Pastor Teresa Smith
Director of New Pathways Ministry
Pastor Teresa Smith is the Director of New Pathways Ministry and a pastor sent to struggling churches to help inspire and lead them. When she decided to tell her story about being abused, her life changed. Find out why she thinks sharing our stories, and not keeping them secret, is helpful, provides hope, and leads to healing.
How did you decide to become a pastor and help people?
The decision was to follow Jesus, and then God wouldn't let me do otherwise. When I preached during a summer internship with a clergy person, I felt the Holy Spirit move through me. But I said I didn't want to preach. God has a way of working you over if you're open to it, and I was. There's a very strong sense of calling for me. We read in Ephesians: "As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received" (4:1).
Being a pastor is both the best thing and the hardest thing I've done. It's an incredible privilege to walk with people in their moments of great pain, anxiety, or crisis. Doing so has only been strengthened by my decision to tell people about my battle with depression.
What was the effect of speaking about depression?
After I first spoke in one of my sermons about depression from a personal experience, someone came up and told me about a struggle she had been having. She said, "If a pastor struggles with mental illness, I guess I must be okay."
One of the things that launched me into my study of the psalms of lament during my Doctor of Ministry studies was a mandatory sexual ethics training seminar for pastors. I started having flashbacks of when I had been sexually abused during my college years. Dealing with the flashbacks from twenty years ago brought the psalms of lament alive to me.
How did the psalms of lament help you?
For years, I struggled with how God could have allowed this to happen to me. I felt horrible, worthless, and surrounded by darkness. I could understand suffering from a head standpoint -- Jesus suffered on the cross. But from a heart standpoint, it ripped me apart.
The psalms of lament spoke to me. As centuries have passed, we've used them less and less -- maybe from a fear that people will feel or do worse. But as I read the psalms, I found that I was not alone. For thousands of years, people have suffered. Psalm 88 ends with the statement that "darkness is my closest companion" (88:18). My struggle was not a new thing. The psalms of lament actually lead us in the direction of healing because the first step to healing is to give voice to what's happening inside.
It's wonderful that you focus so much on healing in your ministry. How does giving voice to our stories lead to healing? My passion in life is to give people hope and courage to move through the painful parts in life. We'd rather forget that we've been through something, but it shapes us and makes us a symbol of hope for others.
I realized that if I share a painful thing in my life, instead of making it a secret, then God brings healing. Someone came up to me after a sermon in which I shared my story, and said, "I have been waiting for you all my life." There have been studies of trauma on the brain, which show that the trauma actually gets smaller when you tell your story. The goal is to have the traumatic event become part of your story rather than your whole story.
Telling my story set me free from the sense of shame and embarrassment. It empowered me, changing me from victim to survivor, and from survivor to victor in Jesus Christ.
You've gone through a lot.
I think the average person has, but hasn't been given the courage to say it out loud. Many people keep things very secret. Sometimes people think they're protecting themselves, but they do so at a price. Society places value on what other people think, so people try to protect themselves from being hurt. But the skeletons we keep hurt us.
How do people get the courage to stop keeping things secret?
I believe what gives people the courage to talk is hearing other people tell their stories without shame. In the same tone of voice that we use to say, "I'm going out to get a gallon of milk," we need to be able to share the horrible things that happened to us. This helps those who are struggling get to a place where trauma is just a part of their lives and not their whole life.
How do you voice it so that it becomes only part of your story and not the whole of you?
I describe it like this: When you're on the road of suffering, you come to an intersection that looks like a T. You can either go to bitterness and stuckness, or you can go to God. As long as you hold onto the problem, touch it, and go over it secretly, you just reinforce it and keep it large in your life.
You have to give the suffering to God. Often we hand something over to God, and then take it back again. So we just have to keep handing it over to God again and again, until whatever it is rests in God's hands. Generally, this handing over is a process. It's also a decision we make that we want healing, and we don't want our identity to be that tragedy. We want our identity to be the follower of Christ. And when we first give voice to our story, we need to tell it to someone who is able to hear and honor it.
If we want to be that someone who will hear and honor another's story, what do we need to do?
The way to help other people heal is to listen. We're a culture that doesn't know how to listen. We need to listen to what the other person is telling us without overreacting or becoming overwhelmed by the story. We don't judge their story. We just allow them to tell their story, listen to them, honor the story, and acknowledge their feelings. I can hold up my hands, listen to your story, know it's not mine, and let it run out through my fingers into God's green earth where He will receive it. We are not the healers. We don't get to choose the speed at which people heal. People need to proceed at their own pace.
You're certainly coming from a place of self-worth and knowledge. That must help you help others.
I do have a deep sense of peace and certainty. I didn't always have it. I rely heavily on the psalms of lament for inspiration and healing. Certainly, unexpected things happen in my work. Thankfully, the majority of unexpected things are when the Holy Spirit moves, and people are set free and are able to say the things that they never thought they could say because there's someone to listen to them. This is where Romans 5:3-5 (NIV) comes to life:
…we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.