the emotionally and spiritually healthy pastor (5)

This is your brain.

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This is your brain on relationships.

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Neural networks alive, all cylinders firing.  This is how we were made, and made to thrive, so say interpersonal neurobiologists, the newest in a growing stream of psychological wisdom which sees relationality as central to what it means to be human. 

40 years ago, relational psychology was considered bad science.  Behaviorism and Freudian psychoanalysis ruled the day.  Then John Bowlby came along with a radical thought – human beings are relational at their core, and from birth these relationships must be valued.  Misguided relational attachments would lead to anxiety, isolation, anger, and more.  But secure attachment would allow women and men to thrive in their relationships as adults.

Bowlby’s radical thought dropped like a led balloon in the psychological community, which prized therapeutic distance, expert analysis, and well-timed intervention.  It couldn’t be as simple as relating more healthily, could it?  

Good science won the day.  

I’d like to think Bowlby, Ainsworth, and the attachment theorists at that time had tapped into creation’s deep knowledge.  Since then, I’d like to think that Daniel Goleman’s groundbreaking research in emotional and social intelligence, and Dan Siegel’s groundbreaking research in interpersonal neurobiology has not only supported the early findings, but provided whole new realms of confirmation that God, indeed, create human beings in the image and likeness of trinity.   

So, consider this – having been created in and for relationship as image-bearers of a perichoretic, Trinitarian God, what does it mean for pastors to flourish in relationship?  And why do the statistics show the pastors are among the most lonely and isolated of all professions?  

Why do we, among others, tend to do life solo?  Why are we so prone to an individualistic spirituality?  

Are so-called “accountability groups” enough, or is greater transparency and vulnerability needed?

I’m curious, and be glad to hear your thoughts. 

3 comments

  1. Interesting thought for sure.

    As a pastor, counselor, and one highly interested in attachment theory and the writings of Siegel and Goleman, I have a few thoughts.

    I think we, as pastors, can often spend our time oscillating between cynicism and optimism about self and others. At our best, we see ourselves and our congregations in the optimistic truths of the Gospel (high view of self, high view of others). However, we can then go to seeing the downside , the sine, of ourselves and others (low view of self, others), leading to cynicism and a “downward spiral” (Cloud).

    It can be difficult to integrate explicit historical fact (particularly theology) with experiential/implicit fact that we experience in daily ministry, for both good and bad. Sometimes it’s hard to believe in original sin, or that someone is going to hell, given our interpersonal, positive experience of them. Or it can be difficult to believe positive, explicit truth about God amidst difficult experiences.

    But, to stick with your line of thought- I think that it’s not that either of these (oscillation between view of self/others) or reconciling/integrating memory types is in and of itself the problem, but perhaps being unaware, to be slightly Gestalt-like, that perhaps something like this is what is going on.

    And I, as a pastor, struggle to not only be aware, but to be gracious with myself while this may be going on, if that may be it all.

    But I love dialogue about this kind of thing. Very interesting.

  2. I can’t speak for all pastors but the personal retreat and isolation comes after interactions that need interpretation, wisdom, discernment, energy. I often feel on “high alert” and this wears me down. Here’s part of what’s going on. What is this person after? They want something from me but I’d better be careful here. Will I be quoted? Where is this going? What don’t I know? Can I be just frank and honest with them? What will that cost me to be honest? I think right now I’m being evaluated, is this true? I think I’ll go eat a pizza in a quiet restaurant and think good thoughts.

  3. This conversation is one that needs to be more visible and done more often, thanks for posting on it. My first thoughts in response:
    The church as an organization, especially in the West, will probably always lean towards this type of CEO model. The pastor directs us and tells us what to do. That creates some kind of weird holy of holies that only a few, if ever can enter. As fallen humans, we pastors are generally OK with this. It doesn’t require us to be more than a CEO or organizational leader. Unless there is an intentionality on the part of the pastor, this broken form ends up being the default.

    There is no intentionality like this outside the move of the Spirit. It is no surprise at all that science backs this fact up. We’re literally made for community, our whole being.

    The times when I have experienced a person who is a pastor that engages people well, and let’s people engage him—that’s life giving. That’s proof of the good news being something real, that we as humans—even the pastor—can live with a vulnerable honesty. It’s other-worldly. We will always be attracted to that because there’s a part of every human that really wants that.

    Surely the “accountability group” with its irony of fighting sin only to idolize it is not enough. Plus, it can encourage a strong sacred/secular line that doesn’t bleed into normal life. Cultivating real relationships (the ones where we engage each other more than an hour a week) is hard, pastors don’t get that training in seminaries, few churches model it. But I do believe that those in the church must model it so it becomes the cultural norm for them. There’s a gap to be sure for now, I pray that it closes over time. Until then, I know the responsibility I have is to the people that God has allowed me to do life with. That’s a step.

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