I recently received the ultimate backhanded compliment. It came from a former colleague from my first church ministry job. Back then I was a 25-year-old seminary graduate plotting revival everywhere I went. Now I am a 34-year-old pastor asking her for a recommendation for a hospice chaplaincy. She expressed surprise at my interest in the job. I explained that the chaplaincy would allow me to grow as a listener and to be with people in painful but potentially sacred moments.
"You certainly are different from what I remember" she said.
It was meant kindly. I felt like she had just handed me a trophy for "Most Improved Pastor" engraved with these words: You're not the hard-hearted, un-teachable egomaniac you used to be. You should never be a senior pastor, but we can probably trust you not to bring about the demise of Christianity in this country.
If there were an awards banquet for the Most Improved Pastor trophy, I would tell the crowd what I told my former colleague that day: "Thank you. I've been in a lot of therapy." And I would mean it.
After only the spiritual disciplines and my marriage, I would give the greatest credit for my personal and pastoral growth to the numerous therapy sessions I have received over the last seven years. Whenever I interact with young pastors or those aspiring to pastoral ministry, my first suggestion is to find a good therapist. The recently publicized statistics on pastoral burnout, depression, and job turnover have convinced me that the sooner pastors make themselves comfortable on the therapist's couch, the better it will be for them and for the churches they serve.
When I consider the effect of therapy on my life, the word "unraveling" comes to mind. I began therapy because my life was full of knots, which (although they held my life and self-understanding together) choked off my connection to my true self. When threads are tangled together, it's almost impossible to differentiate one from another. They overlap and interweave and you cannot see where one thread starts, where it stops, and what path it takes to get there.
Our motivations get lost in our choices, our presents get confused with our pasts, and our conscious behaviors get entangled with our subconscious desires. It's all but impossible to identify these threads and how they interconnect when they're knotted together. Counseling has been a space for me to slowly pull apart those knots and to lay the threads down side by side. I can then identity and evaluate them with an expert who is trained in thread management.
The threads of many pastors' lives are entangled in two major areas: their calling into ministry and their relationship with their congregation. In conversations about the hazardous effects of pastoral ministry, I think these threads have been under-emphasized. But they are critical to reversing the trends.
A charge and a prescription
The call to ministry is both a charge and a prescription. My foundational belief about pastoral ministry is that God calls us to it not only for the sake of leading others, but also for the sake of healing us in and through our service to others. Young pastors usually dive into ministry with all the idealism and passion of youth, equipped with a master battle plan for saving the world and fixing the church, only to discover that their need to be saved and fixed is just as great. If we're honest with ourselves, those of us who are drawn to pastoral ministry are compelled by mixed motives. This is not hypocritical or contradictory. It is simply part of God's healing prescription for us. We are invited to view leadership positions as places of healing.