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Wounded Healers
We must not wait to become perfect before we help others. We can help them as fellow sufferers, but also with a strong and clear sense of our limitations.

By now we've all heard the latest about Ted Haggard, former pastor of New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and former head of the National Association of Evangelicals. Brother Haggard—and, as a fellow Christian, he is my brother—was found to have been having sexual relations with a male prostitute in Denver. He resigned in disgrace, and has since been in counseling.

… what stresses could possibly drive a "completely heterosexual" man into the arms of a male lover.

According to the February 6, 2007 issue of the Denver Post, the four pastors in charge of overseeing New Life Church in the wake of this disaster made a surprising—to some, an astonishing, and to others, an absurd—announcement. One of them, Rev. Tim Ralph of Larkspur, Colorado, was quoted as explaining Haggard's three-year relationship with the man in these terms: Haggard "is completely heterosexual. That is something he discovered. It was the acting-out situations where things took place. It wasn't a constant thing."

Columnists have had a field day with this recent announcement, of course, with many wondering what stresses could possibly drive a "completely heterosexual" man into the arms of a male lover. Others have simply gotten the story wrong, saying that Haggard is claiming to have been "cured" of homosexuality in just three months, rather than the years that might be expected for rebuilding such a basic component of one's personality—if indeed such a thing is possible at all. The media circus continues.

In all of this, I am reminded of the late Henri Nouwen, the superb spiritual writer who taught at Harvard and Yale before spending his last years in pastoral service at L'Arche, Jean Vanier's community for the developmentally disabled. Nouwen also wrestled with homosexuality—"wrestled" with it because his religious beliefs, like Haggard's, diagnosed it as a deformation of the personality.

Also like Haggard, Nouwen maintained a position of spiritual advisor to many. His sexual difficulty did not disqualify him from offering his considerable gifts to others—nor should Haggard's have kept him from pastoral service.

Unlike Haggard, however, Nouwen refused to engage in preaching or public activism against homosexuality. He avoided, that is, any risk of incurring the taint of hypocrisy, which is a far more serious problem—in the Bible and in the public eye—than is homosexuality.

Nouwen gave us the lovely phrase, the "wounded healer." Some have exploited this term—as all lovely things are vulnerable to exploitation—to suggest that you can be entirely comfortable with all manner of sins and still be a spiritual leader. You can be proud, you can be lustful, you can be greedy, you can wrathfully dismiss dissenting colleagues, and on down through the seven deadlies—but hey, you're a "wounded healer" and darned popular—in other words, "blessed in your ministry." So it's okay, right?

No, says Nouwen, by word and by example. Serve, yes, offering your God-given talents to make God's beloved world a better place. But serve out of consciousness of your wound, which means to serve in humility, in compassion, in patience. "There but for the grace of God go I."

Nouwen's insight is that, clergy or not, we must not wait to become perfect before we help others. We can help them, that is, precisely as fellow sufferers, with genuine fellow feeling—but also with a strong and clear sense of our limitations. And even if you've never been a fan of Ted Haggard, nor of the populist celebrity-evangelicalism that he exemplifies, you can still cultivate sympathy for him, for his family, and for his church.

And, thanks to Brother Nouwen, we can also better recognize that our wounds may not be healed right away, nor even over months or years. According to Nouwen's theology, God may well allow some of those wounds remain a while—for as we endure their pain, their shame, and their debility, we may be given the gift of remembering just how needy each of us is, and how great the possibilities of restoring love.

John G. Stackhouse, Jr., is Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Theology and Culture at Regent College.

Originally published in Sightings, the Martin Marty Center, University of Chicago Divinity School, February 22, 2007.




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