Pastoral Study Project Grant Writing: Shame Under the Pews and in the Choir Loft

*I would like to thank the Louisville Institute for generously providing a Pastoral Study Project grant which supported the writing of this reflection.  

Shame Under the Pews and in the Choir Loft

There is a conversation we need to have in the church.  It is a tough one but we can do it.  Because in Christ we can do hard things tougher.  

It’s the conversation about shame.  

We need to talk about how shame is used to control clergy, church leaders, parishioners, the next generation.  We need to talk about how shame steals our joy in Christ.  We need to name things that we feel in our guts but perhaps the words have alluded us.  

I remember visiting a congregation and the pastor who was new to this pastorate greeted me and said to the usher with a laugh, “She’s a pastor.  Let’s treat her right!”  My sense was this was a fun light-hearted way of honoring the fact that I, too, was a fellow leader in Christ’s church.  but the usher was having none of it.  No favoritism in this church.  No special treatment here.  While handing me the bulletin he said brusquely, “Well, don’t expect any special treatment.”

What just happened there?

I don’t know that man’s personal story but knowing the congregation’s history I knew that a beloved former pastor had had an affair with a member of the church staff.  This congregation had followed his vision, went into debt to build for the vision, and then the sky fell.  There was deep hurt and mistrust; pain and damage that will linger for decades.  No, this usher wasn’t going to let another clergy member get special treatment or instant gratitude or trust on his watch.

While this man may needed to go back to usher class 101 on welcome, knowing the history of the congregation put it in context. This man was wounded, he talked before he thought and perhaps our exchange was an anomaly.  Perhaps he tickled baby toes and got extra crayons for toddlers and smiled to the elderly woman who wore an air of, “I don’t know how much longer I can keep doing this.”  as she shuttled her blank-eyed husband through the crowd as he asked repeatedly, “Where are we?  What is this place?”  

Maybe he did and I was just a trigger for him.  Maybe I hit a sore spot.

But maybe he didn’t and he wasback the next week handing out bulletins. 

We struggle to hold people accountable in churches because people are volunteering their time and we don’t want to cause a stink, we don’t have a structure of accountability, there are power dynamics that go back generations, so we just look away and pray for the best.

This may have worked when Christendom was robust in America, in the suburbs that boomed after WW II and, if the tales are right, the churches were so full, Sunday School had to be held in the trunks of people’s station wagons because every square inch of church floor tile was occupied with neighbors who gathered to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ died and risen to free them from the bonds of sin, death, and the Devil.  

Maybe then it won’t have mattered so much in a culture and time when a little shame was understood to contribute to self-control and proper manners.  To a proper sense of one’s place in society.

But this isn’t 1958.  And this isn’t a culture that defaults to Christian practices any longer.  In fact, this is a time and a place when suspicion and mistrust of organized religion is high as the sky.  Just like the usher, lots of us want to see authenticity before we will buy in.

So we need to have this conversation about shame.  

We need to take a look at where shame shows up in our liturgy, our preaching, our doctrine, our practice.  

It won’t be easy.  If we are honest in this endeavor, lots could change.  But in the spirit of the Reformation and the pounding of the 95 Thesis on the Wittenberg Castle Church door 500 years ago, we believe that God is always reforming the church.  Sempre Reformada.

Thanks to researchers we now know so much more about the nuances between shame, guilt, and humiliation than previous generations.  We know that when we are in shame - feeling that we are inherently flawed and unworthy of love and belong according to Brené Brown, we respond in ways that parallel fight, flight, or freeze.  When we are in shame, the amygdala in our brain takes over and our amygdala doesn’t provide higher functioning skills.  When we are in shame, our actions and behaviors aren’t going to serve others, the Body of Christ, and ourselves in edifying ways.  We will shrink, act out, or simply disappear.  

Shame creeps under the pews and lurks in the fellowship hall broom closet.  Shame is used to control behavior.  Some would say it is effective.  For example, when shame is used in a school classroom, behavior may quickly change.  Yet, someone’s sense of self-worth is attacked and they might behave like they wished they were invisible.  We all have a threshold for how much shame we can tolerate before we simply disengage to protect ourselves.  We have a threshold for how much toxicity we can tolerate and once we’ve reached it, we shut down, we disengage, we leave whether it is physically or emotionally.

Shame always destroys.  It always separates.  It always strips our humanity and being created in the Image of God (Imago Dei) away.  

Shame has no place in the Kingdom of God.  

And yet, 

And yet, shame has a stronghold in lots of our churches.  Shame shows up in fear, in judgment, secrecy, silence, and isolation.  It isn’t that we want the shame; for many of us we just haven’t experienced a life-altering, ego-overthrowing, transformational encounter with Jesus.  To be honest about the deal.  

It isn’t that the shame is our first or best choice; in our guts or some deep holy Temple of the Holy Spirit (I Cor. 6:19) place we know that.  We just don’t know how to wrap our arms around this thing that is so pervasive it just seems . . . well. . . like life.

“Shame whispers lies into our souls about who we are in our spirits.  It immobilizes us with fear of exposure.  It causes us to retreat furthering ourselves or strike out against the perceived accusers.  In the end, we remain unknown and disconnected” (Harper, 70).  Harper continues, “Shame is insidious.  It hits at the core of our being and emanates from there to affect everything else.  It has nothing to do with the truth.  It is based on lies about the essence of our being” (70-71).  

Shame is the basis for death-dealing theological thinking.  Things like:

  • God doesn’t like me or love me.  God couldn’t possibly forgive this sin.
  • The Bible has lots of scary stories so I can’t trust God.
  • If I’m just nice enough, God will reward me.
  • God wants me to suffer.

When the dynamics of shame and blame gain traction in a congregation it hastens the process of decline because it demoralizes us.  It is draining to constantly live in scarcity and the shadow of death, even when we are resurrection people, being called every day to again live knowing God brings life out of death.  Shame will be one of the dynamics that prevents us from closing churches well with grace.  Shame will have us blame the synod or the last church council or the last pastor or the highway department that built a sound barrier right next to our parking lot.  There will always be responsibility among leaders.  Absolutely.  Where there has been a breach of relationship, let us repent and seek forgiveness.  Blame isn’t about responsibility or accountability.  Blame is concisely about one’s own internal emotional process.  Blame, “Is the discharge of pain” according to Brené Brown.

So let’s avoid blaming each other or our situation and: 

  1. talk about the pain , the grief, perhaps even the shame of being the generation that ‘couldn’t keep the church going.’  Name what is real.  This is harder than it sounds.  It feels safer to blame or stay in our heads than to admit in our hearts what we thought would be stable in the way we thought it would be stable isn’t as permanent as we’d hoped.  And it is OK not to do this perfectly.  You’ve never done this before.
  2. Share stories.  Tell how God worked in the good ol’ days and how God is working even now.  To have a good closing.  A holy closing.  A good-good-bye.  
  3. Remember this is a time of stripping away the adiaphora.  That has to be my favorite word from seminary.  Adiaphora; the secondary things.  This is when we are drawn back to re-discover was is core.  And what is core is God’s grace found in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  That Jesus came as Immanuel; God with us.  That God wants a relationship with us.  That God kisses your forehead each time you step into the sun.  That God soothes your heart each time a friend tells you, “it is going to be ok.”  God is active in this world.  Right.  Now.  This Christian adventure won’t be done until God says it is.
  4. Ask for what we need.  To close and end well, do you want a pew?  Do you literally want the back pew to put in your house?  Do you need to see the youth room one last time?  How many ‘You’ve run the race” hymn sings can you have?  
  5. Take care of your physical wellbeing.  We live in our heads often, but pain lives in our bodies.  Rest.  Walk.  Do yoga.  Sing.  Garden.  Feed your soul and if you don’t know what feeds your soul, find out.  

Maybe being in the shadow of death will give us permission to let go of structures and practices that don’t serve us well.  That have become shackles on our hearts.  What happens when you say, “If we are going to die, let’s die well.”  From working with folks on hospice I know wrestling with that question and authentically living into it, can make all the difference.  And in Jesus Christ, we die and rise.  We rise well; rise whole.


Works Cited

Harper, Lisa Sharon.  The Very Good Gospel:  How Everything Wrong can be Made Right.  New York: WaterBrook, 2016.