to his mother. But a budding rage and resentment grew in him toward her. He felt simultaneously responsible for her and controlled by her. In the meantime, he fantasized about his father’s exploits around the world. While he chose the path of the responsible good boy, he hid a shadow self burdened by shame, rage, and loneliness.

Fast-forward to Jim’s mid-30’s, where his wife is mothering two children under 3, where their emotional disconnection is unaddressed, where Jim holds within storehouses of unmet emotional needs. The unaddressed resentment toward his mother transforms into fantasies of submission among the women he ‘sexts’ and the scenes he views online, many of which portray women meeting the sexual needs of men at their own expense. In his fantasy world, he is as free as his father while remaining the dutiful church planter and husband in real-time. Unwittingly, Jim plays out his unaddressed story of trauma in a way that gives him some sense of control over his chaotic interior life, but in a way that abuses and harms women, sabotages his own marriage and ministry, and violates the sacred trust of his ministerial office.

There are many lost pastors today, some of whom lead large churches or ministries, exert influence, have platforms, write books, and use their privileged role to gain intimacy and trust. Indeed, I now assume most pastors I meet are more lost than they realize. This has been confirmed in twenty years of pastoring, counseling, consulting and training pastors in different denominations. We know that pastors have stunning rates of narcissism and porn usage. We know that many fear that their shadow side will destroy their ministry, so they become adept at hiding.

I’d prefer to not cast a wide umbrella of suspicion on all pastors, but there are realities we cannot avoid anymore. So, we need to talk. Sin-and-lust management strategies don’t work. Self-help strategies are bandaids on soul wounds. Until we risk telling our stories, moving from the shadows to the light, the unaddressed dramas within will continue to wield unconscious control over us. I recommend 3 pathways:

Develop Transparent Relationships – Pastors need safe relationships where they can open up, specifically and transparently, to another. This is something more than an “accountability partner.” It’s not about reporting in, but about being known. One pastor I know gathers with two other men weekly for an hour-and-a-half in the home of one of the pastors, and they take time to disclose struggles from the week. But even more, they try to dig down on these struggles – what patterns do they reveal or what needs are illuminated or what sadness opened up? This can be terribly frightening for pastors who’ve lived with strategies of secrecy and hiding for some time. To be seen and known is to risk feeling shame, as exposing the shadow-side of ourselves can be excruciating. Safe relationships can be found in honest friendships, but I encourage pastors to find a wise therapist, one who is curious about the part of you no one else sees.

Increase Your Self-Awareness – Addictions plague us when we’re not present to ourselves, to God, and to others. We must engage in practices which wake us up to the present moment, to God, to our breath, to our bodies, to creation, to those around us. Many pastors are too busy. Life feels like a hamster wheel they cannot get off. Awareness – real presence to self, to God, to others – feels like a luxury they cannot afford. And yet, these same pastors will confess experiencing anxiety, panic, dread, and health-related problems which are the by-products of unaware, inattentive lives. Like a church planter who came to me with symptoms of panic attacks experienced during the preview services for the new plant. He wanted a quick fix, of course. But we discovered that he was a stranger to his own body, unaware of the anxiety, the pent up anger within, the trauma of an early failure in ministry. I recommended Contemplative and meditative practices, which are essential for spiritual wholeness, but are also remarkably helpful for physical and psychological health, too. He began exercising and doing yoga. He was amazed by how quickly his anxiety dissipated and how deeply interconnected his body and emotions are.

Tell Your Story – We must recognize that we are unconsciously replaying our unprocessed dramas in the present in ways that harm us and others. We need to explore our stories. As we connect the dots of our story, we recognize that in replaying our old dramas, we sabotage ourselves, our relationships, and our work. When I work with pastors who begin to connect these dots, they often discover that they’ve been enslaved to old relational patterns and childhood wounds. One pastor discovered that she felt 12 years old when she showed up to meetings with her leadership team. The feeling of being small and ashamed emerged years before when her Dad would have executives over to their home for “Scotch-and-Poker” nights. This pastor recalled how the men treated her – a traumatic combination of sexualization, demands for her to fill drinks, humiliation, dismissiveness, and crude humor at her expense. She realized that sitting around a leadership table with elders from various backgrounds, including executives and business people, was a major trigger for her. While the prospect of engaging these things can be daunting, many who do the work realize a freedom internally and in their relationships that brings new hope and joy to life.

Developing transparent relationships, increasing our self-awareness, and telling our stories are three initial ways we can experience healing and hope.

Like the prodigal son and the elder brother lost in their own strategies of enslavement, there is the promise of homecoming for the lost pastor, the promise of being known. God who is both father and mother longs to embrace us, longs for us to flourish. We need not live under the burden any longer.

In fact, as a former pastor myself and as one who has been lost time and again, I long to say to every pastor what Darrow says to Ashworth, “I know there are two of you. I’m becoming interested in this other self of yours, the self nobody meets. I’d like to help him come out from behind that glittering image and set down this appalling burden which has been tormenting him for so long.”

There is life beyond the burden. It may require some intentional steps for us to engage in a process of opening ourselves to God and others, but on the other side is a life and freedom each of us longs for.

___________

[i] Susan Howatch, Glittering Images (New York: Ballantine, 1987), 224.