The un-integrated pastor—Confronting the image of the flawless pastor
Rev. Megan Snell
January 12, 2021
As I sit in my ministry office and look at my bookshelves, I can tell a lot about myself- that I’ve always loved to neatly organize books together with others that speak into a space of shared conversation as they sit next to each other, spines asking me to be in conversation with the material of the book next to them. I’ve always loved to organize and categorize my books. As a child I made up my own Dewey Decimal system for categorizing my books, despite being the only patron at that library. Nowadays I’m not the only patron and despite an obsessive tendency to want my shelves to be complete with all their parts, I enthusiastically agreed to anyone who asks to borrow a title.
Not long ago a woman came in and borrowed a text on finding hope and meaning in the shadowy parts of life. A book from a Holocaust survivor reflecting on the best and worst of humanity. A first-person experience, a lived experience. There is power in reading words from people who have lived with and through and sometimes despite something. That’s how I feel about texts concerning mental illness. It’s one thing to write about depression from a sterile distance. It’s a whole other thing to write about depression having been to those valleys of the shadows of death, learned their contours and climbed out of that valley. Those stories from lived experience are always what I hope forms the bedrock of my own learning and practice.
A partner I once had, though always supportive of my pursuits in ministry, asked if I was “too close” to write about what it means to live with the complexities of a mental health condition in the context of Christian community. This person was well-meaning, and the comment came from a place of concern and love. However, I am not too close. I am the right amount of close—scarred and exhausted, but triumphant or at least still going. Realistic and radically accepting, but ready to put my story out into the service of others. I am uninterested in living into the false image of the flawless pastor. I’d always rather be the authentic pastor, the one who has been to the valley and sits with another individual who is traversing those shadowy passages themselves. I write and preach and counsel from a place of restoration, resurrection, and rebirth. That is a vulnerable and liminal space from which to live out my vocation and it is the only space I can occupy with authenticity. I have to live from a place of acknowledging my own lived experience. And I hope that my colleagues in ministry will join me. Join me in occupying the pulpit as yourself, with all of your complexities and incongruencies and humanity. Occupy the pulpit as a human, not as an actor standing in for Christ. Occupy the pulpit as a human and see how in doing so the Spirit can work to recreate and resurrect you and the church.
I am uninterested in living into the false image of the flawless pastor. I’d always rather be the authentic pastor, the one who has been to the valley and sits with another individual who is traversing those shadowy passages themselves.
I look at my bookshelf as I spin in my office chair and see books in which people talk about mental health conditions from a distance, even with compassionate tones. And yet, when I am ready to take on a new way of doing something in any part of my life, I want to hear from the people who have done that work fully. I want to know what it’s like to climb a mountain from the one who clips in and ascends. I want to know what it’s like to be in the arena with the ones who choose to be there wholeheartedly, as Saint (honorary title given by myself) Dr. Brené Brown, shame researcher, says, drawing upon Teddy Roosevelt’s quote, as follows:
“It’s not the critic who counts; it’s not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done it different. The credit belongs to the person who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred with dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes up short again and again and again and who, in the end while he may know the triumph of high achievement, at least fails while daring greatly.”[i]
For clergy to be more open about our own mental health in the pulpit is a risk in a vocation that often mistakes pastors for Gods or 1950s images of flawless, sinless beings. To tell our congregations that we too get depressed and anxious, angry and hopeless is to admit that we are with them in the condition of being human and to rely on God that much more to be God. Dr. Brown says this, to encourage our timid and shame-filled selves to step into our gifts and influence with boldness and vulnerability:
“Today I’ll choose courage over comfort…Vulnerability is not about winning. It’s not about losing. It’s about having the courage to show up when you can’t control the outcome.”[ii]
Let’s dive into the arena of authenticity and vulnerability together. Let’s recognize that the pulpit is a transcendent and powerful place to be and that in calling on God’s Spirit it can be the site of incredible truth-telling. My encouragement to colleagues considering how to be wholly themselves in the pulpit, in transformative (and appropriate) ways is to read the stories of people who risk putting their stories out there in an effort to help others rather than from a place of unfinished external processing or from a place of unmet ego needs. Think about how you draw on your own experiences in blog posts, articles, sermons, and teaching. Consider discerning how your own lived experience can be effective and hope-giving in your work. How might you show the cracks in your kintsugi-pottery-self, to create a safe space for others to reveal their cracked, broken, and reconstructed parts?
Consider how when you or others occupy the pulpit you might spend less time talking about, rather than talking as, a person with a mental health condition. You don’t (necessarily) need to list out your diagnoses and tell your congregation all about your latest therapy appointment. But, sometimes to do so is actually wholly appropriate, destigmatizing and life giving. When it comes to speaking about mental illness in church, talk about your own experiences, and reach out to others to give them the microphone and the pulpit. Encourage those with lived experience to lead in a movement for further integration and affirmation. Listen and ask how you can best support those who carry the torch of being the person with mental health conditions in your church. And, as a Church, we need to recognize how many of our own religious leaders live complex mental lives—full of health and illness at varying times. Every week I hear from a colleague across the span of Protestant churches, across the entire United States, who is worried about losing their ministry position due to a mental health condition. Without destigmatizing mental illness in people in the pulpit, I doubt we can ever be fully affirming of people in the congregation. Additionally, we owe it to our clergy, who in answering the call to ministry say “yes” to affirming and caring for the whole selves of those in their congregation and community. The least that we could do as a church is to say “yes” to affirming and caring for our clergy too.
Rev. Megan Snell is a clinical spiritual advisor at an inpatient drug and alcohol recovery center and previously pastored several United Church of Christ churches in the Boston metro area. She lives with chronic mental health conditions and writes, teaches, and preaches regularly on the topics of mental health, mental illness, and faith. She serves on the executive committee of the board of directors, UCC Mental Health Network.