Is your family dysfunctional or are they wounded?

Jesus showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you.”

John 20:20-21 

Even after the resurrection, Jesus bears the wounds, which become a source of peace. Healing stands at the forefront of the broken body of Christ. Wounds often lead us to hurt others. It’s common for those closest to us, our family, to bear the brunt of our anguish. Hopefully, our wounds can heal, transforming us to reconcile the pain we encounter in our lives.

When I was 17, a mountain lion leaped in front of our Subaru Outback as we drove through the North Cascades in Washington State. My Dad was driving and my two brothers were in the car. Thankfully, all passengers emerged unscathed. The only damage was to the vehicle’s AC and one headlamp, which bore a tuft of fawn-colored cougar hair wedged deeply in a stress fracture of the clear plastic. It was a violent impact that left us shaken.

People always inquire, “What happened to the cougar?” My Dad relishes telling this story, always emphasizing, “We didn’t stick around to find out! I reported it to the Forest Ranger, and they warned me against staying in the vicinity where an injured cougar might be on the prowl.”

Desperation can alter the behavior of mountain lions. When emaciated, diseased, or hurt, they’ve been known to attack humans. While cougar attacks are rare, on that summer day in 1998, my family wasn’t going to tempt fate by lingering. The thought of an injured animal capable of causing harm sent shivers down my spine.

Let’s draw a parallel between individuals grappling with mental health conditions or addiction disorders and a wounded cougar. During active addiction, I was defensively hostile when offered help. My untreated bipolar disorder and addiction were open wounds needing immediate attention. When my family approached, I lashed out. That is a rather apt comparison to a wounded mountain lion. 

Fortunately, I eventually received assistance and healed my wounds. However, once wounded, I was forever changed. I’ve come to accept that the wounds from my addiction and mental health condition will always impact my life.

I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2005 and publicly disclosed this diagnosis in February 2023. Upon going public, I received a comment from another pastor online that broke my heart. The comment read: “Truthfully, trusting the competence of a person with a mental health condition is an issue.” These seemed like the words of a wounded individual. I had prepared myself for various responses to my disclosure, expecting problematic comments from the pews, not from a colleague. I was wrong. I realized the urgent need for discussions about mental health within the church. What I discovered was that the average churchgoer lacked the vocabulary for a healthy dialogue about mental health and addiction.

I believed I possessed the appropriate terminology to navigate a “dysfunctional family.” Seeking treatment, therapy, counseling, support groups, and spiritual care over three decades, I felt something was amiss. My methods were far too clinical and devoid of any spirit. As a pastor, I yearned for a transformational approach but encountered a barrier. I had been blaming my entire family for my mental health issues, which provided a false sense of superiority. Embracing the term “dysfunctional family” allowed me to believe my family was the source of my chaos. However, every spiritual and theological experience guiding my ministry urged me to abandon the concept of familial dysfunction and embrace the concept of “The Wounded Family.”

This is why I try to refer to my family as “The Wounded Family.” Untreated and misunderstood mental health conditions significantly impacted us. Among various wounds, I grapple with trauma from my five major manic episodes, addiction history, codependency, and the tragic death of my great uncle years ago. These experiences drive my purpose in ministry and writing, compelling me to engage with and address these wounds.

Growing up Lutheran, my family appeared average at church. However, at home, denial was our way of life. Each family member struggled to be themselves, wearing masks within triangulated relationships. Mom, Dad, my brothers, my Uncle, Grandma, and Grandpa all saw a different Seth.

If my family was wounded, then the church must also acknowledge its wounds. Our society demands radical change and reform in faith communities. The call for mental health reform in the church reminds me of my family’s cries for help in crisis. Unfortunately, a historical institutional denial of mental health seems embedded in many faith communities. Each church I’ve been a part of, and pastored, embodies a family system entrenched in a history of self-deception, striving for transformation. Churches exist in the shadow of a tradition of silence surrounding mental health, while “wounded families” yearn for spiritual rebirth, a reality I witness weekly as a pastor.

Growing up, mental health diagnoses were never openly discussed in church or at home. Christians often conceal their wounds, reluctant to admit susceptibility to being wounded. If “wounded families” free themselves from the shackles of “dysfunction” and embrace healing wounds and living with scars, then peace can be embraced despite pain and hurt at the core of a family’s identity.

Consider Jesus and how the wounds from the crucifixion are not concealed by the resurrected Christ. Post-resurrection, Jesus materialized before ten remaining disciples, revealing his wounded body. Despite enduring torture and execution, Jesus overcame the unthinkable. As a Pastor living with bipolar disorder, biblical narratives testify to Christ’s unguarded nature. My hope is for “The Wounded Family” to strive to embody Jesus’s vulnerability.

For 2000 years, triumphant versions of this story have been recounted. Today, I perceive this excerpt from the Gospel of John as an embodiment of God’s vulnerability. The messiah’s wounds endure in Jesus’s resurrected body, ethereal stigma bearing testament to the Creator’s intimate nature. God has bled, been wounded, and survived like many of us.

So, when considering the phrase “dysfunctional family,” reflect on these questions: Where are the wounded people in your family? Do they acknowledge their wounds? Have they healed? What do you need to do to find peace with others’ wounds?

Living in “The Wounded Family” is about peace—peace with your own wounds, peace with others’ wounds, and peace with the causes of those wounds. Seeking peace within a process of acceptance, grace, and forgiveness allows “The Wounded Family” to experience new life.

Thank you and Amen,

Pastor Seth Perry

Seth Perry

Seth Perry

ELCA Pastor -Devotional Blogger- Mental Health Recovery Educator-Living Well with Bipolar Type 1


6 Responses

  1. Dysfunctional or wounded is a wonderful perspective to ponder as we reflect and consider our own stories. Thank you for sharing yourself; connection is life giving.

    1. Thank you, Jillene. Time provides more perspective and allows for more time to heal. Even with over 13 years of mental health and addiction recovery, I can still find myself placing blame on “my family” as if it were one entity, disregarding the separate, unique personalities comprising it. I appreciate the comment.

  2. Thank you for sharing Pastor Seth, your vulnerability normalizes this topic for others! I really appreciated your story and perspective. I think the stigma surrounding embracing our scars is very real. Very few places can scars be seen and accepted, including within some family systems. I think communication and acceptance are key. Thank you again and God Bless.

    1. Thank you, Christian! I really appreciate it.

      I appreciate the point you made about embracing our scars. During big holiday family dinners, I often found myself uncomfortable because many family members weren’t comfortable discussing or accepting their wounds. I would oscillate between feeling ashamed for causing the “dysfunction” and being angry, thinking the “dysfunction” caused all of my problems. You’re right. In my case, my family has been moving towards healing through acceptance and communication.

      Thanks for the engaging conversation!

  3. I want to meet your wife. My husband suffers from bipolar and I am having a difficult time with him taking his meds. I really could use someone who has experienced supporting someone with bipolar. I live in chisago city. Maybe start a support group in the area for people like us, cause it is exhausting.

    1. Hi Kaelyn,

      Our church is currently exploring ways to provide support to individuals facing challenges similar to yours. Please feel free to reach out and contact me at my office—I’m here to help.

      I wanted to share that in February and March of 2024, we’re excited to announce the launch of our second annual mental health campaign. As part of this initiative, we’ll be hosting free workshops and community meals. These events will be actively promoted within our local area.

      Your presence and participation would be greatly valued. If you have any questions or would like further information, don’t hesitate to get in touch.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

I've long labeled my family as dysfunctional, yet recently I've started to ponder the validity of that perception. Through this article, I delve into the possibility that what I've perceived as dysfunction might actually stem from unhealed wounds within my family.