Several years ago, I taught a course in pastoral care at Calvin Seminary. Feeling innovative, I beamed in Jaco Hamman from Vanderbilt University and asked him a simple question—at least, I thought it was a simple question.
As we wrapped up our time with him I asked, “Jaco, if you had any parting advice to those about to become pastors, what would it be?”
His answer rattled me and left me scrambling for clarification.
“Every pastor should pay someone to love them.”
After we had a good laugh—and after I expressed a fair bit of anxiety—he clarified by saying, “What I mean of course is that every pastor should have a therapist.”
I think he was right.
Here are a few reasons why:
- Pastors have the best and hardest job in the world. We are invited into painful places, and those places intersect with our own places of pain. We are invited into the sacred turf of other peoples’ stories. If that does not bless and wear us, something is likely wrong. Other peoples’ stuff tends to stir up our stuff. A dear colleague once said to me, “They keep banging into my pilings.” What he meant was, things in ministry that bump us tend to bump into deep places in our souls.
- When pastors practice self-care alone, we put ourselves in the wrong hands. The truth is, most of us are much better at caring for others than taking care of ourselves. The best doctors and therapists I know put themselves in someone else’s care in order to be better caregivers. Flight attendants remind us of this principle every time they say, “Put your own oxygen mask on first before helping others.”
- Objects in our mirrors are likely larger than they appear. The past is always present and the question is: In what ways is it present and in what form? Most of us need help weighing the past and its significance for the present. The best writers I know lean on another set of eyes to edit their work—one set of eyes is never enough. The painful truth is, some of us don’t know we have blind spots. Some of us know we have blind spots but don’t know what is in them. Some of us know there is something in our blind spot but cannot accurately discern whether it is a bike or a semi. Not knowing always has the capacity to hurt us or someone else.
- It is not the responsibility of someone else to care for us. At my ordination, a kindly pastor wiped tears from his eyes and said, “I really feel for you new pastors.” When I inquired, “Why?” he told me that when he began ministry, there were always retired pastors or elders to put their arms around him and tell him what he could not see. He went on to say, “Those days are behind us because the church and the world are different now.” That was more than 20 years ago and neither the church nor the world is any easier. Church elders, pastoral support teams and spouses (if we have them), are not able to care for us in all the ways we need it. It is wrong for us to have the expectation that they can or will. So it is up to us—and up to us to encourage one another—to lean on professionals; the burdens are too heavy and the stakes are too high.
- Putting oneself in the care of another is not selfish. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Ministry can be isolating and insulating. It can also easily bring out our narcissism. The three leading causes of malfunction and malpractice among clergy are: an inability to connect, disorganization, and narcissism. Often, pastors need someone else to call us out of the world we have made for ourselves. Church and Kingdom are always bigger and different than the ways we imagine them. The bottom line is: Don’t believe everything you think. Narcissism inflates our self-importance, puts our thoughts and feelings at the center of things, and is attention-seeking. Narcissism turns “we” and “us” into “me” and “I”. If our defenses rise about our need for therapeutic support, it is likely the protest of our narcissism.
So pastors in my care will say, “How do I do this?”
Begin with the recognition that there is a difference between needs and neediness. The spiritual life often begins with recognizing the difference between the two. Just know that the curriculum for this learning will not be comfortable.
As a Classis, make clergy care and healthy leaders a value. Take the necessary months and years to grow that value. Regularly lift up and remind one another of the healthy practices that grow healthy leaders.
When negotiating a call or its details, put therapy costs in your compensation package. Pastors routinely negotiate housing, health insurance, sabbatical, vacation, books, and social security costs. Why not give mental health and support a place at the table when it comes to naming important priorities?
Spend your years of ministry in a church regularly reminding your elders and council that to function in a healthy way, you need this kind of support. Optimally, they see and benefit by your own growth.
Consider using continuing education funds for therapeutic support. If you are not growing, they won’t either.
Find a way to pay someone to love you. The Church deserves nothing less.
The best version of you is the one that is clear about the unique way the Living Christ lives in you. In ministry, finding clarity and remaining clear requires another trusted soul; we cannot do it alone.
Rev. Marc Nelesen, PhD