I’m glad to hear that you are enjoying Henri Nouwen’s books. When I suggested you spend part of your pre-seminary time reading some theological works, this is just the kind of thing I had in mind. His books are full of gracious wisdom for thoughtful and spiritually rich discipleship.
But I have to say I’m a little worried about your comments about his book The Wounded Healer.
Don’t get me wrong: It is a great book, though it has been a long time since I read it.
What stuck with me is the sense that God does not call perfect people. God calls ordinary people with all the ordinary wounds life deals us. That, and the insight that our own wounded places can make us compassionate and effective in ministry.
Since I read the book I’ve become very aware of a common misinterpretation of Nowen’s message.
Here’s what happens too often (you can read that to mean “Here’s what I want you to avoid, because I care about you”):
People mistake their wounds for a call to ministry.
Picture a Christian who has a problem with alcohol or any other addiction.
Picture a Christian who was abused as a child or as a spouse.
These wounds can indeed spark compassion, a desire to help others with similar problems—but only after a good deal of personal growth and healing.
Two problems crouch at the door if ministers do not tend to their own healing:
One danger is a mistake about the call itself.
Ministry brings us into relationship with people who face crises like grief, and need healing from their own wounds. They are vulnerable. They need generous care.
The minister with unhealed wounds enters the scene, not with generous loving care, but with gaping needs of his or her own.
Deep, soul-fracturing wounds compel us to seek comfort. Temporary comfort can come from artificially intense connections with others. Ministry provides plenty of them.
- People can be used instead of served, as the unhealed minister seeks a sense of self-worth.
- The unhealed minister can burn out because of a fundamental lack of healthy resources.
Because this sense of closeness contrasts with our common feelings of isolation, this false intimacy creates its own argument for the legitimacy of the call.
But the need to be needed should not be mistaken for a calling to lead.
The other is a danger to the health of the Church itself.
Some seem, beneath the surface, to be hoping ministry will help them find their own healing.
This is not serving but using the Church. And no congregation will find its way to thriving health if their leader is using them.
It is also a very unlikely way to find healing. Ministry is a line of work that makes enormous demands on one’s emotional equilibrium and psychological resources. Ministry tends to point out your weaknesses on a regular basis.
Churches need pastors who have a sense of what spiritual health looks like and can help them move in that direction.
So, as you think about a vocation in ministry, it is smart to spend some time looking in the mirror and dealing with your own problems. Seminary is not designed to provide healing. Neither is ministry.
- If you have an addiction, find treatment or a 12-step group.
- If you have a history of abuse, or depression, or anxiety, or anthing of the kind, find a qualified therapist.
We can all use help to learn, grow, and heal. Some ongoing conversation with a good pastor, a qualified therapist, or a solid spiritual director would be an excellent investment before during or after seminary.
Of course a sense of God’s call can come directly out of the trauma and drama of personal pain. But it requires discernment.
Make sure you do not make your wounds the active center of you ministry.
You mustn’t cling to your wounds. Salvation is, in part, healing. Pursue salvation so you can help others do the same.
Looking for an approach to Scripture that nurtures your life in Christ? Let me send you a free copy (mobi, epub, or pdf) of my book Love Your Bible: Finding Your Way to the Presence of God with a 12th Century Monk. Click here so you can tell me where to send it.