Pastor's Pastor

Pastor's Pastor: Common Crises for Clergy

Pastor's Pastor: Common Crises for Clergy

 James A. Cress is the secretary for the General Conference Ministerial Association.


People in crises turn to pastors. But what happens when pastors or their spouses find themselves in trouble?

During our recent World Ministers Council in Australia, Archibald Hart of Fuller Theological Seminary identified five crises that affect ministers and four that afflict their spouses. These crises are virtually universal among clergy and their families, transcending locality and culture.

With Hart's permission we briefly note each crisis and introduce a writers' contest in which we invite you to prepare an article about your personal experience in one of these areas. Winning authors will be awarded us$500, and the articles will become chapters in a book to be published with a special introduction by Hart.

Crises pastors face

1. Crises of identity. One great hazard of ministry is role immersion, in which professional functions become so enmeshed with personal identity that we cannot distinguish where our pastoral role ends and where we, as persons, begin. Who we are as persons becomes defined by what we do.

In Leonard Bernstein's Mass, a priest, preparing to celebrate the Eucharist, tries on robe after robe until the weight is so heavy that he can no longer stand up. Then he takes off one robe after another until he is finally down to a sweatshirt, blue jeans, and bare feet.

Startled as if by some great discovery, he exclaims: "Look at me! There is nothing but me under all of this." The challenge is to know when you have on your robe and when you take it off. And unless you take it off occasionally, you'll have a difficult time knowing who you are.

Ultimately, as you approach retirement, surrendering your role becomes dreaded as a curse rather than welcomed as a muchdeserved blessing. Often prominent leaders have tremendous difficulty laying down the baton of ministry. Even if they hand it on, they cannot let it go. So the new leader is continually pulled back by the predecessor.

2. Crises of priority. Pastors must discover what God really wants—worship and service—and prioritize His purposes.

We want success, but God is more interested in our development. Hebrews 11:13 says: "These all died in faith, not having received the promises." Today many pastors die in faith without knowing the impact their lives have made. A surprise awaits them in glory.

3. Crises of character. The integrity of the gospel is judged by the integrity of those who preach it. This calls for intense heart-searching. In his book The Sexual Man, Hart reports that the sexuality of male believers—including clergy—is fraught with obsessive-compulsive behavior. This issue is so little comprehended that often a parishioner is safer seeing a competent nonbelieving counselor than an unskilled clergyman. The secular code of ethics often transcends what churches expect from pastors. All this talk about "restoration" of pastors who have disgraced themselves and their calling would not occur in the secular counseling professions, which do not offer "second chances" for sexual misconduct.

4. Crises of authority. Many pastors are confused about what their authority is in the church. Many members who are boomers and busters do not believe that their pastor, or anyone else, has any unique authority. Somehow pastors must reclaim their legitimate authority in spiritual leadership while also abandoning presumptuous claims to make dictatorial decisions or to control all aspects of church life.

5. Crises of dependency. Too many clergy seem to have exiled themselves to a pastoral Patmos, becoming solo performers rather than team builders. They are solitary performers on a spiritual stage, grand standing for the audience. This style of "ministry" betrays a number of dysfunctions, but on this point I would ask only the question: "For whom are we performing?" Let's focus on God's approval and stop the crowd-pleasing antics.

Crises pastoral spouses face

Hart also pointed out four crises afflicting pastoral spouses because of the unbalanced lives of their partners. These involve the sufferings of pastoral wives, although men who are pastoral spouses have their own challenges.

1. Crises of isolation. Pastoral wives are often warned: "Be careful who you make friends with! Don't make others jealous." On the contrary, suggests Hart, your wife needs one particular friend so close and so trusted that she can hear a complaint about anything—even you! This confidant and prayer partner is a "Jesus friend," because she represents His love in a unique way that nobody else can.

2. Crises of stagnation. Far too many pastoral spouses stop growing spiritually and sometimes educationally and emotionally. Few pastors fulfill the spiritual needs of their own wives. Hart asserts: "It is not easy for your wife to sit Sabbath after Sabbath listening to your recycled sermons, watching you repeat the same mistakes, or tell the same embarrassing stories." Even pristine, thought-provoking sermons will have little spiritual impact on someone you argued with on the way to church that morning. Your wife must find sources of spiritual nourishment beyond what you provide, primarily through her own study of the Word.

3. Crises of competing loyalties. Often when people complain about the pastor, they go to his wife, expecting her to deliver their message. Hart recommends that pastoral spouses refuse to allow themselves to be triangulated between members and their pastor/partner. They can simply respond: "Please speak to my husband yourself. I have so many things to talk to him about that I can't deliver messages from others."

4. Crises of codependency. Many pastoral wives try to rescue their spouse from his self-inflicted troubles. They see their role as eternal peacemakers responsible to mop up his messes. For example, one pastor and his daughter had not communicated for several years. The wife/mother tried to mend the relationship by purchasing a greeting card as if it had come from the daughter. She imagined herself creating an atmosphere of reconciliation, but only brought their animosity upon herself. Hart recommends leaving the responsibility where it belongs: "Let him sink or swim, preferably sink, so he can learn a lesson. Don't try to rescue your spouse from every foolishness he causes."

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 James A. Cress is the secretary for the General Conference Ministerial Association.


May 1997

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