Perspectives on shame in mission and ministry with young people

Anvil journal of theology and mission

Perspectives on shame in mission and ministry with young people

by Sally Nash


I have a vivid memory of a small group of us standing on the stage in my school hall singing the chorus “Can it be true?” for an assembly. It was the 1970s and I went to what is often known as a bog-standard comprehensive school, not a church school. I wonder, if I were 14 today, would I want to be so publicly out as a Christian? The reason I might not want to would be a feeling of shame because of perceptions of my peers about what a Christian is and believes, sometimes gained from headlines, media stories and unhelpful stereotypes. The New Testament was written in a shame culture but whereas today shame is often seen as a psychological issue, then it was social, in the context of a collectivist rather than individualist society. Pattison expands further: “Shame can be seen as an unwanted, polluting condition for groups that has a kind of objectivity that is not merely temporary, psychological, or emotional – and this can lead to profound, important, and sometimes very unpredictable social effects.”1 This was a starting point for my research on shame in the church, which resulted in a PhD and a subsequent book.2 In this article, drawing on that research and ongoing work, I will explore how an understanding of shame may offer insights into mission and ministry with young people, largely in relation to the church as an institution.

Understanding shame

Shame is a concept with a growing prominence in popular culture through authors such as Brene Brown3 and Jon Ronson.4 Andy Crouch argued in Christianity Today that morality in western society was becoming more shamethan guilt-oriented, which would be a significant shift.5 However, there is no consensus about the meaning of shame and it is often culturally determined. What is shaming for me may not be for you. Thus, our personal values, family, community, socialisation and personality can significantly influence what we feel shame over.

Andrew describes how “what I feel shame for in my present church is very different to what I feel shame for in my home church”.6 The distinction is usually made that guilt is about what we have done, whereas shame is about who we are. The difference is between doing and being. We can feel shame about something we feel guilty about but also feel shame with no guilt, as well as guilt with no shame. Shame usually has an audience, including an internalised ideal self. It includes this sense of being seen, exposed. It may also be reinforced externally by nonverbal signals – the shaking of a head or raised eyebrows, for example.

Neil Pembroke suggests that there are five elements of shame: exposure, incongruence, threat to trust, involvement of the whole self and hiddenness.7 He also identifies some of the contexts in which we feel shame, all of which might impact young people: situational shame – embarrassing situations; aesthetic shame – falling short of an ideal image; inherited identity shame – can relate to class, gender, ethnicity, sexuality; inferiority shame – feeling lacking, deficient or incompetent; moral shame – breaking rules or mores.8 Some of the words used to describe shame are seeing ourselves as flawed, defective, inferior, exposed, wanting, helpless, powerless, humiliated, losing face. Responses to shame vary, but one helpful model is that of Donald Nathanson, who has developed a compass of shame that identifies the defensive strategies we adopt: withdrawal, avoidance, attack self and attack other.9 When we see these behaviours, we may want to think about whether shame is at the root of them.

More broadly, shame may help define the way we relate to the wider world and give a glimpse as to why young people may have issues with the church. Michael Morgan is a philosopher who believes that we should be able to choose to experience shame in response to some of the dreadful things that happen in the world, as this might motivate us to action. He suggests that:

Shame requires of us that we have some notion of how we should be or ought to be, the kind of person we ought to be, and the kind of person others ought to expect us to be, in terms of which our actions show us to have failed, to be deficient, to be diminished. When we are ashamed, we have lost face because the face we value and hope to have has been displaced or defaced by another face, which is one we regret having, one that disgraces or embarrasses us.10

Some of the cancel culture experienced currently for, perhaps inadvertently, saying or doing something that brings shame is the context young people are growing up in. They may also struggle with a dissonance between the person they want to be and one the church values; thus, being identified as a Christian with some of the labels that may be attributed to that position such as misogynistic or homophobic can cause shame.

Healthy shame

While my research has largely focused on the negative dimensions of shame, it is important to understand the ways in which shame is healthy. Thus, Jill McNish suggests that shame is part of what leads us into a relationship with God11 and Steven Tracy sees that healthy shame is based on our dignity as those who bear God’s image.12 Pembroke argues that shame is the psychological basis of humility and can be a moral motivation in relationships with those close to us and protect against depersonalisation and violation where privacy is not respected.13

Shame and institutions

The anthropologist Mary Douglas suggests that institutions construct a “machine for thinking and decision-making on their own behalf”,14 one that represents their version of nature and gives them the capacity to monitor how their society is constituted. The implications of this are that “ideas about separating, purifying, demarcating and punishing transgressions have as their main function to impose system on an inherently untidy experience. It is only by exaggerating the difference between within and without, above and below, male and female, with and against, that a semblance of order is created”15 and disorder is seen as negative and potentially dangerous. Thus, within our churches there is often a system that articulates what some of these transgressions are, overtly through things like the Ten Commandments and denominational guidelines. But, also, more covertly by means of a local culture that is lived and not necessarily articulated, sometimes leaving people unaware that they have transgressed until after the event. I can remember in my adolescence that such things as wearing, what was perceived as, too much make-up or listening to the “wrong” sort of music (heavy rock in this instance) were such transgressions. I was made to feel that I had not yet achieved an acceptable standard of holiness. I have not really given time to reflect on whether the fact that I never wear make-up now has any roots in that experience. This can be the broader context in which mission and ministry to young people takes place and will vary across traditions and cultures.

My definition of shame

To conclude this discussion of what shame is from a variety of perspectives, this is my synthesised, phenomenological definition of shame:

Shame can cause us to act both positively and negatively, it is contextual and related to an audience including an ideal or internalised other. Positively it may constrain our behaviour in ways which maintain appropriate boundaries, self-respect, facilitates intimacy, discretion, dignity and is facilitated by our conscience. Negatively, shame may involve disgrace, estrangement, exclusion, believing oneself to be worthless, flawed, contaminated, unlovable and manifest in a variety of ways including physiological, withdrawal and rage.16

This is a summary of what I mean when I talk about shame in relation to mission and ministry with young people, although my research has largely focused on how to ameliorate the disgrace shame that is felt by them.

Shame and young people

In my experience of young people inside and outside of the church, shame has most often emerged in pastoral conversations. In a wider discussion with other youth workers, we identified some of the things that young people feel shame over in relation to conversations with their youth worker: drink, drugs, sex, appearance, eating disorders, self-harm, tattoos and piercings, swearing, crime, homelessness, rape, domestic violence, sexual identity and activity, learning disabilities and so on. Along with these individual responses, there were also groupfocused elements such as friendship break ups, gossip and backstabbing, which can occur in groups and which may cause shame.

One of the issues that emerged was that young people sometimes felt that things happened to them through no fault of their own, but that the church might be judgemental towards them or their family. Some of the issues they felt this over were suicide, abuse, debt, domestic violence, imprisoned family members. While a church might not be shaming, that a young person feels they may be has an impact on our mission and ministry with them. One participant in my research concluded that “I believe many of the issues youth workers face are caused by people being ashamed of who they are or what they have done and their perceived judgement of this”. While it might be frustrating for those of us who try to encourage welcoming and hospitable spaces, this is still a view we encounter: “I think there is still a stigma that you have to be perfect to be accepted [in church] and I think especially young people who don’t attend, or won’t attend, because they feel like they’re going to be judged the moment they walk in”. The Christian shame literature also identifies issues that can cause shame, with Edward Wimberly, for example, listing evil and insensitivity towards others; dehumanising stereotypes; family breakdown; activities we use for coping such as eating disorders, self-harm, alcohol, drugs etc; all the “isms” such as racism and sexism.17 As part of my research I developed a typology of shame. In the remainder of this article I will look at four dimensions of it: personal, relational, communal and structural.18

Personal shame

Personal shame is that which is experienced by an individual as a consequence of their relationship with the church. Personal shame in my research was around issues of compliance, conformity and sufficiency as well as understanding that there are different levels of shame proneness. Issues of conformity and compliance can be significant in youth ministry as they are integral to the struggles of adolescence. One participant voiced this comment, which is not an unusual one:

When I was growing up in church, I felt unable to be honest about how I lived my life. This led to a dualistic lifestyle, where at home and church I was completely different to at school and with friends. I have felt that church had made me feel like I needed to appear sorted, like I had no issues and that I couldn’t be open and vulnerable with people, because if I was, I was rejected or made to feel dirty, bad or shameful!

One of the challenges in mission and ministry is how the young people perceive us and whether or not we have built the quality of relationship where they feel safe to talk about the things that are deeply troubling them. Some have experienced what felt like a more intentional shaming, believing that “Shame implies fault, being encouraged to feel dirty about yourself, guilty. That you have done something wrong that is pointed out to you in a humiliating manner by someone ‘good/ in the right’ i.e. not you! There are some clear issues of power and judgement.” Being shamed can lead to a dismantling of identity19 and in my research “nonentity” was a word that described how people felt when personally shamed.

Power can play a significant part in personal shame, with church leaders and others sometimes slipping into mediating God’s word for individuals in a way that gives little or no opportunity for them to say they think God is saying something different to them. Anna was told she was on God’s Plan B after saying she was not returning to the country where she had been a missionary after a serious sexual assault and spiritual abuse. She described herself as a “broken person” and had clearly been shamed by those she had anticipated would care for her. Paula, who has a background in youth work, suggested that:

It’s our job to show love and compassion as people, as a person. I think that’s it. I don’t think it’s our job to, really, to run their life, if someone wants to carry on living their life not in a way that you think they should be living it. I don’t… I think it’s still our job to show love and compassion to them. Not to say, this love and compassion is dependent on you progressing along the journey. Because I think, should that progression come to a halt, is then the love and compassion going to come to a halt?

In part, these comments from Paula are a personal reflection on her experience of the church. But her experience is shared by some young people who feel abandoned when their journey doesn’t have the expected trajectory, although others would talk of the faithfulness of youth workers who continued to be there for them despite what appeared to be happening in their faith journey. As one youth minister commented, churches can “preach too much judgement and not enough grace and mercy”.

Shame and youth workers

Youth workers also experience shame, which impacts their capacity to engage in mission and ministry with young people as effectively as they might, for example through personal issues such as “my life is not very prayerful”. One dilemma can sometimes be reaching out to young people but being unsure of the welcome they would receive if they attended church. Andy shared how he knows of people who will not say where they live because when they mention the estate, there is a negative reaction. Anna recounted how, when relocating from the south to a northern city, she “was made very aware that I didn’t fit in and wasn’t liked then”. Another participant talked very positively of how they were accepted by the church they attended despite very obvious cultural differences, which is encouraging. Sara Savage offers a perspective on the ministry of Jesus that is one for youth workers to both follow and encourage in their settings: “Across the range of Jesus’ interactions, we see him on the warpath against all that degrades human dignity and spiritual value. With flexibility and insight he takes the initiative against the social structures, deceptions, defences, learned helplessness, negative thoughts and patterns and paralysing fears that imprison us.”20

Relational shame

Relational shame is experienced as a consequence of identification with people within the church, particularly, but not exclusively, leaders. Vicarious shame is another way of expressing this. Brian Lickel et al. argue that a distancing occurs when we experience vicarious shame, which happens when “people felt ashamed for another’s wrongdoing to the extent that they felt that the person’s behavior was relevant to a social identity that they shared in common with the wrongdoer and appraised the other person’s behavior as a negative reflection on themselves”.21 These are three examples of relational or vicarious shame that arose in my research and give an idea as to the breadth of issues that are relevant here:

  • Every time a child-abuse scandal is uncovered, especially when it has been covered up deliberately by church leaders, I feel shame because the church should excel and be exemplary especially in its care of others.
  • Locally, I felt shameful when the youth workers’ support group disbanded due to a disagreement in theology.
  • Explaining some of the practices of church management to my non-Christian family has made me feel ashamed at times, because I felt embarrassed about my career and felt protective of a career that they disapproved of.

The youth worker making the final comment observed “I didn’t want them to judge my faith by how other people behaved”. This can be applied more widely for Christian youth workers when encountering a range of value judgements and assumptions about Christians and Christianity that may impact the capacity to engage effectively in mission and ministry. At the extreme end people talked about “Christians who either kill doctors who abort babies, or justify racism using the Bible or feel it’s ok to have millions of pounds while people starve”, although they observed that all of us have areas where our actions and words may be problematic in relation to our faith.

Differences in how a situation is seen can also be problematic. A student youth worker at a church that believed that Christians should not date non-Christians disagreed with a decision that the leadership made to ask a young person to give up leading a cell group:

I didn’t agree with this decision as I felt he was growing so much in his faith through his leadership and with the right guidance he would make the right decisions in life, whatever they may be. As a student youth leader, I felt trapped as it was as if I had to go along with what the leadership said. But what I really wanted was to go and chat to him and say that I didn’t agree. I felt shame to be connected to the comments because it made people think I agreed with them when I didn’t. I didn’t feel it was our place to judge. He had become such a good leader and couldn’t adapt/cope with the shame of not being allowed to do what he loved anymore. He was very angry too. Within a month he left church and never came back that I know of.

There are a range of issues that trigger stories like this, many of them relating to sex and sexuality. “Tainted by association” was a phrase that was used, and for some youth workers it impacted where they wanted to work. It is important to note that the idea of tainted by association is felt by both ends of the theological spectrum, but over different things with the related perspectives on how this impacts mission and ministry.

Communal shame

Communal shame relates to shame that is experienced at a group or congregational level.

Research by anthropologists affirms that groups are stigmatised and deemed shameful over a variety of issues and sadly, this can be true of young people.22 The idea that “a language of relationships, not attributes, is really needed”23 is one for youth workers to consider as they challenge some of the unhelpful labels that can be given to young people.

As with relational shame, communal shame can be impacted by our theological tradition. Thus, what is understood as taboo in one context may almost be celebrated in another. In my research, the themes that emerged as important in communal shame were stigmatising, disaffection and disempowerment. There are sometimes concerns focusing on purity about pollution and disgust, and those who do not behave as they should (a contextual statement) may pollute the “pure” church. This can impact mission where some youth workers can find that they are discouraged from being involved in outreach in some contexts, as those met on detached work might “pollute” the children of church members. One of the important insights to communicate more broadly is understanding Jesus as restoring God’s original understanding of purity as seeing it as an internal heart issue, not external conformity with rules.24 A particular concern for youth workers was that churches sometimes seem to expect perfection in an unrealistic way and the liturgy ends up leaving people with a sense of sin and shame rather than forgiveness and joy. There can also be a lack of communication that we are all works in progress and that we all make mistakes.

Structural shame

Structural shame relates to shame that is a consequence of what the church or organisation says, does or believes at an institutional level; it may be embedded in the way the system works. Themes that emerged from my research were collusion and fragmentation. One youth worker commented that “there are different hierarchies of shame depending on what the particular expression of church prioritises in regards to teaching and culture”. Pronouncements from the national church have caused problems for some, the vote against women bishops in the Church of England and the historical cover-up of sexual abuse being two instances mentioned, along with attitudes to LGBTIQ people and the reports of institutional racism. The idea that sexual sin is more serious than others is an example. Greed is also something that youth workers find challenging in discussion with young people, particularly in seeing who is held to account for what. Thus, a youth worker talks of how “a friend of mine that I went to church with got herself pregnant and she felt judged and she left the church and subsequently lost her faith completely because she didn’t find another church. She just disappeared and that was clearly because the congregation couldn’t accept her.” A lack of grace is hard for many youth workers because it impacts on the capacity for people wanting to stay involved and belong to a church.

One of the challenges for youth workers is the extent to which they feel trapped into colluding with the institution because of a pressure to toe the line at a structural level. The way that power is used structurally is also a cause for shame, with one person commenting that “the church as an institution is not into any kind of equal opportunities, although many individuals within the institution do hold to the value of equality”. That this is a perception of a youth worker and certainly not a minority voice in my research is a concern. Perception is often what shapes our perspective negatively and ends up causing us shame as people associate us with views we may not hold. Youth workers can have particular issues with hierarchical power and the way that it is exercised when it so obviously contradicts the values they are trying to embody in their youth work of participation, empowerment and equal opportunities, for example.

Implications for practice

When thinking about mission and ministry with young people and shame, my main concern is how to mitigate the inappropriate shaming that can happen. What is most important is self-awareness because of the danger of projecting shame on to others and perhaps not acknowledging or processing our own.25 Thinking about shame in relation to the content of teaching, preaching, liturgy, expectations and the norms embraced by the church can help mitigate against inappropriate or inadvertent shaming, which can be very damaging to individuals but also the wider ministry and mission of the church. My research suggested that people stopped attending church if they felt shamed over things that were personal or cultural choices. To help mitigate shame, building high-quality personal relationships is valuable, developing a culture of inclusivity and authenticity. When we join an institution, we have to decide if we are in or out and youth workers are vital in creating the culture the young people become part of. This is how one youth worker articulated what they tried to do:

Create safe spaces and relationships; no judgement, safe practice. Putting in appropriate boundaries to protect relationships, with realistic expectations. Encouragement and valuing people’s skills, gifts and contributions. Providing opportunities for participation, and celebrating people’s successes. Joined-up resources; either mentoring or links to further support such as counselling.

High quality relationships mean that it is easier to raise issues without causing shame, as one person observed: “If we feel accepted unconditionally by someone, them saying to you that’s not really the best way of doing things doesn’t make you feel ashamed.” Challenging is an integral part of youth work, and while we may not do it, as in this example, it is much easier to have a fruitful conversation if we think a person has our best interests at heart. Research suggests that good-quality nurturing and caring relationships can contribute towards healing from shame.26 Youth workers suggest a variety of ways of supporting young people experiencing shame: Time with them and safety to express themselves. Some way of reaching out and letting them know that they are valued. Show acceptance, recognising we’ve all fallen short. Try as best to love them as Jesus does and remind them of that love. Be there to listen to them and engage with them. See them as a person, not a problem. Listen, don’t judge, offer support, direct them to someone with appropriate skills if necessary. Help them see God’s love and amazing grace, that there is nothing they can do to make God love them more and nothing they can do to make God love them less.


Finally, this response from a youth worker encapsulates what I hope we can take away from exploring perspectives on shame in mission and ministry with young people:

There is a need to be real with one another and open with each other. Too often the shame comes from what we feel others think. My experience is that when people get down to real conversations and build real relationships, love and acceptance are naturally demonstrated. Churches need to find a balance to, yes, preaching how we need to grow as disciples, but equally that start with God’s love, recognising we’ve all made mistakes and that through faith, not through anything we’ve done, we’ve received forgiveness and love through Jesus. Let us stop taking for granted the cross and God’s love for us. If I’m honest, I don’t have many practical answers. But I think we often overcomplicate Christianity and put stuff, and needing to conform to church ideals, before what Jesus said was most important, “Love God and love others.”

In truly doing these first, I’d hope that the church would become a less inappropriately shaming institution.

About the author

Revd Dr Sally Nash is a senior research fellow at St Padarn’s Institute, Cardiff. She is the associate minister at Hodge Hill Church, Birmingham and a freelance theological educator, researcher and author specialising in shame, paediatric chaplaincy and spiritual care, ministry, reflective practice and spiritual health and well-being. She is a trustee of Frontier Youth Trust and the Child Theology Movement. She discussed the church and shame at the Transforming Shame conference.

More from this issue


[1] Stephen Pattison, “Shame and the Unwanted Self,” in The Shame Factor: How Shame Shapes Society, ed. Robert Jewett, Wayne Alloway Jr. and John G. Lacey (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), 13.
[2] Sally Nash, “Landscapes of shame in the church: a typology to inform ministerial praxis” (PhD diss., University of Birmingham, 2015); Sally Nash, Shame and the Church: Exploring and Transforming Practice (London: SCM Press, 2020).
[3] Brown’s TED talk where she discusses shame has had over 15 million views at the time of writing this article. See Brene Brown, TED Talk, “Listening to Shame,” TED, March 2012,
[4] Jon Ronson, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (London: Picador, 2015). ~
[5] Andy Crouch, “The Return of Shame,” Christianity Today 59, no. 2 (10 March 2015), 32–41.
[6] Direct quotations from transcripts of questionnaire and focus groups from my research are italicised.
[7] Neil Pembroke, The Art of Listening (Edinburgh: Continuum, 2002).
[8] Ibid.
[9] Donald L. Nathanson, ed., The Many Faces of Shame (New York, London: The Guilford Press, 1987).
[10] Michael L. Morgan, On Shame (London: Routledge, 2008), 15–16.
[11] Jill L. McNish, “Shame’s Revelatory and Transformative Potential, and Its Use and Misuse by the Church’s Pastoral Ministry,” American Journal of Pastoral Counseling 6, no. 2 (2003): 3–22.
[12] Steven R. Tracy, Mending the Soul: Understanding and Healing Abuse (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005).
[13] Pembroke, The Art of Listening.
[14] Mary Douglas, How Institutions Think (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1987), 63.
[15] Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966), 4.
[16] Nash, Shame and the Church, 182.
[17] Edward P. Wimberly, Moving from Shame to Self-Worth: Preaching & Pastoral Care (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999).
[18] The remaining two dimensions are theological and hidden or buried shame but they are less relevant to this topic, with the theological dimensions being apparent in other elements.
[19] Brad A. Binau, “Administrative Ministry: A Link Between Shame and Stress,” Trinity Seminary Review 27, no. 2 (2006): 101.
[20] Sara Savage, “Healing Encounters: Psychological Perspectives on Jesus’ Healing,” in Jesus and Psychology, ed. Fraser Watts (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2006), 61.
[21] Brian Lickel, Toni Schmader, Matthew Curtis, Marchelle Scarnier and Daniel R. Ames, “Vicarious Shame and Guilt,” Group Processes and Intergroup Relations 8, no. 2 (2005): 152.
[22] Martha C. Nussbaum, Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004).
[23] Erving Goffman, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1963), 3.
[24] Ritva H. Williams, “Purity, Dirt, Anomalies, and Abominations,” in Understanding the Social World of the New Testament, ed. Dietmar Neufeld and Richard E. DeMaris (Abingdon: Routledge, 2010), 217–18.
[25] Jill L. McNish, Transforming Shame: A Pastoral Response (London: Routledge, 2004), 185.
[26] Wimberly, Moving from Shame to Self-Worth, 111.