The Wounded Pastor

The Wounded Pastor December 2, 2022

Photo by Rene Asmussen

Even though I am hard on pastors, I still see them as casualties of organized religion. I know some of them seem like monsters, but it may be that most of that is either trauma inflicted by the church or preexisting conditions they didn’t have time to address while doing ministry. I’m not making excuses for them because, sometimes, this has devastating consequences.

It’s fairly predictable that when I raise a critique of the Western church or suggest its demise, I hear first and loudest from pastors and seminary professors. At first I thought this was because they were protecting their “flocks” and their livelihood. But, I also now realize they are also reacting out of woundedness.

In our book, Out Into the Desert, we accidentally tripped over some reasons that this might be true. Why would pastors be wounded and remain wounded in an organization that promises to help and heal?

1. Religion creates a codependency

Anything that alters our mood can become addictive. Since Western religion is designed, rehearsed and intended to change the way we feel, and when that feeling goes away on Monday, we start longing to come back and experience it again. The Pastor also gets something out of this exchange. The feedback and praise from the congregation can become intoxicating.

People used to tell me after the sermon, ” Thanks for the fix.” Their compliments caused me to work harder to make the sermon that much more inspiring and entertaining. I fell in love with the “amens” and the praise that followed.

In the recent past, groups like Hillsong taught us almost a scientific method to manipulate each other into a different states. It’s a religious hypnosis that produces a euphoria all of us can relate to. We always said music was powerful, but we never saw it as a problem.

I’m not against concerts and I’m not against candy, but when it’s a regular part of our diet, it causes issues.

2. Finding a voice

In the book, I let Laura go first on the chapter about finding your voice because I assumed she was the main one that needed to discuss this issue. After all, we were in a southern Baptist Church which, although it used to host Beth Moore, severely limited what it allowed women to do.

I assumed that as a pastor I had a voice and probably didn’t even need to say anything in this chapter. But when I considered it deeply, I realized that even though I got to speak every week and occasionally write columns in the newspaper and newsletter, I still didn’t really have a voice.

When a pastor is assigned to a congregation, and sometimes also to a denomination, there are limits to what you can say. For example, if I were to even discuss the possibility that hell is not real and that we should be inclusive of queer people, there would have been an immediate meeting within the next few days. Other denominations would gatekeep different issues like infant baptism, etc.

I was free to speak, but only within certain guidelines. I often pretended like I was challenging and had freedom, but a part of me always knew that there were limits to what I could say. I now know that this was damaging to me because it hindered me from finding my true self and expressing my true voice.

3. No time for the pain

We regularly watch a show called “Below Deck.” It’s a reality show based on a yacht crew that experiences all kinds of drama trying to provide five star service to wealthy customers.

The deck crew and stewards / stewardesses regularly counsel their fellow workers when confronted with a challenge to just “get past it,” or “just don’t think about it.”. It’s the type of bypassing that we experienced in the church because there was never enough time to address the trauma that was either produced by the church or ignored because we were busy doing the “Lord’s work.”

This problem is amplified for leaders. The leader most often finds themselves at least as busy as the “sheep.” The added component is something pastors say all too often: “Who can I tell?” Pastors and spiritual leaders fail to get the help they need because they’re too busy helping others and they can’t find the right person to open up to.

Considering some of these issues helped me gain perspective. I realized there was a lot of unaddressed trauma in me. I couldn’t see it while I was a pastor. I knew it wasn’t perfectly whole, but I didn’t have time to consider it properly.

In my book titled Being, I talked about what I would consider my dark night when all of the things that I had stuffed down seemed to come to the surface all at once. We had been out of ministry for a couple of years and I was finally able to see it. Several wise people helped me began a process of healing.

I am pretty direct and sometimes sort of hard on pastors. I do this intentionally because I know they are well armored and have taken great strides to convince themselves that they’re doing things the right way. They have so much invested in the system they are in that it is hard to keep things in perspective.

The water we swim in as pastors doesn’t just provide comfort, it also conditions us to believe that we are right and anyone that challenges us is an enemy. Pastors, I hope you can hear my heart and my challenge to take a step back and do the honest evaluation.

What if the way we are doing things has systemic problems that can’t be overcome by just trying harder? What if I have real trauma that can’t be addressed by just hoping it will get better? What if I am actually traumatizing others because I don’t fully understand how I operate from a place of pain? What if most of the things that we are doing that seem necessary are actually keeping us from the things that really matter?

We believe that our book, Out Into the Desert, will be helpful to do the assessment of organized religion in the 21st century. Even if we don’t agree totally, it is still helpful to ask the questions and take the time to consider fully the ramifications of our current practices.

We hope you will join the conversation.

We hope you begin now the process of healing.

Be where you are,
Be who you are,
Be at peace!

Karl Forehand

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