I wrote last week about feeling particularly depleted after giving a very personal sermon about my father. I thought I would share the link here so we can talk about how much intention, preparation and discipline it requires to mine our own painful memories and experiences for the work of ministry.
In this sermon, I tell a story about my father breaking down crying one night the year before he died because he prophesied that he would die, and he was grieving the loss of seeing me grow up to become “an amazing woman.”
“You’re going to be an amazing woman and I’m not going to be there to see it,” he said.
It was the worst thing anyone has ever said to me, or could say to me. It shattered me. So, how does the fifty year old minister retrieve that memory, mine it for pastoral wisdom, and share it with a congregation thirty-four years later?
First of all, I think, she does wait thirty-four years so she can tell the story without choking up or going into trauma mode.
Second, she tells the story only because she feels it has something deeply spiritually valuable for the congregation, and not for therapeutic reasons.
Third, she writes out the story and tells it aloud several times the week before giving the sermon to assess whether or not she is able to preach it without revealing so much vulnerability to the congregation that they will feel compelled to worry about her emotional well-being.
Work it out in therapy or with a spiritual director before you bring it to your congregation, or to your ministerial Facebook page, or to your church group e-mail! Please. It is not fair to bleed all over people.
It’s one thing to shed a tear or two, because emotion is real and physical and it surprises us. That’s okay! What is not okay is to manipulate our communities by going before them in obvious distress in a way that makes them feel that they are obligated to comfort or take care of us. That’s manipulative. When I am in a congregation when this happens I just think “Oh no, honey, get a therapist. Get one quick. We are not here for this.”
Henry Nouwen changed ministry forever when he wrote The Wounded Healer. However, our woundedness is not best or wisely applied to our work when it has not been thoroughly processed and is not adequately supported by our subsequent understanding and emotional integration.
I will never “get over” that conversation with my father. It pains me still. It broke my heart.
But my pain, relatable as it may be, was not the pastorally useful part of the conversation. I felt, therefore, that it was my spiritual responsibility to hold this story in my heart until such time as I could, if I so decided, sift out its insights and lessons for consideration by my community.
I hope I did that.
Now: visuals! The fun stuff! My hair makes me look like a pinhead and my stole is askew in the back, but you can see how I have left my robe unzipped a bit at the top because I LOATHE the unflattering neckline on me. I don’t have enough neck and I have too much chin to carry it off. Working on it! I may just get the robe neckline altered.
Kisses of peace to you as you integrate your most painful stories and mine them for shared pastoral wisdom.