of An Ex-Pastor
John Mark Ministries tries to help clergy (and others) and/or their spouses during times of transition. Every day I (and my colleague Rev. Les Scarborough in Sydney) talk to at least one of these special people in their crisis-time. This case-study is a composite picture of a hurting pastor from my notes of counseling sessions with more than a dozen clergy/ missionaries/ people-helpers during a few months in 1994. I'll describe this typical story in non-technical language.
We'll call him Jim; he's in his late 40's. He was referred to me by both his bishop and his wife. He'd been reluctant to seek help. He'd broken down and cried a few times in church meetings recently, and also had bouts of rage, couldn't sleep regularly, had an erratic sexual desire and performance, and had generally lost his 'oomph'. He was particularly angry with a couple of church-wardens who he felt were undermining his ministry. They were wanting to institute 'performance appraisals' for all church leaders including the pastor. Their rationale was that this happens in all professions these days, so that 'we can all be open and accountable to one another and do our best for God.' Jim felt this was a ploy to humiliate him.
His father, Jim said, was sometimes cruel and always emotionally distant. Jim got the message from his dad that he was never good enough, he was a failure, worthless. His father had a problem with alcohol, and was occasionally violent with Jim's mother, and with the kids. 'How did you feel about him?' 'I hated him.' 'How do you feel about him now?' 'I despise him, I guess.' The men's movement's literature talks about the wounded male who was never properly initiated into manhood by a loving father, or father-substitute. Jim's was a classic case of love-deprivation.
He rarely had close male friends. He couldn't think of anyone at present he could trust with his problems. He is very lonely. (He confided eventually that he'd had a short sexual affair with a woman, which no one else knew about). Jim did fairly well at school, but had lapsed into anti-social behavior and had poor grades occasionally. He met a girl from a strong Christian home at the church youth group, and eventually married after an on-again off-again courtship when they were both in mid-twenties. Most of the parenting has been done by Jane: she told me she really has an extra child in her husband, 'who has never grown up.' 'What do you mean?' I ask. Let Jane tell the story...
'Jim rarely takes responsibility for his actions. He doesn't volunteer to help around the home much. I have to show him jobs to be done. He thinks quality-time with the kids is running them to school and sport functions or watching TV with them, but there's no real bonding with any of our four children, and they're beginning to hate him, they tell me. He's secretive about some things, particularly with the way he spends time and money: he won't answer my (occasional) questions on those issues. I really don't trust him, and therefore can't respect him. Our sex life is almost zero, and frankly I don't want to make love to a child who doesn't know how to give love. Isn't it interesting: of the three primal temptations - money, sex, and power - Jim has problems with all three.
'He uses church meetings as an excuse, I feel, not to be really involved with the family. And sometimes our kids have had important school functions - in one case a graduation where our son won a prize - but Dad was too busy to be there, and you could tell the child was bitterly disappointed. I'm sick of it. He's acting like a "married single". If he doesn't change, I'm out of the marriage, and he'll be out of the ministry...'
Jane adds several other helpful insights. Jim can't say 'sorry'. '"It's not my fault; don't heap guilt onto me; don't blame me all the time..." he whinges. He's ungrateful and selfish. I didn't marry a man, I married a wimp! He never has asked "Who can I be for you, my dear?" I don't know very much about his inner life: he won't talk about his feelings. He avoids conflict like the plague: in church meetings contentious issues are always referred to a committee. He needs constant affirmation/stroking from significant people. It's the only way he survives in ministry. He doesn't really care for people: he uses them for his own satisfaction, so that he can feel good when he's congratulated for helping them.
And he doesn't watch his diet, eats too much chocolate (when I'm not looking: I find the wrappers in the study waste-bin), and I reckon he's drinking too much. And I don't think he ever really prays. How's he supposed to represent God to people if he's not nurturing his own spiritual life? And I do all the spiritual nurturing with our children.'
Another problem, Jane tells me, is Jim's problem with powerful people. 'He may not tell you this, but he hates the bishop with a passion. He thinks the bishop should have given him a different charge than the one he's got. He's always had problems with authority-figures. Why is that?'
Good question. The first authority-figure in his life, his mother, was a non-coper, experiencing bouts of depression. Sometimes Jim was bullied by bigger boys; and Jim felt he was singled out by teachers for punishment sometimes which he didn't deserve. And then his father... Once during his later teenage years, Jim says he 'decked' his drunken father to stop him beating his mother.
After a session or two, Jim opens up. 'Nothing's fun any more. I hate ministry but I can't get a job anywhere else at my age. We have no savings, just a beach shack which we let (and which the bank mostly owns) so we couldn't afford the mortgage we would need. In any case, the kids love their school, they've made good friends, and to disrupt their lives now wouldn't be fair...'
'I'm tired, washed-up, burned out. I've got nothing more to give. I've been a workaholic - haven't had a day off for as long as I can remember - and I've defined my life in terms of what I do, rather than who I am. I preach about that, but don't practice it, and feel such a hypocrite...'
Jim's story is fairly typical. He has never properly dealt with the six 'underground' areas of his life - fear, guilt, grief, anger, anxiety, shame - because he tells me, he's never been able to trust anyone before. 'I've just kept running from my past. I've never felt loved, and I really can't give love. My love-tank is empty...'
Jim's desperate, but it takes several sessions for him to agree to accept responsibility for his own life. He's a proud man, tending to blame others or 'the system' for the mess he's in. 'They should have done more...' etc. He knows theoretically that grace means receiving God's love rather than earning it. He's preached that 'blaming' and 'repenting' are polar opposites: blaming is off-loading responsibility; repentance is accepting responsibility. Repentance is the prodigal saying 'I have sinned... I own my guilt. I will go to my Father.'
How does healing happen? First, simply talking, and I listen, reflecting back what I'm hearing, asking a clarifying question here and there (but the deal is that Jim doesn't - yet - have to respond to any of my questions if he feels threatened in any way).
Then, a retreat, with 19 questions (email me for them) to which he responds in his spiritual journal, and we talk about any of these he feels comfortable with. After about eight hours we've named most of the areas he's needing to work on. Jim applies for six months sick leave (the parish is told he's on a sabbatical) which the Diocese covers financially. He undergoes psychotherapy with a Christian psychiatrist, and eventually decides to change careers - into landscape gardening...
As Jim leaves our home after our
last session, I have a three-part 'word from the Lord' for him. If he has to
leave the pastorate, remember there's life after ministry. Second, it's never
too late to have a happy childhood. And third, 'hang in there: all God's best
servants had problems...'
This article may be freely reproduced for non-profit ministry purposes but may not be sold in any way. For permission to use articles in your ministry, e-mail the editor, John Edmiston at firstname.lastname@example.org.