Several times, individuals have sought my pastoral and spiritual care when I was suffering deep emotional pain. In their need for help, people will often go to pastors who are themselves burdened with their own struggles. To compound the problem, some church members with mental-
health challenges may feel safer in the care of their pastors than they would with mental-health professionals. Unfortunately, pastors “are not usually equipped to do psychological triage and diagnosis.”1 While pastors may not have psychiatric training, they still often function “as frontline mental health workers.”2 By default, they become emotional-health first responders.
The mounting economic hardships, civil unrest, domestic violence, and other circumstances that affect families around the world all contribute to the increasing mental-health burden, making the need for spiritual care and its collaboration with psychiatric healthcare indispensable. Globally, studies estimate that in 2017, 792 million people (10.7 percent of the world population) had a mental-health disorder.3 According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, in 2020, 21 percent of United States citizens dealt with some form of mental health challenge.4
In 2014, the same percentage was true of clergy members,5 indicating that they are not immune to the problem. The number is likely slightly higher because some of them may not have sought help for themselves for two reasons: (1) the fear of being stigmatized as lacking religious faith and (2) what Edward Wimberly describes as the myth of self-sufficiency, in which ministers decide to avoid those who may offer help because they think that they do not need assistance from anyone.6
To give spiritual or pastoral care requires that clergy take time to care for themselves lest they suffer from compassion fatigue, in which they become insensitive and detached from the pain of other individuals. I have organized four self-care strategies around the acronym CARE that can aid ministers in their pastoral counseling.
C: Connect with one’s personal narrative
The best place to begin providing care is to ensure that one’s own baggage does not hinder the healing process. Depending on how we view our personal narratives of pain, they can become tools that enhance the skill of caring or can turn us into attention-seeking, pity-party persons. Instead of bringing emotional liberation to those in need, we may make them even more wounded. We should never allow our hurts to distract those we minister to but, rather, use our narratives as internal tools for providing care.
For a pastor to project personal pain on those facing difficult situations is to run the risk of the pastor trying to solve their own problems by advising the care seeker. But connecting to one’s personal narrative and understanding its nature will minimize the temptation to be the expert on the counselee’s unfolding narrative.
A: Avoid being cared for by the care seeker
When pastors fail to deal with their personal pain, they may seek therapy from those who need their care. In such a case, what we call countertransference will likely occur. A minister’s past woundedness will unconsciously shape the response to the care seeker’s situation. It may take the form of excessive self-disclosure to the client. The pastor may begin to share issues in their own life as a way of helping. However, this type of sharing may indicate that they are hoping for therapy from the one seeking care. It is even more complicated when the emotional bond becomes unhealthy and the cleric becomes the “solution.”
People may assume that pastors are oblivious to their personal hurts. Members expect them to be strong and may never tolerate any emotional weakness or breakdown on the pastor’s part. Again, that can cause the pastor to seek therapy from the church members instead of the other way around. To avoid that danger, ministers must learn to get in touch with their personal feelings. Seeking professional counseling is a good way to do that.
R: Release pent-up emotions
Some church members will assume that the pastor should never have any emotional burdens. If he or she does, the members may perceive it as a lack of religious faith. However, pastors are human beings with the same kinds of challenges faced by their flock.
Christ is the Pastor par excellence who set a rich example that those providing spiritual care need to emulate.
Statistics provided by Pastoral Care, Inc., report that 57 percent of clergy members experience discouragement, stress, and fatigue, yet they claim to be fulfilled. Statistics show that 70 percent of pastors who had started out with high regard for themselves eventually felt a loss of self-worth.7 A recent study that sampled pastors revealed that increased occupational distress was associated with chronic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression.8
We must get in touch with our feelings so that we can become effective spiritual caregivers. Ignoring our feelings can make us vulnerable to wanting sympathy from those we should be helping. Journaling is a good way for pastors to recognize and spell out their feelings.9
Personal experience has taught me the need for counseling services. As I delivered God’s Word, did bedside ministry, and met face-to-face with those who sought my care, I felt empty inside. I could not come to terms with why God uses me as a childless pastor whose wife is always in physical and emotional pain. When providing spiritual care to hospital patients, I noticed that I was not only excessively emotional but also becoming ineffective.
As my grief mounted, I dreaded going to therapy. When I finally decided to drag my emotionally drained body there, two thoughts ran through my mind. First, in my part of the world, society expects that a pastor should not succumb to life’s problems. Second, in my culture, a man must not cry. Nonetheless, I am grateful that I decided to go in for counseling because I was heading toward clinical depression. Counseling services enabled me slowly to climb out of the pit of despair to the pinnacle of hope. It helped me realize that the need to release pent-up emotions may require seeking professional help.
E: Emulate the Savior
Christ is the Pastor par excellence who set a rich example that those providing spiritual care need to emulate. The Savior experienced physical exhaustion. When He was walking us out of the entanglement of sin, He experienced such great emotional anguish that He said, “My soul is exceeding sorrowful unto death” (Mark 14:34)10. If the Master endured pain, His ministers are not exempt from it. They may find it helpful to follow His example:
He rose early in the morning and went to pray (Mark 1:35). Heaven is a storehouse full of treasure for our benefit. Surrendering the outcome of events to God has a soothing effect. It displays trust in divine providences. During testing times, it may be hard to pray. However, “every difficulty [should be seen as] a call to prayer.”11 Starting the day with prayer is helpful because what one does in the morning may set the tone for the whole day.
He took a break. After Jesus received the disturbing news of John’s death, He needed some quiet time. He said to His disciples, “Come ye yourselves apart . . . and rest a while: for there were many coming and going, and they had no leisure so much as to eat” (Mark 6:31). Being on call day and night, ministers may fail to find time to rest. Taking a vacation, blocking out time for leave, and having a family day once a week will help refresh us.
He built a caring support system of disciples. When Jesus was facing crucifixion, He took His disciples with Him into the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:33). Ministers need other humans to help them carry their personal burdens.
He used referrals. After Jesus had completed the process of healing the lepers, He referred them to the priests (Matt. 8:4; Mark 1:44; Luke 5:14; 17:14), who were responsible for assessing the level of infection (Lev. 13:25). The priests not only declared their healed patients clean but also performed ceremonial rituals that made reintegration into society easier (Leviticus 14). This is a good example to follow. Pastoral caregivers need to understand they may not be equipped to do everything and that some of their duties must be absorbed by specialized professions, such as psychiatry. Larry Yeagley underscores that it is important for clergy members to understand appropriate diagnostic criteria for mental challenges to facilitate referrals to mental health professionals.12 Making appropriate referrals will not only reduce the load on the spiritual caregiver but also minimize compassion fatigue.
He had a caring, compassionate attitude (Matt. 9:36; 15:32; 20:34). When He was dying on the cross, Jesus cared for the beloved disciple and His mother (John 19:26, 27). He entered into their pain and showed genuine love. Psychologists Jack Balswick, Pamela Ebstyne King, and Kevin Reimer comment, “By his words and actions Jesus radically defined the meaning of family. The church needs to be a community characterized by family-type relationships.”13
CARE to care
Providing spiritual and pastoral care calls for ministers to connect to their personal narrative of pain in such a way that self does not hinder the work of care. This will help them avoid seeking emotional nourishment from their care seekers. Clergy members should take time to release pent-up emotions by seeking professional help themselves and engaging in the productive discipline of journaling. Emulating the Savior is key in this exalted work. It is only when a pastor CAREs that they can provide care.
- Larry Yeagley, “Pastoral Counseling: The Art of Referral,” Ministry, September 2002, 10.
- Andrew J. Weaver, Kevin J. Flannelly, Laura T. Flannelly, and Julia E. Oppenheimer, “Collaboration Between Clergy and Mental Health Professionals: A Review of Professional Health Care Journals from 1980 Through 1999,” Counseling and Values 47, no. 3 (April 2003): 162.
- Saloni Dattani, Hannah Ritchie, and Max Roser, “Mental Health,” Our World in Data, updated August 2021, https://ourworldindata.org/mental-health.
- “Mental Health by the Numbers,” National Alliance on Mental Illness, accessed March 24, 2022, https://www.nami.org/learn-more/mental-health-by-the-numbers.
- LifeWay, “Study of Acute Mental Illness and Christian Faith,” accessed February 26, 2020, http://lifewayresearch.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Acute-Mental-Illness-and-Christian-Faith-Research-Report-1.pdf.
- Edward P. Wimberly, Recalling Our Own Stories: Spiritual Renewal for Religious Caregivers (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1997), 63.
- “Statistics in the Ministry,” Pastoral Care, Inc., https://www.pastoralcareinc.com/statistics/.
- Benjamin L. Webb and Kirstie Chase, “Occupational Distress and Health Among a Sample of Christian Clergy,” Pastoral Psychology 68 (2019), 331–343, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11089-018-0844-y.
- Barnabas Piper, “5 Reasons Every Pastor Should Journal,” Church Leaders, October 7, 2020.
- Scripture is from the King James Version.
- Ellen G. White, Prophets and Kings (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1917), 31.
- Yeagley, “Pastoral Counseling,” 10.
- Jack O. Balswick, Pamela Ebstyne King, and Kevin S. Reimer, The Reciprocating Self: Human Development in Theological Perspective, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2016), 294.