You can take the pastor out of the church, but you can’t take the Church out of the pastor.
Owning our story
How I came to believe that church wasn’t the place for a broken person like me
by Derrick L. Weston
Shame derives its power from being unspeakable. That’s why it loves perfectionists—it’s so easy to keep us quiet. If we cultivate enough awareness about shame to name it and speak to it, we’ve basically cut it off at the knees. Shame hates having words wrapped around it. If we speak shame, it begins to wither. Just the way exposure to light was deadly for the gremlins, language and story bring light to shame and destroy it. . . . If you own your story, you get to narrate how it ends. —Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead
I am divorced.
I am divorced largely because I had an affair.
My divorce and its causes have altered the trajectory of my personal and professional life over the last few years. My ideal family was torn apart. I had to step away from my ministry. It took me a long time to find meaningful work that helped me pay the bills. When I did find it, I had to leave my home city of Pittsburgh and come to Baltimore. I see my kids as often as I can. I often feel like a horrible father. My own biological father was absent from my life, and I wonder if I’m any better.
‘I felt small. I felt out of place. I felt shame. Sure, very few people knew me there, and even fewer knew about my transgressions, but I knew, and I felt like I didn’t belong in this sacred place with these sacred people.’
That year, 2014, was a disaster for me. In the wake of my separation, I looked for anything, anyone who would hold the pain of my broken life for me. I made self-destructive decisions that often hurt others as well. I wanted to numb my pain but all I did was become toxic to those around me.
Early in the year I went to an installation service for a friend who was becoming the pastor of a neighborhood church in Pittsburgh. I felt small. I felt out of place. I felt shame. Sure, very few people knew me there, and even fewer knew about my transgressions, but I knew, and I felt like I didn’t belong in this sacred place with these sacred people.
Now, keep in mind, I’m a pastor. I know all of the things that we say about grace. I know that church is exactly where people should feel welcomed to lay bare their wounded souls and receive the free gift of God. I know that I wasn’t the only sinner in that room, but in that moment, I felt like I was. None of theology to which I had given my intellectual assent made a difference in that moment. I didn’t feel worthy of forgiveness, or love, or community. Church was the last place that I wanted to be.
I share this part of my story here because the truth of the matter is that I’m not alone. Our churches are filled with people who have deep hurts, failures, disappointments, and griefs that they dare not share in our faith communities. We are held captive by the belief that church people are the ones who have it all together (or at least are falling apart in socially acceptable ways). And if we’re not one of those people, we become convinced either that church isn’t for us or that we must pretend and hide our hurt.
‘You’ll never find a place where guilt and shame are in shorter supply [than in an AA meeting]. People hold each other’s stories with compassion. They laugh, cry, mourn, and celebrate together. There’s no hierarchy, just fellow travelers on the journey. Sounds like church to me. Or what I imagine church can be . . .’
I own that my circumstance was unique. I wasn’t the average person in the pews. I was a pastor. I had betrayed numerous sacred trusts on my way down. I knew the lines not to cross, and I crossed them. I failed my wife. I failed my kids. I failed the church. I failed God. Church had been the center of my life since before I can remember. Now it is a place where I feel the sting of judgment and the burden of failure.
When I proposed the name “Recovering Reverend” for my column on this blog, it was intended to be a play on the numerous recovery programs that we have in our culture. “Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic” is what they say in Alcoholics Anonymous. And so it is true with the pastorate. Yet the name has taken on new life for me. We have an AA meeting at the community center where I work, and I overhear, without eavesdropping, some of the conversations. You will never hear more love and acceptance offered than in an AA meeting. You’ll never find a place where guilt and shame are in shorter supply. People hold each other’s stories with compassion. They laugh, cry, mourn, and celebrate together. There’s no hierarchy, just fellow travelers on the journey. Sounds like church to me. Or what I imagine church can be . . .
As I’ve walked the road to recovery, I have been joined by other hurting, broken, sinful people. They show me that I am not alone. I am joined by people who tell me I am still their friend. They remind me that I still have worth. And I am joined by those who are determined that I not fall again in the same ways. They remind me that I have a future.
The ending of my story has yet to be written, but I—not my shame—will write the ending. It will be a story of grace and redemption. It will be a story of repentance and boundless compassion for myself and others. It’s a story that may lead me back to a pastorate. Only God knows. It will be a story likely to have a few more failures, but hopefully it will be a story that will include the love of faith-filled people who will pick me up when I fall. And I will do the same for them. That, friends, is Church.
Derrick L. Weston is a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), a community builder for the 29th Street Community Center, and cohost of the podcast God Complex Radio.