Hopeful Church

Does our leadership heal . . .

or inflict pain?

by N. Graham Standish 

I recently talked with a frustrated and disappointed pastor who was in tremendous pain over her struggling church. As I listened to her story, I suddenly had an insight: Perhaps everyone who comes to church is in pain. Perhaps everyone who pastors a church is in pain. Perhaps the deep question is whether or not we’ll lead our churches to heal pain.

Is that too bleak an assessment? If it is, it’s rooted in my work over the years as a spiritual director, therapist, pastor and friend. Years ago, I realized that everyone is in pain, but not everyone realizes it. Some do, but most deny, repress or project it, and in doing so we hide our pain.

Still, no matter how well we hide it, our pain is always there, and often our attempts to soothe our pain can actually increase it. I once wrote a little ditty for a sermon about how this is:

When our pain is too much, do we try to soothe it with too much, allowing “too much” to magnify our pain? Do we drink too much, eat too much, swear too much, yell too much, look at our phones too much, surf the net too much, try to control others too much, rebel too much, shop too much, give into others too much, suppress too much, spend too much, complain too much, hold in too much? And then do we do too little to lessen “too much,” leaving us even more in even more “too much” pain?

Is the church guilty of “too much” saving?

I have a theory about why the church is often in so much pain. Simply put, we’ve lost the original understanding of salvation. We’ve turned “salvation” into something that ignores pain, when it was originally understood as a transformational healing.

Quick quiz. What do you put on a wound to help it heal? Neosporin? Polysporin? They’re both salves. They’re healing ointments. Did you know that the root of the word salve shares the same root as the word “salvation”? A salve saves by healing. The Greek word for salvation also has dual meanings. Biblically salvation means “healing” more than it means “rescuing.” For example, look at James 5:14-15, where he says, “Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will savethe sick, and the Lord will raise them up…”

Does this passage really make sense? How often, when sick, have you visited a doctor and asked to be “saved”? Never. You wanted to be healed. The Greek word translated there as “save” also means “heal.” Doesn’t it make more sense to call the elders to pray for healing, hoping that the prayer of faith would “heal” them?

The early church saw itself as being a place of healing. A significant reason many became Christians in the early centuries was that they experienced healing on all levels of their lives. What happened to change our understanding? As the eastern Roman Empire decayed, and the Dark Ages progressed, “salvation’s” meaning changed from healing (sacramentally called “unction”) to saving us to enter heaven (changed to “extreme unction”— last rites). So now Christians don’t see their central role as being healers. We see it as being rescuers for eternity.

What if we saw ourselves and our churches primarily as places of healing? How would that change our ministry and mission?

Can we become healing churches?

I recognized long ago that almost all pastors are in pain, and I’ll include myself in this. Pastors aren’t unique. Almost all therapists are in pain, and it’s a resource that good ones use to become deep healers. The question as pastors and church leaders is what we do with our pain. Do we use it as a resource to become what Henri Nouwen calls “wounded healers,” or do we use it to wield power that insulates us from from pain? Similarly, are our churches places that heal or inflict pain on others?

As pastors and leaders, can we lead churches to become places of healing? There’s all sorts of healing churches can offer: spiritual healing, emotional healing, relational healing, healing the impoverished, the oppressed, the broken, those suffering from catastrophes, and so much more. If our ministries and missions aren’t healing, what are they trying to do? To create a healing church requires an intentional, healing leadership.

I remember talking with someone whose non-denominational church did a mission trip to Thailand to help after the 2004 tsunami. She complained that her task was to hand out Christian tracts (written in English) outside a Buddhist temple, and only those who took the tract could get a bottle of water. She lamented that their church was using a catastrophe to proselytize, not heal, and so it was inflicting more pain upon people already in pain.

What would it mean to change our understanding of our leadership from being a “saving” church toward being a “healing” church? How would it change how we lead? How we preach? How we worship? What our ministries would be? And what our mission would be?

The Rev. N. Graham Standish, Ph.D., M.S.W., is executive director of Samaritan Counseling, Guidance, Consulting, where he leads their Caring for Clergy and Congregations program (www.ngrahamstandish.org).