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Ministry, wholeness and healing

Ministry, wholeness and healing

A class discussion during the first week of my second semester of seminary left me feeling unsettled. One of my classmates nonchalantly remarked that she was attending seminary to search for mental and spiritual healing. Several classmates quickly echoed her sentiments. I dissented. I was not attending seminary to work on personal issues. Instead, I had reluctantly concluded that God was calling me to ordained ministry because that ministry was how I could do the most to make the world a more just, peaceful place. Seminary, I hoped, would provide the knowledge and skills to equip me for effective ministry.


At some points in the conversation, I sensed that at least a few of my classmates regarded personal brokenness as a prerequisite for ministry. That idea conflicted with my self-image. Although I have never considered myself perfect or whole, I still had enough self-awareness and confidence to recognize that I, a child of privilege with reasonably good health, had the relational competence, education, and marketable skills to live well without attending seminary. My understanding of call emphasized service and not self. Any personal benefits that might accrue from ministry seemed incidental rather than essential.


My efforts to convince my seminary classmates that Jesus’ power to heal the sick was not dependent upon Jesus’ being ill or broken failed. I have occasionally wondered what happened to my classmate who attended to seminary to find healing. I hope she found the path to health that she sought without becoming an unintentional source of hurt for others.


However, during almost four decades spent in collegial ministry, much of it in a supervisory capacity, I almost inevitably observed problems when the sick tried to heal the sick. Sometimes it worked. Most often, it ended in tragedy, e.g., as occurred in the ministries of a former Suffragan Bishop of Maryland and that of a gifted colleague at the Naval Academy who was arrested for public indecency.


Thankfully, effective ministry does not require health, wholeness, or perfection. If it did, the Church would not have any ministers, lay or ordained. Nevertheless, effective ministry requires awareness of one’s disease(s), brokenness, or imperfection while having sufficient health (1) to set and keep appropriate boundaries to avoid harming others, (2) to be a channel of the grace that heals self and others, and (3) to be an icon in and through which others meet God.


Twenty years ago, a laicized Roman Catholic priest, a former vocation director for his diocese, told me that a major reason he had left the priesthood was that his superiors, faced with declining vocations and desperately needing priests, repeatedly lowered the standards of candidates for holy orders. This became intolerable when his superiors directed him to accept candidates they knew had serious mental health problems.


Pressures to accept individuals and move them through the ordination process are growing in The Episcopal Church (TEC). Even though TEC currently has no shortage of clergy, too few are willing to serve small congregations, particularly in rural or geographically remote areas. Consequently, some dioceses are developing alternative ordination paths. Hopefully, these dioceses will maintain TEC’s historic insistence on refusing to ordain those with significant mental, physical, and spiritual impairments. Admittedly, TEC’s screening never identified every troubled individual; furthermore, clergy sometimes develop problems after ordination. Yet the process, as I know from watching hundreds of chaplains from faith groups without similar screening requirements, is essential for safeguarding the health of the Church and well-being of its members. Concurrently, a few diocesan ordination processes appear reluctant to impose stringent requirements for mental, physical, and spiritual health on putative ordinands, wanting to honor the call the individual and sponsors think that they have heard.


TEC’s continuing numerical decline will inevitably increase pressures to generate ordinands. Ironically, the necessity of ensuring healthy ordinands varies inversely with institutional health. A more stable, institutionally flourishing Church has far greater capacity for identifying clergy with problems, minimizing the harm those individuals can do, and guiding them into wellness programs and positions that provide close supervision. A weaker institution has less resilience, less capacity for averting harm from dysfunctionality, and more pressure to accept aspirants.


My sporadic, though continuing, reflection on classmates’ explanation that they attended seminary to find healing has deepened my appreciation for metaphors about Jesus that connect brokenness and ministry. Brokenness in these metaphors does not connote illness or imperfection. Illness and imperfection may help a minister to stay grounded in his/her humanity, reveal the minister’s need for healing, and encourage awareness that s/he journeys as a fellow pilgrim. But this brokenness can never displace or replace God as the source of healing.


Instead, brokenness in metaphors that connect brokenness and ministry connotes Jesus giving himself in love to us: his life poured out (spent) for us; his wounds (physical and emotional pain suffered because of his uncompromising love) being a source of healing for us; his emptying himself (becoming human) that we might become whole. Through his being broken for us (both his passion and in Holy Communion), we enter into the health of his wholeness. God’s love flowed then and now through Jesus to heal the sick and restore the broken to life.


My ongoing prayer asks that I may be broken (spent, emptied, or poured out) so that the love of God and neighbor may increase. In living into that prayer, I have experienced life, love, and God more deeply than I could have imagined when a seminarian.



George Clifford is an ethicist and retired priest in Honolulu, HI. He served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years, recently authored Just Counterterrorism, and blogs at Ethical Musings.


image : “Healing” by Brian Jekel


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Jay Croft

Nope. Plenty of hymns have references to the senses. I don’t mind a congregation of hearing people singing “Open your ears,” but if there are Deaf people regularly attending services there, it would be very insensitive to use this hymn.

I like the third verse of “O Little Town of Bethlehem:

How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given;
So God imparts to human hearts the blessing of his heaven.
No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin
Where meek souls receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.

Jay Croft

Ah, David–language acquisition is a very complex subject beyond my area of expertise. Linguists, psychologists and others have studied this extensively, including language acquisition by Deaf persons.

One grows up with a “primary language” of some sort. That’s usually the language communicated in the home, to a very young child, verbally. If the auditory sense is not there, then other ways of communication must be developed. This is usually a sign language system, which is visual.

Some people have an ability to learn a second, third or twentieth language, but usually not of “native speaker” level.

Spoken and written English is extremely complex and even hearing people mess it up. How much more difficult it is for a Deaf person who has never heard the language?

On Tuesday nights I tutor English for high school students at the Maryland School for the Deaf. A recent student is from a South American country where Spanish is spoken in the home. Here he is in America, having to learn English the hard way!

Jay Croft

Further, the bias against being Deaf is something akin to “white privilege.” The world is geared towards hearing. PA systems, but nothing visual unless it’s by court order. Despite Federal and state laws granting equal access, often a Deaf person must fight to get a sign language interpreter. (Some years ago I had to sue a hospital for this failure.)

Church services are focused on the auditory. Dim lighting, culturally insensitive hymns (“open your ears, all ye people”), rattling off the Creed at 90 miles per hour. It’s no wonder that many Deaf persons simply leave the Church out of their lives.

It was only last year that a diocese elected a Deaf person to Diocesan Council–Tom Hattaway in the Diocese of Washington. This is probably the first time in the history of the Episcopal Church that this has happened.

David Allen

So if we had one blind person in our congregation, we should drop all references in speech to seeing? “Do you see what I mean?”

Deaf – hearing? Wheelchair bound – standing, walking, running? Or we are culturally insensitive?

Jay Croft

Way back in 1876 a Deaf man, Henry
Winter Syle, was brought up for ordination. A number of bishops objected. But the Rt. Rev. William Bacon Stevens, of the Diocese of Pennsylvania, declared that Syle could communicate with his parishioners better than any of the bishops who objected, and proceeded to ordain him.

Syle was ordained a priest in 1883.

From that time onward, a number of Deaf persons have been ordained. I am the 41st, having been ordained deacon and priest in 1969.

David Allen

That you are deaf was not something that I knew about you. Thank you for sharing.

You chose to communicate in written exact English. Not every deaf person whom I have encountered choses to do that.

David Allen

Why would the point a person became deaf affect whether they can learn to use exact English? It appears that you are saying that English can’t be taught non-verbally.

Jay Croft

It’s not always a choice, David. I was not born deaf, and became deaf at age five from spinal meningitis. Thus I had already had a foundation in the English language.

Many Deaf (note capital D) persons who were born deaf or lost their hearing in very early life do not have such a foundation. Thus their command of English may not be complete.

This is not at all a reflection on their intelligence, of course. Some of the most brilliant Deaf persons I know have American Sign Language as their primary language. It is a distinct language with more linguistic similarities to Chinese than to English.

Rod Gillis

@ David Allen, “the US version of that prayer says wretchedness (Traditional & Contemporary), not brokenness, two different concepts in my mind.”

Yes, the Canadian contemporary collect in the B.A.S. says ‘brokenness’, but the traditional collect in the 1959 BCP still has ‘wretchedness’. I suspect whoever was translating the new collect thought ‘brokenness’ a kinder gentler version of ‘wretchedness’ in relation to our lamentable sinfulness.

But I think you have a point notwithstanding. However, on exactly that point, ‘Brokenness’ is widely used in church land vocabulary; but it is ambiguous /equivocal in said usage as your observation suggests. To put it plainly, when people use the term it is often unclear what is meant. The author of the article is seems to be wrestling with exactly that.

Ann Fontaine

Those who become priests without work on their personal healing often become abusers through their unhealed or unrecognized pathology. Having heard too many sermons of clergy working out their mid-life crises I hope that screening can get people on the path to wholeness. Seminary is not a doctor or therapist. Nor is the congregation one serves.

Leslie Marshall

The local cemetery attests that Our God never promises physical (which includes mental illness) healing to His Children.

He promises them spiritual healing & eternal Life with Him.

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