It’s that voice in the back of our mind. It’s the whisper in our ear and the familiar pang in our stomach. Shame is the aching in our bones and the constant, persistent reminder of our brokenness and past and present wounds. Shame is relentless and familiar. Like a poorly healed bone break that now reminds us it’s about to rain.
Before we move further, though, let’s define some terms.
Shame and guilt, though often conflated, are not the same thing. In a 2012 TED Talk, Dr. Brené Brown, a well-known researcher studying shame and vulnerability, describes the difference between shame and guilt this way: “While guilt tells us we did something bad, shame tells us we are bad.”
Shame tells us we are worthless. Shame tells us God is angry or disappointed in us. Shame tells us a better pastor would grow the church. A better professor would be able to communicate more clearly. A better contractor could build better buildings. A better teacher would be able to better handle that “problem child.” Shame tells us a better parent would be able to raise better-behaved kids or get their kids to eat vegetables. A better adult would keep their house cleaner or wouldn’t have eaten that entire tub of ice cream.
Shame tells us a real Christian enjoys praying. Shame tells us a real Christian doesn’t sin. Shame tells us to hide—because if anyone finds out who we truly are, they’d reject us outright. So, in our fear, we isolate ourselves from others. We fight desperately against being known. “Fake it ’til you make it” becomes the rallying cry of the ashamed.
Shame knows no boundaries. Shame impacts us all.
Maybe you were molested or abused as a child. Maybe you experience systemic racism and, no matter how often you cry for help, you are told you’re the root of the problem. Maybe you are addicted to heroin, pot, sex, food, porn, booze, nicotine, or affirmation. Maybe you had sex and weren’t married. Maybe you had sex too often or with too many partners. Maybe you contracted a disease or found yourself suddenly facing parenthood from these moments of sought intimacy.
Maybe you feel like you are a terrible parent—losing your cool too often or not feeding your kids the gluten-free and free-range food your friends are. Maybe you are ashamed of your weight. Maybe you’re ashamed of your income. Maybe you’re ashamed of your home. Maybe your child is in prison. Maybe you are in prison. Maybe you’ve been to prison. Maybe your spouse was unfaithful. Maybe you’ve been unfaithful.
Shame knows no boundaries. Shame impacts us all. We have all heard that familiar voice. Even clergy.
Pastors feel shame on a daily basis. For many of us, even in the midst of genuine faithfulness, our churches are shrinking. Our giving is dropping. Our sermons aren’t hitting as close to home, and no matter how many programs we start, revivals we host, or youth pastors we hire, church attendance seems to plateau or even decline. In those dark moments between our busyness, we feel deep shame telling us we’re worthless and that someone else could do this better than I can. Our worth is far too easily tied to the numbers in our churches—of members, of tithers, of regular attenders, of children, of youth, of Sunday school classes, of outreach ministries, of awards at district assemblies.
And it’s not just pastors. This experience of shame affects those in higher church leadership too. District superintendents watch as, maybe for the first time in decades, their district membership and attendance totals shrink. They find themselves closing more churches than they are opening. The congregations they visit seem less and less interested in engaging the culture. They watch pastors burning themselves out, and in the midst of it all, they wonder what they could do differently and say to themselves, Maybe something is wrong with me.
While it’s more sinister for some, we all experience a degree of shame at some point in our lives, and logically, the church should be the first place church leaders go to find healing. Unfortunately, when we begin to confront shame in our lives, we immediately find ourselves bumping up against our profession of experienced holiness. We find ourselves wrestling with what it means to be sanctified people. Is it possible to be holy and still suffer from the deep anxiety that comes with shame? Can you be holy and still have a shadow?
Every (Nazarene) pastor has answered questions about their sanctification. Every (Nazarene) layperson has heard a sermon about sanctification as sinlessness. Holiness as behavior is expected and assumed, and when we don’t experience it in the same way it’s taught, or when our past collides with our present and future, we find ourselves experiencing a disconnect.
What would it look like if we cared less about our churches becoming houses of growth and experience and, instead, became a sacred space for healing?
We cannot be holy and still feel/say/experience/remember ____________. “A holy person,” we say, “would never be like me.” A real pastor would have deeply moving experiences with God. A real Christian could spend a half hour in prayer, no problem. Something must be wrong with me. This internalization of false holiness stokes the flames of shame. It forces us into the darkness and destroys us from the inside because holiness as behavior modification removes confession as sacred practice.
In the same TED Talk, Dr. Brown goes on to speak of the ways shame develops and grows: “Shame grows when it’s in a Petri dish of secrecy, silence, and judgment.” When we hide our shame, Brown tells us, we are destroyed. Shame draws its power from our unwillingness or inability to name it.
Have we created a culture that demands holiness at the expense of the well-being of clergy and congregants. A movement telling pastors to be one way and refusing to allow them space to deal with the very issues keeping them from health and wholeness is not a worthwhile movement.
What if we became a people known more for the ways in which we suffer together than for the way we conquer the other?
What would it look like for congregations to become safe houses of pain? What would it look like for them to engage their shadows? What would it look like for them to find safe spaces of community in which to name those wounds? What would it look like if we cared less about our churches becoming houses of growth and experience and, instead, became a sacred space for healing? A space for confession? A space for patient expectation that God loves us as we are? A space that reminds us that God is not finished with us yet? What if, instead of demanding behavioral change from one another, we sat naming and sharing a lifetime of pain and regret and, together, watch as God heals our most hidden wounds in our openness?
What if we became a people known more for the ways in which we suffer together than for the way we conquer the other? If we became that open community, maybe we’d find ourselves on the path to healing. And maybe, just maybe, we’d become instruments of God’s healing in our world.