A Woman Minister: “Why Do I Continue to Make These Bad Decisions?”

The letter below (which, as always, I’m using with the permission of its author) so perfectly illustrates so much: how healing is nothing if not a perpetual process; how deeply rooted within us are the demons that hound us; how our suffering compels our compassion toward others who are suffering; how instinctively we are drawn to our own destruction. How, in the end, we keep fighting against the darkness, keep insisting upon the enduring centrality of righteousness, keep believing in love.

This is how we lose.

And this, finally, is how we win.

John,

The thing about the girl who got stomped, got chlamydia, but has a boy friend broke my heart. In so many ways that story is similar to my own when I was her age. I grew up fundy-conservative and wasn’t allowed to date; what I wanted more than anything was to have a boyfriend, because what I really wanted was someone just to hold me. I went through dozens of men in my early twenties, giving them everything they wanted, trying to get what I wanted. And all I got was broken, battered, sick, empty, and a lifetime’s worth of regret and self-loathing. Bullshitville indeed. I didn’t know how to honor myself as MY-SELF, me, God-in-me-that’s-all-I-need. I was convinced that I needed to be in a relationship in order to be valuable, cuz that’s the lie society and my friends fed me. and I was starving, so I ate it. Dammit.

I started therapy again yesterday. This is my 9th counselor in 13 years. When I got “done” explaining all my history and my shit and my circumstances and what I’m “in for” this time around, she looked at me with surprise/compassion/hope, and said, “You have sooooooo many tools and skills and resources and support networks: How can you continue to make these bad decisions?” And I kinda smiled wryly, and said, “Well, that’s what I’m hoping you’ll help me figure out. That’s been the missing piece all these years: the why.”

My boyfriend kids with me that I’m “the dumbest smart person” he’s ever met. I have these advanced degrees and a fantastic job and a sharp mind … and I make dumb choices that jeopardize everything I’ve worked my ass off for. I self-hijack. I am my own terrorist organization, working to instill fear and destroy infrastructure that I not only built and depend on, but also thoroughly know how to infiltrate. When I’m successful, i am reeeeeeeeeeeeally freakin’ successful. In so many ways. And when i crash, the collateral damage is monumental.

My goal now is to solve the riddle of the why, to figure my shit out and how to protect myself against myself. Thankfully, therapy has brought me, over the years, to a place where I no longer let people piss on my back and tell me it’s raining. Most of the time. Doing a lot better than I used to. But I need to create some internal systems that will disable my proclivity for self-sabotage.

In my ideal world, I’d sit around all day reading and writing and thinking and having important conversations with people and journaling and healing and looking at the sky and the flowers and the birds … and get paid for all that. I feel like I don’t get enough time in my own head. I stopped meditating because each time I sit down to do it, I lose a few hours and it exhausts me and it’s SO GOOD and I love it and wish i could disappear into Holy Spirit like that all the time. But i’m a minister and people need feeding. I’m also a single mom and my son needs my undivided attention. I’m a doctoral student, and have three reams of articles and chapters to read. That’s why I binge-drink every two weeks: to get free of everything. I sit at a dark table and think and it’s great, or I make ten new best friends and we shoot the shit (and liquor) for a few hours. I pay for it the next day in myriad ways, and it could cost me my job and my career and my son and my friendships … .

Bullshitville, here I come. Hence therapy. Again. Still. Probably forever.

And that’s okay.

What I have learned from my own life is how to love without limits. I know how much love I need and I want to give in that same prodigal measure. I love and love and love. I also forgive over and over, as I have been forgiven. I know how to listen and to encourage and to comfort and to be-with, because people have done those things for me. And I’m glad. The hurt in my life is not justified by the blessings that have come out of it, but my suffering is constantly redeemed in what I am able to offer to others. I keep learning.

Do you ever feel like you’re sitting in a confessional, reading all the stuff people pour out of their hearts to you?

Thanks.

P.S. I read your Seven Reasons Women Stay in Abusive Relationships, and several of my friends sent me the link as well, cuz they knew I’d appreciate it/resonate with it. It’s exceptional and every woman in the world should read it. Heck, every MAN should read it as well!!!!

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About John Shore

John Shore (who, fwiw, is straight) is the author of UNFAIR: Christians and the LGBT Question, and three other great books. He is founder of Unfundamentalist Christians (on Facebook here), and executive editor of the Unfundamentalist Christians group blog.  (In total John's two blogs receive some 250,000 views per month.) John is also co-founder of The NALT Christians Project, which was written about by TIME,  The Washington Post, and others. His website is JohnShore.com. John is a pastor ordained by The Progressive Christian Alliance. You're invited to like John's Facebook page. And don't forget to sign up for his mucho awesome monthly newsletter.

  • Don Rappe

    Ho Ho! That wasn’t a very private confessional, was it? But, i’m sure John got your permission. I hope you’ll find some way to let God protect you against yourself. There are limits to self understanding. Even though infrequently, you seem to be using alcohol alcoholically. Some of us alcoholics are very very smart. I wish you well.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnshore/ John Shore

      Yes, Don, as you suggest: I would never publicly present any letter anyone writes me without first getting their permission to do so. I’m glad you reminded me to make that explicit, which I’ve now done via an alteration to the intro.

  • Mindy

    I got chills reading this. I am her, she is me. Minus the alcohol and pastorship, plus mindless computer puttering, minus one son, plus two daughters, minus a boyfriend, plus a tight circle of besties.

    Wow.

  • http://sparrowmilk.blogspot.com/ Shadsie

    “You’re very smart, but you make stupid decisions.” – That’s what my job coach tells me all the time, though I sometimes wonder if the “you’re a smart person” part is a lie from her.

    • Don Rappe

      Nah, you’re smart. There’s probably some other reason why your decisions surprise her.

      • http://sparrowmilk.blogspot.com/ Shadsie

        Actually, there is an issue of my health that she keeps on me about. I keep forgetting to make arrangements to get something checked out and am generally stubborn, then I suffer enough to miss work – that kind of thing.

  • JohnShoreFan

    I’m the girl who wrote this letter. Thank you for reading, LIKE-ing, commenting, and encouraging. PLEASE share John’s “7 Reasons…” with every woman you know. It can change lives, and save lives. @Don: I’m trying to figure out my relationship to alcohol. At this point, my therapist is leaning away from having me eliminate it entirely. @Mindy: Nice to meet you, soul-sister/kindred spirit. @Shadsie: Easter is a great season to adopt an attitude of “Believe the good news, and do not doubt.”

    • DR

      Dear writer,

      There is a book called “Blessed Be the Addicts”. It talks about the gifts that people in ministry often have who are also, struggling with addictions or dependencies. It’s really wonderful. So much of the time we struggle to understand our addictions with the hope of ending them (which is good). But this book helped me understand some of what made the addict in my life (my dad) really wonderful. There are some really powerful spiritual gifts that come along with recovery. xoxo

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnshore/ John Shore

    Here’s one of the weirdest things that happens on my blog: People write me letters; they totally give me permission to use them as blog posts; I do that; my readers leave them deep and heartfelt comments (the general quality of which always bowls me over)—and then the author of the original letter never responds to any of the comments left for him or her—even when (as I did yesterday) I write to them and suggest they stop by the blog and let people know they’re at least reading what they’re taking the trouble to write. Weird, right? But that totally happens, quite often.

    I mention this because I know the author of this letter is rather eagerly awaiting input. No worries or anything; I told her not to expect much, as I suspect at some point—which I’m thinking would be right around now—you guys would be suffering from Awesome Comment Leaving burnout. I’m feeling that for you guys. I just wanted to let you know that the woman who wrote this particular letter is, as I say, ready to go in the interaction department. Love to you all. You bless me every day.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnshore/ John Shore

      Oh, right. She just responded below. So. There you have it.

  • DomainDiva

    This ‘girl’ is a minister caring for a church? I certainly hope she gets things figured out and takes care of herself.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnshore/ John Shore

      People of the cloth are just as subject to personal problems as anyone in their congregation. I’d much rather have as a leader in my church a clergyperson who is honestly and forthrightly dealing with their issues than one who is insisting that, unlike everyone else in the world, they don’t have any. I think we’ve all seen where that kind of denial leads.

      • DomainDiva

        You totally missed the point of my answer. I attended a church where the pastor insisted on making every crazy sordid detail of their crazy dysfunctional childhood a matter of record and then acting it out as a pastor. So yeah I asked. Sorry. If that’s being hypocritical or uncaring then I would not have said “I HOPE SHE GETS THINGS FIGURED OUT AND TAKES CARE OF HERSELF.”

        • DR

          He didn’t miss your point. You implied – in your first sentence – that she isn’t capable of caring for her church in a ministerial capacity. I’m sure you meant the latter part of your comment as well, but it does not diminish what you were implying in your first sentence. Own your words (and their impact).

          • DomainDiva

            I was absolutely questioning that. If you have ever been in a really dysfunctional church and had to deal with the aftermath and ruined lives and church splitting situation, you may have asked that question as well.

          • DR

            I understand you have your story. What you need to understand is that you offered it inferring that it was someone else’s and you also inserted a lot of detail about your pastor sharing that you really have no idea is even happening. You made your story hers which is more about you not being over it vs. her (or any of us that are pointing this out to you).

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnshore/ John Shore

          Diva, how in the world would you have expected everyone to just KNOW all this back story you’re now supplying? You can’t blame people for missing a point you never presented. It’s surprising that you would take offense to anyone thinking your initial comment was meant as a disparagement toward the letter writer. No one would read it any differently.

        • JohnShoreFan

          Diva,

          Thanks for the back-story. I have no intention of laying out and/or acting out every sordid detail of my dysfunctional childhood anywhere, least of all in my parish. By vulnerability I do not mean spilling my guts; rather, gently and appropriately demonstrating that I am not any “better” or somehow immune to the human plight of brokenness than anyone with whom I minister/serve. Gut-spilling belongs behind the closed doors of the therapist’s office. My church has been through drama and trauma enough, which is why I am particularly careful to share my own failings. We are a body together. Leaders need to be capable of strength AND weakness in appropriate measure and at the appropriate times. I am deeply sorry for all the hurt you have experienced. I hope you, too, may discover redemption amidst the sorrow.

    • JohnShoreFan

      I am a 32-year old “girl,” and yes, even though I am not ordained (thank GOD!), I am a professional minister holding degrees in theology from the likes of the University of Notre Dame. One of the biggest turn-offs to Christianity for believers and non-believers alike, I attest, is the notion of hypocrisy. I hear all the time that folks stay away from church because it’s full of hypocrites. Frankly, they’re bang-on and THAT is the reason I *do* go to church and choose a career in church leadership. Of course it’s full of hypocrites, because it’s full of human beings who are flawed and terrified of being seen as such. Which is why I choose to be vulnerable about my short-comings, and they are many. It’s HARD and scary to be vulnerable, especially when people respect and admire you and expect certain standards of your life. So I’m honest about where I struggle in hopes that, by my example, others will come to know the freedom of true community and risk making themselves vulnerable also so that AS THE BODY OF CHRIST we can minister to one another. The disciples sure didn’t hide their failings from one another, and were not hidden from those of us centuries later who continue to read their stories and learn from their witness. They were together, though, all the time. They were known to each other, and built each other up over time to become some of the greatest, most inspiring people ever in recorded history. Why not follow their lead? Not for glory’s sake, but so that others might know the “life abundant” which Jesus came in order to reveal? Fundamentally, God’s desire for humankind and all of creation is wholeness, redemption, and perfection. We can’t get there by faking it, or alone. We need each other for correction, reproof, teaching, admonition, compassion, forgiveness, instruction, healing, and love. If I as a church leader take off my mask, perhaps you might be willing to take off yours with me? And as we two get stronger together, along the same path though perhaps at different places, perhaps others might join us? I’m convinced that it is not big flashy expensive church productions that draw people to Christ, en masse or otherwise, but rather genuine, honest, vulnerable relationships built one at a time. That’s the foundation of my ministry. Not particularly profound or exotic, but real. Holy. Sustainable. Blessed. And for that I remain grateful.

      • DR

        Love this. Thank you.

      • DomainDiva

        What I want for you to do today:

        Look in the mirror and repeat this line:

        I AM WORTH IT.

        When you figure it out you will understand it. I figured it out at 45 when my ex husband told me he wanted to bring home his Taiwanese wife and baby to Texas for me to take care of. (seriously…true).

        • Don Rappe

          Back story, indeed!

    • http://rawfaithrealworld.wordpress.com/ Linda B.

      I spent years working in various churches and the Pastor’s I worked for who kept everything hidden created an environment where people didn’t feel safe being real with people there. Also most of those guys ended up having some completely life dominating things in their closets that cost them their jobs, marriages etc. I personally would rather have leaders who are honest about their own humanity so that we have a chance to encourage each other along the way. I LOVED her letter. I can tell she is a kindred spirit. Thank you so much for posting the letter.

  • Danny

    “What I have learned from my own life is how to love without limits. I know how much love I need and I want to give in that same prodigal measure. I love and love and love. I also forgive over and over, as I have been forgiven. I know how to listen and to encourage and to comfort and to be-with, because people have done those things for me. And I’m glad. The hurt in my life is not justified by the blessings that have come out of it, but my suffering is constantly redeemed in what I am able to offer to others. I keep learning.”

    Those are some of the most encouraging words that I have heard in a long time…similar to why the words of Brennan Manning resonate so much in my heart. My gender may be different and some of the specifics are different, but, I, too have been in church leadership and have people look to me for “wisdom”. And yet how many of them know about the struggle I have with alcohol…the bottles that I keep hidden in my garage at time. It is almost like alcohol is my secret friend and lover…always there with the comfort and anesthesia I need…and yet the guilt that pounds me…sometimes is unbearable.

    Thank you for the courage to share so openly…I am still too ashamed and timid…but your words have helped me.

    • Don Rappe

      It’s the sick, not the well, who have need of the doctor.

  • Serita

    “The hurt in my life is not justified by the blessings that have come out of it, but my suffering is constantly redeemed in what I am able to offer to others.” The brilliance of this awes me.

    • DR

      Amen.

      • Don Whitt

        Ditto.

  • http://rinmmkay.blogspot.com Mariah

    Sometimes, you read something that someone else has written, and you find that their words could have come straight out of your own heart. This is one of those times for me.

    “What I have learned from my own life is how to love without limits. I know how much love I need and I want to give in that same prodigal measure. I love and love and love. I also forgive over and over, as I have been forgiven. I know how to listen and to encourage and to comfort and to be-with, because people have done those things for me. And I’m glad. The hurt in my life is not justified by the blessings that have come out of it, but my suffering is constantly redeemed in what I am able to offer to others. I keep learning.”

    Wow. Thanks so much for this.

  • http://allmyeggsinoneblog.wordpress.com/ Monica

    This is what I have to say in response to the post, so bear with me :D:

    My entire life has, or had been dedicated to finding love and acceptance.

    The day I was born, my grandmother stated that she “did not want to see the little bastard”, Aka me. My father stated that I was not his child and clearly my mother was lying. And of course, he would say that as he and my mother were first cousins. So not only was I a bastard, but an unwanted freak.

    So, before I could even speak, three people loathed my existence.

    By age six I figured that I was different, but I didn’t know why the adults called me names. I didn’t know why my aunt allowed a man to have his way with me. So, by age eleven I was determined to be “pretty”, which would include being a lighter shade of brown;skinny; and shaped like a “normal black woman”. Age 11 is also the first time I attempted suicide.

    I failed at something that seemed so easy, I thought, so maybe they are right. Maybe I am what my family calls me. There was something in me that disagreed, but I never, ever listened to her. I thought I did, by removing myself completely from black urban culture, throwing myself into my studies, and acting as normal as possible.

    But it didn’t quell the thoughts that I should do the world a huge favor and just die. I alternated between that and trying to fervently justify my existence by doing missions, being a youth leader, preparing to be a pastor/minister, being in choir and the youth drama team. I would do whatever needed to be done, to feel loved and accepted.

    To me, love was this carrot dangled by people and god himself that I could never, ever catch. It didn’t stop me from trying. I became such the people pleaser that I didn’t notice I was slowly headed towards a nervous breakdown. I wanted love and community that much.

    I met guys, but because I was just happy they talked to me, I allowed all types of abuse. One slapped me in public, another dislocated my wrist. During this time, I was seeking therapy, but would get yanked out by my mom if she didn’t like them.

    I blamed myself for everything. Sometime between the first and second bf, I started self harming again. I just wanted to punish myself for being me, for taking up space.

    I attempted suicide again, and would have succeeded if I picked a room with a higher ceiling. You can guess what happened.

    A year later I was hospitalized again.

    By the time I was 27, I came to the conclusion that whatever good I do could never fully justify my being alive. No one, I felt, would miss me. I didn’t think that all that stuff I thought about myself just may not be true.

    And then I met Dan. I tried my hardest to run him off, to sabotage any romantic undertaking he tried. He wouldn’t leave. Even when I felt he should, for his own good.

    But, he stayed. And served as a bit of a mirror for me. I didn’t really have much insight of what I was doing to myself, because I didn’t want to see. I wanted to keep my internal belief that I was a non person because it made things easier. Cause honestly, life just hurt too much.

    This year, I reasoned that I need to meet this girl that dan is crazy about. I know folks will pooh pooh that it took someone to actually be there for me to realize that. But it happened.

    I hang out with myself now, trying to get to know her. To be honest, I cant stand her. She’s emotionally needy, afraid of abandonment, and cries easily. But she’s also creative, kind, funny, and smart. It will take me a while to really overcome these issues, but I’m determined to.

    • JohnShoreFan

      Monica,

      YOU ARE LOVED. Deeply, in unfathomable ways. Loved for who you are, regardless of what you do or have done. I ache and ache for you. I want to hold you in my arms and cry it out together. Thank God for Dan. May he continue to be a mirror, a light that draws you to your true self, and never a millstone around your neck. You are in my heart and my prayers tonight. Thank you so much for all the courage and strength it took to share your story here. Love and blessings and holiness and peace surround you. XO

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnshore/ John Shore

        What JohnShoreFan said.

  • Brighid Rose

    I read the original letter from the girl…and it could have been me writing. I read the response from the minister…and it could have been me writing. The self-destructiveness, the bad choices, letting others lead me all around the block taking me further and further from what is important to me, allowing people to “piss down my back and tell me it’s raining.” I think maybe this last life implosion has taught me some profoundly valuable lessons that I’m sorting out with the help of a dear friend. But yes, it is all about the “why” isn’t it? It always has been for me. I could write pages on my exploration of the “why” but I’ll spare you all that. I guess I’m posting this because, from my perspective, just knowing/feeling I’m not alone in the questions helps so much. I’m hoping maybe by putting this out there, I’ll be one more voice in the chorus of “i know exactly what you mean.”

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnshore/ John Shore

      Beautiful. Thank you.

  • Linda

    What a brilliant reminder of how imperfect and human we are all. Thank you all for opening your hearts here and sharing your stories. Rev. JohnShoreFan- I just celebrated my 3 year sobriety anniversary on Saturday. My recovery is the greatest gift God has given me because I was given the ability to accept myself. All the bad decisions, mistakes, flaws, ongoing issues.. AND all the lovely things I am. I will hold you in my prayers as you continue on your path of self acceptance and your own personal recovery, whatever that might be. Peace.

  • Matthew Tweedell

    This wonderful woman (a brilliant and talented minister, to be sure, judging from her excellent comments here) who wrote in and also commenters who were moved to express the ways in which they can relate to her appear to be looking for answers to questions, perhaps not realizing that some of them might be the wrong questions—perhaps they have no answers, or perhaps just not any we might ever understand. Of course, it’s the brilliance of the human being that he/she cares to understand the mysteries of his/her world. Yet such is also the temptation of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Better it is to recognize the reasonable limits of our probing the mysteries and leave the rest to the hands of God (by which I mean to anthropomorphize the mysterious instruments properly of the Mystery Itself by which It interactions with the world we know).

    However, there’s no reason not to understand why we choose the things we do: ultimately, and somewhat simply, the answer is that we choose to—regardless what factors might have helped us reach that decision. We can try to manipulate the factors that influence our decisions, if we want them to be otherwise in the future, but we also can change the way we view such factors in our decision-making habits, and we might also simply predetermine what decision we want to make ahead of time and never let ourselves lose sight of that or second-guess it.

    As for understanding the past, well, it’s in the past and, receding with each passing moment, falls ever more distantly into that bottomless pit. We need not understand what we’ve done; only what we are going to do. While understanding the past might indeed be useful for that, so is understanding one another. Speaking to the original letter writer, it seems God has given you a gift for being understanding of others; so perhaps as long as there’s still someone else out there whom you know nothing about, you need not know everything about yourself. That would seem a reasonable conclusion from the mandate to love your neighbor as yourself. Of course, we shouldn’t let anything master us; however, to keep out evicted demons, the house, once set in order, needs to be continuously occupied by a host of better angels, and they dwell not on the past but in the world to come.

    • JohnShoreFan

      Thank you, Matthew, for the insight you have shared here. I am of course deeply appreciative of the mystery of the human being qua itself and also in my own particular case, especially given that we humans are made in the image of Mystery that is at its heart ultimately unknowable, at least this side of the eschaton. (I dare to hope that it largely remains thus on the other side, as well. See John Shore’s article “Thank God you don’t know God.” [Can we get a hyperlink here?!?] Finding “the” answer to my “why” is not a goal tantamount to all else for me; rather, I find that self-reflection and critique do what you suggest is most helpful in the long run, that is, prepare and aim toward a better/healthier future. Parker Palmer writes about vocation as the process of discovery of the true or authentic self. It lies within us for our own personal revelation, and is largely unreliant on external pressures such as what our parents or teachers expect/desire of/from us. What I am called to do is become ever more authentic and true to what lies inside of me, thus actively participating in my own fulfillment and deep joy over the course of my lifetime. And I can’t do that without some dedicated, intentional time spent navel-gazing, as it were. If I examine the trajectory of my life, the thigns for which I have either a natural aptitude or a proclivity to spend efforts developing, I can probably successfully determine things like career path, suitable partner to share my life, enriching hobbies, etc. I have a tendency to spend more time revisiting the past than perhaps is healthy or beneficial, so I am actively working to focus more on the NOW and what decisions will enable me to make today the best it can be. I hope to reach a point at which I can begin to project my decisions into more long-term ramifications so I’m not stuck in the cycle of damage control.

      Again, thank you so much to all of you who continue to read this and comment and share your hearts with me and John and other readers. Keep your thoughts coming and I shall respond. May you find wholeness and holiness this Friday in Easter week and each day.


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