The Origins of Dr. Dan Allender’s Work

In the first of this two-part series, Rachael Clinton Chen interviews Dan Allender about the origins of his work in helping people address and heal sexual abuse. You’ll drop into Dan’s story in the mid-1980s as he was finishing his doctoral studies. He was asked a question by one of his clients: “What do you know about sexual abuse?”

At the time, this very prevalent issue was not being addressed in secular culture, let alone by the church. Listen to how Dan grew into his unique role as a therapist, teacher, and innovative leader to help bring healing and transformation to those who have suffered harm and abuse.

Please note this does discuss the sensitive topic of sexual abuse and may not be suitable for some listeners.

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Episode Transcript:

Rachael: Dan, I am very thrilled today to be in the position of getting to interview you for today’s conversation. Are you excited?

Dan: Hey, I am. I’m a little less actually given that the last time I, I had the opportunity to interview you. I actually had so much fun, but now being the actual interviewee…

Rachael: That’s right. That’s right.

Dan: I’ll say there’s a little, a little bit like driving with you. Do people know what it’s like to drive with you?

Rachael: Well, I mean, I feel like we’ve maybe mentioned that a little bit on here, but I’m not exactly sure. I’m just a very assertive driver.

Dan: Right? I, I like it when you drive with your eyes open.

Rachael: I am a very safe driver. I just am also, I have to verbalize my anxiety of other drivers on the road. So that’s more, what people experience is I talk to all the other people that I quite frankly feel like do not drive as safe or efficiently as they could.

Dan: Yeah. And I, you, you do know that I did tape, uh, or not tape, but record some of our interaction when you were driving me around California. I still think that needs to, I wish we had a visual means for people to see that.

Rachael: Dan.

Dan: Yes.

Rachael: This is my interview.

Dan: Yes, notice I’m avoiding our…

Rachael: Yeah, I know.

Dan: I’m sorry. I’m gonna be, be as good an interviewee as I can be.

Rachael: No, today we’re gonna spend some time, the next couple conversations, just revisiting, reflecting and remembering some of the origin stories, both of your work and the Allender Center. We’ve done a lot of podcasts, kind of at the 10 year anniversary, remembering how we came to be. And today just wanna step back in and really remember, um, how this all got started, not just the Allender Center, but in many ways like your work that eventually led to the creation of the Allender Center. And then in part two, we’ll talk a little bit more about who we are, why we do what we do. What, what is it that we offer? This is just kind of a refresher, a moment to stop and go, wait, who are we and what is it that we do, but first wanna just have an opportunity to hear more from you. And so I’ve had the privilege and luxury of hearing some of your origin stories, but maybe I will just start with the question. Um, when you came out of your, you know, PhD work, you are this student you’re doing, you know, ministry work, you’re doing internships. You’re getting to do incredible work with people. How in the world did you fall into the work of sexual abuse?

Dan: Well, it actually, if we go back to October, 1986. I was just in the late middle of finishing my dissertation. Uh, I graduated from Michigan state in spring of 1987. So all I can tell you was, I was crazy. Just crazy. If you, if you think of me as not being all there. Anyway, I was at a level of extremity that was pretty severe. Uh, I did not like doing statistics. You know, the last major math course I had ever taken was algebra one in eighth grade. I avoided math the entire collegiate career. So the only thing I had to take to be able to get my, my degree was doctoral level statistics. And then I had to do a dissertation utilizing that I was in deep trouble. And so let’s just say I was not emotionally coherent, thoughtful, engaged, but I was still working with people. And that was, uh, October when I had a client, fourth session, say to me, what do you know about sexual abuse? And I remember that moment, like it was yesterday and again already, I’m in the middle of a lot of my own upheaval. And I remember thinking in a millisecond, if I tell her the truth, which is, I don’t know anything. Uh, she probably won’t work with me, but if I tell her I do know something, she’s the kind of person who’s gonna ask and I’m, uh, whatever in a millisecond. I said, I don’t know much at all. And she said, I know. And then she made this proposition that literally changed the trajectory of my life. And she said, if you’re willing to work with me, I’ll teach you everything I know.

Rachael: Wow.

Dan: And I would say that was the beginning of thinking, in a way that I had not thought about before, even though by that point, I’m about 11 years into graduate work from a master divinity, a master of arts and counseling. And now a Ph.D., Not a minute, not a minute on the topic of abuse at all, let alone the topic of sexual abuse. So it was a pretty empty era unaddressed. And, you know, again, nobody denied that it existed, but it was just not part of my work, my reflection, and certainly not part of my therapy.

Rachael: So you have this client who obviously is needing you to grow your capacity to engage this. How do you go from work with an individual client to beginning to see this being a core problem issue, you know, context that just needs to be engaged and has to be engaged?

Dan: I think there are two ways to answer that, but you need to hear it simultaneous. It isn’t sequential. I think at one level, the spirit of God was, uh, nickling just pulling on my sleeve. Uh, and again, I wouldn’t know for a long time that the issue was relevant to my own life. Uh, I was not doing the two plus two of, oh, I have a history of past abuse might be wise to look at that. Um, I’m just too defensive and in some ways, uh, not bright enough to have made that connection that early, but what did occur is soon after that appointment, um, I, I went to the library and I had a really kind librarian at Michigan state. And I just basically said, look, can you help me, uh, do a bit of a lit search. Look, the computer, internet in 1986 was, it didn’t exist. So, or at least in my world. Uh, and so she pulled up a bunch of articles and books. And I would say if, if, if I’m remembering moderately well, the appointment occurred like on a Wednesday or Thursday by Monday, I had the data and had begun reading. And again, here’s part of the problem. I’ve gotta finish my dissertation, but I also have a sense of not only for this client, but something in me feels compelled to begin reading and thinking. It’s so far from what I did in my doctoral work, but I’m also knowing there’s something there. I would say by November toward the end, like we’ve got maybe one or two weeks left in the academic semester, I started talking about sexual abuse. And even from the earliest beginnings, it was like it awakened in my students, something I had not seen. So by the time we get to a really, you know, the winter semester, what spring semester in January, which has always been an anomaly, it’s not spring, but nonetheless it’s spring semester. I began talking. And again, I think this is true for a lot of us who are academics. We, we begin trying to put words to what we’re trying to learn. You don’t learn it and then teach it right. You’re learning and teaching simultaneously. And I saw early on in that semester, things happening in my students that I could not put words to in terms of the level of intensity of heartache, anger, grief, um, and students were coming to my office and they were actually beginning to narrate their own story, what they’re hearing in the material. And I’m also working with this person week by week. So between students, my client, and then the beginnings of, uh, at least in the year, 1987/88, I began teaching three or four conferences on this. And that again, it’s part of that process of, I didn’t know it was that important. Uh, I, I certainly didn’t have the integrity to begin at that juncture dealing with my own life, but it was clear it was important to others. And therefore I chose to continue doing the work of reading, thinking and talking a bit more before kind of the spirit began knocking thankfully on my own door going and you? And how about you?

Rachael: And how did that come to be? Well, before we go there, I do want, I do wanna hear that. I am curious about these conferences you were doing. Were they in more academic settings or is this when you were starting to, like, how did the connection to the church world to Christian faith and addressing something like this in that context start to play out was that…?

Dan: I was in a conversation with a dear friend of mine who was a pastor in Wisconsin, not talking about this, just saying, what are you thinking about? What are you talking about? Uh, what are you reading? And I said, I don’t even wanna say out loud, but I’m talking, thinking about sexual abuse. And he had actually had several people, um, in the months prior to our conversation, put words to their own past abuse. So he, he was open in part because at least from my standpoint, the spirit was at work, and he said, have you, have you developed enough material to teach it? And I’m like, no, I’m just talking about it, like lightly in class. And he said, put it together. Why don’t you come in, uh, up to Wisconsin and do a conference? And I’m like, I don’t have enough thought I I’ve got an hour at the most. And he said, well, we’ll do a two day. And I like, okay. So I think that was one of the first impetuses to actually begin. And then I had friends who had graduated from our counseling program in Indiana. Uh, and again, these were just conversations, not planning, but when I said, I’m gonna go to Wisconsin and do this. That was the second, uh, friends in Nashville, Nita Ba, Nita Andrews, invited me, to come. And then a third conference came up because of friends in Miami. So between Wisconsin, Nashville, Miami, I was kind of in the awkward position of going, I know it’s important, but I don’t have enough thought and material at this juncture to do anything with it. But, um, I kind of got myself booked and like any halfway decent human being, I had to actually sit and begin to say, well, what do I think? And I, I have some of the material from those first, and there’s a lot, frankly, that showed up eventually in the Wounded Heart. But that was the beginning.

Rachael: Well, I mean, I’m just so fascinated by that because I think you’re absolutely right. The spirit was making a way, because at that time, sexual abuse was not something being engaged in the secular world, let alone in the church world. And so I’m curious, like, did you feel like you were alone in that endeavor? Were there conversation partners or others who were, you know, coming like that, you felt like, oh, they have a similar calling or was this really like, oh, I’m, I’m being invited to pioneer something?

Dan: I would love to say that I had that thought: I’m a pioneer and I’m heading West!

Rachael: I know you. I know you wouldn’t have that thought.

Dan: No, I, I just thought maybe 10 people will come in Wisconsin and maybe 10 or 12, you know, I just did not have any feel for the reality of the extent of abuse, uh, in the world, let alone, again, within the church. So I figured it would be two or three little conferences. I would learn a lot and it’d be over. No thought whatsoever of how important, how deeply, deeply harmful and how unaddressed with regard to the power of shame and contempt. all of this was just beginning to percolate. And I, I feel like in so many ways, I’m a good listener. I’m a pretty good thinker, but I listen to people trying to engage the reality of their own story. And so I think at first there was that sense of, oh my gosh, how much betrayal is here? Huge. How much of a sense of powerlessness? So putting those two words together. Yeah. But the hardest to come up with was the issue of, again, arousal, complicity, and then shame. But as it got talked about, uh, I don’t even remember quite the day, but I remember kind of going, huh, this is a lot like faith, hope and love. Uh, and I think that was maybe the, uh, major change to beginning to go, oh, clearly in all forms of that kind of assault, there is evil. Not that every perpetrator is evil, but there is evil in the perpetration and indeed there are evil perpetrators, but what it became clear to me was this is really well designed. In fact, it’s brilliant. I couldn’t imagine through an act that could literally take five seconds for not just a human life to be violated and the harm to be strewn through decades and decades, but literally intergenerational kind of harm because it became clearer this was not just in one person’s life. This actually had realities that expanded beyond. So I think that was also that awakening of there is something behind this and it is evil and it’s not merely flesh and blood. It actually is a spiritual work against human dignity and glory. And I think by that point somewhere in sort of mid 1987, after a few conferences, beginning of writing the Wounded Heart, uh, it became clear, oh my gosh, this has to be exposed. Not merely, certainly centrally because of what human beings have suffered, but even more so, this is the work of evil that has to be exposed with regard to what’s happening against human glory.

Rachael: Well, and I’m just, I’m so struck. I’m so struck that you are so faithful to step into these waters to follow the wild goose, so to speak in these openings, these invitations, you know, like it does feel almost like a stepping stone, like, all right, just take this next step, take this next step. Your eyes are opening that this is a pervasive, wicked reality that has to be exposed and engaged. And you’re writing like gifting and grace and provision is coming. That sounds like all kinds of connections are being made. That even as you talk about, there’s something in me that’s like, and I, have benefited from that labor of so long ago and how it’s developed and, and the impact that it’s had. And I know many people can say that whether it’s graduate students or Allender Center participants or clients, or just people who have encountered your material, and yet at this juncture, as you’re things are starting to take off, you’re writing this book for you. It hasn’t that connection hasn’t yet been made that in some ways, this is, this is a work that’s meant to be just as redemptive for you.

Dan: Yeah, I know it’s and I just wanna go, if, people know me, they know, oh man, is he defensive and hardheaded, but it took a dear friend, Bill Clark, who a brilliant psychologist in Washington, D.C. came to the Miami event. And, you know, after it was all over, we’re hanging out at poolside and he goes, you know, can I ask you this question? And I’m like, I know what he is gonna do. He’s gonna ask. And, and, and I say, yeah, Bill, go ahead. He goes, do you have a history of past abuse? And I’m like, no, no. Can I ask it again? Knock yourself out, friend. No. And then he asked a third time, can I ask it again? And I’m like, uh, come on. Like, is this gonna be our evening? Uh, and, and he said, uh, I, let me ask it differently. Are you telling me you have never felt sexual shame or, or you’ve never felt sexually used, and I’m looking at him, like, of course I felt sexual shame and yeah, I know what it is to be used. And he’s like, well, like when I said, ah, you know, a scout master who did this, and then older boys in a locker room, uh, this horrible experience for nine weeks at a summer camp. So I gave him three or four, really heartbreaking stories. And he looked at me and I think it was about the second time in my life that a man wept in my presence for me. And he had tears and he said, are you telling me you have never been sexually abused? And I looked at him and I went, no, and he looks at me and again, and he goes, well, what if, and he pulls out from underneath his chair, the manual. And he goes, what if we use your definition? and I remember looking at him like, oh, shit. Oh, no. Like, I don’t know why, why, why any moment becomes a revelatory clear, but it was like the veil got ripped. And I mean, I, I were looking at his face going, like, stamering like, I’ve been sexually abused. I’m, I’m almost asking. And thank goodness that he was able to say, what do your stories tell you? And two plus two, um, I never did math very well. Uh, finally became a clear four. And I think that has been, again, one of those transformative moments, of the grace of the spirit not accusing me in what I felt, which is how stupid could I be? But far more, tend, let the spirit, let me tend to your very, very angry, defensive, frightened heart. So, uh, all I can say is from that point, probably close to, I don’t know, March/April/May of 1987, it’s been a journey.

Rachael: Wow. I do think there’s a unique grace and kindness to that. Um, again, to have been so faithful to step into something that would have been, I mean, and it’s not the first time God has used your own material against you. For your good. For your good. It’s a little bit like a Jonah moment.

Dan: Oh, I felt a great deal of affinity to Jonah, in fact, in that, and even in that, like, I’m, I’m near a body of water. We’re, we’ve got this like covering over us in Miami and I’m like, literally at that point, I’m thinking I’m on the way to Tarshish. Uh, but like, and that water is the whale. Damn.

Rachael: Well, and I, you know, again, so much of the core work we do now that I know as you have developed, is this profound belief that God intends to take our ashes and turn it into beauty and to bring restoration, not just for ourselves, but for others. And I would imagine that was a scare, terrifying, yet profound moment of integration. And I’m curious how it… If, and how it shifted the way you began to engage and imagine the work and…

Dan: Here’s a complication. I was already under contract for writing the Wounded Heart. Okay. And I, I had at least a outline that I knew I wanted to follow. And I was just at the beginning of naming some of the reality of, of abuse that it took me another 25 years when I, in one sense had the 25 year mark to write Healing the Wounded Heart, to be able to actually put more words. But I think there was a beginning integration and where it gets even more complicated is as a result of teaching, talking, writing, Becky’s beginning to name the reality of her own abuse. And again, one of those sentences that changed the course of my life, uh, we’re sitting, talking. I can remember almost literally where we’re sitting in our little living room in Winona lake Indiana. And she said, you know, you’re brilliant at seeing, at least I hear, uh, from friends who have worked with you, how brilliant you are seeing the small little stones in people’s lives and following the path deductively into the reality of their own heartache. And then she said, and I’m thinking, well, that’s really kind, now thank you. And then she goes, and you have had a several ton boulder and the middle of the living room, and you’ve not wanted to engage it. And I’m like, what are you talking about? And she said, you know, I have been sexually abused and you have never even asked the most simple question. And that was both a level of heartache, uh, a level of exposure, a kind of revelation of you have not only been radically defensive to not address your own shame and contempt, but you have failed the one person that you love more than any on the earth. So I think that was another one of the moments where the spirit was essentially saying, take this seriously. And I think it was almost within that work, that interaction with Becky, where I think the spirit began to make clear, this is your life work because it’s not just you, it’s someone you would die for. And I think as it became clear clients, students, but there was something about having that reality of going that boulder needs to be engaged. And essentially if you use the metaphor needs to be dealt with well enough to get out of your house. And I think that was when, um, uh, you know, more work, more writing, but let’s just say there was a lot of opposition, uh, from, uh, people I work with good friends, from the church that I was part of and that intersection between this is your life. This is maybe more that you will do, but no less of what you’re meant to. And then the reality of, oh, there’s being a clear after teaching, talking, writing for a good year, a kind of, oh, there’s a price to pay. And I’m grateful, grateful that I was in far enough that the issue of the cost was whatever.

Rachael: Well, I think that’s just something I do wanna highlight and name as you were, I am gonna call you a pioneer, which I know, you know, you don’t have to, you don’t have to receive it, but, and I’m not saying you were doing that alone. I think God is, is always at work in multiple facets. Whether we get to merge with them and connect with them or not, but you were stepping into realms that there was tremendous spiritual opposition, but people opposition. And I would imagine there were times that was quite lonely. And, and yet, because I have had the privilege of getting to step into this work, to know when people are encountering a kind of healing that changes the trajectory of their life and you see the gospel unfolding in ways that like, make you believe more, change your heart. It gives you that strength to keep going. But I’m aware that as you’re kind of, all of a sudden, the cost is becoming very real around this time is also when you imagine something like recovery weeks and, you know, started something that has become, I mean, over 30 years now, 30 plus years, a hallmark program that now is embedded in the Allender Center. But, you know, I’m assuming was just a let’s, let’s start creating more context for people to get healing.

Dan: No, kind… I have been faithful mostly to friends who have said we need to do more. And I’m like, yeah, like what, well, what if we did a week where we invite people in to begin to address their stories? So good friends like Al, Anita, Andrews, Nancy and Carla, and a few others, their invitation, uh, to invite others in a, a dear friend by the name of Shannon, who basically is saying, I see the effect of this material in my own life. You’ve got to invite people in. So there was an imagination that came communally. And again, it’s so much easier to go into war when at least you have one ally than to be the one trying to create. And I, I think my metaphor is I, I’m not a pioneer, but I got, I, you know, what the British used to do, uh, when they were going to war is they would go along the Wharf and grab people who were drinking in their pubs. And, and it actually had a little bit too much to drink. So they put them on board and they sailed. And all of a sudden you wake up sober and you’re like, I, I can’t walk on water. So a lot of my faithfulness has, has been, I drank too much, uh, and ended up on board a ship. And now that I’m here, damnit, I’m gonna fight. Um, I am, I, I will take seriously sword play, how to use a cannon. And I think I know the enemy and I want the enemy dead. So the faithfulness has been, I hate evil. I’ve participated too often past, present and future in it to not know it’s my enemy. And this is the way I get to stand against evil and say, hell no. And I think that’s always been, um, you know, from other stories, I, I think I’ve got a pretty strong streak of defiance. And in that, when it gets clear, as you put it brilliantly, Rachael, that you get to see goodness grow in the heart of another human being. And that was clients that was students, but maybe the most central was I got to see my stunning and beautiful wife become even more beautiful. And that was the hook that said, oh, I’ve seen heaven, yes. And what could I do else with my life?

Rachael: Well, and I, wow. I don’t know if I ever have heard that as clearly, um, so much a core part of the story, and there’s something really holy and stunning about that. And I’m, I probably find myself chuckling a little bit at your metaphor of the British pub pub soldiers. Mostly because I think you have been again, I will say I, I wanna push back a little bit, ’cause I think you have been a little more clear-eyed when you’ve said yes. Even if you have been resistant and maybe hasn’t been your core idea. I’m just thinking about…

Dan: Yeah. And, and, and let me push back against your pushback in that you didn’t know me back then.

Rachael: All right. That’s fair. That’s fair.

Dan: I think so many ways as Becky would say, you know, dealing with harmed human beings has enabled me to become, uh, vastly more tender than I was, uh, and not to say that there was not massive movement and needed, but so I think that shift and shaping was necessary for me to be aware of I am a warrior. And in that sense, I’ll take Pilgrim, but I’m a warrior and this is my fight, but it isn’t just a fight regarding sexual abuse. I think that’s one of the things that people have not heard well. No. It’s a fight against the kingdom of evil in all its forms, individual personal, familial, corporate, institutional, cultural, and some of those have taken a long time, to evolve and develop. But I think that was the clearer sense of, I believe there is something called the kingdom of evil and I want to do harm to it.

Rachael: Well, as we bring this part of the conversation to a close, I wanna just say, and this is where we’ll go in our next conversation. I’m I am so struck by the reality that all along your journey, as you were stepping into healing, work with individuals, with communities, with the masses in writing in ways you may not even get to connect with the people who are encountering your work, that all along the way you knew people needed to be trained, um, and invited in and equipped to, to do this work, that, that this was something that was gonna take a massive movement of people who are, who feel equipped and authorized and healed. Um, but never, never disqualifying those, um, who may need time and space to heal before there’s really an invitation to take it and offer it to others. And you know, I think that’s such a hallmark of the Seattle School, the Allender Center, um, the communities that you have been a part of shaping is this true sense of healing in order to lead. And that, you know, the trajectory of the gospel is that our healing is meant to become a blessing to others and to be given back and multiplied. And that is something I have seen of you. That’s probably why I push back against like, you’re right. I didn’t know you, I, you know, I know enough of your defensive structures now that I can imagine a younger, a younger, less integrated, you know, needing-more-space-for-healing Dan, may have been a little more, uh, fierce and ferocious in that, in those places. But I just, as one who has deeply benefited both in the healing realm and the transformative realm and being invited to join in so much, so much of the movement of, of healing to lead, I just wanna say, thank you, regardless of the motivations or the ways it came to be, I wanna say, thank you to you. And I do, I do feel a deep gratitude to God, um, for the many people, um, he sent your way at each turn. Um, but I’m grateful whether it was reluctant or naive that you said yes.

Dan: Yeah. Well, and I think the best answer or best responses, uh, again, it’s very humbling to say you’re welcome.

Rachael: Thank you for letting me interview you.

Dan: And next time it’s interactive

Rachael: Until then.