How Pastors Struggle

This is by a couple of psychologists that Calvin Seminary and the CRC Pastor-Church Relations office in Grand Rapids use to consult with pastors. The authors based their conclusions upon intensive work with scores of churches and pastors who have experienced major conflict. I find their observations dead on.

How Pastors Struggle
by Dane Ver Merris Ed.D. and Bert van Hoek Ed.D.
Clergy Evaluation & Consultation Service

Over the past several years we have evaluated many dozens of pastors.  Most came to us because of struggles in their ministry.  A few sought help with future direction or simply for better self-understanding.

That pastors would seek help at all is remarkable.  Ministry is a lonely profession.  Pastors are expected to live exemplary lives and serve as role models for their congregations.  Consequently, pastors can be reluctant to admit shortcomings or vulnerabilities, and they are sometimes surprised by congregational dissatisfaction and criticism, or by their own failures.  Unfortunately, the pressure to strive for perfection leaves ministers even more vulnerable to personal struggles.  They can be reluctant to ask for help even though they face ordinary issues, temptations, and troubles.

We have observed several tendencies in the clergy who have consulted us, and we think it might be helpful to share our results with church leaders and others whose task is to assist pastors in working through their challenges.  The tendency that characterizes most of the pastors we have seen is defensiveness.  Ministers are understandably reluctant to admit shortcomings on the psychological tests we use.  Instead, pastors view themselves as highly principled, moral, and virtuous.  Test instruments are quite good at detecting this defensiveness, and the pastors we have counseled often have been reluctant to admit even minor flaws or emotional discomfort – even to the point of threatening the validity of the test results. Rather than be surprised (or unduly troubled) by pastors’ strong tendency to be defensive, those who are in a position to help must simply acknowledge the strong pressure pastors feel to make a polished presentation of themselves in spite of their obvious and genuine struggles.

Beyond this overall pattern of defensiveness, pastors who have struggles in their ministries tend to fall into one of three categories.  The first is a group that is too self-assured, the second a group that suffers from social discomfort or aloofness, and the third a group that wrestles with lack of organization.

The first group of pastors who struggle is the “too self-assured.”  Whether because of the stamp of “God’s calling” or because of a tendency toward arrogance or even as a reaction to earlier failure, this group tends to emphasize their “specialness” in the ministry.  These pastors view themselves as visionary leaders and expect others to fall in place behind them.  They can have rather significant needs for admiration and approval, but can be perceived as arrogant, dramatic, or impetuous by those around them (who might be reluctant to point this out).  They have an overvalued view of self, a need to be superior or perfect, and sometimes a “slippery” ethical system that arises from the need to hide flaws and keep defects secret.  These pastors also tend to focus on pleasing the congregational authorities and may be dismissive of congregants who need their care but have little to offer by way of conferring power or prestige.

These clergy have difficulty reflecting on their own contribution to their troubles.  They tend to blame others, especially other congregational leaders or a few meddlesome parishioners whom they view as the cause of their distress.  They often feel miffed, slighted, or unfairly criticized but have no ready mechanism for dealing with these feelings.   They bristle even at constructive criticism.  Thus, a subtle but growing resentment of lay authority and congregational leadership takes root.  Because many pastors do not have outlets for easy resolution of anger or resentment, these pastors can suffer with quiet bitterness and dissatisfaction and begin to retreat from their congregations.   This is a very difficult pattern to alter and often requires professional intervention.

A second group of ministers who have difficulty is the “socially uncomfortable” or “aloof.”   Many people are drawn toward ministry because of an interest in theology, without considering the interpersonal demands of the pastorate.   Seminaries have historically communicated a similar bias with a theological education that emphasizes academics over interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence.  Consequently, many young pastors who were excellent seminary students struggle when they are faced with the intense relational demands of ministry.

Probably no skill is more important to a pastor than the interpersonal grace and comfort that comes with emotional intelligence, and those who appear to be eccentric, aloof, or uncomfortably shy will have difficulty.  Conflicts about other issues are often evidence of congregational dissatisfaction with their pastor’s lack of empathy, or are reactions to interpersonal slights committed by the pastor who lacks awareness of how others perceive him or her.

A third group of ministers who struggle is the “disorganized.”   We sometimes informally think of this pattern as a form of “attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.” These pastors are scattered, late, unreliable, and possibly impulsive.  They miss deadlines and fail to accomplish tasks like making visits or meeting council expectations.

The administrative demands of the pastorate are sufficiently challenging so that pastors who are not very well organized tend to alienate congregation members.  Church leaders expect pastors to be reasonably responsible, organized, and responsive.  Ministers who routinely disappoint them will face a rising tide of resentment.

The struggle for church leaders, of course, comes with trying to assist pastors with these challenges.  For the overly self-assured it can be helpful, especially early in their careers, for seasoned colleagues, parishioners, and mentors to gently point out the ways in which they might be perceived as arrogant, heavy-handed, or insensitive.  Pastors in this camp sometimes need to develop humility and something more of a “pastor’s heart.” This can sometimes be fostered by consultation with mature friends and peers or by professional mental health assistance.

The socially uncomfortable or aloof pastor may find that interpersonal discomfort will diminish over time.  Education, consultation, mentoring, and sheer practice can help pastors improve social skills, learn to listen attentively, and reach out to others with improved levels of comfort and effectiveness.   Professional counseling helps some pastors with these issues, too.

The disorganized or impulsive pastor may also benefit from professional help.  This pattern sometimes reflects underlying disturbances that can respond to medication or personal counseling.  It’s a very difficult pattern to change, but a combination of clear expectations, better planning and scheduling, and focusing on organizing techniques can be helpful.  Churches can help by providing adequate administrative support.

The pastors we talk with routinely tell us how naïve they were about the demands of ministry.  Successful pastors accept criticism with grace, have a realistic notion of their own worth, value positive interpersonal relationships, and reliably meet their responsibilities.  We hope that these thoughts will make it a little easier for some pastors to grow in these areas and for congregational leaders to help their pastors.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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1 Response to How Pastors Struggle

  1. Nate says:

    I can’t help but read this and think that the church has built an expectation and image of what it means to be a pastor that is completely antithetical to actually following Jesus. This section is telling:

    Ministers are understandably reluctant to admit shortcomings on the psychological tests we use. Instead, pastors view themselves as highly principled, moral, and virtuous.

    The problem is far deeper than an absence of good psychological care, though I don’t doubt that can help. The problem is that we are Jews and Greeks–we want to follow someone with power and influence, and we want someone who rises above the flesh to bring us truly spiritual insight. (Particularly if we’re paying them.) But how can you preach Christ without crucifying oneself–putting to death the need to be affirmed, moral, wise and competent? How can you proclaim justification by faith in Christ if you’re always tying to justify yourself?

    Sadly, I see very little that would suggest this notion, however destructive to church and clergy alike, is changing.

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