Category Archives: Leadership

Healing and Wounding: Personal is Political

During my Master of Divinity program at Claremont, we budding ministers are often reminded that ministerial misconduct will most often occur when a minister is not getting their needs for freedom, fun and belonging met. When one’s needs aren’t met, one get’s resentful. When one get’s resentful, one  make’s bargains with the responsibilities and commitments that are made to maintain collegiality, transparency and clarity of roles within organizations. The greatest way to avoid ministerial misconduct is to make sure your needs are getting met from a wide array of places—to have a life beyond the work you do.

Basically– your personal life will always have an impact on your political/ministerial life and vice a versa. 

In spiritual communities, in activist organizations, we know that the personal is political—that the work is not separate or compartmentalized from our lives, but a committed, integrated lifestyle that intentionally makes choices that challenge the unjust and strives for wholeness rather than fragmentation. When one is committed to this, one sees the connections between their food, their intimacy, their transportation, their housing tract, their elected leaders, their language, their income, their children’s schools and their choice of work in the world.

There is a feeling of inconsistency when this vision for radical integration meets the realities of corporate life—by which I mean, the organization, church or business modeled from the corporate model of governance (which nearly all of us are in an effort to receive the benefits and protections of aligning with some form of “rule of law”). In this world, to maintain a legal integrity and security that requires an outlined transparency of power, we trade in the organic messiness of real relationship for the legitimacy of corporate governance. This is a trade off many have already discussed within radical social movements and organizations (read The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex). However, where has that left us?

In some ways, it has left us very hurt. We experience this hurt when non-profit leaders leave and move to other organizations—were they committed to us, the people, the vision—or just the job? We experience it when we play with the organic messiness, then find ourselves relying on the legal mandates of our rarely-touched Bylaws when something “goes wrong” and we need something stronger to “fix it” (i.e. there are no bylaws for breakups, but that can be what this all feels like). We experience this hurt when ministers and congregations have conflict and ministers or congregants leave—were the relationships real in the first place, or were they interchangeable for the next “called” person in the pulpit? We experience it as leaders, feeling shame at our burn out or how tired we are of our jobs… I mean, why did we start this in the first place?

Two trains of thought reunite here:

1) Where and how do activists/ministers get their personal needs met in the development of deeply integrated lives? (i.e. the personal is political)

2) How do organizations, churches and social movements make decisions about the way they will embrace the organic messiness of integration (where people get their needs met in the midst of the work) in cities and countries dictated by a corporate way of rule that is often disinterested in personal needs? (i.e. the political is the political in an effort to protect the personal)

These are the sorts of questions that take conferences, lifetimes, solidarity circles and therapy—but here are a couple leads:

1) Healed people heal people, wounded people hurt people. Work on your healing if you want to be a healer. This is not to say people are perfect. I don’t think “healed” is perfect—I do think healed is honest. For example, do we want “perfect”  leaders (Note: this is impossible, so it would be a lie in the first place), or do we want leaders who admit fault ? Name their own wounds out loud? Do their own internal work? Name it when they are acting from it? I’d opt for the latter. I’m not one to romanticize the “wounded healer” concept– I think all of us are wounded healers, but we do our best healing when we model what healing feels like, looks like, struggles like. Let’s aim for being healed healers. Therapy can be expensive, but not always—spiritual directors, ministers, counselors, chaplains are beginnings to the internal work that can lead to therapists who are affordable, accessible or nearby. Knowing your needs is the first real step to naming your needs, claiming your needs and integrating your needs.

If you are in social work, non-profit work or ministry of any sort– you should have a therapist, spiritual director, mentor or personal coach who knows your depths, tracks your patterns and keeps a mirror up for you.

2) Healed organizations heal people, wounded organizations hurt people. I’m a firm believer that the organization is a reflection of the people inside it—there is a mutual impact that organizations can have on their people and people on their organizations. As we know, organizations are made up of people—they are the face of the organization or the church or the ministry or the movement. We can learn a lot about designing healing organizations from acknowledging some of the ways we create healing people…

  1.  PERSONAL WORK IS WELCOMED: organizations cultivate a culture that acknowledges what happens (things don’t just happen—we make meaning out of them). Reconciliation of any sort necessitates a truth-telling where people’s stories and experiences are honored—this requires individual people to have done enough of their own internal work to reach a point where stuff gets acknowledged (i.e. non-profit chaplains, folks trained in Council and therapists would be God’s gift to the future of our movements);
  2. GROUP WORK IS PART OF THE CULTURE: when “bad” things happen, we talk about them and when “good” things happen, we talk them—issues that are “hush hush” become issues that build resentment—building processes for talking about the hard things helps prepare people and build some sense of consent for how the tough stuff gets processed (more on how one might do this in future blogs, I promise)
  3. RITUAL ALLOWS FOR NEW STORIES OF “ME” and “US”: we process grief and create meaning through community and rituals of belonging (ritual and care is not something that gets in the way of our work, but improves our work and creates resilient bonds between people; this also allows what happens to become part of people’s stories and integrated into who “we” are.

Organizations build upon people developing their sense of self worth models what it means to live out our inherent worth. If organizations become places where authenticity happens and is cultivated, they also become places where we might reveal more of who we are—which includes naming the boundaries in ways that invite authenticity rather than a sense of artificiality.

But more on that side of things later.

Overall, rest assured: your personal wounds will show up in your political life. Your political wounds will impact your personal healing. How about we start thinking about organizations as places where we learn new ways of healing, rather than places where we act from the wound unconsciously?