A Pastor in Therapy

Here are four main lessons that I hope will help my brother pastors, and aid understanding for church members, with regard to the pressures of ministry.

When I landed in my GP surgery at the start of the year, my only complaint was some pain in my foot. I left his office in the knowledge that my blood pressure was sky high, that I had to take two weeks enforced leave, and that some major changes would need to take place in my work patterns. My Dr also recommended that I undergo some Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), in order that I might better recognise the symptoms of overwork, and find strategies to avoid it.

 

In February of this year I burned out. It was a surprising, disconcerting, and ultimately enlightening experience. The full account of how that happened and how I felt about it can be read here, but in this post I want to share about some follow up treatment I received on the advice of my doctor.

When I landed in my GP surgery at the start of the year, my only complaint was some pain in my foot. I left his office in the knowledge that my blood pressure was sky high, that I had to take two weeks enforced leave, and that some major changes would need to take place in my work patterns. My Dr also recommended that I undergo some Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), in order that I might better recognise the symptoms of overwork, and find strategies to avoid it.

At first I was somewhat sceptical. I don’t find it easy to talk about myself, less so my feelings, and my worst imaginings of protracted rumination on my deeper thoughts gave me a sense of dread. Ultimately, knowing that I wasn’t coping well with workload management, and feeling the burn of setting bad priorities, swung me in favour of receiving this help. The referral took six months to process, and so from September I underwent six one hour sessions with a brilliant CBT therapist. In this post I want to share four main lessons I have taken away from that process, in the hope that they might help my brother pastors, and aid understanding for church members, with regard to the pressures of ministry.

1. Ministry Pressure is Irreducible

Pastoral ministry is a strangely shaped occupation which defies easy categorisation, and will not readily bear comparison with other work. The pastor is a teacher, a counsellor, a leader, a chairperson, a co-ordinator, an (in my case terrible) administrator, and much more. The working hours of pastoral ministry are often irregular and hard to measure, and a sense of singular focus is seldom possible in the rigours of seeking to serve the Lord. The pastor has many tasks, but does not count himself to have a job; he has no line manager and few co-workers, and his responsibilities can be as diverse as the views of every person to whom he is responsible. Pastors often come into their role without a clear job description, there is little predictability to each day, let alone each week, and the ‘on-call’ element of the work is of vital importance to him and to those under his care. The Pastor can be wrestling alongside people in their most private struggles, but will still have to exercise a very public ministry of God’s Word week-on-week.

Added to this is the ministry dynamic that the Apostle Paul lays out in 2Corinthians, which does not promise comfort or ease, but instead proposes that living and glorious truth is demonstrated by God through dying and vulnerable men. The pastor’s role is realised in the hard territory of ‘sorrowing yet always rejoicing’, of outwardly fading away, while inwardly being renewed day by day. Ministry is cruciform and servant hearted, it necessarily entails sacrifice and consecration, and cannot be reduced to a time  and motion study.

Any candidate for ministry, or any Pastor in ministry, who is unwilling to accept the angularity and distinctive pressures that are mandatory for ministry is in for a very rough time. In some ways, this is a point that we simply have to accept, to live with and die in, understanding that our path as servants of Christ takes its co-ordinates from the suffering of Christ. No therapy, no planning, no good intention, no resistance or defiance, can change the fact that ministry is hard, and that it often entails a seemingly disproportionate amount of suffering and pressure.

2. The Pastor’s Personality is Important

When Martyn-Lloyd Jones addressed the issue of the preparation of a preacher his great advice was that the individual in question should know themselves. This was, perhaps, the diagnostic instinct of a physician at work, but his advice is sound and very much in line with what CBT has brought to my attention over the past few weeks. If integrity is the watchword of ministry, and if our personality is the material God uses to realise our ministry, then understanding who we are, and why we are the way we are, can be a huge step towards making the demands of the work more manageable.

We bring ourselves into the work, and this can be our greatest struggle. Leaving aside our sinful hearts and the desperate need that there is for us to pursue holiness, our upbringing, our backgrounds, our recent and distant experiences, our personality type etc, all have a bearing on how we will respond to ministry pressure.

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