A Pastor in Therapy

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.

One thing that has emerged for me through the past months is that I have a very strong tendency towards perfectionism, and impose expectations on myself that few others would carry with regard to my work. This means that I cannot leave things alone, that the process of sermon preparation can be protracted, painful, and at times self-defeating, and that ‘switch-off’ is a major problem. This might sound like a hymn in praise of ministry diligence, but that is far from the case. My perfectionism is not a spiritual gift, but a cognitive category that I bring to bear in almost every formal and informal endeavour that I make. If I go for a run I am constantly measuring my progress and performance, if I write an article or poem I need a lot of persuading that it is worthy of production or esteem, and on it goes. There are reasons why this is the case for me, reasons that are unique to my context, but the fact of perfectionism can be a huge problem in terms of knowing when enough is enough, in terms of accurately measuring output, and in terms of accepting when I feel that something is 80% sufficient, rather than always insisting on 100% (or more!).

Some of this might resonate with other Pastors, but that is not the immediate issue. The point that I am making is that our upbringing, our school and work experiences, our wider engagement with our private and public worlds have a massive bearing on how we shoulder responsibility in the work of ministry. If we don’t recognise these, if we are not aware of how these things might drive us or impede us, then we stand to make the same mistakes again and again in terms of how we spend the balance of energy that is in our emotional and physical account.

One of the upshots of this realisation for me is to recognise that my preparation patterns are conditioned by my personality, and must not be conformed to the practices of others. Another is that I have been learning to come to terms with the fact that tasks seldom meet my criteria for acceptability, but that does not mean that they are incomplete or inadequate. I have been jettisoning some of my late night fretting about getting things just right, and have found a liberating sense of application to my tasks simply by relaxing my expectations somewhat. The irony is that such a perspective makes me more productive, not less. Knowing ourselves can lead to the happy discontinuation of some vicious ministry circles.

3. Sabbath makes sound sense
One of my grandest mistakes in the lead up to burn out was my rejection of rest as a vital part of my work. I was staying up late, rising early, and very seldom ever switching off to my work. I wore this as a badge of honour (which, admittedly, I only showed to myself), and felt it to be a reassurance that I was ‘doing enough’. Unknown to me, this behaviour was reinforcing my pride and self-sufficiency, while making ruin of the sabbath principle that God has built into our nature as human beings.

During CBT my therapist regularly advised that I think about the fact of sabbath as a principle that God has given, and that I ignore to my peril and detriment. As Pastors, particularly with the ferocity of ministry demands, we need rest: sound solid rest on a ‘day off’, and habitual rest during the working day. We are no different than anyone else in our constitution, and consequently need the same amount of recharge for our batteries as they do. My non-sabbatical working model was both an affront to the wisdom of God, but also a denial of the grace of God which carries my work for him and makes it effective. Where the Scriptures encourage me to embrace the dynamic of working and resting in God, I was establishing a dynamo mechanism whereby the health and growth of the work of God became index linked to my working hours. This is foolishness, and it is also sin.

Sabbath, or a rest principle, affects so many areas of ministry. It means that my readiness to say ‘no’ to the requests and demands of others must be more resolute. It means that I manage my schedule (apart from pastoral emergencies) rather than my schedule manipulating me; it means that I trust God enough with the tasks that he has given me to do to desist from pursuing them on a regular basis. The history of Israel was punctuated by an unwillingness to let the ground lie fallow for a year, and to close the gates of the city for a day. Bound up in this was a capitalistic streak, but also a self-aggrandising narrative wherein God’s providence was connected to the drive belt of human industry. Breaking God’s directives for the sake of productivity is as sinful as breaking them in the name of leisure. I have learned this, I am learning this, and I will need regular reminders of it.

4. Talking really helps
This was perhaps my single greatest surprise from the weeks of CBT. The course offered no magic wands, there was no Freudian guess work or hocus-pocus, just talking, listening and then learning to deal with my faulty thinking. The use of five-point strategies for managing thoughts and stress, the introduction of quiet times during the day to pray and breathe (I opted for this rather than mindfulness), the recognition of core thinking etc, are only possible through opening up about our lives, our fears, and our mental foibles. The help that my therapist was able to give to me in these areas is testimony to their professionalism, but the process also pointed me to the vital importance of sharing with trusted confidantes on a regular basis.

Pastoral work entails a lot of listening. I recently had an experience at the end of a church service where I literally had two people speaking in each of my ears at the same time, and that can be a metaphor for the privilege and also the pressure that bearing the burdens of others can bring. I would not have it any other way, but I also need to recognise that I need space to process things, and that I need to be open with a select few about my pressures, anxieties, and concerns. I am in the blessed position of having a wonderfully understanding wife, a supportive eldership, and a trusted Associate Pastor, in whom I can confide, but it lies to me to avail of these channels. I am not advocating for the ‘tell-all-to-everyone’ culture that our world would coax us into, but I am also more aware than ever that I am not superhuman, and more importantly that I am no-one’s Messiah. Sharing is no shame, talking can not only be cathartic but genuinely constructive, exposing thinking that I cannot see for myself, and enabling me to hear the wisdom of those who love me and are looking out for me.

5 Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing. I rarely read about Christians describing their experience with therapy. Your article was helpful for me to understand how therapy can work. I can identify points 2+3 as I also often try to do things perfectly and stay up late because of that. May God help me to expect his grace in work more naturally and to call it a day even when you only completed a task at 80% 🙂

    Like

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