I was reading Timothy Geoffrion’s new book, The Spirit-Led Leader, where at the end he talks about hearing a lecture on shame that changed his life. The teacher talked about shame being different from guilt. Guilt is the result of wrongdoing about what we have done. Shame is feeling bad, terrible, about who we are. Tim said that he was aware of his over-functioning as a leader, desperately wanting affirmation with education and working hard. He also realized that shame was also the driving power beneath addictions. I have recognized that much of my work has been an addiction. I have recognized shame in my life.
His revelation struck me because in the last meeting of my men’s group, we were studying shame because of the suicide of a relative of one of our members. This young man couldn’t face the chaos in his personal life, couldn’t admit to his loneliness with anyone. He was popular and successful, but addicted. We, the men in our group, have struggled with our shame together for twenty years. We have varied ministries, but continue to meet together for support.
The answer to shame, says Ernie Kurtz in his book, Shame and Guilt, is mutual caring. Caring makes us whole from within. It is turning ourselves over to the care of God. It is mutuality which is always the hallmark of love. The bridge between people is vulnerability. In Alcoholics Anonymous people confront their powerlessness, and admit to God, self, and another person the exact nature of their wrongs. But above all, they are in a weekly group where there is mutual vulnerability and support. Each fulfills the other. There is mutual dependency, always a hallmark of love.
Where do we learn this as leaders, congregations, and people who practice justice and mercy?
We have learned in seminary that the intellect is the most important of the human ways of perception. Not faith, prayer, or healing. I have continually been with seminary students who lost a vital relationship with God because of their seminary training which stressed them out with demands for studies and fieldwork. And where there was a course or two on spirituality, this was usually a course for the spiritually mature, which most people are unable to do or appreciate.
We repeat this with leaders in church, who are usually successful and stressed out, who run the church like a poorly designed business and may have a brief prayer at the beginning and end of the meeting. In worship we preach sermons addressed to the intellect, and lead only prayers which are nice talks to God. Not much passion, not much listening to God which is fostered.
Recently a columnist in the New York Times, said that this appeal to rationality has misguided economists and regulators about the stock market. The idea is that rational people would self-correct. But it hasn’t worked. Reason does not control us. All sorts of emotions like greed and fear do. We need structures to protect us.
There are many ways to help produce passion, compassion, love, transformation.
But ways I know about are:
1. Groups in which there is mutuality of discovering spirituality and the lack of it. Instead of just feeling guilty, people can learn to be open about their longing and about their pilgrimage. Staying in Touch is one introduction to this.
I facilitate groups for pastors that combine some individual spiritual formation with attention to ministry. This is not an academic adventure of studying a book or looking at the writing of sermons: it is sharing with mutual vulnerability where and how we are caught by shame of being alone and vulnerable, and seeing how our ministry might become transformed. This is not just a case study approach or a spiritual direction group, but a group characterized by openness to each other, to the Spirit, and to questions. There are three focal points: the Spirit within, among, and in ministry and justice.
2. I see pastors individually for what I used to call “spiritual direction.” The heart of this is discernment about where God is calling, moving, nudging the directee. But instead of the therapeutic model of a therapist who does not become involved personally, I am becoming more and more a friend to my directee, more sharing of my struggles. I am more like a sponsor in AA, more like a mentor or coach. I believe that this is mutual vulnerability. It seems to produce results.
3. I continue to teach and practice a daily exercise that helps us learn to recognize God’s activity and receive God’s grace. I have taken this practice from the Jesuits and alcoholics, but added one critical element: receiving onto only forgiveness and direction, but allowing grace and love in. This was the result of being in South Africa. There, the Africaans church were practicing a season of listening, and talked about “Rest, Receive, and Respond.” Rest is taking Sabbath time. Receive is being open to God’s gifts of love. Respond is just that: doing and being.
I have tried to incorporate their emphasis by encouraging thanksgiving for blessings received. But more than that, it is to recognize God in everything Not just spiritual highs and feelings of love. Not just belonging and communion, but because of these, through all of life.
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