Over the past couple of years, God continues to ask me the same question, “Whatever happened to grace?”
As I look on my phone and read about the inevitable “fall” of a previously idolized celebrity, or religious figure, the shocked emoji’s, the retweets, which inevitably turn into a ‘trending topic’, and often, the national news—I would hear the question, “Whatever happened to grace?”
When the dust settles from yet another power struggle between myself and my pre-teen, I would hear the question, “Whatever happened to grace?” When I make a mistake, and beat myself up for being human, I again would hear the question, “Whatever happened to grace?”
Recently, I attended a chapel service at one of the universities where I work. Not realizing that this was the first chapel service of the year, it was packed with a mix of giddy freshmen, burned out seniors, exhausted but hopeful faculty and staff, and everything in between. The sermon, titled #betternews, was an inspiring reminder, especially in light of our current social climate.
But what struck me most directly was the prayer at the end of the service. The students gathered in the middle of the chapel, while the staff and faculty stood on the perimeter. The students began by turning around and praying for the staff and faculty that encompassed them. The student who led the prayer asked for “fresh courage” for the faculty, “empathy and forgiveness” from the students, and most strikingly, “To help the students understand that God is their “perfect teacher.”
To my surprise, I was moved to tears. During the prayer, I began to recount the last four years as an adjunct professor in two separate Christian communities. Although there have been many enjoyable moments, I realized that I was in a place of brokenness. God used this young man to pray for something that I could not even articulate at the time. I felt hurt, exhausted, angry, beat-up, and found myself dreading the new semester.
My passion to lead a new generation and commune with fellow mental health advocates, who are also brothers and sisters in Christ, was almost non-existent. In fact, for some time now, I’ve often felt like a stranger in a foreign land.
Now, as a student of human behavior, I would like to believe that I dwell in a perpetual state of consciousness. However, it is probably fruitless to try to convince you that this illusion bears any truth. The reality is, I was naïve. I felt “hood-winked” and “bamboozled;” experiencing feelings from shock to perceived trickery; from anger to sadness; and sadly, acceptance.
Certainly, this wasn’t what Elisabeth Kubler-Ross had in mind when she proposed the “Five Stages of Grief,” but could it apply? Or is this an accidental discovery of a new identity developmental model…Christian style? Whatever Ross’ original intent, I definitely found myself experiencing a loss; a loss of the commune in my community.
I realized that to me, the student’s prayer of ‘fresh courage’ meant once again facing a unilateral idea of grace. As leaders, we are often called to pray for those we lead, professionally, as well as personally. The people we influence, teach, and guide, experience loss, pain, tragedy, and all the “isms” that society has to offer. The truth is, when these life issues arise, they often leave leaders wrestling with how much grace to extend to those under their authority in distress.
Often, I have sat grieving with a student about their life’s circumstances, all the while asking myself if I should grant them an extension. How can I show that I care for my brother or sister, while at the same time hold them accountable to their responsibilities? More specifically in counseling, how much grace should I show, knowing that, ultimately, this experience can affect their future clients? Are we all not broken as our clients will be?
As I began to process the student’s prayer, I realized that this (imperfect) process of extending grace might not be reciprocal. In fact, the truth stated in James 3:1-2 speaks to how we often view those who teach [lead] us: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.”
The reality, however, is that leaders also experience hurt, tragedy, and loss, and are also victims of the very same “isms” affecting those they lead. But even more, we not only share in these experiences and humanness, but we also share the same Father. We are part of the same spiritual family; all brothers and sisters in Christ. We, who admittedly have accepted the duties to lead and instruct, will never be ‘perfect teachers’. But thankfully, we have One who is.
My words today are meant to serve as a reminder that just as therapy serves as a microcosm of our client’s interpersonal relationships, it also reveals the counselor’s interpersonal influences.
When the many faces of transference emerge from your client, make no mistake; it will be the practice of grace that will help you respond to the hurting other, rather than their misguided verbal daggers. If we are to presume that what we see in therapy serves as a reflection of how we are interpersonally, then in the context of grace, would it not serve us well to practice such grace with our ‘communal others’? So that the requirement of grace can then be present in the counseling relationship? So, I ask you, why not start in the classroom, or your place of work, with those who lead in your church?
Your clients depend on it.
Bio: Dr. Mary Hendrickson (Ed.D) is Adjunct Professor of Clinical Mental Health Counseling at Moody Theological Seminary, and Adjunct Professor of Counseling Psychology at North Park University in Chicago, IL. She is a marital and family therapist, working with individuals, families, and couples from diverse backgrounds. Dr. Hendrickson’s research focuses in the field of race psychology, with a particular emphasis on the psychological and emotional effects of colorism within the African American community. In her spare time, she enjoys learning Spanish, as well as deepening her knowledge in her newest area of interest, neuro-counseling. She is married to Dr. Craig Hendrickson, her husband of 17 years, and together they have a 12-year-old daughter, Amaya.