By Published On: June 19, 20220 Comments

One wise mentor and brother once gave me this advice.

If you enjoy a counseling relationship too much, get out of it.

This was not only excellent advice for counseling, but for all professional ministry relationships in general. Why? Some reasons may include the following.

  • First, when the boundaries between “friendliness” and “being friends” is professionally broken, one looses a necessary distance for effective accountability;

  • Second, when the source of too much personal enjoyment comes from the church, healthy self-differentiation is severely limited;

  • Third, when the pastor’s personal enjoyment within the church becomes more important than a balanced ministry to the needs and responsibilities of the congregation, two parties will suffer: the church suffers by way of pastoral neglect and the pastor by the loss (or refusal) to maintain appropriate professional protocol and churchmanship;

  • Fourth, a pastor who finds the church as the increasingly exclusive focus for pleasure may consciously or consciously find himself giving the ministry less focus at the expense of his own hedonistic pursuits;

  • Fifth, the ultimate end of a pastor’s path toward personal pleasure is almost certain to threaten his ministry.

Hedonistic Transformation

Perhaps one of the greatest danger of pastors experiencing their greatest pleasures in the church are transformative dynamics that may change something that is simply “enjoyable” to something that becomes compulsively addictive.

Our everyday lives, as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described in his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, have a regular rhythm and rhyme and “warp and woof” to them. When the “flow” is normal, we enjoy the expected pleasures from life in a generally expected, healthy manner.

However, in crises, the flow is interrupted. Some areas of our life which used to give pleasure no longer do. To offset the balance, we place increasing dependence upon those remaining areas which give pleasure.

The degree to which we create unhealthy dependency on certain pleasure areas will be related to…

  • the intensity of the crises,

  • the duration of crises,

  • the number of simultaneous or successive crises experienced,

  • the ability to be able to deal with and resolve past crises in a healthy manner,

  • the degree to which previous crises compound the trauma of present crises,

  • the time span over which the crisis (or crises) occurs; and

  • the strength of coping mechanisms prior to the crises.

The Signs of Danger

As successive unresolved crises accumulate, the number of pleasure sources decline. The loss of such pleasure centers may be unnoticeable to the untrained. Incrementally, little by little, bouts with depression, growing levels of irritability and paranoia will arise. Because a sense that “we can handle it by ourselves” prevails, toleration often precludes necessary professional intervention.

As result, those relationships most essential to our lives become tense, distanced, and uncomfortably–and sometimes almost irreparably–strained.

  • Experiencing the loss of control, an uncharacteristic “lashing out” response for control becomes visible.

  • Experiencing the straining of relationships, an ugly undeserved anger is directed at friends, co-workers and family as the individual responds to an increasing fear of rejection and alienation.

  • Experiencing a mounting–and overwhelming sense–of failure in all areas of life, a “who cares what I do” attitude takes hold putting at risk ministries, careers, marriages, families, congregations, friendships, and even faith relationships.

Any or all of these signs indicate that normal pleasure centers have been interrupted. As individuals in crisis experience pleasure loss in an ever-enlarging sphere of their differentiated activities, an incessant compulsive hunt to find other areas of pleasure may arise. Such “hunt” may be for secretive, forbidden, and or illegal activities (e.g. drinking, sex, drugs, etc.). Whatever the hunter’s trophy, the goal is always the same: to find a substance or activity to give pleasure.

The Compulsive Medicator

Compulsive Medicators are anything, person, or activity which gives an individual (in crisis or dysfunction) a sense of pleasure. Individuals dependent on compulsive medicators have shifted their pleasure seeking from “normal” sources to seeking pleasure (or “flow”) from the compulsive and relentless pursuit of a singular (or very few), activity (or activities). It is the pursuit of these medicative activities or persons that incites hormonal and or chemical substances within the individual, resulting in a medicative effect by which pain is eased and at least momentary pleasure restored.

Activities which Compulsive Medicators frequently engage in may include…

  • Care taking: getting a disproportionate amount of pleasure (e.g. “rush” or “high”) from taking care of people. The greater or the more critical the need for care, the greater the medication value. Caring for the ill, helping those needing assistance, being too willing to help–and take over for–others are some examples of care taking being used as a medicator.

  • Refusing Food: related to food disorders, unusual ability/motivation for weight loss, dieting, etc. The sense of progress in the diet may become an addictive medicator.

  • Acting Out Sexually: giving in to sexual addictions, acting out sexual fantasies–affairs, prostitution, illicit sex, pornography, sexually abuse, pedophilia, etc.

  • Workaholism: though pleasure declines, harder, more concentrated work and longer hours bring a sense of pleasure which, though increasingly less satisfying and more demanding, becomes addictive.

  • Power/Control: Sensing a real or imagined loss of control, such individuals seek the pleasure which normal levels of control had brought them by seeking more of it. Dominance, abuse, harshness, violence, challenges to authorities, and other obsessive controlling behaviors are sought as ways to medicate–and soothe–the compulsive individual.

  • Physical Addictions: (Nicotine, Alcohol, Drugs, Food, etc.) are also among those things and activities which may become the compulsive person’s medicator.

Compulsive Medicators As Signs Of Mental Illness

Any of the above medicators are indications of mental illness and co-dependencies. Unfortunately, they are often unrecognized as signs of mental illness. Perhaps the compulsive medicators most overlooked in the church are care taking and workaholism.

Perhaps it should be no surprise when the hardest working, the most creative, the most dedicated, the most successful, and the most innovative pastors fall from ministry. Their extreme faithfulness, over-zealousness, no boundaries willingness to help anyone at anytime, and their heroic realization of great things for God by working countless numbers of hours in selfless sacrifice may not have been driven so much by faith as by mental illness sustained by compulsive medicators.

Pastors and Churches In Denial:
“Sanctified” Compulsive Medicators

Compulsive medicators such as care taking are often overlooked in pastors and other helping professionals. Not only have these indicators been overlooked in the church, but they’ve been subject to a form of rationalization and denial which “sanctifies” such behaviors. After all, isn’t care taking what faithful pastor are called to do? Shouldn’t pastors set the example of sacrifice in giving up self for others? Shouldn’t pastors get their greatest joy from their ministry of serving God?

Pastors and ministry professionals drawing strength from the compulsive medicator for care taking may also spend many long nights counseling individuals with great joy and satisfaction. Unfortunately, those receiving their services shower these pastors with positive attention, causing pastors to crave more and more of this special medication. It’s then that they may enjoy it too much–and get into grave personal professional trouble.

Or, quite unawares, pastors may find themselves getting enjoyment from helping members or staff. However, when such mutually healthy supportive relationships become “medicative” in times of personal and/or professional stress (i.e. the pastor is unable to cope without the other person’s supportive presence), such relationships may almost imperceptibly metastasize. Such metastatical transformation may 1) evoke a sense of fear or distrust among helping members or staff who do not understand that mental illness has set in; or 2) induce greater degrees of medicative compulsions; and/or 3) increase the potential for other (more destructive) compulsive medicative behaviors and addictions.

For this reason it is imperative for key staff members and leaders to be aware of the symptoms and signs of the onset of mental illness, specifically those which are compulsive-medicator-related before the symptoms cause irreversible, irreparable damage, the consequences of which may last long after the mental illness has been healed.

Much the same could be said for other common “sanctified” compulsive medicators such as “workaholism” and “control/power.” Though adored by members these, like compulsive medicative care taking, are the basic components of vulnerability to mental illness. Indeed, pastors must be careful because their greatest strength can be their greatest weakness and vulnerability to being “sifted like wheat” by satanic workings and events in the life of the pastor and the church.

Given the seriousness–and preventability–of the destructive potential of compulsive medicative behaviors, perhaps some suggestions are in order.

Some Suggestions For Pastors

  • Recognize that if the above characterizes you to any degree, seek professional intervention. You may not be presently running on the fuel of compulsive medicators, but any minister is always vulnerable. Take appropriate steps now to examine self-differentiation, sources of pleasure, coping mechanisms, etc.

  • Recognize that the pressures of pastoral faithfulness and effectiveness can cause a lessening of enjoyment of ministry resulting in mental illness which seeks compensatory compulsive medicators;

  • Recognize that sometimes to care is to let some people fail. Failure, in appropriate measures, can be a great teacher. Don’t intervene unless absolutely necessary (which is very rarely). Let people try, experiment, take risks, fail and succeed on their own. Then celebrate their attempts, give encouragement in failure, and publicly recognize their successes.

  • Recognize that the most healthy minister is the one who “has a life.” Healthy ministers enjoy and receive great pleasure from activities both inside and outside the church. Healthy ministers also can retire with less stress since they’ve already developed outside interests early in their ministry.

  • Recognize that a Sabbatical can be a great thing. Whether for continuing education, marital enrichment, hunting, doing a hobby, seeing family, sightseeing, or just getting away, ample vacation and rest time are important priorities…especially after the busy times.

  • Recognize that the most important Sabbatical is the Sabbatical with God. Extraverts tend not to spend quiet time with God. After all, their life is about action. And with all that is going on at the church, who has time to pray, meditate, and reflect? Just do it! If you take the time to pray, God will take the time to raise up people who can do an hours worth of ministry for each minute with God.

  • Recognize God doesn’t really need you. The Church has gone on for thousand of years without you and will continue until Jesus comes. Even Jesus decided it was OK to leave after 40 days and let the Holy Spirit take care of the rest. So let go of your tight hold on God’s church and let God do as He wants.

  • Recognize that the helping profession is there to help. Consult them, even if you’re not sure you need to. Skilled, experienced and trained counselors can do much to help identify potential mental illness and offer the needed confidential support almost every pastor needs.

Some Suggestions For Congregations

  • Recognize that not enough pastoral calls can be as hurtful to the congregation as too many pastoral calls.

  • Don’t expect Pastor to be “superman.” As gifted as he or may not be, God doesn’t place the sole work on ministry on him; it’s the entire congregation’s!

  • Recognize that pastors can only control outputs; God controls the outcomes. Program failure does not necessarily mean pastoral failure or implementation failure. It simply indicates that God’s plan for the program was to teach, instruct, and equip the congregation to prepare for other ministry goals.

  • Reconsider ample vacation time for the pastor and other ministry staff.

  • Provide ample compensation so that the pastor can afford to take an ample vacation.

  • Monitor the demands of the pastors schedule by doing periodic time studies to ensure balance in the pastor’s ministry. When demands get overwhelming, enlist volunteers or hire additional staff specialists.

  • Invite Pastor to golf or participate in other recreational activities in which you’re involved, especially if you notice that he’s been putting in “too many hours.” Help him to differentiate his activities and encourage him to become appropriately involved in activities/organizations not connected to the church.

  • Give the pastor a week (or weekend) away immediately after the busy seasons of the year (e.g. Advent/Christmas and Lent/Easter). Given the additional offerings that often accompany these times of higher attendance, consider a gift certificate for 2-3 nights lodging in a finer national hotel chain.

  • Recognize that there are many unseen things pastors do for which there are no accolades, some of them may require many hours of the pastor’s attention. Recognize them.

  • Interview the pastor on a periodic (monthly or bi-monthly) basis using three questions:

1. What are the most enjoyable areas of your ministry?
2. What are the most challenging areas of your ministry?
3. In what ways can we help?

Then faithfully follow through with implementation of a plan based on these responses.

  • Have a periodical pastoral support time to regularly brainstorm and explore ways to appreciate and support pastoral ministry in greater and more relevant ways.

  • Pray for the pastor on prayer chains and other organized prayer groups (e.g. prayer partners, secret prayer partners, etc).

  • Do something special for the pastor. For example, surprise the pastor in a board meeting by beginning or ending a meeting with a short, one sentence prayer by each board member which starts, “Lord, I thank you for Pastor ____ because…”. Then, having previously invited the spouse (and paid for babysitting if necessary), go to a nicer local restaurant for a pastor appreciation dinner and/or dessert. Have board members pitch in a couple of dollars each to cover the pastor’s and spouse’s meal.

  • Sponsor a mental health seminar at the church. It may not just be the parishioners who are helped, but also the pastor!

Suggestions For Denominations/Judicatories

  • Develop a staff person specifically charged with overseeing the mental health of pastors. The welfare of the pastor is too valuable to leave up to a committee of volunteers. Direct, frequent, personal contact is needed to adequately monitor and support pastors in their ministry at key times.

  • Develop an accountable network of two-way feedback to track individual pastoral ministries. This may be as simple as an e-mail note that a denominational staff has prayed for that person, to a phone call, or a personal visit.

  • Get to know the pastors in multiple settings. In addition to responding to personal invitations to assist with ministry planning, planned casual visits (lunch, golf, etc). may go a long way to offer support and recognize potential situations which may affect ministry health.

  • Identify and promote appropriately gifted pastors and/or denominational staff in each denominational region who provide various services. Indicate their specialty and have a checklist for each area of supportive services to assist pastors to recognize at what time to seek out such services. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Early recognition of problems combined with timely support may save both a church and its pastor.

  • Develop a peer counseling support network, training pastors to recognize the symptoms of mental illness in other pastors. Identify those pastors whose experience and gifts lend themselves to volunteer peer counseling/support of other pastors. One of the great crisis of the church is that pastors are isolated. In the beginning God said, “It is not good for man to be alone….” It’s still true today.

  • Develop self-help instruments to help pastors assess various aspects of ministry health-related activities such as self-differentiation, casual meetings with other pastors, updates on latest non-church related activities, etc. Such instruments should be sent via special mailings, perhaps prior to a visit by a member of the denomination or judicatory.

  • Look for congregational trends which may indicate changes in a pastors’ situation, especially during the critical years of ministry (especially years 8-12): dramatic changes (increase or decrease) in offerings and worship attendance, completion of building program or other major chapter in a congregation’s ministry, changes in community context, stress in pastors’ families (children reaching adolescence, illness, death, etc), eruption of conflict, etc.

  • Periodically provide suggestions to congregation leaders by which they can support their pastors (cf. “Suggestions to Congregations” above).

Certainly, there are many other things that can be done. Whether pastor, congregational member or judicatory, be sure to enjoy your ministry to the Lord. But let your enjoyment be balanced by the celebration of the many other areas of enjoyment which God gives inside and outside of the church. When circumstances work to take away that joy, take immediate action to recognize and appropriate address the situation before it wears you down.

Thomas F. Fischer

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