This is a Pastoral Ministry Tuesday post. These posts share insights, ideas and observations from my ongoing journey in my vocation as a pastor. They are true to my experience which may or may not overlap with your own.
As I was graduating from Bible College with my undergrad, two things happened at the same time. The first was that a new faculty member was advocating for an increase in psychology and counseling courses to be added to the school’s catalog. The second was the publication of a popular book about how the heresy of psychology was infecting evangelicalism.
I jumped into pastoral ministry at a time when the need was being felt for trained counselors and suspicion was rampant about the presence of psychology in the church.
Some might even call it paranoia.
Most of what I’ve learned about psychology in pastoral ministry has been on the job training.
What always amazes me today that is that it is incredibly obvious we all have issues. In 35 years of pastoral ministry I’ve never met anyone who didn’t come with issues, who didn’t need their mental health addressed and who couldn’t benefit from therapy.
We all come with baggage.
But in 35 years, it seems like the one thing most people want to avoid is talking about or owning the way these issues change our perception of events, people and even our reading of the biblical text, our worship of God, our view of his relationship with us. It sometimes feels like we believe that faith creates a bubble for us to step into and suddenly all of our baggage is on the outside and we’re snug on the inside, free from the altered perception that our traumas, our troubles, our pain, our false concepts, our broken family systems create in us.
In A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis wrote, “I once read the sentence ‘I lay awake all night with a toothache, thinking about the toothache an about lying awake.’ That’s true to life. Part of every misery is, so to speak, the misery’s shadow or reflection: the fact that you don’t merely suffer but have to keep on thinking about the fact that you suffer. I not only live each endless day in grief, but live each day thinking about living each day in grief.” We seem more ready to confess our physical pain might be keeping us awake than to own the reality that our mental or emotional pain can be creating a thicker filter through which we try to experience and interpret life and all the input of life.
If I were to write a book on counselling in pastoral ministry, it’s title would be, I’m Not OK, And You’re Not OK.
A hard lesson that came early on in ministry was about how the impact of this plays out in the local church. A couple in crisis had come to see my friend who was the ‘senior pastor.’ He was their “last resort” in a troubled marriage. They were a couple who were very active in the church, two outgoing people who everyone would say “had it all together.” They met with my friend for a little over one hour. Voices were raised. I happened to be walking from my office to another part of the building when they exited his office and headed for the door together. Neither of them would make eye contact with me.
My friend emerged from his office and said, “Well, we won’t be seeing them at church much longer.” I asked him to explain what that meant, and he told me that some people work so hard to cultivate an impression on people that once someone sees behind the curtain they just can’t look at them anymore. Some people work very hard to create the image of a happy, successful, got it all together couple/family and when a crack shows – a child gets suspended from school, or develops an eating disorder, or one of the adult’s addictions finally pops out or they just can’t hold it together anymore, they run from the community before the community sees them as they are.
It’s as old a story as Adam and Eve hiding from God in the Garden because they were naked.
But it’s hard and made harder because when a couple exits like this, other people notice and they ask questions. If you’ve worked very hard to cultivate a certain image and people ask you why you’ve left, our tendency is to double down on our dysfunction and rather coming clean about our issues, we find a more spiritual reason for our departure.
“We weren’t getting fed.”
“We didn’t agree with the direction the church was going in.”
“We needed a church with a better _________________ (music program, youth ministry, children’s ministry, vision, preaching…etc.)
Don’t hear what I’m not saying. This isn’t why everyone leaves a church. There are some brilliant reasons to leave a local church. What I am saying is that we all often fail to take into account the mental wellness of people in the beloved community. From the pastor to the elder to the admin to the children’s ministry to the greeters – we all have our stuff and it’s a filter we deal with every day.
So sometimes, when I’m talking to someone who I feel is ignoring what the Bible actually says or how the Bible actually says something, my tendency is to think of 10 reasons they might see it differently than I do and never once realize it has everything to do with their mental health and the conditioning they’ve received in their family system over decades that compels them to ignore certain things in order to maintain their status in their primary group.
Worse, I have to deal with their claim to a greater intellectual understanding when I’ve come to know that it has everything to do with the mess of a family system that has conditioned their response.
I think this is one of the reasons I love recovery and the Steps so much. It never suggests we’ve arrived. You don’t “do” the 12 steps and then you’re done. You enter into a new way of living that acknowledges that but for the grace and love of a Higher Power, you’re a mess and we are engaged in an ongoing process of recovery. The goal isn’t finishing, the goal is to take one day at a time, acknowledge my shortcomings and my need for daily help – from God and from the beloved community. And little by little I receive the promises of what a life lived in Love will provide to me.
People are complex. Gregory the Great realized this back when the Church was still in her hundreds. His book on a pastoral rule intends to give practical answers to common human issues but more importantly paints the very clear picture that working with people in the Church is never a “one size fits all” situation. My normal and your normal are often not the same normal. The glasses through which I view the world are not the same glasses everyone else wears and if I’m going to spend my life walking alongside people as we journey toward Jesus, I have to own my baggage, explore it, be vulnerable enough to share it with trustworthy others and know that we all come with a special surprise inside.