062 | Dr. Terry Wardle on the Damage of Unresolved Wounds and the Risk and Gifts of Vulnerability

May 27, 2021

Dr. Terry Wardle sits down with Carey and David to close out our focus on mental health awareness for the month of May. Together, they discuss the damage leaders can experience from unresolved woundings, the importance of lamenting ungrieved losses and the inner journey of an abiding life in Jesus.

While performance and achievement may reward leaders, offering a sense of accomplishment during trying times, some of the deepest work that must be done to avoid burnout involves internal soul care. In a recent ChurchPulse Weekly episode, Terry Wardle joins hosts Carey Nieuwhof and David Kinnman to discuss how to lead out of a place of abiding, rather than of performing, as well as the importance of learning to deal with ungrieved losses. 

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On Performing out of Woundedness
In the busyness of everyday life (a problem that has only worsened during the pandemic), many leaders have struggled to find time to invest in their own spiritual development. In light of this, Kinnaman shares Barna research on this topic, revealing that five years ago, three in four pastors said it was difficult to finding time to invest in their spiritual development. Unfortunately, this number has grown to about four in five since then. Additionally, only 18 percent of pastors in August of 2020 said they found it ‘very easy’ to find time for spiritual development, compared to 23 percent in 2016. 

One of the major factors in a leader’s spiritual development is their past experiences and wounds that follow them into adulthood, something Wardle refers to as the “unresolved woundings of the past.” Wardle reflects on his own past wounds, saying “I learned to stuff them down and move forward. I used performance and workaholism to stay away from it, but pretty soon, I slowed down and my past sped up, and that became the breaking point for me.”

Wardle cautions leaders to consider the consequences of performance as a metric for success. He notes, “Performance as a motivation for ministry is exhausting. It leads to breakdown and it’s ineffective because it creates a very bad fruit.” To deal with these past hurts, Wardle encourages leaders to seek God in prayer, asking, “Father, is there a wound? Is there a false belief? Is there an ungrieved loss in my life right now? Am I driving toward performance and achievement?””

On Core Motivations & Fears
Recent data show that pastors especially have really been wrestling with their sense of purpose in ministry. Kinnaman reports that two in five Protestant pastors (39%) say their understanding of their vocation has changed within the last year, and only 16 percent say they would strongly agree that they have a clear vision for where they think their church will be in the next five years.

Wardle offers a hopeful perspective to some of these deep wrestlings, noting the ways in which they can come out of good desires. He shares, “I believe that God has put within us core longings: to be significant, to be loved and secure to have a purpose and to be understood.  […] Many of us have turned to achievement as a way of fulfilling some of those core longings. We achieve to be significant, to have purpose and to be secure. Until we can see the inappropriate way in which we’ve connected core longings to our own activity, we just don’t move beyond it.”

When leaders are operating out of a place of abiding in the Holy Spirit instead of striving to achieve something, they are gifted with a new anointing and authority. Wardle concludes, “Seek the awakening of God. Let his Spirit open our eyes and our ears to the flow of the kingdom. All of a sudden in that experience, we move toward him with deeper abiding and the Holy Spirit begins to move through us in ways we’ve never dreamed possible.”

On Grief & Loss
Wardle shares, “I don’t think I can go into a room of pastors where I don’t sense a high degree of ungrieved loss.” He notes, “Every loss in life demands an appropriate season of grieving, whether you’ve lost your favorite person or you’ve lost your favorite pen. Grieving is a way in which we take the emotional upheaval and bring it up to the Lord. […] If we don’t let emotions up and out before God, those emotions internalize. They give us physical, psychological, and spiritual problems.”

Often, leaders try to stuff down or censor their emotions, but Wardle believes there is a need for rawness in the expression of grief. He says, “I see people grieving who have been hurt so deeply, and they try to put Christianized language on their grief, which really isn’t the language of grief. The language of grief is primitive. The language of grief comes out uncensored.”

Similarly, Wardle cautions against preemptively jumping to a place of joy before walking through lament. He says, “In my life, I tried to keep running to the doxology. I wanted to keep giving the good word, I wanted to make sure all was well, and I was trusting, but I wasn’t really dealing with a deep internal loss. We have to give people both instruction and permission in an uncensored way to let up and out what it is that they’re feeling, and then move to the doxology of God’s goodness, and God’s grace and God’s presence.”

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About the Research
Research for The State of Pastors (2016) was conducted on behalf of Pepperdine University. A total of 900 Protestant senior pastors were interviewed by telephone and online from April through December 2015. Pastors were recruited from publicly available church listings covering 90 percent of U.S. churches that have a physical address and a listed phone number or email address. Churches selected for inclusion were called up to five times at different times of the day to increase the probability of successful contact. The sample error for this study is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, at the 95% confidence level.

Minimal statistical weighting was used to calibrate the sample to known population percentages in relation to demographic variables.

COVID-19 Data 2020: Barna Group conducted this online survey among 336 Protestant Senior Pastors from August 13–17, 2020. Participants are all members of Barna Group’s Church Panel. Minimal weighting has been used to ensure the sample is representative based on denomination, region and church size.

COVID-19 Data 2021: Barna Group conducted this online survey among 412 Protestant Senior Pastors from January 22–27, 2020. Participants are all members of Barna Group’s Church Panel. Minimal weighting has been used to ensure the sample is representative based on denomination, region and church size.

Featured image by Aaron Burden on Unsplash.

About Barna
Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.

© Barna Group, 2021