Do You Have “Someone To Tell It To”?
by Joshua Carson
How many of us feel safe enough to share what is really going on in our lives—even in—perhaps especially in—the church? Michael Gingerich and Tom Kaden are the founders of Someone To Tell It To (STTIT), a nonprofit ministry based in Harrisburg, PA. Their ministry offers compassionate listening to people who need a safe place to share their struggles. Over the last five years they have provided a loving presence to hundreds of people who simply needed someone to listen to them and, sometimes, to walk with them through a difficult season. In 2015 alone they logged 1,400 interactions with people. They’ve written two books as a way to share what they’ve discovered through the art of giving and receiving compassion. We sat with Michael and Tom and asked them to share some of the journey God has taken them on over the last few years.
What got you started on the journey that has become Someone To Tell It To ?
Michael: The bottom line is that we both were created to do this. We can look back on our lives and see that even as very young boys we had a gift or a calling to really listen to people, to connect with them on a deeper level, and we had a yearning to do that. Other people saw that in us as well and gave us opportunities to do that.
Tom: We’re both trained pastors and have served in churches—and we do a lot of guest preaching and teaching in churches—but our real heart for ministry was always to form those deeper relationships with people. But as a pastor you’re not often able to form those relationships as fully as you think that you should be able to, just because there are so many of responsibilities that take a lot of your attention and focus away from ministering to the individual and being present as much as they need. Also, I experienced some brokenness in the church. My first position out of seminary as a youth pastor did not go well, and yet we could see God actively involved in redeeming that pain and suffering and in those who have been ostracized by the church, and that’s part of our ministry now—to reach out and connect with people like that and support them, because we’ve been there, too.
Michael: My situation—having a son with severe intellectual disabilities and autism, a wife who’s had cancer and some other significant health problems—it certainly helped me become more aware of brokenness in the world. The different challenges and struggles we’ve had have created a greater sensitivity in us, we hope, and allows us to be more compassionate with other people in their struggles and challenges. It seems that throughout our careers and our lives, people have come to us, even in unofficial ways, because they found something in us that helped them to feel safe or comfortable to share. I know that when I was in the church working with other pastors and staff, people would come to me and say, “Knowing what you live with every day with your family situation, we thought you just might understand more.” I heard that more than once.
Do you see the work of compassionate listening as different from counseling?
Tom: I think the only community that’s given us a little pushback since we started has been counseling practitioners. By no means do we mean to take anything away from how they operate, and we believe that there’s a reason that that system has worked, especially in our country. But Dr. Larry Crabb, who endorsed our first book, wrote a book about 20 years ago called Connecting, and in that book he talks about how if the church was really forming true communities maybe there wouldn’t be need for as many counseling services as there are. And that’s basically our goal—to help the church foster those environments where people feel more safe, engaged, and able to open up and share more vulnerably than maybe they have before. In her last book, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church, Rachel Held Evans asks, Why can’t the church be the safest place on earth? It should be where you’re able to remove the masks that you’re wearing, but why has it not happened that way in the church? That’s a big part of our calling.
Why can’t the church be the safest place on earth?
Michael: I think there are other differences, on some practical levels. Many traditional counselors, especially if they accept insurance, are limited in the length of time that they can meet with someone. Insurance will only pay for six 50-minute sessions or whatever it may be. We’re willing to meet with people for as long as they need to meet, as many times as they need to meet, for whatever length of time that we all collectively have, which is different from counseling. There are those counselors who, for a variety of reasons, can’t talk about spirituality and faith with people. We can do that easily. Often counseling might be a one-way street where a person comes in and is listened to by the counselor, and the counselor reacts but doesn’t share him or herself. In that regard the revealing or vulnerability traditionally comes from the person who is being listened to. We’re willing, at the appropriate time, to share some of our own vulnerability and some of our own stories when we feel that that is appropriate in order to form less transactional client-counselor relationships, closer to friendships, with people. It’s a matter of trying to build up what we hope is a deeper, more intimate level of trust.
Tom: Another staple of our nonprofit since we started—and this is one of the dilemmas for us as we try to expand—is we take the gospels very very seriously, and Jesus talks about sending his disciples out in pairs. We see that in the early church, people went out together, and I think that for whatever reason we’ve gotten away from that. We know what it’s like serving in the church by ourselves and how there is strength in numbers. We do most of our appointments with people together. Even last week we did a funeral together for a person who had taken his own life. Entering into that situation by oneself would’ve been incredibly emotionally draining—
Michael: It was emotionally draining enough together!
Tom: Yes, but to be able to go into it together and process it together without breaking confidence is a great gift. It would be very taxing otherwise, because we inevitably hear a lot of horrific things.
Michael: One of the phrases we hear most is “I’ve never told this to anyone before.” And they proceed to tell us something very deep, profound, and painful, often a long-held secret in their lives. Obviously counselors get to hear that, too, but sometimes counselors come to share with us. If they serve alone they don’t have anybody to process with, but because we get to work together every day, we can process with each other. This enables us to be stronger, we think.
Tom: One last point—we’re strictly donation-based. We took a big leap of faith, trusting that this was what God was asking us to do, and it has somehow worked out up to now. People just pay what they can, and we’re pretty up front about that. We made a commitment early on that we never wanted to turn anyone away based on their inability to pay. We have some people who are able to pay more than a standard counseling appointment, and they do because they really believe in our ministry, and we have a lot of other donors who believe in the mission. This is good, because there are a lot of people, sadly, who are on the margins of society who, even if they have insurance, their copay sometimes is over $100, and they can’t afford what they need. So we see ourselves as filling a gap.
Michael: We never want anyone to be turned away, and we see that there’s a world of extreme loneliness and pain out there and so many people who do not have the ability to go anywhere with that pain simply because of economics, and we don’t want that to be a barrier.
Galatians 6:2 exhorts Christians to “carry each other’s burdens,” saying that doing so is “obeying the law of Christ.” What keeps Christians from the kind of mutual vulnerability required to carrying each other’s burdens?
Tom: I preached at my church two weeks ago and talked about this idea of vulnerability and being a community. We believe that is what separates Christian communities from secular communities, the fact that we can be real with each other. So I’m preaching about this at my church, and at the end I said, “Typically, pastors preach the sermons that they most need to hear, and I need to hear this today because I need to be reminded that I can be vulnerable even as a pastor, and I need to be open and authentic.”
Maybe 50 years ago people had this “buck up or shut up” mentality, and now we see millennials going to the opposite extreme where they explode on Facebook—their political views or whatever it might be—and not in a healthy way. That’s not true vulnerability either. But in my sermon I talked about how I battle with a condition called fibromyalgia (which I talk about in our first book), and I also have some depression issues, which I talk more about in our second book. One Sunday I had all four of our kids by myself because my wife was working at the hospital that day, and I packed all of them into the car and drove to church. I made it into the parking lot but thought, “I can’t be here today. I can’t just put on a smiley face and act like I’m okay, because I’m not okay.” So I piled the kids back into the car and went home. That was not a healthy way to handle that at all—in fact, it caused a lot more pain that week.
The next week I felt exactly the same, except this time my wife was home, so she was able to help with the kids, and she knew that I wasn’t in a good spot. We got to the parking lot, and I thought to myself, “I could really go home right now, but no, I’m going to fight through this, because I need to be here.” So I went in and was kind of hiding in a corner, and several people came up to me and said, “How are you doing today?” “Oh, I’m fine, I’m fine.” And then one guy who really knows me in the community came up and said, “How are you doing?” and I said, “I’m not well.” He said, “I know you’re not well,” and we went into this coffee bar area in our church and were able to really form a connection. Vulnerability forms connection, and that’s what we all need. I was able to be vulnerable with him—he also is a counselor who struggles with some depression issues himself, and it was a real point of connection that was healing for both of us—all because he was willing to press me a little bit and I was also willing to open up and share. That is what an ideal Christian community should be about, if we can do that and do it consistently.
Michael: We could probably do this whole interview on that one question. I’ll tell a story, too. In the first book I wrote a story called “Healing” about how as a teenager I was sexually molested repeatedly by a guy I worked with. I didn’t go into graphic, but enough detail so that people had an idea of what was going on. The Christian publisher that we went with made me “tone it down” even more and take out certain details and words, which they did throughout the book where we quoted people. We realized that in order to have the book published we were going to have to follow their requirements, but we felt it diluted the power and the intensity of each of those stories—because Christians would be offended otherwise. But our question is: “Shouldn’t the church be the safest place to tell that story or any other story about someone has wounded?” This rule that you have to be careful about what you talk about or how you talk about it in the church—we find this to be very disturbing and wrong.
Tom: You’ve probably heard the saying that the church isn’t a museum of saints, but a hospital for sinners. We use that image all of the time. The fact is that most of us are struggling. We’re all fearful, we’re all lonely at times, and we all need God in our lives. Our lives are messy, and we need each other. We don’t need to be tearing each other down—we need to be bearing each other’s burdens.
Michael: But so often we hear in the church that people are not encouraged to share the real stuff of their lives.
What you think needs to be done, either by individuals or by communities or churches, to help people counter this lack of vulnerability?
Michael: When I was a younger pastor, right out of seminary, serving in a small rural parish in northern Pennsylvania, I belonged to a group of other pastors mostly around the same age, who would meet every other week for breakfast in order to share, vent, and talk about whatever was going on in our lives and churches and to be a support to one another. One of the members of the group shared vulnerably with us something that had happened in his life. But he also said that he would never ever admit—to his church—a mistake or share something difficult about his life or children or marriage. He basically vowed that he had to keep up the façade with people in his church, because as a pastor we shouldn’t show vulnerability, we shouldn’t show the fact that we’re really human. I remember feeling sad about that. But that was often the message that you received as a pastor. You really weren’t seen as fully human. I remember going with my wife to a popular R-rated movie about the Civil War. I was standing in line and somebody who attended my church where I was the pastor at the time said, “You know this is an R-rated movie, don’t you?” as if, first of all, I couldn’t read, and, secondly, as if I shouldn’t be allowed to see that because I was a pastor. But it’s those kinds of messages that the church often gives and our colleagues give, too. And I think part of it starts with leadership—those of us who are in leadership positions in the church need to be vulnerable. You don’t want to be stupid—you don’t broadcast everything about your life to the world and every mistake you make—but there are times and places where it really is appropriate and necessary, and it helps others to know that it’s okay to be able to share their own mistakes and vulnerabilities and fears.
We all need to have a couple people in our life that we can be totally honest—“naked and unashamed”—with.
Tom: We quote the work of Dr. Brené Brown often; she is a researcher at the University of Houston in Texas who focuses on shame, vulnerability, and what it means to be truly strong. Talking in an interview about what leaders should do to be vulnerable, she used the illustration of a Fortune 500 company executive CEO who came up to her and said, “Our company is tanking right now financially. Do you mean that I need to get up there and tell all our major donors that we’re tanking?” And she said, “No, that would not be a good idea if you still want to have a job, if you still want to have a company.” But she said, “I really hope that you have somebody, or a few people in your life, with whom you can share that.” I think that’s so true, and that’s exactly what we’re trying to model: We all need to have a couple people in our life that we can be totally honest—“naked and unashamed”—with. That’s so healing, and that’s exactly what we need.
Talk about the role of shame in our churches.
Michael: Three years ago we were interviewed on our local NPR station, and just a few days before that interview we were attending a community panel in another town where some government officials were talking about the role of fathers, in this case absentee fathers and single moms. The discussion centered on how to engage dads to be more involved with their children and take responsibility for them. One of the government officials there stood up and said, “I think what we need in society is more shame. We need to put more shame on these deadbeat dads to change.” Tom turned to me and said, “That’s bullshit.” I said, “Absolutely right, I agree.” Later that day we wrote a blog post—we didn’t mention any names of the town or any people involved—and talked about how we don’t believe shame helps anything improve and doesn’t necessarily change behavior but just drives it underground. When shamed, you’ll still do that behavior, but you’ll just hide it more. People respond more to positive affirmation and help and grace than they do to criticism and judgment. So we did this interview with NPR a couple days later, and it was obvious that the interviewer had read the blog, because that’s what he wanted to talk about for much of the program.
Tom: Yes, he asked us, “What about politicians who make unethical decisions?” And we were quick to respond and say that they need to be held accountable for their actions, for sure, and there need to be repercussions when people make bad decisions, but we need to think about how we do that and to do it in a way that is gracious and still loving. Some callers called in an uproar and disagreed with us, which is fine. But the most significant part of the story is that later that day when we got back to our office and checked our email, we heard from a woman who said, “I heard you guys on the radio, and I pulled my car over to the side of the road. I feel like I’ve been searching for people like you my whole life.” At that point she was 68, and she said, “I’d love to be able to process the story with you if you’d be willing.” And we said, “Absolutely, we’d love to hear it. That’s exactly why we started our ministry.” This woman has had an ongoing correspondence with us for three years now, a few phone calls but mostly through email. She has a horrific story with so many issues and struggles—some of it certainly brought on by her own doing, but she knows it and the last thing that woman has ever needed is more shame put upon her. She needs people who are going to show her unconditional love and grace.
Michael: Because shame is what she had received throughout her whole life.
Tom: Michael and I got to preach at my church together and talk more about our ministry a couple weeks ago and we used the story of the woman waiting to be stoned to death because she was caught in adultery (John 8). It’s pretty obvious, based on our understanding of that text, that she was caught in the act. In that culture they had every right to stone her, but this trap that they tried to lay for Jesus was a really brilliant trap, because according to Roman law the Jews were not allowed to stone this woman, but according to Jewish law they were. So what is Jesus going to do? He bends over and starts writing in the sand. There are a lot of scholars who are all over the map on what he actually wrote in the sand, but I think if we had to make our own assumption, we think started writing down each one of their names and ways that they were breaking the law, too. And as a result they were speechless, and they turned and walked away. If that woman were just stoned, even if to death, she had no chance of being redeemed ever—her life was over, whether it was physically over or not, her life was over. But the fact that Jesus would enter into a relationship with her and show her that she was loved—that was a very radical thing to do. He was anti-shame in that moment when everyone else was throwing shame at her. And that’s just what we all need, because we can all see ourselves in that woman—or we should be able to see ourselves in that woman—because we all have shortcomings and weaknesses and vulnerabilities, and we all need God’s love.
Often when we listen to the struggles of others we want to offer advice and try to fix whatever we think is the problem. But that doesn’t sound like what you guys try to do.
Tom: I think from a spiritual perspective, trying to fix problems is trying to play the role of God in their lives. And God doesn’t ask us to be God, he asks us to be his vessels, his instruments. It’s not our job to fix people. Our job is just to be present, to love them, and to allow God to love them through us.
We realize that what most people need is somebody to just listen to them tell their story and unburden themselves. In that the solutions come.
Michael: We find that most people know what they need to do, what needs to happen, or what needs to change. They don’t need people saying that they should do this or that. Most of the time they just need permission to do what they know is right. And they need to own the problem and own the solution to it, whatever it may be, and not have it imposed upon them. None of us like things to be imposed upon us, we’ll rebel against that even if we know it’s the right thing to do, even if we know it’s something we need to do. It’s a part of our human nature or condition that we will resist. So we don’t say, “You should do this or that,” because that often puts up a barrier and makes it harder for them to do what they need to do. Sometimes what we think needs to be fixed isn’t necessarily what they need. And most of the time, it needs to come from within the person and not from without. We realize that what most people need is somebody to just listen to them tell their story and unburden themselves. In that the solutions come. And we have to guide people towards them and recognize them and give them permission to act upon them, but not impose them from without.
What gives you hope as you do pursue this difficult work?
Michael: I don’t mean to give a cliché answer, but really it’s our trust and faith in God. We really do believe we’ve been called to do this, and we know that just because we’ve been called to be something and we have a gift to do something doesn’t mean it’s easy. When we did the funeral recently of a man who took his life, there were some very difficult circumstances surrounding why he did that, and it was the hardest public thing we’ve done together, absolutely. It was hard. A week later there’s still a part of us that is drained from that, and there are still some things to process about it. But on the other hand, we were also filled up with something that was sacred. We knew that what we were given the privilege to do was extremely sacred, a gift from God. To be able to enter into that family’s shattered lives and begin to help them pick up the pieces—as hard as that was, there was nothing more powerful and fulfilling than being able to do that.
Tom: I like to use the illustration of athletes. They are using their God-given ability, and they go into to the game and play really hard and are probably sore afterwards, but they know that that’s what they were meant to do. It’s the same way with us. The hardest part for us, the thing that’s most depleting, is the actual business end of the nonprofit. Having to raise support is hard; it takes an incredible amount of trust on our part every single day. Trusting that God will continue to show up—and he does—can be really hard, especially if you get denied a large grant or something like that. Those are the times that it’s especially depleting, far more depleting than the actual listening work that we do, because that isn’t necessarily who we are. The work we were made to do is life-giving.
Michael: Writing, too, gives us hope—particularly when a book is done. We met with a men’s group back in the fall at a local church, a group of 8 or 10 men that we had never met before, and they were discussing our book. They’ve met every Monday night for two years. They’ve done several books by authors like C.S. Lewis and other great authors, and that they chose us was very humbling. But they told us that this book meant more to them than any other book that they had discussed together, because it enabled them to go to places of openness and vulnerability that they had never gone before with one another. There are certainly times that we doubt: “Is this any good? Does anyone really care? What was the point?” Those are normal doubts that anyone can have, but to go into a room and hear that, particularly from men, who aren’t as easily vulnerable and open in talking about some things—that was really affirming and gives us hope.
People ask us all the time, “How do people find out about you?” And 95% or more of the people who come to us come because someone else referred them to us because we helped them or someone they know, or they read about our work and they trust that we can help. And that really means a lot, too.
What advice would you give to people who want to be compassionate listeners in their own context, with family and friends?
Michael: A couple of things: We rarely meet people in an office. We meet people wherever is comfortable and safe for them. We know every coffee shop in Central Pennsylvania because we’ve been in them. When it’s nice outside we’ll meet people and walk with them in parks. We’ll meet people in their homes, we’ve met men in bars because that’s what’s comfortable and safe for them. We’ve gone on hikes. Part of that is that if someone needs to be heard and needs to talk about something, it’s best to let them pick the context. Part of it is just creating a safe environment for them, and that’s both physical as well as spiritual/emotional. And they need to know that they’re not going to be judged or criticized for whatever they’re thinking. We don’t say things like, “I can’t believe you just said that” or “I you can’t possibly believe that.” That kind of stuff puts up walls right away.
Tom: Our mission is to provide a compassionate presence and a listening ear for people who need a safe place to share their stories. The word “compassion” has a really deep, rich meaning for us. In the Latin it actually means “to suffer with.” So when Jesus says to “be compassionate as your Father is compassionate” we think he’s saying, “Are you suffering with people?” We need to get to the place where we can see at least a little bit of ourselves in everyone else’s story, so if you’re sitting across from an elderly woman who lost her husband, you need to be able to see yourself in that situation—someday that could very easily be me—how would I be in that situation? None of us likes to be alone or lonely, and you can imagine what it’s like for an elderly woman who loses husband of 50 or 60 years—she’s all by herself; she doesn’t have a community of people checking in on her regularly. That’s pretty lonely. We need to be open to seeing ourselves in every situation, and then we can really enter into people’s pain and brokenness.
Michael: In the original Greek the word “compassion” actually translates to “within the bowels.” Feeling it within your bowels is about as deep and as intimate as you can feel something, and that’s hard. Compassion is not easy, because it’s messy, it’s painful sometimes, it’s inconvenient. That’s one of the reasons why none of us is as compassionate as we could be, because it’s hard.
Tom: Speaking to the “two by two” model, it really helps having somebody else in the conversation. Sometimes you are at a loss for what to say or what not to say, and it’s nice to be able to know that we do believe that God is always speaking, so it doesn’t always have to come through me. We’ll often be in a situation that I know nothing about but I know that if I’m at a loss at one point, God will speak through Michael, and vice versa.
That’s kind of how the Holy Spirit works with us. And we think that’s a good model. If you know somebody is carrying something really heavy or they have a lot to share, bring someone else with you.
Learn more about Michael Gingerich, Tom Kaden, and their ministry at Someone To Tell It To. To obtain their first book, Someone To Tell It To: Sharing Life’s Journey (2014, Westbow Press) and its accompanying discussion guide, contact them directly. Their second book, Someone To Tell It To: Moved With Compassion, is forthcoming.
Josh Carson is Pastor of Student Ministries at First Baptist Church of Bethlehem, PA, and is a Sider Scholar with ESA while working on his M.Div. at Palmer Theological Seminary of Eastern University.