Jim and Sally had only minor complaints about their marriage during its first seven years. Three years later, when Jim accepted a new pastorate, their relationship took a plunge.
Trouble had already threatened their marriage during the battles Jim fought at his previous church. He found himself disillusioned and hurt by complaints and conflicts from his church members. He felt particularly wounded by Sally's suggestion that some of the members' complaints were justified. She urged him to stay and work out the problems. Instead, over her protests he quit his 175-member rural congregation and accepted a staff position in a city.
A year following the move, Sally and Jim were growing ever more distant in their relationship. Sally suggested seeing a counselor together. Jim refused. "If you need counseling, fine," Jim said, "but count me out."
When Sally did enter counseling, however, Jim felt angry. He was upset that his wife was telling their private business to a stranger. As for Sally, she became happier and less sarcastic in her comments to Jim. At work she developed friendships that made Jim feel increasingly nervous. When she received a promotion with more money than Jim earned, he began worrying that she might think of leaving him. He contemplated confiding in a fellow minister, but couldn't think of anyone he trusted. Only briefly did he toy with the idea of seeking advice from the denominational executive in his district, quickly dismissing even that thought for fear of future implications on his employability. He considered calling his wife's counselor, but felt embarrassed about what Sally had told him of their problems.
Jim felt helpless. He tried throwing himself into his devotional studies, but his mind kept wandering to his worries about Sally. Jim was depressed. He even had trouble falling asleep at night.
One evening Jim came home to find a note from Sally directing him to a TV dinner in the freezer; she was taking the kids shopping and for pizza at the mall. That evening after the children were in bed, Jim complained to Sally about the tasteless dinner she left him. Somehow this set her off, and she made a sarcastic remark. Jim responded with a string of expletives. Sally cried and left the room.
After Jim cooled down, he felt terrible about his lack of control. It had been years since he had used some of the words he had just hurled at Sally. Remorsefully he approached her, but all she would do was shake her head and say, "I don't know what to do, Jim. I feel so distant from you, so angry. I feel like I don't even know you. Jim, please get help!"
Will Jim heed his wife's pleas and get counseling? It is hard for most people to ask for help. Clergy are no exception.
This is unfortunate, particularly for someone like Jim. His marriage would certainly benefit from counseling. With out help, Jim will become ever more impaired both professionally and personally.
What are some barriers that prevent clergy from getting the aid they need? My list is divided into two sections, external barriers and internal barriers. I will first identify a barrier and then offer a response to it. My aim is to stimulate clergy awareness of their problems and the need to get help.
External barriers to getting help
Barrier. Job expectations. Because of expectations for "unblemished" clergy, our society attaches a stigma on those who demonstrate their "weakness" by seeking counseling. Clergy, particularly, feel that they are not allowed to have weaknesses, especially those requiring the intervention of a professional. After all, parishioners go to seek help from their pastor when they are troubled. They don't want to know that the one they expect to help them is also in need of assistance.
Response. Maybe there is more bark than bite to this problem. In a study conducted several years ago, David and Vera Mace found that the view clergy had of parishioners' expectations of them was not nearly as stringent as the clergy them selves perceived.1 Maybe pastors project their own fears onto their church members. No doubt some parishioners do have unrealistic expectations, but perhaps clergy tend to interpret the attitude of the minority as representing the majority.
Henri Nouwen's "wounded healer" concept2 also helps to overcome the expectation barrier. Heightened pastoral empathy can come from clergy who have themselves been wounded. Church members receive benefit from the healed wounds the pastor has suffered.
Barrier. Job environment. The average clergyperson's working environment fosters isolation. Most serve as solo pastors without benefit of colleagues immediately available. They get used to being "Lone Rangers" in their approach to ministry. Professional consultation is often avoided. Other clergy could be of tremendous support in time of need, but the relationship bridges are not usually in place, ready to facilitate such emotional traffic when needed.
Response. At Creation God looked down and said that it was not beneficial for humans to be alone. Jesus was also careful to send out His evangelistic field school participants, 70 in number, in teams of two. No one person has the ability to handle every situation or even understand every circumstance. Different personalities, perspectives, and abilities are found in different people. One minister bound by his or her own limitations can greatly benefit from another person's viewpoint. This does not mean others are somehow superior or more capable; it just means they are different.
Counselors are taught to seek supervision from a colleague when they run into difficulties in their work. Likewise clergy should also seek consultation. Pastors must build bridges with other colleagues and professionals who can understand their perspectives. Lunch with a fellow minister, regular participation in the area clergy association, leisure activities with other clergy or professional families, all help to build bridges that can be very important when heavy traffic needs to roll across them at a later time.
Barrier. The grapevine. Most ministers complain about the ease with which gossip circulates within their fellowship. They have heard (or passed along) embarrassing information about the personal difficulties of fellow pastors. No wonder they are afraid of confiding in people with access to the denominational grapevine, lest their sensitive information begin to make this circuit.
Response. This difficulty troubled the apostle James as well: "But no man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison" (James 3:8).* Maybe James himself got burned by the ecclesiastical grapevine! How can you handle the dangerous potential of the loose tongue, while not building thick walls between yourself and your colleagues?
The first requirement is to be responsible yourself. Practice the golden rule in your outgoing communications. Treat information about other people as you would like similar information about you to be treated. Don't pass along gossip. If in doubt, check with the subject of the information before proceeding. Be as wise as a serpent and as harmless as a dove. You should not isolate yourself from others when in a time of need, but don't be foolish in your choice of the person in whom you confide. Be specific about indicating to the one with whom you speak that you are talking in confidence. If the issues are so sensitive that you should take no risk of the grapevine gaining access, then select someone of another denomination, and perhaps not in your immediate community. Choose a professional counselor who is trained and ethically bound to keep your confidence.
Remember this: If you fail to get help and try to keep everything inside, wishing you can control it, the resulting explosion could produce worse fallout than the grapevine ever could by itself.
Barrier. Finance. Getting counseling can be expensive. Fees per session can often range from $60 to $ 100. This can be a significant barrier if insurance is not available.
Response. When you have a physical problem causing pain and distress, you are willing to pay for expert medical care. Physicians' fees are expensive more costly when computed by the hour, since you see your physician for only 10 or 15 minutes. It takes more time to deal with emotional difficulties. Accept the idea that fees for counseling time can be money well spent. However, don' t be afraid to be a wise consumer. Call potential counselors' offices and ask about fees. Deter mine if your health insurance plan will help with the cost to a large enough extent to make counseling possible. Many counselors can work with a sliding scale or tailor a financial plan to meet your particular economic situation. Also, you can check to see if your denomination has a counseling assistance plan. In any case, don't just assume that counseling would be a waste of money or that you cannot afford it.
Barrier. Vocational vulnerability. Many denominations have reported an oversupply of ministers during the past decade. The fact that new candidates are waiting to fill any vacancy creates an atmosphere of job vulnerability. Pastors quit or are forcibly terminated, and the employing organization has no problem finding replacements. The jobless pas tors just seem to vanish, often with little care provided by the church for healing wounds and preparing them for future employment. Knowing all this, clergy tend to keep their problems bottled up inside.
Response. The answer to this must come from two fronts. First, the administrators responsible for hiring or recommending clergy must work from a theology of the importance of people. Even if a significant pastoral labor pool exists and finding a replacement might solve the immediate problem, administrators must continue to care about the well-being of the minister with problems. Of course, administrators cannot assume all the responsibility. The pastor also bears responsibility for solving his or her own difficulties. The pastor's share becomes easier, however, when administrators do their part to "bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ" (Gal. 6:2). Doing this will create a less vulnerable job climate for clergy.
The second front: emotionally, you must not live in mortal fear of losing your job. The more anxious you are about your performance and the threat of losing your job, the poorer will be your performance. Anxiety diminishes quality. If there is a clergy oversupply in your denomination, be aware of it; but then mentally choose to focus on doing ministry for the joy of it! Don't let the oversupply intimidate you.
Barrier. Development crises. Many pastors do not receive adequate training in understanding and dealing with various adult developmental crises.3 This lack of preparation makes an unexpected crisis especially painful. Ministers, like everyone else, tend to consider their own pain unusual, and that they are the only ones suffering from any given problem. They can also believe that the presence of the problem indicates some defect in themselves as adequate members of the profession or even the human race. Naturally they are ashamed to expose their supposed inadequacies to someone else, especially a stranger.
Response. Seminary curriculum planners must include material that will ac quaint future pastors with the concept and process of adult development. Seminary graduates would then be better prepared to handle various life-stage crises that come to them as time, ministry, and family all change and force them to con front the change. To be forewarned is to be forearmed.
Personal barriers to seeking help
In addition to these external factors, pastors also face several internal, personal barriers to seeking help.
Barrier. Tearfulness. Fear incapacitates many actions that impaired individuals could do to help themselves. Fright takes many forms: fear of revealing one's need to another person because of the expected embarrassment and reduction of stature in the eyes of the other, fear of facing the "proof of personal inadequacy and a feeling of worthlessness, fear of admitting problems to a colleague be cause of a sense of competitiveness with other ministers.
Response. Fear is one of the most powerful emotions people experience. It has the ability to immobilize us almost like the helpless prey of a stalking tiger becoming riveted in terror to one spot. Fear of the exposure of personal inadequacy is a common fear. It must be identified for what it is and then exposed to the truth of Jesus. The fearing one must consciously choose to see the caring face of God. Christ' s love has the power to cast out all fear. "Fear not" is one of the most often repeated promises of God. This is true in the midst of all our failures, weaknesses, and inadequacies.
Barrier. Perfectionism. Many ministers have a strong perfectionistic streak, even when they reject perfectionism theologically. They have a hard time accepting the present painful evidence of their fallibility. They tell other people that they should not expect to be free from mistakes, but they have a difficult time taking their own counsel. They don't want to deal with their own errors, and so, refuse to seek help from some other per son because that would necessitate facing such errors.
Response. We must have the courage to face our own imperfection not as an excuse for our wrong behavior (i.e., simplistically pleading "nobody's perfect" when faced with a personal failure), but rather as an acknowledgment of our sinfulness. This allows us to confront our needs and set a goal for change. The assurance of God's love and acceptance makes progress possible. Self-honesty allows clergy to seek help and encouragement from another person when needed, rather than remaining stuck in their denial of need.
Barrier. Reason for choosing minis try. One psychologist working with clergy and clergy candidates noted that the profession of ministry is selected frequently by persons with a significant need to please other people.4 This makes it threatening to reveal a darker side of yourself.
Response. People are often attracted to ministry because of the compliments they get from people for their involvement in church activities. They erroneously believe that pastoring will be an endless parade of grateful people ex pressing their thanks for what the clergyperson does. This does not reflect the real world of ministry. The actual ministerial experience does have compliments, but also brings one into contact with members who have axes to grind. People interested in the ministry would do well to seek out psychological testing and advice concerning personality factors that could indicate a career mismatch. Pastors already in the ministry should seek help if they note a pathological level of people-pleasing qualities in themselves.
Barrier. God will take care of it. A theological rationalization is often used by pastors who want to avoid telling another person about their concerns: "God is the only helper I need." This internal barrier has a very pious ring to it. Clergy do not want to exhibit a lack of faith in God's ability to help them through a problem.
Response. The Bible teaches us to bear one another's burdens (Gal. 6:2) and to confess our faults to one another (James 5:16). The wise man instructs, "Ointment and perfume delight the heart, and the sweetness of a man's friend does so by hearty counsel" (Prov. 27:9). In order to invoke a caring person's hearty counsel, this person must be able to hear our story he or she must know about the burden we bear. God, of course, is our ultimate friend. We should share with Him our pains. We must tell it all to Jesus. But that does not mean that we should not seek help from others. God created us to need and help one another, and ordination does not exclude anyone from this fundamental human truth.
Barrier. Crippled spirituality. Some what in the vein of the plumber whose own plumbing is greatly in need of repair, the minister who is seen by the community as the spiritual specialist can himself or herself be struggling with a crippled spirituality. If spiritual formation and growth were in a healthy state, the fears and denial mentioned above might easily fade away.
Response. The apostle Paul expressed a personal caution about his own minis try, expressing the hope that "I have not run in vain or labored in vain" (Phil. 2:16). He answered his own caution by saying "Hold fast that word which I preached" (1 Cor. 15:2). The Bible and the spiritual issues with which it deals are the stock in trade of the minister's vocation. But it is so important that personal spiritual growth and vitality not give way to a weekly grind for new sermon ideas and the agonies of preparation. Pastors must be healthy spiritually for their own well-being, and not just because good ministers are required to be spiritually alive. Having the spiritual sap flowing richly and pushing health, assurance, and vigor through the vessels will give the security and openness a minister needs to seek counsel and consultation with oth ers. Why not take 24 hours, a Bible, your praying heart, a quiet place away, and listen for the still small voice?
Barrier. Pessimism. By this I mean anything that fosters an internal sense of hopelessness. Perhaps your personality has this negative bent; you never expect that good results can come from some effort at creative problem solving. Maybe the mid-life crisis you are experiencing makes feeling at peace again seem unattainable. Depression from whatever source can create a very strong feeling of hopelessness. These examples of pessimism can provide a significant emotional barrier, hindering the clergyperson from taking the risk of seeking help through the care and interest of a friend, colleague, or professional.
Response. If your ministry is troubled by periods of depression, the following symptoms may be present during these times: a sense of listlessness and discouragement, an urge to cry more easily than usual, any kind of sleep disturbance, a blunted response to people or situations, or suicidal thoughts. If these are occur ring, seek treatment immediately. A mental health professional can provide needed help. Your physician can evaluate for any physiological causes for the depression. A pessimistic attitude can be a subtle form of self-hate. Expecting that nothing will work can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you believe you cannot be helped, you may unconsciously sabotage any attempted intervention to ensure the fulfillment of your prophecy of doom. Such pessimism is usually ingrained by nature and can be difficult to change. The place to start is a willingness to consider change, recognizing the potential benefits of approaching life with a positive attitude. Take the risk of discussing your pessimistic attitude with a friend or trusted counselor to get feedback.
As you can see, clergy must overcome many barriers in order to get encouragement and counseling for themselves. But as we clergy endeavor to change our own attitudes, it will become easier for Jim, Sally, and all of us to get the help we need and deserve.
* Bible passages in this article are from The New King James Version.
1. David Mace and Vera Mace, What's Happening to Clergy Marriages (Nashville: Abingdon, 1980), p. 55.
2. Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1972).
3. Several sources can be consulted for adult developmental information: Daniel J. Levinson, The Seasons of a Man's Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978); Lillian E. Troll, Early and Middle Adulthood (Monterey, Calif.: Brooks/Cole, 1975); Elizabeth Carter and Monica McGoldrick, eds., The Family Life Cycle (New York: Gardner Press, 1980); Robert Peach, Caring for Clergy in the Context of Their Famililes, dissertation (Ann Arbor, Mich.: University Microfilms, 1985), pp. 81-94.
4. L. Rebecca Propst, "Reflections on Philosophy of Science and the Pastoral Care of Pastors," Pastoral Psychology, Winter 1988, pp. 103-114.