Ghosts on the way to the pulpit

How to handle psychological and family ghosts that influence the choice to become a pastor

Calvin Thomsen, D.Min, is senior pastor of the Azure Hills Seventh-day Adventist Church, Azure Hills, California.

Richard A Blackmon, PhD., is a clinical psychologist specializing in clergy and their families in Pasadena and Westlake Village, California.

The call to ministry, like the Incarnation, involves a mysterious mixture of word and flesh. While most pastors probably can't tell stories of being blinded by heavenly light or touched by live coals from God's throne room, they take comfort in the fact that they have something in common with Paul or Isaiah. Their decision to enter the ministry wasn't simply a pragmatic outcome of a vocational test. It was a response to God's call.

There is, however, a human element to the ministerial calling, a seldom-acknowledged collection of "ghosts" that can accompany the pastor into both study and pulpit. These are the ghosts of childhood family roles, of parental expectations, of unresolved family conflicts, and of emotional yearnings crying to be satisfied. These ghosts, clearly faced and rightly managed, can help humanize pastors, create compassion, and give an individual's ministry its own unique shape. But left to follow their natural dynamics, they can also cause torment, undermine effectiveness, demoralize, and even sabotage a ministerial career. They are often the silent specters behind pastoral burnout, chronic emotional pain and depression, and the sorts of flagrant self-destructive behavior that have toppled many pas tors from their pulpits.

From the complementary perspectives of a psychologist and a practicing pastor, we have kept in close contact with issues that affect pastors. As we have listened to stories of countless pastors in pain, we have become increasingly aware of the ways in which hidden family forces from the past affect present ministry.

The paths to ministry: ghosts from the past

Identified below are seven common "paths to the pulpit." These paths em body some of the psychological and family issues that influence the choice to become a pastor a choice that, no matter its origin, God can transform for His service.

1. The family hero. Don, a gifted, brilliant overachiever, was deeply stressed by his unsuccessful efforts to bring harmony into the fractious church he pastored. At one particularly painful point of conflict in the church, he became aware that he was reexperiencing the same emotions he'd felt as a child when his parents had fought. He had hoped that his attempts to reconcile his parents would hold the family together and take away the cloud of shame. After his parents divorced, he felt a deep sense of personal failure.

Pastors who played the role of family hero or family messiah when they were growing up may have been overachievers who made their parents proud. They may have functioned in the role of family therapist, calming conflicts and unconsciously pulling people together. At some point they may have discovered that ministry was a way to make a career out of the messianic role they played in their families. Both the acclaim and the sense of pressure they experienced in their families carry over into their ministries.

For such family heroes, ministry can become a burden. Fickle congregations can withhold adoration, leaving the onetime hero with a sense of desolation. To rescue all the hurting people in a congregation can be a crushing, impossible burden. Family heroes often tend to overfunction, assuming every possible burden in the church. They feel any lack of appreciation from their churches keenly and are especially prone to burnout.

2. The dramatic conversion. Carl's youth involved fast cars, women, alcohol, and some recreational drugs. At 19 he accepted Christ. The change in his life was dramatic. He joined a local evangelical church, spent many hours reading the Bible, and became actively involved in witnessing. He quickly became convicted that God was calling him to ministry. He got his seminary training. His natural warmth, charisma, and down-to-earth style easily won over his first two congregations. But during his third pastorate, while in his late 30s, he realized that something was missing from his life. Much of what was demanded of him as a minister was burdensome and artificial.

A dramatic conversion experience often prompts a decision to become a minister. But such pastors often run into trouble when the magic of the initial conversion experience wears off. They may spend years in pastoral ministry wrestling with a nagging sense of disequilibrium that at some point may provoke a crisis.

3. The substitute family. Elaine was an associate pastor of a church that had a history of loving their pas tors through thick and thin. She shared openly her abusive back ground and the deep feelings of abandonment that had been a part of her life since childhood. At first the members of her church went out of their way to make Elaine feel loved and included in the life of the church. But after a while she noticed that people were avoiding her. Her own needs were pushing them away.

People whose families were emotionally desolate may select a pastoral career as a way of fulfilling their deep need to belong to a caring family. It may work for a while, but something usually goes awry. When the church becomes the primary vehicle for experiencing a sense of family, most pastors ultimately do not find what they expected. Instead, they are confronted with an especially painful replication of their most painful feelings of abandonment.

4. The spotlit stage. Joe entered the ministry after working as a gospel musician. He knew the spotlight well, since he had traveled from church to church as a child singer. Many of those who had listened to him sing in his youth had marveled at his wonderful voice, infectious stage presence, and sincere love for the Lord. They had often told him that he should be a minister.

As a gospel musician and later as a church pastor, Joe was able to live out the childhood experience of being in the spotlight. He relished the enthusiastic response from the congregation. But whenever the positive emotional strokes were not forthcoming, he struggled with depression and often poured on charm to get affirmation.

Pastors who have grown up in the spotlight are often gifted performers and charismatic leaders. Many of them elicit a high level of allegiance from their congregations, and many are effective leaders. But some be come excessively dependent upon congregational approval. Some tend to rely more on personal charm than good sense. Others become controlling, manipulative, and even seductive. This path can lead to a narcissistic, power-hungry style. Many of the casualties of pastoral sexual violations within the congregations come from pastors who fit this pattern.

5. The perfect atonement. Michael had struggled with pornography ever since he was an adolescent. He tried in vain to control his desire for sexually explicit literature. He finally bargained with God, promising to become a pastor if God would give him victory over his problem. The bargain worked for several years, until he was forced to be apart from his wife for two months be cause of her mother's illness. Then he gave into the temptation of pornography. The result was terrible depression and a sense of crisis about his call to ministry.

Sometimes a person enters minis try against the backdrop of painful personal struggles or even a family disgrace such as parental infidelity. Entering the ministry is perceived sometimes unconsciously as a way of gaining God's favor and even His power over personal shame. Ministry may also be seen as offering both an individual and his or her family a chance to replace a person who brought disgrace with somebody who will shine brightly and make atonement before the watching world.

Pastors with this motivation for ministry may seal themselves off from their own weaknesses and become harsh and judgmental toward the sins of others. Some, as their own painful issues continue to fester, may straggle with anger and betrayal, feeling that God has not honored their bargain.

6. The surrogate spouse. Daryl's father, like many men, was often aloof, uncommunicative, and utterly disinterested in religion or the arts. He seldom expressed feelings, and his detached style left his wife starving for affection. As Daryl grew, it became clear that he had many of the traits his father lacked. He was expressive, caring, artistic, and deeply spiritual. He became increasingly significant to his mother. In him she found the emotional fulfillment that she wanted so desperately from her husband. Daryl became a minister; the same qualities that had so appealed to his mother were valued by the congregation.

Some male pastors can be described as "the kind of man Mom wished Dad had been." A similar pattern for women can be found in those who functioned as "the little mother" or as the confidant of their fathers. This adult role, thrust upon a child, can create an early sense of responsibility and a noticeable inclination to serve others. It can also lead these persons to embody traits often associated with the opposite sex---the sex of the parent who used them as an emotional surrogate spouse.

These persons may bring resources to the ministry that make them more effective than a gender-stereotyped individual. But they may also experience a sense of personal disequilibrium. Such pastors may struggle privately with a feeling of alienation from same-sex peers or from their own sexuality. Some may have a deep desire simply to be "one of the guys" or "one of the girls." Others may search for a same-sex mentor, while still others may have an undercurrent of anger against members of the opposite sex that affects their relationships personally and in the congregation. Some struggles with sexual temptation may be related to this problem.

7. The family mantle. Rob, whose extended family included several pastors, was christened by his mother as a minister the moment he was born. Nothing in his childhood or adolescence would have suggested that he had great ministry potential. But he dutifully completed his seminary training and went into ministry. He fulfilled his family destiny, even though in his heart he longed to be a golf instructor.

When pastors are asked to draw a family tree, the presence of a designated "holy person," such as a pastor or priest, is often revealed in every generation for which information is available. Sometimes the "call" conies shortly after the death, retirement, or vocational failure of a spiritual leader of a previous generation. Other professions can be passed on from one generation to another, but with ministry it can be a special problem because of the spiritual aura attached to the pastoral mantle. What is presented as God's call may have more to do with family needs and expectations than with the desires and aptitudes of the individual. The mantle conferred on him or her may become a suffocating shroud that chokes out personal and professional vitality.

Confronting the ghosts

Pastors who struggle with a crisis in their calling can often find emotional healing and a renewed sense of satisfaction and purpose by confronting "the ghosts from the past." The following steps can facilitate this healing process.

1. Go home and meet your "ghosts." Pastors who seek freedom from family ghosts must "go home again." Going home, in this case, means reconnecting with the emotional energy of the family forces that have impacted the decision to become a pas tor. It may mean visiting home, writing letters, or spending time with family photo albums and historical records. It may also involve mapping out the family tree, looking for patterns amid the seemingly random interaction of roles and personalities.

We ask pastors attempting this type of homecoming to study the major themes in the family drama. Families of all types are characterized by predict able patterns of emotional interaction that repeat themselves in subsequent generations. These patterns are remark ably resilient; even the infusion of new blood doesn't change them. The fights, roles, dramatic struggles, failures, and successes play themselves out anew. Religion in general and decisions to enter religious vocational service in particular often play key roles in family dramas. The goal of this homecoming is to help pastors increase their level of self-awareness and become experts in recognizing their own ghosts.

2. Practice a new role in your family. The person who is stuck with a predictable role in the family is likely to be stuck in ministry as well. Pastors who can redefine themselves and gain more flexibility within the family that shaped them are likely to experience more freedom in ministry. One pastor was encouraged to go back to a family reunion and "have a problem of his own." He ended up asking advice from surprised family members who were used to looking to him for help. He began to open up about some of his own struggles. He let other family members lead in family prayer and worship. He tried to spend time with various members of the family, but refused to step in and play the role of rescuer when a significant conflict developed between any of them. There were times he found himself slipping into his old, familiar role, but he was able to recognize it when it happened. He returned to his parish feeling more relaxed, real, and at peace with God and with ministry.

3. Develop an identity and personal life distinct from your congregation. Ministry can become problematic because boundaries be tween the church, the pastor's family, and the pastor as an individual are of ten blurred. Pathway ghosts fester amid ambiguous boundaries. Many pastors find that their sense of personal identity is almost entirely bound up in their ministerial role.

The pastor who develops significant sources of satisfaction and identity that do not involve the church is, paradoxically, likely to enjoy ministry more and be more effective as well. A pastor who was stuck in the superstar role was greatly benefited by a support group of people who were not afraid to challenge his grandiosity.

4. Develop a "nonprofessional" spiritual life. Because spiritual pursuits are rich fodder for professional performance, ministry can be hazardous to personal spirituality. It is hard to simply study the Bible without thinking about how a particular text might be developed in a sermon. Pas tors learn how to preach, pray, and perform a variety of spiritual functions effectively even when they are feeling very dry spiritually. It can become very difficult to know where the professional role ends and one's personal experience with God begins. Such professionalized spirituality can ultimately erode both personal spirituality and professional functioning.

5. Use the dynamics of congregational life as the catalyst for greater self-definition. Congregations can replicate the most painful conflicts pastors experience in their families. They can also provide a setting in which the pastor can learn to be more self-defined and less reactive. The difficult people, the unrealistic expectations, and the intense emotional reactivity that often characterize congregational life can emotionally exhaust a pastor. Used as an opportunity for learning about how people work and for experimenting with new styles of response, they can provide pastors with a tailor-made setting for the very growth most needed to gain freedom from pathway ghosts.

6. Develop practical, personally fulfilling reasons for being a pastor that are distinct from the original paths. There are many reasons for en joying ministry. Among them is a desire to work with people, a love of teaching, and a preference for flexible hours and fluid roles. Pastors who acknowledge these unspectacular reasons for enjoying ministry often feel a great er sense of spiritual peace and divine calling. Those who perpetually strive to infuse their ministry with drama fully commensurate with a dynamic conversion or with the glory of the kingdom may be more vulnerable to pastoral failure.

Some pastors who work through is sues raised by their pathway ghosts decide that they can never make pastoring their own. They can then leave without a heavy cloud of guilt and failure. But the majority, in our observation, discover a new freedom and fulfillment in ministry as they unshackle the mysterious forces that have contaminated their sense of calling.

Both the "word" and the "flesh" of the pastoral calling can be the occasion for God's work. Rightly understood, these components can work together to equip individuals for effective service in sharing the good news of the kingdom.

Adapted from Theology, News and Notes and used with permission from Fuller Theological Seminary.

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Calvin Thomsen, D.Min, is senior pastor of the Azure Hills Seventh-day Adventist Church, Azure Hills, California.

Richard A Blackmon, PhD., is a clinical psychologist specializing in clergy and their families in Pasadena and Westlake Village, California.

January 1996

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