Tag Archives: Christians

Self-loathing, suicide, seminary

People hate, hurt, and kill themselves at seminary. I’m not writing this to attack seminaries, but to dispel notions that seminarians have their shit together more than anyone else. We’re broken people, too.

A friend told me last week that she had been considering suicide. Not all the time, but occasionally. She might still be. I love her a lot, she has good friends, and she’s doing better in her classes this semester than last. But all the same emptiness and self-hate surge through her life. She made relationship decisions she wasn’t proud of last semester, ones that reverberate still. Family hasn’t been very supportive. Thoughts of finding work and paying off her amassed debt after graduating are depressing.

A recent study conducted by Duke showed that ministers are twice as likely to suffer from depression than the general population (Clergy More Likely to Suffer from Depression, Anxiety). The reasons for this are many and I don’t really want to get into them all here. I think a lot of it though comes from unreal expectations/thoughts that laypeople have of their “Christian leaders”. And I hope to disabuse them of some of these beliefs.

It seems the primary belief to address is that Christian leaders are qualitatively different from the rest of us. This explains how they can do so much, and have energy to comfort so many hurting people and effectively minister to believers and non-believers alike while still looking good and raising decent children. If this is what you think, you need to think again. I would say look again, but as argued in my last post (The abuse of sharing “my testimony”), you don’t have a right to your leader’s personal life and depending on the situation and leadership style it’s good for the leader to have some distance from her flock.

Christian leaders are just people. Your favorite one probably verbally abuses his children when parishioners are gone or masturbates over hardcore porn when her husband is out or has trouble mustering the courage to ask his neighbors to put their dog inside when it’s barking like crazy. If you have the opportunity to get to experience the hospitality of Christian leaders, I advise you to take it. I have had this privilege, with some “spiritual giants” of our generation. More beneficial than receiving strings of spiritual pearls of wisdom or fare of godly conversation, I came to see my heroes were just as flawed, backwards, broken and normal as I was.

I heard recently that the two groups CAPS, Duke’s counseling/psychological services center (I’ve found it helpful: http://studentaffairs.duke.edu/caps) sees most are Divinity School students and PhD students. Yes, seminarians are messed-up, perhaps more so than other people. But I like that they know it. And I hope we can grow in that knowledge, and the people we serve can appreciate it.

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The abuse of sharing “my testimony”

Christians love to share their testimonies, or life stories, or whatever you want to call it. These stories range in depth and scope depending on audience but they usually cover before you choose to believe and follow Christ and after, centering on Christ’s redemptive work in the middle. Christians share testimonies for a few reasons: to share their faith with a non-believer, to bolster the faith of another believer. What I have participated in most has been sharing testimonies for the purpose of getting “real”, being vulnerable with a small group I was participating in through choice (e.g. a Christian ministry) or compulsion (e.g. mandated by work or school). The intention is that, through showing who we all really are, we will better understand and love one another.

The intentions – increased love and understanding – are well and good. But the means? Is it really necessary to share my testimony in the way it is generally expected to accomplish these ends? Or do the ends even justify the means? Allow me to argue that small group testimony sharing as generally practiced is abusive.

It is abusive because the expectation is that you will give others some means to understand you better whether they merit this personal knowledge or not. That you all accept Jesus as Lord does not qualify you all to know each other personally. The idea is strange: we share the same presuppositions, we claim to have a mutual friend named Jesus, so we ought to spill all our beans to each other.

I am not arguing that privacy or secrets are somehow better than disclosure. The inability to let others into your life must surely be problematic for anyone desiring to thrive as a social being. Furthermore, there may be something powerful in confession, or at least discussing our inner thoughts with others, to help us reform our peccadilloes or idiosyncrasies. I am arguing that the information of who touched you when you were younger, or what makes your heart sing or why your father went to prison is information no one else has a right to, and thus small group testimony sharing operates on false and potentially destructive premises.

In small group settings there is a lot of pressure to perform, to be real, to expose your dirty laundry with all of its stains. The result is that many people feel pressured to say things they should not have to say or simply should not say or they end up spinning yarns that deceive others and conceal themselves. I love honesty. I love truth. But I’ll echo Bonhoeffer and say that truth belongs to those who deserve it.

I like Duke’s small groups and I like the idea of creating a vulnerable, authentic community. But I think the idea of “testimony time” needs some re-thinking. What would you recommend?