It is surprising that we have come so far in applying the vital insights of psychology to counseling, and yet have neglected their application to urgent, day-to-day problems of church administration. In McCormick Speaking (Oct. 1958), Dr. Leonard J. Trinterud aptly describes the strain under which pastors break as they undertake too many tasks and feel the whiplash of an expectant membership. Dr. Richard K. Morton, in “Our Demanding Laity” (CHRISTIANITY TODAY, Sept. 15, 1958), noted the mounting demands made upon the pastor and the criticism that follows every failure.

Protestantism’s strength is the doctrine of the priesthood of believers. The Church is the body of Christ. Her strength is equal to the layman’s submission to the Holy Spirit indwelling his soul, and his obedience to the Spirit’s directives revealed through the ministry of the Word and His word through the corporate body. The Church in His name prophesies, teaches, evangelizes, heals, and shows compassion to all mankind.

The Church, however, is also an organization of churches as well as a living organism. The same laymen who direct the church’s affairs also pay the minister’s salary and must sanction his program. The pastor and board members are engulfed in a sea of complex relationships while through it all, or despite it all, the unity of the Holy Spirit in the bond of peace must be preserved so that the Church can evangelize the world, and so that His body with one heart may confront the evil of this day.


The simple truth is that our pastors must expend so much time and energy in the heartbreaking game of “playing house” with local church members that their prophetic role based upon submission to the authority of Christ and profound study of the Word of God is rapidly being neglected. Their call originally led to the field of preaching and ministering. But they have come to discover that the path has detours through a jungle of administrative demands, church politics, and the very struggle for survival against waves of gossip and entrenched vested interests. It may well be that the success of Protestant Christianity in America will not be determined in the field of theology but in the courageous handling of church administration.

Part of the problem arises from the lack of spiritual growth and vitality in Protestantism in the past 10 years. Basic factors, however, involve the psychic dynamics in certain critical interpersonal relationships. The one crying out for urgent attention is that of the righteous-vindictive personality who is a key factor in church administration.

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One of the strangest phenomena of modern religious life is that so little study is granted to the interpersonal cancer that rears its symptoms on almost every page of the New Testament and in relation to the crucified Christ. The friction between pastor and vindictive pharisaism is at work in almost every church I know of and has been responsible for the catastrophic breakdown of pastors and the division of congregations. Its essence is this friction which is tending to bleed Protestant effectiveness and which has broken the spirit of many ministers.

It is unusual historically that these dynamics were structuralized in an entire sect—the Pharisees. In an age of anxiety, frustration, and spiritual decline the “separated ones” gained pseudo-security through an idealized image of themselves as examples of perfection and saviours of the Law. They lived in a false little world of their own making, and Jesus of Nazareth pierced through it, calling them to the real world of God and demanding they renounce by repentance the false world of idolatry and pride. The hostility of the Pharisees knew no bounds. The compulsive nature of their vindictiveness was all too evident. Nothing less than crucifixion could restore their position. Many a young minister today wonders whether he should be crucified in silence like Jesus, or, like Paul, make his appeal to denominational caesars and defend himself every inch of the way.

It seems to the writer that no modern psychologist has analyzed the character neurosis of this personality “type” with the perspicacity of Dr. Karen Horney. Her major works Our Inner Conflicts, and Neurosis and Human Growth should be required reading for everyone involved in the work of church administration.

Dr. Horney speaks of a “trend” in personality called the striving for superiority through power and prestige. One facet is the leaning toward neurotic self-righteousness, perfection, and vindictiveness. Consider the small church with its self-righteous, proud, extremely religious woman. She rules the church with the iron hand of a benevolent monarch. She remains in the smaller church with a limited number of capable leaders where she reigns as a grand frog in a smaller pond.

Consider the most prominent businessman and leading elder in our churches. Churches attract the “expansive” (Horney) and vindictive personality as honey attracts bees. Through the psychic guise of self-righteousness and spirituality this type works himself to death achieving an exalted position in church life. His world revolves on an axis of defensive pride. This pride is like a band holding together a whole system of ideas and attitudes which constitute the self-image of superior intellect, superior spirituality, and so forth. There are fears of retaliation and this expansive person tends to dictate in “humility,” and thinks of himself as the true power behind the lesser powers. Should the pastor contravene any opinion of his or run counter to his directives, then the matter becomes one of life and death to restore the false self-image through assaulting the work and character of the minister. But because he is ostensibly “guided by the Spirit” he hopes to avoid the retribution of the targets of his vindictiveness. He can, therefore, do all for “love” without being loved or loving. He can appear to be selfless while hating the true self, and can be outwardly humble and inwardly sadistic in supposed defense of some time-honored doctrine or church procedure. The church offers a suitable environment for the flourishing of these contradictory trends.

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It is only through an understanding of the compulsive nature of this psychic structure that we see why its punitive labor continues for years. Preaching from the Sermon on the Mount apparently does not thrust through the defensive core, and the vindictive personality has no intention of forgetting an insult, real or imagined. Dr. Horney puts it this way in her Neurosis and Human Growth (p. 201):

Partly he justifies his claims by his superior qualities, which in his mind are his better knowledge, “wisdom,” and foresight. More specifically, his claims are demands for retribution for injury done. In order to solidify this basis for claims he must, as it were, treasure and keep alive injuries received, whether ancient or recent. He may compare himself to the elephant who never forgets. What he does not realize is his vital interest in not forgetting slights, since in his imagination they are the bill to present to the world. Both the need to justify his claims and his responses to their frustration work like vicious circles, supplying constant fuel to his vindictiveness.

This malignant spirit passes from one or two of the most influential persons through the ranks of friends and associates. If the pastor has iron nerves, and if the church manages to prosper despite this sniping, the vengeful persons may fade as righteous martyrs. If the work is small and static, the sniping continues and woe to the shepherd who makes the slightest slip in conduct or judgment. It is at this point that the subconscious trends in the pastor will either cause him to resign his church or explode in defensive retribution.

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In the chapter entitled “The Second Year Is the Hardest” of A Man Called Peter, a beautiful account is portrayed of a very human but deeply spiritual man who weathered the storm while his church grew in spirit and numbers. If the pastor does not bring neurotic trends to conflagration by his own desires to domineer, and if the church is growing, opportunities are afforded through counseling, group prayer, cell meetings, and church activities for the Spirit of God to stimulate self-acceptance and joyful rapport among the membership. This necessitates work, patience, and some anxiety on the pastor’s part, but this is part of his labor for Christ. He can expect this. The scars on Paul’s soul and body attested to his artificial compassion for the wayward saints and those of his churches who rebelled against his ministry. He said that “… in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church” (Col. 1:24 RSV).

Dealing with neurotic vindictiveness, however, is a more subtle and complex problem because it usually is the real key in understanding the rigid behavior, gossipy and vengeful criticisms evidenced by otherwise highly moral and important pillars of the church. It must be dealt with because it accounts for the storm that inevitably engulfs many courageous, progressive, and forward-looking pastors. And it most often issues from the very persons who have it in their power to jeopardize a Christ-directed ministry by wielding their wide personal influence and their ecclesiastical authority against the minister himself.

A further tragedy is that unseasoned young men fresh from seminary sometimes find their first church an inner-city work wherein young married couples move to the suburbs while the hard core of older members remain a hotbed of rigid and defensive self-satisfaction.

This situation places a great strain on seminary curriculums for better testing and counseling of students. “The Advancement of Theological Education,” 1957, Niebuhr, Williams and Gustafson, reviews work accomplished in this field within the seminaries. It is important that the student know himself and be confronted with his self-image as determined by projective techniques, as opposed to paper and pencil questionnaires. Moreover, psychodrama and lectures by ministers trained in psychology are aiding students to analyze objectively the factors inherent in the give and take of board meetings, personal antagonisms, and factions.

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After the pastor is installed, to whom can he turn if this vindictive storm should back the effectiveness of his ministry against the wall?

Our ministers need pastors of their own. Every denominational area encompassing 50 to 100 ministers should be able to support one ordained executive, trained in psychology, whose task it would be to shepherd the shepherds of the flock. I fear many ministers do not feel they can go to executives who are weighted down with the responsibilities of administering a smooth functioning convention, diocese, or presbytery. In some cases the smug and political coarseness of some denominational executives in dealing with pastors of stormy churches is nothing short of disgraceful. This in itself contributes largely to the disillusionment that motivates many harassed men to leave the ministry and seek secular employment.

Just as important as individual counselling would be the recommendations which district pastors could provide the clerical authorities based on an accurate comprehension of church discord. In some cases pastors need abundant grace from Christ himself to lead a church to strength and unity. Where neurotic personalities destroy the effectiveness of a church and endanger its ministry, then the pastor has every right to expect the authority of a larger church to exercise discipline under the Holy Spirit.


We ministers have ourselves to blame if we have not trained our membership in respect for the Word, prepared them for churchmanship, and integrated new members into the life and fellowship of the church. The vindictive-expansive personality works himself to death to achieve a position of superiority and prestige. Pastors and newcomers are only too glad to let the old reliables do the work. New members can take odd jobs but must not be allowed to think they can displace the pillars and run the church. Were laymen better trained in their responsibilities, it would be more difficult for the vindictive-expansive personality to gather allies in his attempt to thwart the onward march of Christ’s body and to place a distorted interpretation upon the minister’s work.

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Now is the time to come to grips with this problem in a more positive and realistic manner. We must view the sense of frustration within many Protestant churches alongside the determined strides and autocratic efficiency of the Roman Catholic church. Protestantism must preserve the prophetic authority of the Word of God and the free response of the Spirit-filled priesthood of believers. When either this authority or this response is hindered by sin in any form or disguise, Protestantism must exercise its discipline and apply its insights in order to redeem persons and strengthen its true resources. One crucifixion was sufficient. The Church must experience enough redemptive suffering facing the world without adding its own internal strife, especially when this strife is an abuse of Christian freedom.

Robert James St. Clair is Minister of the North Hill United Presbyterian Church, Akron, Ohio. He holds the A.B. degree from Brooklyn College and the M.A. from the University of Cincinnati. He has written numerous articles on the relationship between religion and clinical psychology and the implications of therapeutic counseling for theology.

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