Hurting Those We Serve:
When a Pastor’s Wounds Injure the Ones He Seeks To Heal
By Dale O. Wolery
Weary was not a strong enough word to describe what he felt as he walked from the board meeting. Pastor Don slumped into his well-worn office chair, overwhelmed. Though shipwreck was not a part of his résumé as it was Paul’s, he knew what the apostle meant when he wrote, “besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:28, NKJV).1 Pastor Don loved his people, and it was squeezing the life right out of him. The other pressure came from his wife.
The church had experienced amazing numeric growth. Workers had almost completed the new building. He wished, however, the board had been more generous tonight. He felt they had failed him, but he would get over it. Despite his raise not even meeting increases in health care costs, he knew he and his wife could meet their needs somehow.
But he was concerned about his wife’s reaction. He knew she would view the 3 percent raise as an insulting slap. But church finances were tight, the building cost more than anticipated, and the board’s decision was not personal.
The board knew he worked tirelessly to preach the Word with power. They had reminded him even tonight he was a good leader. But they didn’t know his wife resented his long hours in the study. They did not know she was depressed. They knew he seldom took days off, but they were not aware his children resented his always being gone or tired. They did not know he was exhausted and lonely. None suspected he only talked to the Lord on the run. They knew he was a quality leader, but were oblivious to the disappointment and dread he now felt having to tell his wife the raise was so small. He groaned under the ministry pressure and the looming spousal argument.
Don was always on duty — ready to serve with joy. Ministry after hours, interrupted and erratic days off, postponed family nights, and pushing beyond reasonable limits to get through one more ministry project were the norm. He believed sacrifice is necessary for success.
Don’s head ached. He needed to deal with his wife’s less than spiritual response. He hoped she would at least listen. Neither he nor the board was aware she had already taken life-altering action. She had begun a new path.
Pastor Don is like the pastor who recently e-mailed me to get help for his wife. He explained, “I’m a great pastor, but my wife considers me a terrible husband. I have run up a large credit card debt, and my wife is now cold and distant, acidic, and dismissive. She has always been unforgiving.”
These pastors appear blind to the real source of their problem — themselves. It is easy for pastors to be blind to the ways they do relationships poorly and to the wounds that influence their relationship behavior.
When I Blame Others the Problem Is Usually Me
Pastor Don’s deception of the board is dramatic. Their actions would have probably been different if they had known what Don knew. The church pressure Don feels exists because he is hiding truth. The spousal pressure came from the fact he is not living the truth at home. His blindness about his role in these issues is unintentional. His sincerity is intact, but his dysfunction is obvious. Despite believing his pressure comes from sources outside of himself, he has created the pressure. He hurts himself, his wife, and those he serves. Blaming others is a signal that the one doing the blaming — even if he is a pastor — needs to change.
Don withheld his honest feelings. If he had known this same set of facts about a staff person during an annual review, he would not have covered it. He deceived the board and is deceived about his home life. How could he have the audacity to blame his wife? No pastor can be a worthy leader and a lousy husband/father. Quality family men have a shot at being quality pastors; distant dads and disengaged husbands have no shot at being successful pastors. When a pastor reduces his home life to managing the conflict and competition between church and home, his diminished life damages the lives around him in perceptible and significant ways.
Hiding reality, blaming others, and believing he is not the problem provide reasonable support that Pastor Don’s parents wounded him as a child. Over time people learn this behavior in relationships that did not work effectively. Children in dysfunctional families that wound their young learn this behavior. Could it be that Pastor Don is carrying unhealed wounds into his pastoral leadership role?
The Damage I Do to Those I Love and Serve Is Fueled by My Wounds
My years of ministry have shown me my unhealed wounds became the seeds for damaging those I love and serve. For example, my overly ambitious work style marginalized my relationship with my wife and daughters and damaged others by presenting a faulty model to follow. My childhood wounds generated my ambition and caused me to conclude my value as a person depended on my performance. These wounds have also fostered a dysfunctional and harmful idea in the body of Christ wherever I have served. The idea is relationships are not as important as accomplishment, religious activities, and achievement.
My father’s death and my mother’s preoccupation during my developmental years taught me I was invisible. I believed my hard work made me visible. As a consequence, I unintentionally worked harder and harder. Because of my faulty reasoning, I believed the more I attained visibility the more valuable I was. Because of ministry achievements, I considered my visibility more intoxicating and inviting than my marriage. Because I worked so hard serving God (I now know I was serving my wounds, not God), it was convenient for me to conclude the problems in my marriage belonged to my wife. I wanted my wife to adore me like church members did, only more. I had, however, wounded her by my neglect the same as my parents had wounded me by their neglect. Instead of godliness, our wounds took over. For years we covered our wounds to protect my ministry. This damaged my ministry and my marriage.
Pastor Don’s wife, Shirley, reached for help 3 years ago not because Don’s raise was small, but because his wounds were dominating their relationship and wounding their children. The weariness Shirley felt trying to live life without a husband who contributed meaningfully at home exceeded the spiritual drain Don felt trying to balance the competition between home and church. Don’s wounds and her own wounds prompted her to act before he returned from the fateful board meeting.
Unknown Wounds Are Not Healed Wounds
When we enter ministry, our hearts are filled with the potential of a promising future. We do not intentionally damage others. Most of us are not even aware of our wounds or of the manner in which these unhealed wounds are shaping our lives and ministries. We shroud this ignorance with our idealism, our errant theology, and our lack of basic self-observation. As we dive into ministry and life, our unmended wounds increasingly mark us and those around us. Our ignorance about our wounds is not bliss but a blight eating away at our lives and relationships.
God understands how destructive childhood wounds are. The New Testament urges parents to employ nurturing and training to promote emotional health in their children. Our Heavenly Father commands parents not to frustrate and exasperate their children. Jesus understood the destructive nature of childhood wounds, too. He declared adults who offend children should be cast into the sea with rocks tied to their necks.
Were you hurt as a child by neglect, abuse (verbal, physical, religious, sexual, or emotional)? Did you suffer loss through death, divorce, or addiction? Did your parents expose you to rigid rule-keeping or require you to parent them? Did you live with substance abuse, harsh punishment, inconsistent guidance, emotional distance, and tension and hostility between your parents?
My father’s death wounded me as a child. For 41 years I avoided healing because I naively assumed my father’s death had nothing to do with the recurring pain and damaging sin cycles in my life. When a counselor helped me see the way Dad’s death impacted me, I began to grieve my father’s death and heal the wound. Since then I have become increasingly free to embrace the love of the Father without fear. I know He will never die and go away like my dad did.
Your wounds may have wrapped you too tight or caused you to avoid responsibility. You may be unwittingly too eager to please, to help, to bring solace, to be thanked, to serve, to have others like you and not reject you, to keep peace at all costs, to be held, or to be recognized. Wounds you have not yet mended may create insecurity, perfectionism, and obsession with sex, eating, exercising, or religious behavior. One of the most severe early childhood wounds creates a kind of preoccupation with one’s self and causes a person to promote himself, overestimate his abilities, and become obsessed with his own admiration and affirmation. This is the narcissistic wound, and when unhealed leads damaged pastors to harm their congregations by building the ministry around themselves and their consuming self-interest. These pastors unintentionally wound their flocks and hurt their staffs as they build empires that appear godly but are weighed down with damaged people serving a damaged ego.
Reflect on the list above. If you see your name on any of these manifestations of childhood wounds, ask how, not if, you were wounded.
All Wounds Do Not Occur in Childhood
Wounds wound. Whether unknown or intentionally buried, our wounds impact us and those around us until we find ways to heal them. We do not need to look beyond James 1 and his description of the impact of traumatic trials on one’s life to know adults as well as children carry the open sores of wounding. When we meet trials with tossing and turning, ceaseless but faithless praying, instability is the result. A life can spiral from having it all together to everything falling apart in the space of one poorly managed adult wound.
The churches we serve inflict wounds on us as adults. These wounds sometimes come with good intentions. You have felt the pain of an adult wound if you have ever been fired, shunned by the in crowd at church, overlooked for a promotion, refused a raise, or deemed incompetent by a ministry you served. You know trials happen to pastors if someone has sexually harassed you in ministry, if you have lost a child, watched your health disintegrate, felt the pain of financial reverse, known the sting of shame because of oft-repeated sin, or watched your church die before your eyes. Either you dealt effectively with the wounds or they are currently destabilizing your life. Our wounds move us toward maturity in Christ or take us apart one piece at a time.
Do Wounds Really Shape Who We Are and How We Minister?
The more we study life and Scripture the more easily we conclude our wounds dramatically shape us. The Bible tells us of Absalom, the spoiled (wounded by favoritism) son of David, who took away the kingdom from David. David had given him so much and adored him. Absalom assumed he could take what was David’s, even if it hurt his father. Serving himself was his only concern. If your parents excessively favored you as a child, you have either carried the wound into ministry with you or dealt appropriately with it.
We can also observe the lives and relationships of alcoholics. Alcoholics wound their children, and this results in predictable behavioral characteristics as these children become adults. Whenever you meet someone who judges himself without mercy, has difficulty having fun, has difficulty with intimate relationships, overreacts to changes over which he has no control, seeks approval and affirmation, feels he is different from other people, is either super responsible or super irresponsible, and is loyal to a fault, you just met the child of an alcoholic.
You need this information if you are the child of an alcoholic. It will be difficult for you, for example, to be intimate with your spouse and to maintain close friendships. As you know, every pastor needs such intimacy and closeness. You will need to work harder and obtain whatever help necessary to connect deeply emotionally and share vulnerably with those who can support you the most, protect you the most, and give you the most meaning in your life and ministry. Without healing your wounds you will pass them on. Parents who are religious addicts, workaholics, and struggle with eating, sex, rage, or other addictions predictably produce similar characteristics in their children.
The Paradox of Minister/Leader Wounds
Every pastor who has braved the pulpit or led volunteers has been wounded. Wounds are part of the Fall. Our egocentric culture, our latent arrogance, and church dysfunction put pastors on faulty pedestals and urge us to hide our wounds and ignore them. The result is damage to ourselves and those in our wake. The damage varies in its manifestation.
As we observe ministry today we see this in a paradox. Success, which isn’t really success, is often the result of unhealed wounds in the pastor’s life. Ego-driven men (wounded little boys) are adored by large numbers of wounded people. These men build massive ministries that appear to be successful but ultimately hurt more than they help when the egocentric pastor falls or retires. Can God use this kind of ministry? Of course. But would it not be better to have wounded healers build ministries that survive them because the foundation is not faulty?
The reverse paradox is also true. Failure, which isn’t failure, is often the reward of mended wounds in a pastor’s life. When an astute and humble leader discovers the wounds shaping him, initiates healing his wounds, and leads with honesty and grace, apparent failure becomes redemptive healing. If this wounded healer’s ministry dwindles slowly into extinction, observers learn lessons and values that point them to their Redeemer and inspire them to heal, change, and grow. If his ministry thrives numerically, even more people learn the same lessons and are inspired in the same way.
If You Know and Heal Your Wounds, They Will Become Your Friends and Inspire Your People
When you address your wounds you will become a better person, spouse, parent, Christian, and leader. This will stop cycles of wounding which unintentionally hurt those you serve and love. As you apply the transformative power of honesty and grace to your life in Christian community (counseling, mentoring, real friendships, recovery groups, and small groups) and share with others, your healing journey will be inspiring.
Instead of the unrewarding typical approach of ignoring and covering your wounds that promotes stagnation and multiplies pain, choose the biblical way. Choose to be courageous like Don’s wife, Shirley, and refuse to live in quiet and ineffective desperation. Humbly reach for help. You can heal the wounds binding you and blunting your impact. You can become a transformed wounded healer.