the emotionally and spiritually healthy pastor (part 4)

(A Note: Ted is an amalgamation of 10-15 different students I’ve come to know teaching at three different seminaries.)

Meet Ted.

Ted was a student of mine in seminary, with a theological mind second to none, and a relational winsomeness that won over his fellow students, the faculty, and staff of the seminary.

When Ted graduated, he’d already put in his fair share of time interning and serving, and had been pre-approved to church plant.  And he was off to the races, with a supportive wife, an ability to fundraise unlike any other, and a well-crafted vision for an urban area in need of a vital Christian community.

I write about Ted not as a success story, though he made the cover of a seminary magazine.  No, Ted is a warning – be careful about who you think is “put-together.”  Despite my counseling background and nose for narcissists, I loved Ted.  I believed in him.  In fact, as one of his committee advisors, I not only approved but endorsed him to donors, to the regional pastors, and to the denomination.  And my stamp of approval counted.

Ted looked healthy.  He was good looking, as was his wife…and his abilities were well-beyond mine and many others.  But Ted had demons.  I didn’t ask, in large part because I was so impressed by him.  I thought, “Finally, a normal one!” as I passed him through committee.  But Ted’s dark sub-text eluded me.

Ted had been sexually abused.  His sharp, glittering exterior masked a sad, insecure interior.  Despite his seemingly happy marriage, he longed for the affirmation his abusive uncle gave him, seeking it out in people like me.  And I (a therapist) couldn’t tell.  He was a controlling husband, and his wife (who was dutifully obliged to support him at his church planting assessment) held her pain like a soldier who endures multiple kills to impress his superiors.  I had to be convinced, like I’ve never had to be convinced, that he had major issues.  And what about my own – why had I missed this?  I, too, checked back into counseling, to explore my own blind-spots.

Are you Ted?  You see, Ted sensed that something was off in seminary, but he never told me.  He felt like he had to impress me – to be approved, affirmed, ordained.

Are you Ted’s wife, holding the pain in a way that feels unsustainable?

Are you Ted’s congregation, impressed by his glittering image but sensing that something is off?

I want to tell you this:  that with all of the skill of an MA in Counseling and a Ph.D. in Psychology, I was as duped as you are.  It happens.  But the gift you can give pastors like Ted is your honesty, that intuitive sense that something is not right.

Ted left the ministry.  Ted left his wife.  He spent several years in therapy before emerging on the other side, humbled.  He now works as a Chaplain (God forbid – isn’t that for pastors who can’t get jobs?).  He works in a hospital where he simply meets people where they are, in their pain.  No fundraising.  No slick package.  No success story.  So much of what Ted does is hidden some plain sight, the secret treasure of a young girl dying of cancer or an older man fighting for his last breath.

ImageTed has discovered his whole self and embraced it – the dark and the light, the insecure little boy and the proud narcissist.

He’s allowed every part of him to feel the redeeming Love of a God who doesn’t seek to affirm the successful, but longs to embrace the broken.

Ted is now a pastor.  And I’d gladly give him my seat – the gatekeepers seat – and learn from him the way of humility.

the emotionally and spiritually healthy pastor (part 3)

In the previous two posts, I looked at the importance of self-awareness within the Christian tradition and shared some of the contemporary issues and alarming statistics.

A number of you asked, “Well, then, what do we do?”

In this post I’ll share two thoughts, with more to come in later posts.

First, the “what do we do?” is ordinarily asked after a pastor announces a resignation, or confesses to an affair, or blows up in rage at a meeting, or takes his or her life.  Too often, we’ve missed the signs along the way.  This happens for all sorts of reasons:

Often, we’re all just too busy forwarding the mission to stop and ask the question, “How am I really doing?” – or to ask that to another.  Does busyness keep you from honest self-reflection.

There are often unreasonable expectations that the pastor is emotionally and spiritually mature (read: stable, unbending, always consistent).  Do you have this expectation of yourself?  Do others have unreasonable expectations for you?  Who?

Sometimes, the mission is often pitted against the practice of self-care. In other words, we’ve not adequately connected our soul’s health with the health and even success of the mission, as Scripture does.  Does this dichotomy show up in your church?

Too often, ministry itself becomes another worthiness game that we’re all caught up in.  Competing and comparing is a sure sign of a quiet battle with shame, unworthiness and insecurity.  We don’t want to be that pastor – the weak one, the unsuccessful one, the goofy one, the anxious one.  Does playing the worthiness game keep you from an honest examination of your own soul?  Does it hinder your church’s intentional practice of soul care?

I see a consistent theme in these – pastors who are busy, restless, striving often at break-neck speed for the sake of the mission.  And amidst these realities and many more, we’re often left dealing with the messy aftermath.  How we (graciously and compassionately) respond in these times is important, but I want to move to a more core concern.

The second thought I have is that we need a new generation of St. Augustine’s and Theresa of Avila’s and Charles Spurgeon’s – men and women who are engaged in the mission and honestly self-aware.  As I said before, historians report that Spurgeon missed significant amounts of time in the pulpit on Sunday morning because of his struggle with depression.  Most pastors couldn’t keep their jobs if they called in sick on Sundays as often as he did.  And yet, he’d detail his struggles in letters to congregants, not afraid to integrate every aspect of himself into healthy relationship with God and others.    

We need living embodiments of Teresa of Avila, the Reformation-era Carmelite reformer whose monastery-planting and discipling/forming of others was coupled with her profound commitment to tending her “interior castle.”

Who are these men and women?  And which congregations are showing the kind of leadership support among elders and deacons which allow health + mission to thrive?


In more recent times, I think of Henri Nouwen and Frederick Buechner, Sue Monk Kidd and Anne Lamott as men and women trying to break through into this new kind of missional spirituality.  Who do you recognize doing this?

I think we need to ask ourselves if we’re so committed to the mission that we’d see ourselves – our own pastoral well-being and soul-health – as vital to it.  Is this something you want for yourself?  For your church?

the emotionally and spiritually healthy pastor (part 2)

In the last post, I addressed the emotional and spiritual health of a pastor from the perspective of church history.  From that, I hope you gained some insight on the importance on pastoral soul care for Baxter and Spurgeon, Rutherford and Calvin.

But we live in different times, now.  In this post, I intend to be descriptive, and in the next I’ll be a bit more prescriptive.  For some, you’ll notice yourself in some of these descriptions.  If so, stay tuned for the next post.

Researchers on pastoral health and well-being note the significant cultural shifts that impact pastors.  And these shifts make it more difficult, I believe, for pastors to self-reflect, and to honestly answer that important question: How are you?

Let’s look at just two of these developments (and there are many, many others):

1. The professionalization of the pastoral office – notions of “success” and “performance” are quite different today.  Now I’m, by no means, fearful of well-motivated striving for success, but most pastors will never perceive themselves as a success…which may be the bigger issue. Most young pastors will leave the ministry within 5 years, in large part, because they’re exhausted, feel incompetent, or lack the support, resources, or proper training to succeed.  (As an aside, this is why Scot Sherman and I started Newbigin House).  Success is not the problem, but couched within consumer culture, pastors are inclined to believe (as most of us do) that success is graphed “up and to the right.”  In fact, I think pastors in previous generations knew well that the pastoral road was long and winding, with high high’s and low low’s, wrought with failures along the way.  Or, as a favorite writer of mine might say, it is a journey of “falling upward.”

2.  Shifts in models of training – Today, many young pastors are forfeiting seminary training for experience, often alongside another more experienced pastor.  I get it.  Many seminaries appear irrelevant.  Many seminary professors lack real church experience.  Many programs lack a vision for formation and mission while firmly rooted in theological convictions.  (I’d argue this one – among others – doesn’t).  In many seminaries (which lack adequate funding), everyone gets admitted.  Few have a definite call and a sending church.  And the coursework privileges facts over formation.  In my own research, seminary graduates felt like they were prepared to pass an ordination exam, but under-prepared in both context and character.  I often see two kinds of pastors today – those who didn’t get seminary training but have some natural leadership and ministry skills, but without theological training fall victim to pragmatic, technique-driven pastoring.   Or, those with seminary training who lack the requisite contextual and personal shaping which comes from being in the trenches.  (And both tend to be cynical of the other).  Yet, the research shows that both don’t have a great chance for longevity in ministry.

Now, you’ve heard the statistics, I’m sure.

* 90% of the pastors report working between 55 to 75 hours per week. (Most pastors don’t feel compensated adequately for the work they put in).

* 80% believe pastoral ministry has negatively affected their families. Many pastor’s children do not attend church now because of what the church has done to their parents.

* 33% state that being in the ministry is an outright hazard to their family.

* 75% report significant stress-related crisis at least once in their ministry.

* 90% feel they are inadequately trained to cope with the ministry demands.

* 50% feel unable to meet the demands of the job.

* 70% say they have a lower self-image now than when they first started.

* 70% do not have someone they consider a close friend.

* 40% report serious conflict with a parishioner at least once a month.

* 33% confess having involved in inappropriate sexual behavior with someone in the church .

* 50% have considered leaving the ministry in the last months.

* 50% of the ministers starting out will not last 5 years.

* 1 out of every 10 ministers will actually retire as a minister in some form.

And then there are the physical and emotional symptoms researchers find:

* Unusual mood swings that may include weeping without just cause, anger, or depression

* Exhaustion

* Feelings of incompetence and powerlessness

* Panic and feeling totally overwhelmed

* Avoidance strategies (addictions, fantastizing, lying, comfort foods, drinking too much, hiding in books and work)

* Fight-or-flight cycles where you rise up to intimidate and conquer others or run away from difficulties just to avoid them

* Insomnia, including difficulty falling asleep or remaining asleep, which can lead to a reliance on sleeping pills

* Stomach and bowel issues


My own dissertation research confirmed this.  In fact, my own story confirms it.  Despite getting counseling, being trained as a therapist, and having good mentors, my own ministry career is one filled with up’s and down’s.  I’ve had many successes in pastoral ministry, as a therapist, and as a seminary professor.  But when I don’t look after my own soul, watch out.  I’ve found myself at various times depressed, and at others angry and reactive.  I can become shamelessly judgmental.  Or, I can take my feelings underground in an array of addictive ways.

Like you, I’d like to define myself by my achievements.  I’d like to edit out the shameful parts.  But as we’ll see in the next post, it’s precisely when we befriend that often dark and shameful ‘other side’ of ourselves that we find grace and rest.  This, in fact, is exactly why Calvin began his Institutes by hailing self-knowledge.  Our humiliation is, in fact, the pathway to exaltation.

Sound familiar?

(Stats from Barna and Pastoral Care, Inc)

the emotionally and spiritually healthy pastor

How do you respond to the question “How are you?” as a pastor.  The 16th century Reformer (albeit in Spain!) and “monastery planter” St. John of the Cross once responded, “I am well, but my soul lags behind.” 

 Is that true of you?  

How are you?  Think carefully about your answer.

I’ve often heard from church planters, pastors, and seminary students about the “good old days” of pastoral ministry – the days when pastors weren’t “under fire” as they seem to be today.  One pastor once said to me, “It’s not as sexy being a pastor nowadays. Pastors back then were rock stars.”  (Maybe he hadn’t watched a Mark Driscoll sermon).

I’ve often told pastors like this about the ancient practice of curam animarum. The care of souls.  It hearkens back to a day when we, pastors, were in fact viewed as heroes to many, a day when pastors would stroll the countryside checking in on members of their small parish, a day when our pastoral integrity seemed assumed rather than scoffed at, as it might be today. 

We see a picture of that idyllic pastor in the words of Chaucer in Canterbury Tales (lines 348-352, LLE, p. 41, 1386-90 quoted by Thomas Oden) writing about that “good man of religion” who imitates the Good Shepherd.  Chaucer writes

                  His cure was wide, with houses far asunder;

                  But never did he fail, in rain or thunder,

                  In sickness and in mischance, to visit all,

                  The furthest in his parish, great or small,

                  Upon his feet, with staff in hand for aid. 

It’s that glorious picture of ministry that every young and idealistic seminary student aspires to.  But never did he fail, in rain or thunder, to visit all!  The motto for pastors – and mailmen, I’d assume!  And we know that both are known for their emotional stability!  

We know about the cure of souls not just in visits, but in letters – the letters of Samuel Rutherford and John Calvin, George Whitfield and Francois Fenelon, Charles Spurgeon or Gerard Manley Hopkins.

But in many of these letters, we find something remarkably self-revelatory.  We find that our favorite pastors didn’t idealize themselves, as we often idealize them.  In fact, we find them answering the question, “How are you?”  And with remarkable honesty.

We see a struggling Samuel Rutherford (the great 17th century pastor, writer, and Scottish representative at the Westminster Assembly) writing to Marion M’Naught, a wise old saint in his parish who received some of his most personal correspondences. There is no sense that he has to be the driven, impervious superhero pastor.  She was a such a safe soul that Rutherford could write to her, “My wife’s disease increases daily.  She does not sleep, but cries like a woman giving birth.” Or, in another letter:  “My life is bitter.  It is hard to keep sight of God in a storm.” 

This vulnerability, let alone to a person of the opposite sex, might be scoffed at today, viewed as inappropriate.  And yet, Rutherford’s Letters reveal his personal struggles in every page, shared with friends – both male and female – within his congregation.  Rutherford did not see his struggles as weakness, but as the means to deepening prayer and spiritual and emotional maturity.  

We also hear Charles Spurgeon speak of the physical and emotional ailments that kept him out of the pulpit a third of the time during his final 22 years in ministry according to Iain Murray:

“My spirits were sunken so low that I could weep by the hour like a child, and yet I knew not what I wept for (Darrel W. Amundsen, “The Anguish and Agonies of Charles Spurgeon,” in: Christian History, Issue 29, Volume X, No. 1,, page 25).

“Causeless depression cannot be reasoned with, nor can David’s harp charm it away by sweet discoursings. As well fight with the mist as with this shapeless, undefinable, yet all-beclouding hopelessness … The iron bolt which so mysteriously fastens the door of hope and holds our spirits in gloomy prison, needs a heavenly hand to push it back” (Darrel W. Amundsen, “The Anguish and Agonies of Charles Spurgeon,” in: Christian History, Issue 29, Volume X, No. 1, page 24).

Spurgeon’s battle with depression is well-documented.  And even with such a vulnerable hero as this, I’ve seen 5 pastors commit suicide over the years during times of depression, unable to reveal to their congregation how deep the hurt went, afraid of being rejected, even fired.  

And who has not read and marveled at the self-revelatory nature of St. Augustine’s Confessions?  Augustine not only documents what today would be called “sexual addiction,” but lays out a very comprehensive case for personal self-examination. 

Of course, it’s stunning to hear such anguish from the voices of heroes.  They remind us that even the most gifted, the most articulate, and the most successful (translate: those whom we assume have no needs) need to practice spiritual and emotional self-care.  

Deitrich Bonhoeffer writes:

“Everyone who cares for the soul needs a person who will care for his or her own soul.  Only one who has been under spiritual care is able to exercise spiritual care.  Those who renounce that law will have to face the consequences in their work….Whoever takes the office seriously must cry out under the burden…Where can a pastor find rest or recollection for their work?  We have to recognize that there are mortal dangers for the office and for those who exercise it.  Even the responsible, serious, and faithful pastor may be driven to external or internal perplexity…In the end, perplexity leads to insensitivity.  The load is too heavy to bear alone.  We need someone who will help us use our powers in ministry correctly, someone who will defend us against our own lack of faith.  If the pastor has no one to offer him spiritual care, then he will have to seek someone out.” (Pastor as Mentor, 129).

However, there are many who doubt this wisdom, even viewing it as hyper-therapeutic.  I remember a conversation I once had with a faculty member at a Reformed seminary when he scoffed at the notion of pastoral self-care, calling it a modern, therapeutic idolatry of self, and challenging me to see “self” as the very problem.  

But in fact, what we see over and over is the paradox that an idolatry of self and a bitterness toward others is birthed in the soul of a pastor who fails to care for himself or herself.  In other words, the best way to love others is, in fact, to love yourself.  This is the motivation, I believe, for John Calvin’s important doctrine of double knowledge. 

The great wisdom of the past, even prior to the modern therapeutic era, was that a deep knowledge of our own spiritual poverty and need would open up new vistas of dependence on God and love for others.  Listen to just a few of the voices from church history:

“God, always the same, let me know myself, and let me know Thee.” St. Augustine

“The inward Christian prefers the care of himself before all other cares.  And he that diligently attends unto himself can easily keep silence concerning others.” Thomas a’ Kempis

“The practice of self-knowledge is the first thing on the road the knowledge of God.” St. John of the Cross

“There are some men and women who have lived forty or fifty years in the world and have had scarcely one hour’s discourse with their hearts all the while.” John Flavel, Presbyterian clergyman in mid-17th century, who wrote “Keeping the Heart.”

“Knowing God without knowing our wretchedness leads to pride.  Knowing ourselves without knowing God leads to despair.”  Blaise Pascal

“Until men know themselves better, they will care very little to know Christ at all.” John Owen in Communion with God

Richard Baxter, writing in the mid-17th century, penned one of the great works on pastoral self-knowledge and self-care.  In the often neglected work The Mischiefs of Self-Ignorance and the Benefits of Self-Acquaintance, Baxter writes, “The principal glass for the beholding of God is the soul beholding itself.”  He goes on to say that the self-ignorant Christian will fail in three ways – he cannot be a Christian, he cannot pray or give thanks adequately, and he cannot help himself or others grow to know God better. (And please pardon the male pronoun throughout…this, too, is a remnant of church tradition, and one happily passing…)

Listening in to these respected voices from our past, it is hard to argue against the importance of emotional and spiritual health for the pastor.  

I will elaborate on this more in my next post.