A year ago, a dear friend and sister in ministry told me that one of the greatest lessons she learned early on in her ministry as a pastor was not to share her wounds, but only to share her scars. At the time, she was going through some pretty heavy personal stuff, and in the darkness of the early days of that stuff, she shared it with her congregants in one of her sermons. In the moment, there wasn’t anything wrong with this, but in hindsight, she told me, this was anything but the right decision, as all her congregants saw her for were her wounds, not her scars.
As I was going through my own stuff at the time, I could also understand the desire to voice that struggles exist for pastors just as often as they do for congregants, and that we (the “we” being pastors, seminary students, chaplains and those called to professional ministry – those who seem to be put on a pedestal, above the laity, above struggle, above reproach?) too are not above hard times. Having not had a great deal of experience in the pulpit at that point, however, I was thankful though for her wisdom in sharing her walk through that learning experience, as I too likely would have made exactly the same decision with my own “stuff,” taking the chance to be viewed through the lens of my own wounds, rather than my scars.
Preaching is a gift and a privilege that pastors have – 15-20 minutes each and every Sunday morning to share the Gospel – the Good News of Jesus Christ, with a thirsty group of people. The Good News does not have to be a bubbly message about how “Jesus died for your sins and be glad in it” – this type of pollyanna sermon is nice sometimes, and necessary to be certain, but SHOULDN’T be delivered every Sunday by any means. Sometimes, it is necessary to preach a harder, more difficult message to challenge the congregation. More importantly, however, is the whole point of preaching in the first place; preaching isn’t about getting into the pulpit and giving a testimony. It isn’t about sharing YOUR story as the pastor, as it isn’t about you. The pulpit isn’t your stage, it isn’t your moment to shine. The pulpit is the place to go to preach God’s word to the congregation. God speaks through the preacher, yes, but also speaks directly to the congregants. It is the very place for the pastor to share the journey, the place where God has led them, anecdotally, but not to share each location along the way, because to do so would draw attention away from God’s Word, and away from the congregation.
Over the last year, I have learned a lot from that one phrase: “Scars, not wounds.” I have learned that preaching from a place of woundedness will only bring about more woundedness for others, not healing. Yes, it might allow congregants to see that yes, pastors do suffer from the same hurts, pains and struggles that the “average Joe” does, but at the same time, it also does call undo attention and stigma as well. It has subjected me to a lot of attention that I didn’t want, prying (“Can I see your scar?” “You don’t look that sick!” “You’re too young, dear, to be going through all this!”), and frankly, just a lot more sorrow than I really feel I deserve for what I’m going through. Also, it has brought into my life people who want attention for themselves based on my own stuff, and this is not something that I need – people who think they have medical issues but don’t and just want to be around those who do, needy people, and those who are just plain inauthentic. The worst was someone who made claims of being sick with a similar illness just to skip a commitment to go out of town.
After years of going through all this, I have learned that “scars not wounds” means that my journey is what is most important, not the locations, and that it is a privileged journey that isn’t to be abused for trips out of town instead of going to class or meetings, preaching engagements, or standing by my friends. But most importantly, my journey is authentic, and can be shared, just NOT from the pulpit, by the bedside of others who are suffering, or with those who are struggling. There is a time and a place for my story, and the scars of others, and when my wounds are raw, I want to wait, gain perspective and let them heal over a bit before I share the journey with the congregation.
This isn’t to say that the life of the pastor is lived in authentically; rather, it is to say that in pastoring, it is best for me personally to keep my current struggles out of the pulpit for the sake and health of the congregation. It also allows a pastor to create healthy boundaries for the pastor emotionally and personally, who gives and gives, and gives again to their congregation, ministry context, mission site, hospital, non-profit, whatever they are called to, and in the sharing of a wound, rather than a scar, allows that ministry context to cross over yet another boundary into their personal life. A congregation comes with its own set of “stuff,” as do I. Together, we can prayerfully share our stuff together, as is to be expected, and yet, if I am constantly sharing my wounds from the pulpit, this leaves little to no room for the constant (and appropriate) onslaught of crises, blessings, and deep wounds of the congregants who come through the Servants’ doors each and every sabbath morning.
Let me share a personal story. Just before my last surgery (or surgeries?) to have my pacemaker implanted, my field ed supervisor asked me if I wanted to have my field ed site pray for me. This site has been a church home for me over the last five months, and a source of great joy and growth. They have been with me through a lengthy hospitalization, a pretty invasive heart procedure, and have not judged me, nor have they seen me differently as a result of any of it. When I approached a chaplaincy mentor to ask for an opinion about this, she said that extra voices lifting me in prayer this time would be really important, and since they had been with me all year, this time wouldn’t be any different than the other two. My supervisor prayed out loud for me in my last service before I left for surgery, and while it was incredible to feel my concern lifted in prayer, my concern was confirmed at the end, when everyone swarmed around me at the end to ask prying questions. Many didn’t know I was sick, others wanted to know all about the surgery, others wanted to tell me about family members with pacemakers. In the end, for me, it was too much – my wound became the wound and concern for so many others, and what was once a paper cut for me became a far deeper wound just days prior to a big change.
The scars are signs that by God’s grace and with the help and companionship of God, any struggle, any trial and any tough time can be overcome. A person is never the same after something difficult. Maybe they are better, or maybe they are just simply different. But regardless, in the sharing of scars, rather than wounds, a pastor is able to testify to the fact that God is good (yes, all the time…), and that the wounds are evidence of the fact that the bad thing didn’t defeat them, because God was there through all of it, giving them strength.
Scars are signs that a bad thing didn’t defeat you, but that something good won, and that you were strong enough to fight back, my mentor in ministry once told me. By taking this attitude to the pulpit, or in my ministry context, (in moderation and where appropriate, of course), I hope that others will grow to see that scars shouldn’t be hidden, but shown proudly as a sign that God is good in times of trial. But also, a scar shows that all tough things do eventually come to an end, that struggles come to an end, and life continues – maybe in a different way, but by the grace of God, transformed. I can only speak for myself (thanks to my summer CPE supervisor), but my scar is a sign that I am transformed, and as a result of my “stuff,” I will never be the same person. But I will definitely be a better person, a stronger woman of faith, and despite how much I hate it when people say this, a better pastor.
Thanks be to God, and happy Lent 1!
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