Shame, reconciliation and the pioneer

Anvil journal of theology and mission

Shame, reconciliation and the pioneer

by Catherine Matlock

Shame is the “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection”.1 Shame affects us all; it is part of the human condition.

Shame can cause fracture in our relationships – our relationship with God, with others and within ourselves; “shame… is… experienced as if it were directed by one agency of the self against another”.2

Reconciliation is a process of restoring relationship, of acceptance, healing and transformation. Reconciliation is often painful and timeconsuming, requiring vulnerability, honesty and humility, and the courage to remain committed to the messiness of being hurting yet hopeful human beings. Whether we are working towards the reconciliation of our fragmented relationship with self or with others, we need to recognise that shame can cause us to hide from, defend, deny or resist the pain of transformation, the compassion and empathy we need to heal. “The antidote to the destructive potential of shame is ‘the healing response of acceptance of the self, despite its weaknesses, defects and failures’.”3

As Christians we are called to the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18), and as pioneers we are “working in innovative ways to see ‘the future emerging in the present’.”4 Does this mean that we have a particular calling to witness to and encourage transformative reconciliation in the midst of shame and fractured relationships?

Pioneers are people with the “gift of not fitting in”.5 We are often situated at the edges of society and are sometimes at the receiving end of misunderstanding and suspicion from those uncomfortable with ministry outside a traditional church context. As a pioneer, I am conscious of the paradoxical feelings associated with a contentment yet ongoing discomfort at not fitting in with my ecclesial colleagues, recognising my sense of shame in being at times misunderstood and isolated. Neither do I fit with perceived generalisations of a pioneering temperament. My more introverted, reflective nature will struggle to match any expectations that pioneers are all extroverted, wildly creative personalities. By its very nature, pioneering is a vocation that celebrates diversity and individuality. We need to be sensitive to the shame that can result from any forms of tribalism.

Pioneers are often called to dwell within the liminal spaces of sociopolitical marginalisation and contemporary religious perplexity. We are required to be risktakers and innovators seeking to glimpse and faithfully collaborate with the missio Dei in a diversity of cultural and community contexts. Our calling offers us wonderful gifts of uniqueness, joy and freedom but, in breaking new ground, pioneering also invites us into deep encounters with shame… our own and in others. Working in Druids Heath, Birmingham, often labelled the forgotten estate, I am acutely aware that shame is a common experience among those who feel most marginalised by society and largely neglected, judged and disempowered. Yet the extraordinary creativity and resilience of the people of Druids Heath offers great potential for individual and communal transformation. If I accept the holy invitation to be aware of and address shame, I have sacred opportunities to encourage transformative reconciliation within myself and the community in which I minister.

In reflecting on the pioneer’s relationship with shame and reconciliation, I’ve come up with seven initial suggestions for what enables our ministry to be transformative:

Synchronicity: As a pioneer I’ve been encouraged to develop ministry in response to gentle and wonderful encounters with the Holy Spirit in the people and place of Druids Heath. Being attuned to such spiritual synchronicity offers reconciling freedom to the pioneer, untethered to strategies of survival that can exist in preserving tradition and institution. The Spirit’s power to transform shame, while flowing freely through synchronicity, might be hampered by the pioneer’s own determination to survive if we are particularly challenged by resources, circumstances or context. In practising an expectant sensitivity to synchronicity rather than an anxious strategy of survival, reconciling transformation has the space to breathe.

Sacred space: Pioneers minister in the space between church and “marketplace”, a liminal place of reconciliation, between the traditional and experimental, the ecclesial and the ordinary. The Spirit transcends our human division of sacred and secular, enabling a cafe kitchen to be the Holy of Holies and fourteen estate tower blocks to be Stations of the Cross. Shame is transformed as we offer prophetic witness to God’s presence in all situations and circumstances, especially for those who would imagine themselves unacceptable in church buildings. And pioneers offer a reconciling presence within themselves, a spaciousness that allows for the healing of shame, as we encourage others to accept restorative love and grace into their lives.

Simplicity: Freed from the expectations of ecclesial systems, pioneers are invited to focus on the gift of simple presence, where risk-taking relies on gentle exploring of relationship between Creator and creature through prayer, ecology, the arts, shared hobbies and contemplative silence. In the simplicity of presence, through deep listening and silent witness, the pioneer is curious to hear others’ stories, to reconcile the Spirit’s golden thread of hope with the toughest challenges of human lives. Shame is transformed as the gospel of resurrected love is understood within the context and culture of community, the sermon of life offering transformation with sacramental simplicity.

Solidarity: Pioneering is an isolating vocation. Aloneness is an invitation to deeper reliance on the Spirit and inner transformation in the minister. But a perceived lack of belonging can exacerbate the shame of being “different”. Ministerial freedom offers us the opportunity to find collaborative partners in church and community, to be natural reconcilers of persons and professions as we seek to develop solidarity of purpose and creative cohesion. The companionship of other pioneers cannot be underestimated, whether through formal networks or local colleagues. Solidarity presents us with mutual learning, shared challenge and communal celebration, reconciling processes rich in transformative potential.

Silliness: Pioneers have the creative opportunity to play. We can revel in being “fools” for Christ, demonstrating the healing power of humour and the sacred nature of silliness. In Druids Heath, I witness shame transformed in a community cafe where the ability to laugh with others and at oneself is the cultural “norm”. It is in the spontaneity of encounter and conversation, the shared silliness of being human, that the reconciling love of the Spirit is free to heal wounds and encourage friendship. Play is a deeply impacting means of engaging the young and the old, of discovering Jesus in artistic expression and imaginative recreation.

Synergy: Where and how we express our ministry as pioneers is no accident of circumstance. The Spirit offers a synergy of transformation, through which our own wounds and shame can be transformed, as we witness to Christ’s presence in the communities in which we live and serve. As we seek to reconcile others with their fragmented selves, with others and with Christian faith, their stories, our story and God’s story are woven into healing by the unforced rhythms of grace. Such synergy is a divine expression of reconciling love that humbles and aligns us within community. We are not so much transformation-bearers as openhearted pilgrims on the same journey of restoration.

Sustenance: Hearts and bellies are sustained through hospitality. As a pioneer in an outer Birmingham estate, I have the vulnerable but privileged role of being guest in community. Lacking the control of host, I enjoy the radical hospitality of residents inviting me into their lives, homes and shared spaces. Kath’s Cafe is “church” for me, a third space offering reconciling communion and transformation of shame through good value, tasty food and welcome and acceptance for everyone. Pioneers are invited into mutual sustenance through discovering people and places of peace where personal and corporate reconciliation are already transforming lives. We have the joy of joining the spiritual dots as we prayerfully witness communities of hospitality through the lens of their abundant gifts.

It seems fitting to end with a poem celebrating the potential of shame transforming reconciliation within Kath’s Cafe, Druids Heath.

A Third Space

Food, glorious food, the great leveller,
All need to eat and lots love to meet In a welcoming, safe, third space.6
A hospitable, accessible, home from home
Playful without pretence or performance.
A place where one’s humanity is embraced
With curiosity, teasing and straight talk,
Conversation and culinary competing as the main activity.

Food, glorious food, the relationship builder.
Widespread reputation, low-profile recommendation
A winning combination that enables this cafe
To cherish the regular and charm the visitor.
Families, fishermen, golfers, gaffers
Artists, activists, neighbours, networkers
And even the odd priest, collared and called
To discover the sacred outside church walls.

Food, glorious food, the miracle facilitator,
Encouraging connection, vision and prayer.
Jesus shared meals and changed lives;
Gifted hospitality holds vulnerability, hosts the holy.
Shame transformed through warmth of welcome,
Acceptance, laughter, empathy and authenticity.
A wave or a thumbs-up to everyone who passes;
We’re loved here, the wise, the wacky and the wonderful!

Food, glorious food, the social collaborator,
All ingredients needed for courageous cohesion.
A cafe owner with a huge heart for community,
Imaginative, talented residents with hopeful, helpful spirits,
Partner organisations who feel the magic of this place
And come with resources, skills and appetites to plan over brunch,
Stirred by a pioneer curate who believes in potential and prayer.
Faith and fragility, recipe for gracious renewal, precious fare.

Food, glorious food, the reconciling healer,
Hospitality providing space for everyday communion,
Life delivering raw liturgy of love and sacrifice,
The chalice of injustice, the bread of resilience.
Altar and table restorers of peace, symbols of unity
For fractured individuals and fragmented community.
The humble Christ bridges division, inspires resurrection
Births a Druids Heath Gospel, their story of redemption.

Catherine Matlock

About the author

Catherine Matlock is currently in her third year of a pioneer curacy in Druids Heath estate, south Birmingham. She has been living with and researching the concepts of shame and reconciliation for several years and feels that there is so much more to be explored within the dynamics that connect them, across a variety of cultures and contexts. Catherine is delighted to have companions on this journey of exploration, particularly through the Transforming Shame Network and Journey of Hope (Reconcilers Together). She spoke at the Transforming Shame conference on how shame affects us.

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1 Brene Brown, “shame v. guilt”, Brene Brown, 14 January 2013,
2 Donald L. Nathanson, “A Timetable for Shame,” in The Many Faces of Shame, ed. Donald L. Nathanson (New York, London: The Guilford Press, 1987), 4.
3 Jill McNish, Transforming Shame: A Pastoral Response (New York: Routledge, 2004). 193.
4 Tina Hodgett and Paul Bradbury, “Pioneering Mission is… a spectrum,” ANVIL 34, no. 1 (2018).
5 Jonny Baker and Cathy Ross, eds., The Pioneer Gift: Explorations in Mission (Canterbury Press: Norwich, 2014).
6 Ray Oldenburg, The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 1997).