My parents were graceful dancers. They often went to dance clubs and then returned home to dance a little longer around the living room. I come from a line of elegant people. So I wasn’t surprised when my parents made clear to my older sister and me that we would attend the Jeanne Borsky School of Dance. My parents believed dance was one of my callings. They said that I walked around the living room on the tips of my toes at the age of two, so we all hoped for my future stardom. As soon as my feet were strong enough to be crammed into little satin toe shoes, my mother took me to enroll in class.
In our pink tights and black leotards, fifteen delicate, bouncy girls lined up along the bar to practice our turnout. In walked Jeanne Borsky. She glided along the floor. Her hair was pinned up high on her head, and she wore thick pancake makeup, as if she were still in the spotlight on stage. She was old, yet ageless. I wanted to be graceful like Mrs. Borsky. She was perfectly balanced, flexible, and strong. This must be grace.
This moment quickly faded as we got down to the work of being graceful. The music had a beat that I found I couldn’t keep, Mrs. Borsky’s smile began to fade, and before long I felt as awkward as a young giraffe taking his first steps. I forced my body into stretches and movements that felt more like contortions than beautiful extensions.
I learned that comparison is a form of shame. In ballet training you have to look exactly like the others. We were all mercilessly compared to the best students in the class. We were shamed for not properly executing the steps, for not conveying the right feelings, for not having the right body shape, for anything short of perfection. We soon learned to do each move correctly or else.
Here is what I learned about grace (and shame) at Mrs. Borsky’s. I learned that grace can be achieved only through hard work. I learned that grace is not free: either your parents pay for the lessons or you do. I learned that grace doesn’t come naturally. I learned that I couldn’t become graceful out of my desire to dance; I had to overcome my unworthiness by righteous hard work. Only when I had achieved the perfect line, the perfect form, the perfect leap into the air, then, maybe, I could enjoy the riches of grace.
Forty years later, I am still shaking off the ill effects of the shame I learned at Jeanne Borsky’s School of Dance. And maybe you haven’t shaken off the cultural and churchtaught idea that grace must be earned through hard work and selfincrimination.
After years of studying shame and overcoming no small amount of my own, I have come to see shame and grace differently. I also see my old ballet teacher differently. Jeanne Borsky knew a lot about ballet and a lot about shame, but she didn’t really know a thing about grace. Even though her body was flexible, strong, and well-shaped, as a teacher, she was mean spirited and her behaviors were ugly. I remember looking in the mirror and thinking of myself as misshapen and inadequate. This was not the experience I had hoped for or the one my parents had wanted for me.
Jeanne was a shame-driven leader. I now wonder what experiences led her to such a place of negativity. I wonder if her dreams of stardom had fallen apart at some point in her career. Without greater self-worth, she didn’t know how to build our selfesteem along with strong and competent physiques. She couldn’t make genuine grace happen. What a shame that was!
I can only speculate on the causes of my dance teacher’s pain, but I know she is not unique in carrying and passing along shame. Shame begins in childhood and sneaks up on us during adolescence, and we hear it in the voices of our parents and peers. Sometimes we internalize those voices, and they become our own self-shaming messengers. You must learn that what you say to yourself about yourself matters. You must identify the source or sources of your shame and heal them. Once you’ve done that, you can move beyond cycles of shame that feed strongly into addictive behaviors, codependency, noxious secrets, and problematic relationships. You must also help in liberating others from their shame, be they friends, colleagues, or people in a congregation where you worship and serve.
While readers of this article come from many different theological backgrounds, I ask you to explore the shame-laden messages within your own religious teachings and practices. What we learn in Sunday school or Sabbath school and what we hear from preachers and rabbis shape our core self-esteem. Were you taught that you are a child of God, created in God’s image? Have you been repeatedly told that you have committed unpardonable sins? How you see yourself may be directly connected to religious teachings about your goodness and your shamefulness.
Many faith communities teach the doctrine of shame, often without knowing it. You may have been raised in such a congregation. For example, a core shame message in many Christian congregations is that you must be like Jesus at all times; anything less than that and you have failed. You just don’t measure up. You will never be good enough. These are the messages that people with shame are used to hearing. They feel at home with messages sent out from the pulpit, the newsletter, and worship that reinforce shame. They experience the familiarity of family within such a congregation if their own families of origin perpetuated shame. People with shame find shame-based congregations, because they are accustomed to being preached to, having fingers pointed in their direction, and the judgment of not measuring up.
You are hereby invited to become a shameless leader in order to assist others in your congregational system to find a life of grace. You can heal the shame you have likely been carrying around for far too long. This shame may be rooted in childhood when you experienced parental disapproval or abuse. It may have come into your life as a result of sexual experimentation in your teens or young adulthood. It may have followed a marriage that ended or a relationship in which you carried secrets. It may be that you have taken responsibility for someone else’s shame and made it your own.
The faith community you participate in needs your help in creating a place of joy and grace. To do this, you must learn to recognize and heal the shame of your own upbringing, to recognize shame in the behavior of other leaders and clergy around you, to reduce shame-reinforcing theology, and to provide alternative messages of hope and healing.
According to the apostle Paul, we have inherited the immeasurable riches of grace. Jesus has pleasurably lavished grace on us (Eph. 1:5–10). While many church growth experts have been trying to fix the problems of declining congregations, weary leaders who spend time and money examining their inadequacies may increase debilitating shame. The longer our list of failures grows, the more we get locked into a core belief that we are incapable of doing anything differently. Very few people have taken the step of looking underneath the rocks for the affect of shame.
In worship one morning, members of the choir, dressed in their beautiful robes, processed into the chancel area, shuffled into place so that everyone could see the director, and after hearing their pitch, began to sing. The women in the front row started singing the melody and the men in the back row came in, but they were obviously not in sync. As they plowed ahead for a few bars, their faces became flushed and distorted, their shoulders drooped, and their breathing grew shallow. The choir director waved her hands to stop the pianist and looked up at them. The choir members all held their breaths like children about to be scolded. What would she say? This could have been a moment for shame. She might have sighed and said, “Let’s try again,” exposing her frustration and their failure. Instead she said, “I want to start over, because I have heard you sing this song beautifully.” They stood up taller, they breathed more deeply, and when they began again, it went off without a hitch. They were singing from a place of grace. They were led by a grace-based leader. You can become one too.
Comments welcome on the Alban Roundtable blog
Excerpted and adapted from Shame-Less Lives, Grace-Full Congregations by Karen A. McClintock, copyright © 2012 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
Shame-Less Lives, Grace-Full Congregations
by Karen A. McClintock
In Shame-less Lives, Grace-full Congregations, author Karen McClintock invites readers to become shame-less, so they can assist others in a congregational system to find a life of joy and grace. With skilled storytelling and gentle humor, McClintock takes readers on a journey in which we learn to recognize the many forms shame takes and explore and heal the shame of our own upbringing, particularly the shame-laden messages within our own religious teachings and practices.
Healthy Disclosure: Solving Communication Quandaries in Congregations
by Kibbie Simmons Ruth and Karen A. McClintock
Knowledge is power, and the way knowledge is shared in a congregation can build up or break down community. When congregational leaders are sensitive to the ways that information should be shared, the congregation can become safe and strong. Congregational consultants Kibbie Ruth and Karen McClintock show clergy and laity how to appropriately handle information. From proper ways to respond to rumors to relating information about a staff firing to the congregation, Healthy Disclosure is filled with step-by-step ideas for handling different types of sensitive material.
Preventing Sexual Abuse in Congregations: A Resource for Leaders
by Karen A. McClintock
In this comprehensive resource, Karen McClintock gives clergy and lay leaders the tools they need to prevent sexual abuse in congregations. This book shows congregations how to protect children and vulnerable adults, prevent sexual harassment either by clergy or of clergy, and strengthen clergy families by raising awareness of the occupational and emotional risks inherent in pastoral ministry.
Practicing Right Relationship: Skills for Deepening Purpose, Finding Fulfillment, and Increasing Effectiveness in Congregations
Mary K. Sellon and Daniel P. Smith
In a book that is both profound and practical, Mary Sellon and Daniel Smith make the case that the health of churches and synagogues depends on congregations learning how to live out love in “right relationships.” Practicing Right Relationship offers theories, stories, and tools that will help congregations and their leaders learn how to build and maintain the loving relationships that provide the medium for God’s transforming work .
Your Brain Goes to Church: Neuroscience and Congregational Life
Emerging discoveries in brain science are sparking new areas of research as cutting-edge educators and psychologists are asking, “What can we learn from brain science about how we function in the world?” Bob Sitze joins the conversation with a new question: What does the human brain have to do with the beliefs, practices, and structures of congregations? Weaving together clear, accessible explanations about the workings of the human brain, Sitze shows how a congregation’s identity and behaviors are shaped by the work of individual members’ brains as well as by the “collected brains” of the congregation.
Need practical, concrete help in navigating staff supervision in your congregation? This seminar is for you!
Take home insight, tools, and a better understanding of how effective staff supervision furthers the mission of your congregation.
Stepping Up to Staffing and Supervision
Leader: Susan Beaumont, Alban Senior Consultant
March 6-8, 2012
Marywood Center for Spirituality, Jacksonville, FL
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