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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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)

In Search of a Spacious Place

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

a reminder to take care of you

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace.

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…

 

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.

Image result for glittering images howatch

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.

 

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).

BETRAYED BY THOSE WHO WE THOUGHT ‘GOT IT’ – NARCISSISM AMONG THE “ENLIGHTENED”

Years ago during the Vietnam protests, researchers studied the level of consciousness and self-awareness of those engaged in protests. The assumption was that the protestors engaged this work out of a larger consciousness, a true love for justice, a global worldview, a sense of compassion. What they found was that the large majority were still highly egocentric, “pre-conventional” as some call it, and invested in the cause from a place of self-interest. In other words, their efforts were narcissistic.

Ken Wilber’s investigation into this phenomenon in Boomeritis and later in A Theory of Everything demonstrates how central egocentricity is in narcissistic people and movements, even those that appear more just, compassionate, even “right”! Wilber’s turn-of-the-millennium critique (which equally ticks off progressives and fundamentalists) targets the shadow side of their supposed enlightenment, and it was remarkably prophetic. As he argues today, the election of 2016 was, in part, an evolutionary corrective to the egocentricity of the enlightened. Hillary’s “deplorable” comment is the best example of it. He points to an inclusionary movement which contradicted itself in its often harsh, polarized practices. While we thought we were progressing toward justice and inclusion, in truth we hadn’t yet worked out our collective developmental shit (my translation). We have more growing up to do, individually and collectively.

While Wilber’s cultural reflections are helpful for our larger political conversation, I receive his insights as valuable for the church. I sometimes hear – “He preached so beautifully. His vision of the Gospel was so rich. I felt God’s love through his presence. How could he betray me?” Or I may hear, “He’s such a courageous warrior for justice. His story is so compelling. And yet he is so manipulative. Why?” What is important here is that Wilber frames this conversation developmentally. Again, if we haven’t worked out our developmental growth (our shit, as I translated it earlier), we’re prone to engage in higher level, important conversations from a lower level of consciousness and self-awareness. And that’s when the damage is done.

Consider a church planter whose vision, personality and story were compelling. I knew him as someone who seemed moderately self-aware. And yet, a year into his plant, his egocentricity began to show in technicolor. As the Seventh Day Adventist church they rented swelled to overflowing in time, so did his ego. You wouldn’t see it on Sunday mornings or during a visit over coffee. But it came out in cruel emotional abuse of his wife, condescension toward his mostly-volunteer staff, and inordinate spending of their limited budget. Confronted with these things, a healthy pastor would lean toward curiosity and humility. But he reacted in rage. For so many in the congregation who would be told the church plant was being shut down by the governing body above it, there was confusion. Some said that they’d never heard the love of Jesus preached more clearly, more powerfully.

Consider the young social justice warrior who appeared to be the only one speaking for a marginalized group. Seemingly brave in social media spaces and in his local contexts, he argued in ways that made you think, “If I’m not with him, I must be a terrible human being.” His pleas for justice appealed to God’s compassion and mercy, and he knew his Bible well. And yet, those closest to him, even trusted allies, began to wonder about his integrity. He’d lie, engage in manipulative self-pity, and make up stories of pain to raise money for the cause. When he was found out, he’d go ‘scorched earth’ on his previous community, leave town, and start again. Those he left behind, especially the marginalized group he befriended, wondered how he could so quickly abandon them.

Sometimes people mistake narcissism as an inordinate focus on the self. In fact, narcissism is seen in people who lack any self-awareness. The (false) self they inflict on the world is not a self they know or are aware of. In our early, pre-conventional developmental states, we simply act, without awareness, and often from a guttural urge or when blended with some tribal consciousness. In other words, we speak and act unaware. As the myth of Narcissus shows us, Narcissus was not connected with his (true) self, but an image beyond himself, ever-illusive, uncontrollable, and ultimately enslaving.

In 25 years of ministry (with two stints as a “Pastor of Spiritual Formation” in Reformed contexts), what I see so often in pastors is a profound lack of healthy self-awareness, what many throughout the centuries have called “knowledge of self.” Calvin’s doctrine of double-knowledge may not have been sophisticated psychologically, but it bears the honest self-reflection of his theological mentor, St. Augustine, whose Confessions represent to us an early example of pastoral wisdom. As my counseling professor in seminary might say, “Learn to tell your story well…and honestly.” Honest self-examination allowed 19th century London preacher Charles Spurgeon to confess to his congregants that he couldn’t preach as often as he’d like because of his depression. Honest self-examination led pastor Richard Baxter (author of The Reformed Pastor) to write a tome called The Mischiefs of Self-Ignorance and the Benefits of Self-Acquaintance. Or the 17th c. Presbyterian clergyman John Flavel to write 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.”

Enlightenment, as it turns out, isn’t about getting it. Perhaps, in the end it’s about not getting it. I see many pastors who can turn a phrase, cast a vision, or please a crowd. I’m looking for women and men who are humble, who follow in the way of a suffering servant. Today, we need disciples of Jesus, women and men who go on a journey of self-knowledge which, paradoxically, is a journey of self-denial, because who would not want to cast off their egocentric self to become truly human?

A quick story to end this piece…

When I was in Orlando, a student who most didn’t think had promise made his way from Orlando to Montana (I’m changing some details here, of course), to take a small, frustrating congregation. It was the only job he could get. He packed his family of five into their beat-up Ford Windstar and headed Northwest, hopeful to find some extra income to supplement the pittance he was offered. By day, he pastored. By night, he packaged eggs in a factory. He buried, he married, he baptized. And five years later, when several legends of the seminary were dealing with charges of adultery or pornography or theft, he was still pastoring. And ten years later, when his peers had left ministry to sell insurance, when the star of his class had to resign in disgrace, he was still preaching, and teaching, and baptizing, and packaging eggs.

He’s still there. Loving and leading, baptizing and burying, laughing and crying with his beautiful and broken people.

Eugene Peterson calls this a long obedience in the same direction. He stumbled in Greek class. He couldn’t keep up when we’d engage fast-paced, heated theological debates. And, he’s not at all concerned about social media, which kind of ticks me off…because to make my point, I’d like to link you to his church. But, that would be self-serving, of course – a monument to egocentricity, the ministerial idol of our age, the developmental roadblock which both confuses and terrorizes. I swim in these dangerous waters too. Lord, have mercy.

Noverim me. Noverim te. 

Those are the words of Augustine.

Let me know myself. Let me know you.

Let it be.

 

 

 

 

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.