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Why Pastors Should Get Their Heads Examined

  • Adam McHugh Contributor
  • Updated May 11, 2011
Why Pastors Should Get Their Heads Examined

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Recently I received the ultimate backhanded compliment, from a former colleague I came to know in my first church ministry job. Back then I was a 25-year-old seminary graduate plotting revival everywhere I went. Now I am a 34-year-old pastor asking her for a recommendation for a hospice chaplaincy. She expressed surprise at my interest in the job. I explained that the chaplaincy would allow me to grow as a listener and to be with people in painful but potentially sacred moments. She said, "You certainly are different from what I remember."

It was meant as a kindness. Yet it felt like receiving the "Most Improved Player" trophy, which I may or may not have won on my first-grade basketball team. The subtext of that trophy is: "You're still awful, and you will always ride the bench, but we don't feel as embarrassed to have you on the team as we once did." My colleague had just handed me the ecclesial version, the "Most Improved Pastor" trophy, on which the words are engraved: "You're not the hard-hearted, un-teachable egomaniac you used to be. You should never be a senior pastor, but we can probably trust you not to bring about the demise of Christianity in this country."

If there were an awards banquet for the Most Improved Pastor trophy, I would tell the crowd what I told my former colleague that day: "Thank you. I've been in a lot of therapy." And I would mean it.

After only the spiritual disciplines and my marriage, I would give the greatest credit for my personal and pastoral growth to the numerous therapy sessions I have received over the last seven years. Whenever I interact with young pastors or those aspiring to pastoral ministry, my first suggestion is to find a good therapist. The recently publicized statistics on pastoral burnout, depression, and job turnover have convinced me that the sooner pastors make themselves comfortable on the therapist's couch, the better it will be for them and for the churches they serve.

When I consider the effect of therapy on my life, the word "unraveling" comes to mind. I began therapy because my life was full of knots, which (although they held my life and self-understanding together) choked off my connection to my true self. When threads are tangled together, it's almost impossible to differentiate one from another. They overlap and interweave and you cannot see where one thread starts, where it stops, and what path it takes to get there. Our motivations get lost in our choices, our presents get confused with our pasts, and our conscious behaviors get entangled with our subconscious desires. It's all but impossible to identify these threads and how they interconnect when they're knotted together. Therapy has been a space for me to slowly pull apart those knots and to lay the threads down side by side. I can then identity and evaluate them with an expert who is trained in thread management.

The threads of many pastors' lives are entangled in two major areas: those that relate to their calling into ministry and those that pertain to their relationships with their congregations. In all the recent conversations about the hazardous effects of pastoral ministry, I think these threads have been under-emphasized even though they are critical to reversing the trends.

My foundational belief about pastoral ministry is that God calls us to it not only for the sake of leading others, but also for the sake of healing us in and through our service to others. The call to ministry is both a charge and a prescription. Young pastors usually dive into ministry with all the idealism and passion of youth, equipped with a master battle plan for saving the world and fixing the church, only to discover that their need to be saved and fixed is just as great. If we're honest with ourselves, those of us who are drawn to pastoral ministry are compelled by mixed motives. This is not hypocritical or contradictory. It is simply part of God's healing prescription for us. We are invited to view leadership positions as places of healing.

Near the end of my denomination's lengthy ordination process, when everything seemed to be moving in the right direction, I had an unsettling moment of self-discovery. I realized how much of my ministry was motivated by my desire for the approval and praise of others. My headlong pursuit of "relevance" in my teaching and in our church's engagement with culture was too often fueled by a need to stand out from other pastors.

I found myself tangled in the knot and knew of no way to extricate myself. That was when I first called a therapist.

Young people who are drawn to pastoral ministry may be working out of unmet childhood needs. If they have been given the message that they are not good enough, their feelings of inadequacy may play a role in compelling them towards pastoral ministry. After all, who is more worthy than a minister? If I succeed as a pastor, then I will finally be okay, right? Maybe if I can rescue others from their pain, then I will find the solution for my own. The attention and admiration in the early stages of ministry feels validating, but it cannot fuel a long ministry marked by freedom and joy, nor can it impart those qualities to others. Once you re-discover your numerous inadequacies in the course of ministry (and it won't take long), disillusionment, burnout, or worse consequences will follow. Even the most lavish praise from your congregation will never heal your wounds.

Therapy is also valuable for helping pastors unravel the complexities of relationships with people in their congregations. There is a common psychological phenomenon between pastors and church members called transference. Transference is when people re-direct emotions, desires, and expectations from their childhood onto someone else. What this can mean in a church context is that members transfer their childhood issues onto pastors, subconsciously viewing them as parents. A pastor, after all, is an authority figure who speaks to lives and hearts, much like parents, and in some traditions church leaders are even called fathers or mothers. Transference too is a result of unmet emotional needs seeking satisfaction. Even though they mentally and physically mature in a normal manner, those who experienced physical or emotional trauma as children, or were wounded by other unhealthy family dynamics, may find their emotional development arrested or delayed.

I remember the first time I realized that someone in my congregation looked to me, subconsciously, as a parent. Twenty-five years my senior, he was incredibly successful professionally, excelling in everything he tried, exuding confidence and decisiveness. Yet when he was in my presence, he seemed highly unsure of himself, unable to make eye contact, and deferential on every matter, whether we were talking about the Bible or about what kind of coffee to offer during the fellowship hour. Confused and frustrated with his lack of leadership in the church, I took this matter to my therapist, who helped me see that although this man was in his 50s, his emotional age was far younger. With this new understanding, together we worked on strategies for how I could communicate with this man and motivate him to lead in the church.

Transference is dangerous because it happens without conscious thought and it often leads churches to place inordinate expectations on pastors. People hope that their pastors can fill the emotional holes left by their old wounds. They subconsciously want pastors to make up for the mistakes their parents made, to be available where their parents were unavailable, to provide the direction or accountability or compassion that their parents never did. Transference is one reason why church members can take a pastor's failure or resignation so hard. On a primal level, it feels like a parent has disappointed or left them, and they feel vulnerable, scared, and abandoned.

Compounding the issue is the pastor's temptation towards countertransference, allowing ourselves to be caught up in the expectations that people place on us. We can give in and play the parental role, doing our best to meet all of their emotional needs, rescuing them from pain and uncomfortable situations, and masquerading as the spiritual superhero. Or else we can reverse the roles and place our congregations in the position of our parents, desperately hoping to please them and win their praise. In these complex situations, everyone is looking for a parent but everyone is left feeling orphaned.

These are just a few examples of the issues I worked through on the therapist's couch. It's easy to see how the lives and ministries of pastors can be choked by these knots of tangled motivations, relationships, and wounds. We do not have the expertise or the courage to untie these knots on our own.

I'm hopeful that if pastors would commit to unraveling these threads in the safe place of a therapist's office, we could live in the reality that we are being parented and healed by a Father who approves of us and loves us. We could learn to live and serve as we truly are, and not as the person we or others think we should be. That, to me, is the key to joy, freedom, and longevity in ministry.

Adam S. McHugh

Adam S. McHugh is a writer, pastor, spiritual director, and the author of Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture. He has been published in The Christian Century and The Washington Post and is a expert.

Publication date: May 11, 2011