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.

 

A Response to Joe Carter’s TGC blog “The FAQ’s: What Christians Should Know About The Enneagram.”

Over at The Gospel Coalition, Joe Carter has written a thoughtful and measured blog on The Enneagram. I’d encourage you to read it.

With Joe, I’ve seen the shortcomings of this tool in my 15+ years of using it. I’m seeing it become an evangelical fad, of sorts. I had a whole chapter on it in my 2014 book Toughest People to Love (reviewed here at TGC) , but the publisher nixed it with the rationale that evangelicals were not ready for it. Apparently they are, as I wrote about in a short piece on The Twelve called The Year of the Enneagram in which I share some reflections, positive and challenging.

I’m mindful that with the rise in popularity of the Enneagram comes needed critique. I’m quite saddened that my seminary alma mater, RTS Orlando, has banned the teaching and use of this tool. I introduced it in a vocational counseling course I taught in the mid-2000’s when I was regularly teaching there, and found it extraordinarily helpful in that context. Measured critique, like Joe’s demonstrates, is important. That said, I do have some thoughts.

Joe’s piece got me thinking about fear. My gut-level experience of reading his piece was that skeptics of the Enneagram would be immediately reinforced in their skepticism, and that concerns me. Not once in his piece, by my reading, does Joe describe the enormous significance of the Enneagram as a way of understanding sin and the deeper motivations which drive us to disordered desires. But while you won’t find the word sin in his piece, you’ll find some form of the word “occult” 7 times. That’s concerning to me.

In Joe’s first section “Where Did The Enneagram Come From?”, Joe’s treatment is all-too-brief. While he is correct that the origins story is murky, I’d remind us all that we can’t read Scripture without recognizing that major aspects of our primary stories, genres and forms, and even some of the Psalms we treasure were highly dependent on or lifted from their pagan cultures of origin. Whoever composed Psalm 29 wasn’t at all hesitant about re-appropriating a Baal song for Yahweh’s purposes. Our origins story and flood story, among others, were common pagan myths re-narrated for a new and better story. Moreover, who of us can read Augustine without the shadow of Plotinus looming, or Aquinas without Aristotle? A more generous origins story of the Enneagram would do a deep dive into the writings of Evagrius, Cassian and Gregory, showing how this modern-day tool is deeply reliant on a Christian theological tradition which viewed sin with a deadly seriousness and refused to settle for moralistic, sin-management techniques.

Katie Jo Ramsey has done an excellent job showing how this tool, although imperfect, is an important contemporary lens for understanding sin and sanctification. As I teach it through the lens of Augustine, Evagrius, Cassian and others, it reveals our sin as deadly passions, to use the ancient word. Theologian Wendy Farley writes,

The “passions” is an ancient name for some of the ways in which our own psyche helps to trap us in patterns of living that block us from our deepest joy. Passions have the connotation of bondage and uneasiness. They exemplify the way the soul can become twisted and turned in on itself (homo incurvatus en se) and alienated from the world around it. Anger and so on are passions when they move beyond passing emotions and take deep root in the soul, distorting mind, spirit, freedom, embodiment, agency, and, most of all, love. The passions muffle and distort holy desire. 

The Enneagram helps identify our passions as false self (or selves), a pseudo-identity which keeps us at a distance from our core identity (our true self) in Christ. While the Enneagram’s origins story doesn’t trace a clear line from this ancient wisdom to its contemporary form, Christians are no strangers to adopting forms and re-purposing them in service of Jesus. The Enneagram is clearly dependent on this orthodox spiritual tradition. Let’s not let fear keep us from using this one wisely.

A second reflection on Joe’s piece is the “why” of the Enneagram. The skeptic in me is sometimes hesitant to share the Enneagram with my students these days, knowing that it’s a wisdom tool, not a personality assessment. Sometimes my students are quick to adopt labels (“You’re a 3 because you’re such an Achiever” or “You’re an 8 because you’re angry”). This is unhelpful. Joe shares some helpful insights on the ‘why’ – the need for a classification tool, a MBTI replacement, a need for personality awareness. My addition would be a need for “story awareness.” As Katie Jo shows in her piece, a proper and wise use of the Enneagram opens us up to a larger conversation about how our family-of-origin, our relational and cultural contexts, and more contribute to ways of coping, often sinfully and maladaptively, in a broken world. In a time of identity politics, it probably feels like the last thing we need is another label-maker. But the Enneagram isn’t about telling you your personality or labeling you. It’s about raising questions related to your personality (your persona!), your ego, your style of relating, how you sin against yourself and neighbor. It raises the stakes in our conversations about how we hurt ourselves and each other. It gives us a lens through which we can see all the ways we’re living in exile from our true home in Christ.

Joe’s section “Why are some evangelicals opposed to the Enneagram?” was the least helpful to me. I’m not sure how he can say that evangelicals that oppose the Enneagram tend to be older and those who like it tend to be younger. Is this a research-based finding or an observation? It’s altogether inconsistent with my experience of it over 15+ years. In fact, those who are older are the great role models of how to use it wisely and well! And connecting people’s fear to the symbol of a Pentagram is, again, an observation Joe makes that is wholly inconsistent with what I’ve seen (I’ve maybe seen it once). Joe and I may run in different circles, but in my experience lay-evangelicals have been open and curious. I’ve found resistance among clergy and academics who are also resistant to psychology, who prefer Bible-only categories, and who haven’t spent significant time trying to understand it. This may simply be a difference in context.

Joe’s section on the accuracy or usefulness of the Enneagram offers helpful reflections, but I’d offer a few caveats. David Daniel’s work at Stanford is a rigorous, research-based work which seeks scientific validity and reliability for a tool that emerged outside of the sciences. Joe’s concerns about the Barnum effect are important, but if the tool is used wisely, effective coaches and spiritual directors will encourage people to take their process of self-understanding slowly, not trying to identify with a particular Enneagram type immediately, but engaging people who know them well and discerning their deeper motivations over time. What Joe doesn’t say is that the early practitioners did not want the Enneagram distributed widely for fear that it would be trivialized and over-simplified.

Over-simplication leads to quick typing. Wisdom leads to a slow process of self-discernment. Our deadly passions become so intertwined with our personalities that it is often hard to discern false self from true self. Again Farley writes:

At another level, passions become second nature and seem to he an essential part of our identity. The more they have entwined themselves with one’s self-identity, the more difficult they will be to dethrone. Passions blend with self-identity, though not in the sense that we conceive ourselves as terrified or enraged. These may be the last things we associate with ourselves. But we do incorporate the effects of these passions into our self-understanding.

Thus, the Enneagram, properly used, offers a slow process of self-examination meant to invite us to a larger conversation about our stories and our forms of self-sabotage, not a quick and convenient typing tool.

In the end, Joe leaves his readers to discern personally whether this tool can be a helpful pathway for self-knowledge. I appreciate that. I suspect Joe would agree that self-knowledge is of supreme important to the Christian. I remember slowly and reflectively paging through Richard Baxter’s massive tome On the Mischiefs of Self-Ignorance and the Benefits of Self-Acquaintance back when I was completing my MDiv and transitioning to a second degree in mental health counseling. I needed a strong anchor for this work. I am suspicious of quick and simplistic appropriations of psychology, and I hope that is evidenced in my books and other writings. Rightly used, I think the Enneagram is a gift to the church. In a time when we’re consumed by taking off and putting on our various identities like masks in a play, it invites us to name our illusions and rest in union with Christ.

If you are interested in a process that does this slow, wise work of self-knowledge, I commend to you a wise Christian and Enneagram coach Beth McCord. I lead Enneagram retreats and do coaching, as well, but Beth’s work is really impressive and thorough. My friend AJ Sherrill has written a book and leads retreats, and his connections to spiritual practices as well as his pastoral wisdom is significant.

Resist the gimmickification of the Enneagram (Yes, I made up that word). But don’t abandon it as a helpful way of knowing yourself.

Joe, if you read this, thanks for your measured piece. I hope this is received in the spirit of thoughtful and charitable dialogue among Christians.

Bill Hybels and the Future of the Church After #ChurchToo

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

That was all before #MeToo and #ChurchToo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s systemic narcissism.

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

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

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

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

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

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