The Limited Value of Regret

This past weekend, I listened in and participated on a podcast hosted by a close friend of mine and featuring another friend. The subject related to religious abuse and how leaders of Church ministries sometimes use recognized manipulation techniques to coerce people into “accepting Jesus”.

Then someone mentioned Christian summer camps and I felt hot in the face. I was a guy who manipulated teens for 11 years as a teen camp director!

At the time, I was a pastor in Montana, but I also helped to work with a summer camp. I realize now that my great ideas about how to get the gospel truth across to teens used techniques that manipulated them. I would subject them to late nights, constant energy-draining adventure games, emotional music, and testimonials designed to appeal to their emotional center. We started the camps on a Monday and the climax of the week was Thursday night.

By that last evening, the music, the tiredness, the stories, and the appeal wore down the will of the campers. Often on those Thursday night climactic meetings, more than 50% of the kids would be crying and “committing their lives to Jesus”. I didn’t analyze what I was doing because it all felt justified if we could help them escape hell.

Which is ironic, since I have never believed in hell.

But I do remember one girl. She had responded to the Thursday night altar calls for three straight years. The fourth year, her last year of high school, she told me that she wasn’t coming to camp. When I asked if she had a job that summer, she hesitated.

“Pastor Mike, it isn’t that. I really don’t like what that camp does to me. I feel like my mind isn’t working by the end of the week, and I make commitments I normally wouldn’t make. I don’t want to let you do that to me again.”

That was my last year directing Teen camp. I knew after hearing her disclose her experiences that I was in the wrong. Hearing it again on the podcast drove home the point to me.

Lately, I have been facing up to many regrets. Six years ago, my 37 year career as a pastor ended. Since then, I have devoted myself to providing full-time trauma therapy for clients. And, even though I have had many doubts about faith and doctrine through the years, I still kept my denominational credentials active. Even after I left pastoring they licensed me as an area therapist if I gave discounted therapy to pastors and missionaries.

Last month, they ended that relationship with me. Since that time, I have been doing a review of my life. During these reviews, I occasionally regret the decision to ever be part of the Church or to be any type of religious leader. But, I find the part of me that wants to regret who I’ve been has a very narrow-minded viewpoint.

I believe Regret comes from a Part of us that seeks to protect and defend our lives. This part feels if we analyze our mistaken decisions, we will eventually emerge from that analysis wiser and more capable.

And that would probably work too—if we were nine years of age. But when adults live in regret, especially as they get closer to or past retirement age, the Regret part captivates their thinking and brings despair. The older a person is when the regrets start, the more this part blends with the core of who one is and hinders forward movement.

Therefore, regret is something we do with ourselves. As anthropologist, Krystal D’Costa says:

Regret is a personal assessment of perceived external judgment. It cannot be assigned, like blame. Regret is something we take upon ourselves. And the human tendency is to assume the worst: “People routinely overestimate the emotional impact of negative events”.

“Anthropology in Practice” 2011

We think the purpose of regret is to cause us to hone our skills at better decision-making. But it doesn’t work that way. As philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard remarked:

I see it all perfectly; there are two possible situations – one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it – you will regret both!

“Either/Or: A Fragment of Life” by Soren Kierkegaard

What Kierkegaard is saying is that it is possible we would have found regret in any path taken. There is no guarantee that different decisions would have made our lives better.

There is no real point to regret as adults. We are no longer the person who made those decisions earlier in our lives. Since we are different now, we would naturally not make the same choices most of the time. We don’t need regret to school us on any of that.

In my case, much of my decision-making as a teen and 20-something was firmly rooted in Complex PTSD. Living out of that trauma, I decided to become a pastor. I will explore the reasons in a moment; but I am now choosing to look at the young man who decided to become a pastor and choosing to have compassion on him. He was working through substantial C-PTSD and was doing the best he could do.

Since I left church work several years ago, I have spent too many wasted hours in regret. It has only served to make me bitter and confused.

So I’m taking a different approach now. I choose not to regret the years I spent as a pastor. Instead, I am journaling the many ways I made good decisions in that process, or at least had good intentions behind my decisions.

As a survivor of childhood neglect, bad parental decisions, and early complex PTSD from foster homes, I developed a manic need for community. If someone showed love or even significant affection toward me, I became attached to them. Granted, it was a very insecure attachment, but it gave me an emotional landing spot. When a church youth group accepted me at age 14, I totally committed to them. God, theology, the Bible, and church structure and life were part of that package, and I embraced it all.

I wanted to be loved. I also had a talent for convincing others to join with the Jesus movement–called Evangelism– and I was encouraged to go to Bible College to do this full-time.

At Bible College, I found a more intense love from people. We were all heading into some kind of ministry, and they accepted me and lifted me up as a leader among them. Since I needed this acceptance and admiration so much, I pushed aside many of my doubts about the Bible and about Christianity as an institution. And I had many of those.

But love was a bigger need.

As Dr. William Glasser says in his book “Choice Theory”, other than safety/security, the need for love and belonging is paramount in our minds. We will set aside our other needs in order to secure love. So, as I look back on the 21 year old who decided to become a bible translator and then a pastor, I have compassion and love for him. He was securing his need for belonging as best as he could. He didn’t do anything wrong.

I am so proud of that young pastor who fought through his doubts about the inerrancy of Scripture and chose to translate every text he preached over those 37 years from the original Greek and Hebrew. I remember he sought diligently to keep the meaning to the original readers intact. And when he stopped believing the Old Testament had any relevance to modern Christians, he still used it to shed light on the cultural milieu of the Ancient Near East. He was a good teacher and steadfastly kept his integrity.

I know why he lived in poverty for most of his years as a pastor. I know why he opted out of Social Security even though it now means I will not receive it as I retire. I know why he lived in small, remote towns when he could have preached in large metropolitan pulpits. He wanted to be authentic and he wanted to impress God with his self-sacrifice. I know why he gave up to 20% of his money to church and missions work every month, even though it meant they had trouble buying food. He did it so he could sleep at night. He believed God required this of him before he could ask anyone else to sacrifice.

Bless his near-sighted soul. I have no regrets in a single penny he spent. He spent it as wisely as he knew how at the time.

I have compassion on him for working one 10-year stretch of 60+ hour work weeks. He was getting a counseling degree, raising four children, pastoring a growing church, and counseling up to 20 people a week. I have compassion on him for never completing his three year Masters degree and for not finishing the required hours for licensure. I have compassion on him for giving up vacation time to do therapy with others, and for spending his own money to get certifications for trauma therapy. In all of this, he felt this was the way he could make his maximum impact for God in this world.

I am proud that he worked with over 200 victims of sexual assault in churches. I am proud that he worked with over 100 of those churches to seek compensation, therapy, and apologies. Even though only two churches truly helped the victims to the degree that most advocates consider appropriate, he kept working. He believed that every victim needs an advocate. He did this even though it eventually got him kicked out of one district and eventually led to the denomination removing him for good.

The Me of today has given the Regret Part a new assignment. This Regret part is now going to help me appreciate and thank every previous iteration of who I used to be and to find a way to celebrate the many years he gave to his work.

Deconstruction and Our New Core Self

I taught a course to teens on how to write Adventure Novels. In that style, there are several foundational rules. One of these is the concept that the adventure itself must alter the nature and focus of the main character.

As an example, let’s look at the story “The Lord of the Rings” and the main character, Frodo Baggins. Though it is certainly not the first significant adventure novel—I think Homer’s “Odyssey” qualifies better—it is the standard by which all modern adventure stories are modeled.

At the outset, Frodo is a dedicated follower of his uncle Bilbo. And though Frodo may be a leader among his friends, he is not a community leader. He is a quiet hobbit, a gentle soul, with a reflective though anxious personality. He loves home and hearth, the food and drink of his youth, his close intimate circle of friends. In short, he feels safe with familiarity.

And as the quintessential adventure novelist, Tolkien shakes Frodo’s world seismically. He sends Frodo on a quest far from home. At each juncture in the story, he is removed further from his friends. At one point, even his best friend Sam is distanced from him in many ways. His questing task requires that he give all of himself and to do it alone. By the end, he has nothing left to give out. He has given all of his old self and much more to the quest of destroying the Ring.

From the moment the quest ends and he starts to make his way back home, he comes to grip with his new Core Self. This Self has been emerging all along, he just never noticed it much. From the moment he agreed to carry the ring to Rivendell, he set his foot on a Deconstruction journey just as vast and far-reaching as the journey to destroy the power of the Ring.

His journey was the retiring of his old Core Self and the discovery of his new Core Self. The old Self became a memory and though it still influenced him for the rest of his life, it was not the decision-making part.

In short, like Frodo, we build our new Core Self by deconstructing our old Core Self and allowing a new Self to emerge.

The term “deconstruction” ironically has gone through a massive change in meaning over the past 80 years. In its original sense, coined by Jacques Derrida, it was a process of examining philosophical writings to determine the many various meanings in the original text.

Years later, writers like Barbara Johnson and Hillis Miller began to use the term to mean significant changes in areas like social sciences, philosophy, law, psychology, architecture, anthropology, theology, feminism, and political theory.

Now, the term applies loosely to the process of abandoning traditional thinking in order to explore the implications of new ideas and behaviors.

I want to apply this concept of Deconstruction to the area of psychotherapy I specialize in: Internal Family Systems. In IFS, we teach that the most critical part of our being is the Core Self. This is what we call the executive function of the neocortex or frontal lobes. This is the part of our mind that makes the final decisions and sees the big picture of who we are.

In a healthy human being, the Core Self regularly evaluates our life and determines what is true NOW for us:

What do we believe now?

Who is most important to us now?

What do we want to accomplish now and from now on?

Where do we want to live now?

To understand this, let’s look at a unique ability of the snake. The snake goes through a process called ‘ecdysis’ where they shed their skin whole. They do this for two reasons. First, the skin does not grow like the rest of the snake body grows. Snakes continue to grow all through their lives. But the skin does not. In order to keep growing, the snake must shed the last layer. They do this a couple of times a year and during reproduction seasons.

But the second reason for ecdysis may be more important. The old skin collects parasites and bacteria that could kill the snake. By shedding the skin, these unwanted travelers are sloughed off.

This is also what the human mind can do, though not as often as the snake. Our Core Self is the center of our being. As I said, it decides who we are at any given time. In IFS, we teach there are other Parts to our mind also. There are Manager Parts that keep us from feeling old painful memories, as well as keep us focused on ways to keep us safe and whole. But these Manager Parts do not want us to change. They fight change. They fear the future and are wary of the past. They want a predictable life that can be managed.

Deconstruction of anything is difficult for the Mind’s Managers. They fear this kind of whole-mind change more than anything. They fight our Core Self all along the way. But the Core Self sees change as necessary for growth into maturity. Our Core is growing larger and needs to shed off the old structures in order to arrive at this new place.

Managers oppose this with all their tools: Anxiety, depression, shame, guilt, loneliness, physical reactions, dissociation, and many other tactics. Some people will give in to the Managers and never let their Core Self grow past a certain point. They live a locked-in existence with their Parts. Though this may seem safer, it is destructive. Just like the snake gets rid of the parasites when the skin is shed, so too our growing Core Self gets rid of harmful ideas and behaviors when we allow it to grow.

I used to be a pastor; for 36 years. Approximately 25 years ago, I began to re-think the doctrines I had endorsed when my denomination licensed me. These were the classic doctrines of the evangelical faith tradition with some more about healing and the Holy Spirit added.

My fear parts didn’t want me to re-think them. What if I did that and then decided I didn’t want to be a pastor any more? What would I do for a living? I was technically a counselor also, but I had put most of my time and energy into pastoring, and my Fear parts didn’t think I could make enough money just as a counselor.

My Manager that loves to be accepted and belong told me that my Christian friends would reject me if I didn’t hold to these truths. This Acceptance Manager predicted that if other christians learned I had let go of any core doctrine I would be summarily rejected.

By the way, it turned out this Manager was ultimately correct. Very few of my evangelical friends will even speak to me now.

At the same time as my managers were kicking up dust, my Core Self was growing, and I could not deny I wanted to be authentic to the changes in my belief system.

In order to be true to this emerging Self, I had to deconstruct evangelical Christianity. It all started innocently while reading Numbers 31, which I have written about here. By the time my wife and I had processed the heinous “acts of God” written about in that chapter, I realized I could no longer accept the Old Testament as without error. Therefore, since the Old Testament is part of the Bible, I could not accept the Bible as without error.

My belief “skin” was beginning to shed. Everything within me fought doing it and therefore I kept much of the process a secret. My wife and two oldest kids knew, but no one else. When I let go of Inerrancy as a doctrine, I felt something drop off me. I had a new Core Self. This Core Self remembers the old one. In fact, that Core Self remembers all the old ones.

Every time we continue to grow in our understanding and our values, we shed off the old self and put on the new self. This does sound similar to what Christianity calls being “born again”. We still share a history with the Old Core Self. But we are fundamentally changed and we cannot easily go back to what we once were.

I guess when I consider it, this is similar to that concept of being Born Again.

I started “shedding my skin” of Inerrancy slowly. First, I began to devalue most of the Old Testament. In particular, I discovered that the so-called “historical” books of the Hebrew Bible were actually compiled oral traditions, legends that had endured since the beginning of the nation of Israel. Contemporary scholarship, even among conservatives, shows that these books were all compiled after the Israelities returned from Babylonian captivity. There is very little proof the stories are true. They are therefore considered Religious History, a retelling of the origin stories of their people.

I also noted many of the themes of the Bible are antithetical to ethical behavior. The Bible condones, or at least does not condemn slavery, genocide, sexual assault, misogyny, patriarchy, racism, violence, aggressive warfare, and class systems of economics. As I shed off the skin of biblical inerrancy, my new Core Self felt free to grasp some of the glaring weaknesses of the Bible while holding onto some of the truths which run counter to those.

During that time, I also noticed that the Pro-Life movement had been completely manufactured for political purposes. It seemingly sprang out of nowhere onto the political landscape and was then embraced by one of the main parties. Most christians I associated with endorsed this political movement.

Despite the fact that the biblical basis for life beginning at conception is completely anecdotal and marginal, the evangelical church joined forces with one political party and shunned anyone who supported the other political party.

I could not allow the Pro-life movement to control who I was. Since its start, I stood against the Pro-life movement, even though I am a Pacifist. The movement is not particularly Pro-life since most of its members own guns and support Capital punishment. They also do not actively support programs for impoverished single parents and do not support programs for feeding the poor. They are simply Pro-fetus.

Admitting all of this gave space for my Core Self to leave behind absolute allegiance to my church and its political machinations. The more I grew out of my old beliefs, the more I found health and strength.

Each person who continues to shed old versions of themselves finds this strength building in them. And let me be clear: It is not primarily beliefs and practices we are shedding. We are letting go of who we think we are to more completely match our current life with what we want, need, believe, and do right now.

For the Core Self of the individual to lead the rest of a person’s Parts, this deconstruction of the former Self and the embracing of the new self must take place. But it is difficult and can be very painful. And the pain only increases when people around you—even your personal support system—do not like what they see in your changes.

I remember one day when a woman I love and admire told me I was cursing babies to death and would suffer unimaginable pain and torture because I saw the Prolife movement differently than she did. This woman had been like a mother to me and supported me for years as I sought to be both therapist and pastor with all the tensions that those two professions can carry with them.

And now, because I was no longer politically aligned with this movement, she saw me as an enemy.

Around that time, I read Cheryl Strayed’s excellent autobiographical story of her hike along the Pacific Coast Trail, “Wild”. She tells about how she spent three years seeking to recover from her mother’s death, often resorting to self-destructive means of coping. At one point, after drug and alcohol dependency and broken relationships looked like they would kill her, she decided on a whim to hike one of the longest continuous trails in the lower 48: The PCT.

She was ill-equipped, both literally and figuratively, for this journey. She carried too much stuff with her, most of which was the wrong equipment for this journey and had to be abandoned along the way. It was a metaphor for her life she soon realized. Her old Core Self was carrying so many things that were messing her up. She was carrying so much baggage she would have to rid herself of before she could keep going.

At one point, after losing toenails and finding massive gaping blisters from poorly fitting boots, she knew something had to change. It was at that point, in the fits of despair, that she finally started to move forward in her grief. By the time she finished her journey at the Washington-Oregon border, her new Core Self had emerged completely and she had deconstructed who she used to be.

Every culture, religion, and philosophy has a name for this journey. But whatever you call it, the key to it is to embrace the process. The more you fight the New Core Self emerging, the more you feel stifled and unhealthy. And even though the process of deconstruction is painful, it is a pain that brings personal expansion.

The Six Stages of Deconstruction

(This 2004 article appeared in its original form on the MTPastor blogger site I used to manage. The number of people experiencing Deconstruction has greatly increased since then. I decided it could use an overhaul).


“Tearing things apart is a powerful aspect of human nature.”

–Patti Smith

Greg and I had gone to high school together. We attended the same church and youth group. We graduated Bible College together and were ordained within a few months of each other. We genuinely liked each other.

So why did I want to punch him in the face?

I was just beginning to Deconstruct.

It was 1983 and my wife and I were at the national Congress of our Canadian denomination. The big issue being debated was whether women would be allowed to serve as pastors and elders in churches. For two years I had passionately advocated for full inclusion of women into ministry leadership positions. I had done my homework and was ready with all the theological arguments. I was ready to tear down the arguments of the Complementarians. I was even the person who brought the proposal to the committee which introduced the measure.

I had no idea Greg would make a complete ass of himself. I had no idea it would throw me into such an emotional tailspin.

He didn’t address the doctrinal issues. He didn’t appeal to historical precedent or denominational practices. He simply said: “Everyone here knows if we do this it will tear apart the church and God’s judgment will come on us all.”

With that, he was able to sway enough people to defeat the motion.

At that moment, I wrestled with whether to leave that denomination. They had already refused to ordain my wife at the same time as me the summer before. I had thought I would quit then, but she talked me out of it. When two of my close female friends from college had moved to a different denomination so they would be allowed to preach, I wondered why I was staying. Again, my wife talked me out of leaving.

When Greg used his scare tactic to convince thousands to make this decision, I actually decided to stay. But I was no longer, in my mind, part of the mainstream. I was tearing down the “good old boy, just stick with the majority” approach.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was learning what it means to deconstruct. Continue reading “The Six Stages of Deconstruction”