How Codependency Hampered My Pastoral Ministry

Part of the emotional drain I felt during the pandemic came from trying to manage my members’ feelings.
How Codependency Hampered My Pastoral Ministry

I recently received an email from a church member expressing frustration over a decision we made for our congregation. I responded with an abundance of grace, expressing appreciation for sharing the concern and asking if we could meet to discuss the matter further. Over the coming days, I checked my email over and over for a reply.

I began to wonder, Did he get my email? What if he didn’t get it and I seem callous and uncaring? What if he did get it but he’s so mad that I didn’t just do what he asked me to?

Eventually, I followed up with another email. I told myself I sent the message because I wanted to reflect Christ in my unwavering pursuit of reconciliation. But really, I wanted this person to feel better about me so that I could feel better about myself and my performance as a pastor.

The pandemic has been a revealing time for all of us, forcing us to see our habits in greater clarity than before. In the ample opportunities we pastors have had to learn about pursuing unity and reconciliation, I began to realize how a type of unhealthy people-pleasing—codependency—has affected my ministry and fed the emotional drain of this season.

Codependency has been referred to as “relationship addiction.” In Codependent No More, Melody Beattie writes that a codependent person has let another’s unhealthy behavior affect him or her and is obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior and feelings in return.

In pastoral ministry, this looks like a preoccupation with specific relationships in our churches in the interest of avoiding feelings of rejection or disapproval. These relationships can become one-sided, manipulative, and emotionally destructive so much that leaders cannot distinguish others’ rejection of us from our own rejection of ourselves.

The language of codependence began to emerge in the 1980s, originally to refer to spouses who “depended” on their partners’ substance abuse, either enabling them or relying on their addiction for attention and self-esteem. (I’ve also written about being a pastor who is an Adult Child of an Alcoholic, and not surprisingly, many ACoAs struggle with codependency.) The term has since been applied to a range of dysfunctional relationships.

As pastors, so much of our interpersonal work in ministry, especially with difficult people in our congregations, can be defined as attempting to control—manage—their behavior and feelings. Codependency can be particularly hard to recognize in this context; we can conflate the selflessness of the Christian mandate to lay ourselves down for others with the self-serving sentiment of being liked because we are “nice.”

Here are some questions that can help pastors examine their motivations (developed based on questions from Melody Beattie’s Codependent No More):

  • Can I define my sense of purpose apart from making extreme sacrifices to satisfy my community's needs?
  • Is it difficult for me to say “no” when my parishioners make demands on my time and energy, especially when I am already overextended?
  • Do I constantly worry about my church’s opinion of me?
  • Do I often keep quiet to avoid disagreements and keep the peace?
  • Do I often feel isolated and afraid of people, especially aggressive or authoritative figures?
  • Have I observed myself to be an approval seeker, especially to the point of losing my own identity in the process?
  • Do I feel overly frightened of angry people or personal criticism?
  • Do I get guilt feelings when I stand up for myself rather than giving in to others?
  • Do I find I judge myself harshly?
  • Do I often feel abandoned in the course of my ministry?
  • Do I feel responsible for others’ reactions and emotions?
  • Do I often cave to others’ reactions in the interest of reconciliation?
  • Do I find myself overly preoccupied with appeasing the disgruntled folks at the cost of advancing the mission of my church?
  • Do I have an overinflated sense of my ability to control other people’s feelings and reactions?

While all good pastors would want to foster a spirit of unity, satisfaction, and joy in their congregations, we can see how that desire could be taken too far and become unhealthy or self-serving instead.

In codependency, people become dependent on others for purpose, significance, acceptance, and value. No person in our lives is capable of providing these for us. Therefore, when the pursuit of purpose, significance, acceptance, and value from others becomes the driving force of our ministerial endeavors, it leads to emotional exhaustion and burnout.

In this light, we have not followed the model of Christ in self-sacrifice, but rather, we have forsaken the first commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me.” We have displaced God on the throne of our lives and selected numerous others to provide us with the kind of purpose, significance, acceptance, and value we seek from our pastoral performance and our congregations.

The difference between the way of Christ in self-sacrifice and the way of codependency is that Christ lays himself down for the delight of the Father (John 10:17–18), but we do so for the delight of men and women.

Codependence not only is destructive to ourselves, but it can also hinder our ability to pursue the vision God has for our churches. When we are constantly trying to accommodate everyone else’s “vision” for our church, we turn back from God’s vision.

Our inevitable failure to appease everyone’s desires for our church means that when folks get disgruntled enough and leave, we are lost again without a vision, and we are angry because we tried so hard to give them what they wanted. Still, they didn’t appreciate it and didn’t stay.

I am still a work in progress on this. But the first step to addressing codependency is simply acknowledging that codependency is a problem and acknowledging how powerless we are to change it. As a result, our lives have become unmanageable. This language may sound familiar, precisely because it is the first step of all twelve-step programs. This includes Codependents Anonymous (CoDA), a twelve-step program for those dealing with codependency.

The second step, then, is to come to believe that a power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity. The beauty and power of this language is that it speaks to the inner turmoil we feel that so often accompanies our codependent behavior. Of course, in the Christian tradition, this would be the power of God’s own Spirit at work in us.

In turning specifically to ministry, an important step in overcoming the impact of codependency is to clarify what others can expect of us. Codependency can fuel an obsessive need to meet everyone’s expectations. I have begun to state up front what others can expect of me rather than letting them assume what to expect of me or set their own expectations. When I do this well, I am less likely to be caught off-guard by being held to an expectation I did not set. (This includes setting boundaries. In a ministry context, our vision and priorities can offer a kind of boundary marker.)

I have also made the conscious decision to refuse to “read minds.” I used to confuse mind reading with being intuitive and a good reader of people. I would investigate to determine if my fear that people disapproved of me or my leadership was true. In the end, it was really just an invitation to worry and pain.

A better way forward has been to generate a culture of emotional development. Unhealthy organizations typically operate at the level of the least emotionally mature. In such contexts emotional immaturity breeds poor communication habits. A culture of emotional development requires people to develop the skills to communicate frustrations and perspectives in healthy, appropriate ways rather than expecting others to recognize their disappointment and pander to it.

Finally, it’s important to learn to distinguish our own feelings from others’ feelings about us. This is called self-differentiation, and it was one of the problems with my email exchange earlier. In sending the second email, I was actually stepping beyond my obligation in the relationship in an attempt to control the person’s thoughts and feelings about me. I could not differentiate the negative thoughts and feelings he or she felt about me from how I should feel about myself.

We seek the approval of others because it promises purpose, significance, and a sense of value. But like the young man of Proverbs 7 who is lured down the street by the promise of an evening of ecstasy, we are really like an ox going to slaughter, like a deer bounding toward a trap, like a bird darting in a snare—we do not know it will cost us our lives.

As followers of Jesus, we must confront our codependency. We must confront it not only to have better, healthier ministries. We must confront it because it makes us weak in our convictions, shrink from addressing injustice, and fearful of speaking truth. In short, we must confront our codependency because it compromises our courage to follow Jesus.

Ike Miller is the author of Seeing by the Light and holds a PhD in theology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is lead pastor and church planter of Bright City Church in Durham, North Carolina, where he lives with his wife, Sharon, and their three children.

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