What Do You Do With Your Wounds, Pastor?

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“What Do You Do With Your Wounds, Pastor?” was written by John Mark Comer, the founding pastor of Bridgetown Church in Portland, Oregon. Comer’s latest book – Live No Lies – was a New York Times bestseller, and his new project – Practicing the Way – launched in Fall 2022. 

It goes without saying, it’s a hard time to be a pastor.

The past few years were like a battle, and many of us are walking wounded. Endless angry emails, people leaving our church, people we thought we could trust who – it turned out – we couldn’t. I don’t need to go on. 

It’s easier than ever to hate the work you’re called to do or to resent the people you’re called to love and lead. 

It’s easier than ever to hate the work you’re called to do or to resent the people you’re called to love and lead. - John Mark Comer Click To Tweet

As hard as it’s been (and it’s been hard), I’ve been thinking a lot about a quote from James Baldwin:

“I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”

He was referring, of course, to racism, but I think his analysis of the human psyche is true in a wider sense. Which raises the question: What do you do with your pain? 

Fight, Flight, or Freeze

When you get wounded, there are three survival instincts:

  • Flight – You just walk away… from your church or pastoring altogether. It’s not what you signed up for…so you exit. 
  • Fight – You get aggressive, or defensive; you let anger fuel you to double down on conservatism or progressivism or whatever. 
  • Freeze – You lead in paralysis. Also known as, not leading. I was cut to the heart recently by a prayer of confession; “Jesus, I confess that I have spent more time talking about what will avoid criticism than you.” Because I don’t want another person to leave our church in a huff, or send me an irate email, or vent about me online, etc. 

Flight, fight, freeze – none of those are pastoring in the Way of Jesus. 

To pastor in the coming decades – to make our small contribution to the Church in the West – we have to find a paradigm for what to do when we get wounded. Not if – but when. 

A lot of you are reading this with daggers in your back… I’m praying you soon find the beginning of a healing journey. 

But it must also be said, that while it’s socially acceptable to talk about how many churches have been hurt by their pastor (and this is a problem we have to take seriously), we’re rarely openly talk about the reciprocal truth: How many pastors have been hurt by their churches. 

But many of us, over the last year or two, in particular, have been wounded at a very deep place in our soul…  

There’s a counter-intuitive psychology where people in pain attack their caregivers; think of how children lash out at their parents, even as they look to their parents to comfort and console them. 

I’m not saying that “We’re the parents, and they’re the children,” but there is a parental role we play, as spiritual fathers and mothers, and part of that is to absorb other people’s pain, and not give it back in kind. 

Three Wounds Pastors Receive

Let me give you three examples from the field of psychology, or as you might say, three wounds we receive as pastors. 

1. Projection 

This idea goes back to Freud’s work in the 1890s. Here’s a working definition of projection:

Projection is a defense mechanism in which the human ego defends itself against unconscious impulses or qualities by denying their existence in themselves while attributing them to others. 

It’s basically an unconscious process of projecting emotions, desires, or character traits you don’t like about yourself onto someone else. For example:

  • A bully who projects their own feelings of vulnerability from an abusive father onto the weak kid on the playground, or…
  • A gossiper who sees someone across the room whisper in another person’s ear, and thinks they are saying something bad about them, or…
  • Someone with a heart laced by racial prejudice who doesn’t want to face it so they obsess over another’s racism, or…
  • A person who is feeling shame over their own failure at community who then assumes all community is bad and evil and in need of rejection. 

While it’s a form of blame-shifting rooted in fear of shame, it manifests as shaming other people.

Much of the so-called “cancel culture” is a form of projection, an attempt to offload the fear of shame and rejection by shaming and rejecting others (in particular, anyone in leadership or power).

As leaders, you and I are walking targets for people’s projection. 

Much of so-called “cancel culture” is a form of projection, an attempt to offload the fear of shame and rejection by shaming and rejecting others. - John Mark Comer Click To Tweet

2. Transference

The psychologist Erik Erickson, in his biography of Gandhi, has this definition of transference: 

  • “Transference is the universal tendency active wherever human beings enter into a relationship with others in such a way that the other also “stands for” persons as perceived in the pre-adult past: he thus serves the re-enactment of infantile and juvenile wishes and fears, hopes and apprehension, and this always with a bewildering mixture of effects – that is, a ratio of loving and hateful tendencies which under certain conditions alternate radically.”

Here’s a translation: At an emotional level – not in people’s prefrontal cortex, but their limbic system – transference is when you cause the same emotional reaction in a member of your church as someone who hurt or wounded or abandoned or sinned against them in their childhood or adolescent years. 

They then bring to their relationship with you a volatility: On one hand, they idolize you; project onto you all their unfulfilled desires for a man or father or pastor or love or affection or integrity or whatever they did not get as a child that they should have.

On the other, anything can set them off because you are a kind of emotional trigger based on their past trauma. And when we turn out to be human – with all that entails – those same people demonize us, and attach us to all the wounding they did received as a child that they should not have. 

It’s devil/messiah: First, people idealize you, then they demonize you – and they are often the same people! 

First people idealize you, then they demonize you – and they are often the same people! - John Mark Comer Click To Tweet

Transference is especially acute with any kind of authority figure – because you “stand in for” a previous authority figure – mom, dad, grandparent, teacher, pastor, boss, etc. 

The key is that when people see you or hear you teach or receive a rebuke from you, it’s not just you they are seeing or hearing – it’s their father or mother or abusive teacher or cruel pastor from childhood or older brother…

If you’re read The Body Keeps the Score, you know that we literally carry our memories – including those of trauma – in our body at an unconscious level.

Anyone who has ever been hurt by a pastor or church leader carries that memory in their body, and your very presence as a pastor or church leader can trigger it. 

Anyone who has ever been hurt by a pastor or church leader carries that memory in their body, and your very presence as a pastor or church leader can trigger it. - John Mark Comer Click To Tweet

3. Blame-shifting and grasping for control 

I read a great piece recently on the psychology of enemies and the role they play in our self-preservation.  

Enemies serve at least two psychological purposes:

First, they give us someone to blame, so we don’t have to face reality and take responsibility for our own life, grow, mature, or face our shame. 

It’s easy to blame millennials for a victimization culture, but to cultivate compassion, secular humanism has no category for sin, no atonement, and no forgiveness.

The West inherited incredibly high moral standards from Christianity, but without Christ’s power and presence, it’s incapable of living up to its own vision. The result is that progressives are twenty-first-century version of Pharisees – it’s morally performative theater rooted in self-righteousness, sure, but likely rooted even deeper in fear of shame.

Second, they give us a sense of coherence and control in the face of evil and chaos. 

Research has demonstrated that when people think of their enemies, whether it’s ISIS or China or just voters for the “other” political party, afterward, the world feels less disordered and less scary. They feel evil is under control. 

Enemies give us an object for our fears – a sense that this is what’s wrong with the world, and this is how we can fix it. 

This is what politicians play to constantly, with politicians from the Right making it sound like undocumented immigrants are ruining our country and politicians from the Left acting like every Trump voter is a white supremacist ready to usher in the Fourth Reich. In each case, we’re given enemies to project our fear onto – the psychological trade-off with politicians is we put them in control, and they make us feel in control and safe. 

As pastors, because we’re a walking target, people often process their fear by blaming us. 

And often, their critique is valid; even if they are just as responsible for the problem as we are. But still, there is a sting. When you’re trying to love and serve somebody, and nothing you do is ever good enough, and you get accused and attacked for your efforts. 

This will often sabotage any kind of bold, courageous leadership, which is the very thing we need to get out of a mess like the one we’re in! 

So What Do You Do? 

I can’t tell you how often (in particular over the last year) I’ve felt the temptation just to be silent and keep my head down because anything I say or do is criticized. But that’s a temptation rooted in fear (specifically the fear of other people’s opinions of me) and emotional self-preservation, not in self-giving love. 

The invitation of Jesus is to stick my head out of the trench, knowing I will get hit, but still doing so in love. 

Which is, of course, something the Apostle Paul did.  Scot McKnight’s book on Pauline Pastoral Theology is helpful here. By far, the most eye-opening chapter for me was on Paul’s theology of “leadership as vicarious suffering.” 

McKnight says: 

  • “Paul understands his gospel-mission sufferings as an intentional and pastoral entrance into the sufferings of Christ, and, like Christ, the more Christoform he becomes, the more he suffers for the benefit of the church… Paul sees his sufferings as completing the sufferings of Christ because he is engaging in the same kind of intentionally shaped pastoral work and suffering after the death of Jesus that Jesus performed at the cross.” 

Not only is Paul open and honest about just how hard pastoral leadership is, but his vision of leadership is not based on best practices from the capitalist business model (to index your church up and to the right) but on Jesus’ cruciform model of suffering love and “a spirituality of descent.”

Paul seems to be saying that leadership is a form of vicarious suffering; We’re not suffering for others’ atonement (like only Jesus did), but we are suffering on behalf of others. 

Bonhoeffer, before he was killed by the Gestapo, echoed something similar:

  • “Even though Jesus Christ has already accomplished all the vicarious suffering necessary for our redemption, his sufferings in this world are not finished yet… Those suffering in the power of the body of Christ suffer in a vicariously representative action ‘for’ the church-community, ‘for’ the body of Christ. They are permitted to bear what others are spared.”

As pastors, we’re allowing pain and wounding and even death into our bodies, so that life and healing and blessing may flow through our bodies to those we pastor. 

And, at the risk of sounding like a martyr, this is a high and holy task. 

Jesus absorbed the pain of others – including you and me – the projection, the transference, the blame, and scapegoating of others. He let his body become a graveyard for hate. 

Centuries before Jesus was born, the prophet Isaiah (in Isaiah 52-53) sees what it will take to heal the world; it will take a suffering love and sacrificial death. 

This is the way of Jesus – not power over through coercion or control, but suffering love. 

This is the way of Jesus – not power over through coercion or control, but suffering love. - John Mark Comer Click To Tweet

What Do You Do With Your Wounds, Pastors? 

As easy as it is to focus on the pain of others, none of us come to adulthood or leadership without carrying deep wounds. 

By your thirties, it’s not a question of, “Are you wounded?” But, “What are your wounds?” And we pastor out of those wounds. For better or worse. 

What Do You Do With Your Wounds, Pastor? Click To Tweet

Like Jesus, we can let our wounds become sacred wounds. We can let them become an outlet for the healing of other wounded souls. 

We all know how many pastors leave the ministry after a few years. Most don’t stay at a church longer than two years. A statistic last summer said 29% of pastors are seriously considering leaving ministry. I know all pastors are feeling hurt right now. 

But what if wounds are just part of the deal? Part of pastoring, but – even more – part of facing the love of God. 

What do you do with your pain? Here are three very simple things: 

1. Find meaning in your pain 

If leadership in the way of Jesus is both an honor and a form of suffering, it’s one rich in meaning and purpose. 

Let me drop a simple but piercing question: What if we suffer wounding for healing to come to others and to us?

That’s the other piece of meaning we so often miss. Healing can come to us through our wounding.

If the most important thing in life is the person you become, then leadership – like marriage and parenting – is one of the hardest things you will ever do. And it’s the crucible that, if you let it, has the potential to form and forge you into a person of character and maturity, one of the great invitations to grow and mature in character. 

If the most important thing in life is the person you become, then leadership - like marriage and parenting - is one of the hardest things you will ever do. - John Mark Comer Click To Tweet

Because nothing will expose your shadow like leadership; all the dross in your character will come to the surface in the refining fire of leadership.

This facing of your shadow is essential work for all people, but especially for leaders. We all project both our light and our shadow onto the world. But leadership amplifies whatever is inside you, for good or for ill. 

The greater the amplification, the greater the potential to do good, or to do ill. As Parker Palmer said:

  • “A leader is a person who must take special responsibility for what’s going on inside him-or herself, inside his or her consciousness, lest the act of leadership create more harm than good.”

Jason Ballard told me this great story about going to a retreat for church planters, and the speaker said, “Do you know who the greatest threat is to your church? It’s not Satan, not secularism, not postmodernism – it’s you!”

That’s true, but you are also, potentially, one of God’s great gifts to your church. 

Paul calls leaders God’s “gifts” to the church. It sounds grandiose, but you are God’s gift to your church.

On the flip side, I love Ruth Haley Barton’s line: “The best gift you can give the people you lead is your transforming self.” 

You are your ministry – not your leadership or your teaching or your whatever – you. 

The meaning and purpose behind our wounding are that it’s liberating us, one painful layer at a time, from our anxieties and attachments, from our shadow. And it’s maturing us, if we let it, into people of love. 

And if the meaning of life is not happiness, not pleasure, not up and to the right, but if it’s the healing of our soul through loving union with God, then wounding is a kind of hidden gift. 

2. Find safe, loving relationships to discharge the pain and heal 

I asked Ronald Rolheiser about how to deal with transference. He lit up and said: 

“Transference is the number one thing they don’t teach you in seminary,” he said. “Seminary prepares you to do ministry, but it doesn’t prepare you for what ministry will do to you.”

Then I asked, “How do I process that in prayer?”

“Do you drink alcohol?”

“Whaa… Yes, but…” 

Get a bottle of something good, get together with a few other leaders who get the pain, and just hold each other. 

All through the COVID pandemic, our elders got together once a month, or more, for “transference meetings.” We sat around a table, we all brought wine, and we just held each other’s pain. Those meetings have honestly been the highlight of my year.

What Rolheiser was getting at is this: As pastors, we need to carry others’ pain. It’s not that we unload it onto others, but we must find a way to let the pain pass through us. 

Rolheiser also has that great line in his teaching of forgiveness: “What you don’t transform, you transmit.”

Meaning that when people hurt you or wound you or sin against you, if that pain is not transformed, it will be transmitted – in anger or sarcasm or a nasty reply email, etc. 

We must find a healthy place to let Jesus transform our pain into healing. 

We must find a healthy place to let Jesus transform our pain into healing. - John Mark Comer Click To Tweet

Otherwise, we will minister out of anger rather than love, and the result will be a net negative in our ministry. We all know pastors who are animated by a kind of seething resentment. There’s a hyper-masculine Reformed version of this; and a “woke” progressive form of this.

Both are driven by anger, even if they cover it up with sophisticated theology. And, as James put it, “Human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.” There’s a place for anger, but there’s a difference between human anger and of the righteous anger of Jesus in the temple. 

This is why we have to deal with the wounding of the last few years, otherwise, we will either minister out of anger and resentment and sabotage God’s hand on our life, or we will just quit. 

Either way, we will allow the enemy to write us out of the story God has for us and the future of his Church. 

3. Find comfort in God through prayer 

We need an outlet to discharge our pain and anger. One safe outlet is our fellow pastors or leadership team. So, transference meetings, you’re welcome. 

But no matter how safe your leadership team is, there are some things we just don’t feel safe enough to share with anyone but God himself. 

For that, we have prayer, where – at least with true prayer – all that we are is laid bare before all that God is. 

As Ortberg said, “Prayer isn’t a place to be good; it’s a place to be honest.”

How many of the Psalms are just David raging at heaven, venting all his hurt and anger and bitterness and fear over wounding, betrayal, feeling misunderstood, attacked, or opposed? 

Prayer must become our lifeline. I don’t mean prayer as a discipline, though there’s a place for that, but prayer as our only hope of staying in ministry over the long haul. 

Sometimes our prayer will look like sitting in the quiet and letting God love us… just looking at God, looking at us, in love. Realizing we are incredibly broken and yet utterly loved. 

Other times it will look like raging a torrent of pent-up emotions at the sky. 

Prayer is our portable desert, our morning Mt. Sinai – the place we retreat from the world to take refuge in God before we return to the world empowered by God. 

Whatever the template is for a vital, healthy ministry over the long haul, a life of devotion is the baseline.

Some Final Thoughts

Now, this is a piece I worried about writing. It would be easy for a nonpastor or others to misinterpret. 

So, let me clarify just a bit more. I’m not saying we’re the innocent victim, nor that we’re not at fault. 

No, we are at fault for all sorts of things. We’re human. We live with sin still in our body. And as leaders, our shadow is on display for all to see. 

The best way to deal with that is not through denial or defense, but through humility, or even better: Through living in the love of God. 

The best way to deal with that is not through denial or defense, but through humility, or even better: Through living in the love of God. - John Mark Comer Click To Tweet

Martin Larid, in his book on contemplative prayer, has this great line about a saint whose “face had the freshness and peace of those whose poverty had taught them they had nothing to defend.”

You have nothing to defend. 

Or, in the language of a mantra my spiritual director gave me to repeat to myself:

“Nothing I do will be good enough; everything I do can be picked apart; and that’s okay.”

Nothing I do will be good enough; everything I do can be picked apart; and that’s okay. - John Mark Comer Click To Tweet

When we make peace with this, when we accept that wounds are part of the deal; we create space for God to transform our wounds into sacred wounds – and through us, in all our humanity, bring healing to the world. 

I guess the point of this piece is to encourage you toward inner healing after a very hard season. 

It’s been said that all inner healing is the removal of fear. It’s learning to calmly face the reality of what is and be at peace. 

May you find meaning in your pain, find safe relationships to discharge the pain, and find comfort in God. May he transform your wounds into sacred wounds.

And may you be calm and at peace in the love of God. 

Lead With Confidence and Clarity. Grow Your Church.

As leaders, we tend to see the challenges and roadblocks before other people do.

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Carey Nieuwhof
Carey Nieuwhof

Carey Nieuwhof is a best-selling leadership author, speaker, podcaster, former attorney, and church planter. He hosts one of today’s most influential leadership podcasts, and his online content is accessed by leaders over 1.5 million times a month. He speaks to leaders around the world about leadership, change, and personal growth.