Ministering to ministers is a complex issue for three primary reasons: 1. Pastors tend to deny that they are experiencing personal difficulties. 2. Pastors fear to share their pain because they may be labeled, thus jeopardizing opportunities to receive favorable calls. 3. Pastors don't know where to turn for help.
Let's look at each of these reasons to find ways of releasing the hold they have on ministers. Then perhaps we can make help available with reasonable assurance that such help will be utilized.
Ministers are seen by their members as God's representatives. A minister thus becomes something other than human. People think nothing of bringing their problems to a minister, but on the other hand, do not think of the pastor as a person like themselves, with his own problems. Ministers tend to begin thinking this way too. Soon they learn not to show their feelings; they bottle things up inside, thus hiding their pain and showing only their strengths. As a result they become isolated from others, eventually from their spouse, and even from their own needs and feelings. In the midst of many people, ministers and their families know well the loneliness of the profession. They have a hard time facing the reality that they are human and have all the same feelings their members have. Hidden within them is the conceit "Me--need a minister? I am the minister!"
This reasoning gets undergirded with a theology that says if a person's faith is strong enough and his relationship with God is intact, he won't have problems. Pain or struggle, then, are read as evidence that something must be wrong with his faith or with his relationship with God. Eventually the minister turns inward with his pain rather than reaching out for support. It is ironic that a minister whose job it is to create a caring community for the support and nurturing of its members does not himself search for a community from which to receive support and care. Relating to a Christian community is such an essential part of the gospel and is absolutely necessary for growth. As Paul says, "Bear ye one another's burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ" (Gal. 6:2). To be a caregiver, one must also be a care receiver. At the very beginning God said that "it is not good that the man should be alone."
Once a minister accepts the need to reach out for help, he faces the threat of being misunderstood by his community. Haunting him are the voices of others saying, "Who wants a pastor with problems?" If this were only projection it could be worked out, but there is a reality behind that fear. There are those who would prefer to move "the problem" on to another district or area of service rather than deal with it. This attitude prohibits the minister from reaching out for a caring community. To take this threat away from the minister, he must be afforded confidentiality. No one wants the world to know his inner struggles. And a minister has difficulty finding privacy.
I also wonder whether those who could encourage the minister to seek help fail to do so because they buy the theology already mentioned--they view an emotional struggle as a spiritual problem. I myself have fallen victim to this trap, which in reality is crass judgmentalism. Its effect is to turn away those who need help, when, in fact, we should minister to the minister. If we were honest we all would have to admit we have wounds. In accepting our own struggle, we are motivated to help others in theirs.
The final problem is perhaps the most difficult. Even if the issue of confidentiality can be assured (and that can be done for a minister), of whom does he ask help? The minister cannot look to his church members, for it could jeopardize his leadership in that congregation. The minister cannot turn to the conference president (no matter how pastoral that person is) because of their professional relationship. And the fear of being stripped of his religious values may prevent him from seeking help from the mental health community.
I would like to offer two suggestions as to where the minister may turn for help. The first is the American Association of Pastoral Counselors (AAPC). Members of this association are professionally trained and supervised persons with clear religious values and commitments. The national office (9508-A Lee Highway, Fairfax, Virginia 22031) can supply names of pastoral counselors in your area.
The other suggestion is not yet a reality. I would like to see our conferences and health systems establish a joint venture. Our hospitals could offer to our ministers the respect, professionalism, competence, and faith stance needed while protecting confidentiality. They already have an acceptance of pain (emotional or physical) and a commitment to healing without the judgmentalism so often feared. They could offer retreat programs as a preventive approach to emotional health, and have backup systems available to deal with the more disturbed person.
Testing, diagnosis, and treatment plans are already available through our hospitals. If we could utilize their resources with a more intentional approach to the uniqueness of ministers, I believe we could have quality help with a high level of confidentiality. This confidentiality could be further enhanced through a billing system between Adventist hospitals and conferences that eliminated the use of names and so protected the pastor. Both already know the denominational policy for medical reimbursement. If they offered an intensive mini-retreat program, a pastor could find spiritual refreshing without admitting (by mere attendance) that he has deeper struggles. Through a carefully considered working relation ship, a ministry to the minister could be established and encouraged.
What do we as a denomination have to gain by this approach? Much! Only as ministers receive grace, forgiveness, and help for their wounds can they be healers for others. David perhaps best illustrates this. He wrote many psalms out of the depths of his own pain, struggle, and joy; and it is the Psalms, more than anything else, that offers help to those who are struggling. How often we ministers read from the Psalms when visiting the sick.
It is a paradox, but those who have suffered the most can help the most. Paul confirmed this insight by saying, "When I am weak, then am I strong" (2 Cor. 12:10). One who has experienced restoration is more inclined to restore others. The Biblical prophets are excellent examples of the dynamic ministry of restored ministers. I believe that providing ways of ministering to the minister will strengthen the church.