This is the third in a series of columns about three core spiritual and emotional wounds – wounds to our sense of self, to our relationships with others, and to our relationship with the world. This is an idea I encountered during my ministerial training, and I have found it borne out in my work as a pastor.

This is the third in a series of columns about three core spiritual and emotional wounds – wounds to our sense of self, to our relationships with others, and to our relationship with the world. This is an idea I encountered during my ministerial training, and I have found it borne out in my work as a pastor.


Let me tell you how I learned this approach to pastoral care. As part of my training I did an internship as a hospital chaplain. After a few weeks on the wards, our supervisor called us together to reflect on what we were seeing. He had us call out the problems we had encountered and wrote each up on a chalkboard. One of my abilities is pulling structure out of complex data. That was what made me a good researcher (my career before ministry). So when he asked what we made of all those separate issues I said, “It seems to me they fall into three groups, problems with self, with others, and with God.”


He said that was exactly what he wanted to teach us, that these are the core issues people face (though in place of “God” he put “the world”). He suggested that pastoral care must be different for each type of problem. For people with core wounds to self we needed to help them build a better sense of self, being kind, supportive, and caring. That is what we normally think of as “pastoral care.”


However, if the person has a core wound in relation to others we may need to call them into right relationship – tell them it’s not cool to use people to their own ends, to rant and to bully. This is not we usually think of as pastoral care, but holding up a mirror so that a person sees how badly they are acting, it can help that person heal that wound and start acting more kindly toward others. This is pastoral — not only to that person, but also to everyone around him or her.


Our supervisor explained that the core wound to one’s relationship to the world is probably the most difficult for clergy to comprehend, because we tend to have a strong and clear sense of calling. This sense of calling is injured in people with a core wound to their relationship with the world – they do not know or understand their place in the wider world. They lack a sense of direction and so tend to be drifters, to flit from one thing to another, unable to settle down or into life.


As the Mary Oliver puts it in her poem, “The Wild Geese,” their problem is how “…to find one’s place in the family of things.” The person with a core wound in relationship to the world has the repeating message, “I am lost. I am a misfit, an outcast. There is no place for me.” As children, such people may not have found anyone who saw their unique giftedness and helped them develop it, or that knew where their gifts could shine. So they grew up without ever finding a place where they could live their potential.


Our internship supervisor also told us that when someone is faced with a sudden tragedy, a terrible loss, or diagnosed with a fatal or progressive disease, no matter what his or her core wound was before, it suddenly becomes this one. A person facing a life-altering tragedy or a life-threatening disease becomes lost with respect to the world and needs to find her or his way through this valley. The pastor can help.


How do you do this? Whether it is with someone who always has had this wound, or someone forced into it by such a terrible loss or diagnosis, the task is not to tell that person what to do (that would be disrespectful and disempowering, exacerbating the person’s problem). What we try to do is help them figure out how they want to cope with the situation in their own way, with as much grace and dignity as possible. How do you want to live your final days? How do you want to cope with your grief?  The task is to help that person through a process of discernment.


People may resist healing a core wound to their relationship with the world because they like their identity as misfits or outsiders. As with all the wounds, healing involves change and change is stressful and difficult. The benefit is that when we find our place in the family of things, we can live out our potential and receive recognition for it. We became a part of rather than apart from the world. We belong. We contribute.


People with terminal illnesses that find their way to forgive and to ask forgiveness, to release regret and make peace with their lives – they die with dignity. Not only that, their families are better able to grieve and move on to the tasks of living their own lives. People facing tragic loss, who find ways to walk through grief – learning to release their own regret, to ask for and to grant forgiveness – they live with dignity. They gain strength, courage, wisdom, and eventually can achieve some measure of serenity.


The blessing that lies next to this core wound to the world is that these people can offer a unique perspective from their position as outsiders. They may take special care of people who also seem to be outside of things, the marginalized and downtrodden. There are many blessings such people can offer others, especially if they heal that wound and find a way to use their perspective to find a meaningful place in the world.


The Rev. Tess Baumberger, PhD, is minister at Unity Church of North Easton, Mass. For more information and links to this and other Unitarian Universalist churches, please visit www.uua.org.