10 května, 2015

Pastors, Missionaries and Helper Syndrome

German psychologist W. Schmidbauer, in his book “The Helper Syndrome”, defines four dangers that tend to emerge for those in the helping professions. I would venture to add that similar dangers arise for pastors. Hopefully the readers will forgive me for not trying to present a different typology from the Bible for each example. I have seen such attempts in some “Christianized” versions of psychological tests, and they seemed to me to be fruitless and simply splitting hairs.

1. Sacrifice to one’s calling. This occurs when one’s professional identity encroaches upon one’s personal life and, as a sacrifice to his profession, he surrenders himself over to his professional role. In simpler, human terms, it is about a pastor needing to be always available and realizing that wherever you are, you are a “representative of the Church” and even of God. When you get together with someone from the congregation, just for the sake of getting together, it becomes a “pastoral talk”. The ideal is to have your whole family serving together—your wife and children. Many pastors live in a parsonage right in or next to the church building, which itself implies that their whole life should be taken up with their work and their calling. Just imagine for a moment that you lived in the same building as your company… Now, I know the church is not a business, but there’s the rub! It’s all about how pastoral ministry isn’t really work, but in actual fact it is. From the perspective of spiritual health, it is necessary to distance oneself from one’s work, but in this interpretation of pastoral ministry, this doesn’t really apply—not if you live at the parsonage. When I have spoken with pastors, some of them have told me that in their free time they like to get out into nature because they can meditate better there, or that they are looking forward to their vacation because they can finally read some good Christian books. Some like to run because they pray better when running, etc… I don’t at all doubt that what they say is true. I am just wary that it can lead to an unhealthy marriage of one’s ministry and personal life. Finding some kind of balance, however, is not easy… A strong point of this approach is in its humanness and focus on relationships; the weak aspect is a lack of boundaries protecting oneself and one’s family—the loss of the ability to rest and step back from one’s ministry/work.

2. The “helper” who compartmentalizes. This is the other extreme: a sharp distinguishing between one’s profession and private life. In this approach, you fiercely guard your privacy. You clearly lay out for your congregation or organization what you will and will not do; people know when they cannot or should not call you. You regard your ministry and work above all as a source of income. You basically protect your family from the congregation or organization; your spouse regards your job as any other kind of employment. When you are “at work”—that is, in the pulpit or talking to people—you act differently than you do in “normal life”. You basically live in two worlds—professional and private. You erect clear boundaries for those to whom you are ministering. Although you know that working with people is difficult and hard to classify, you operate according to clearly defined priorities and goals with the attitude that, if someone wants to join in, he/she will join in; whoever doesn’t want to, can look for another church, denomination or organization somewhere else. Perhaps the strength of this approach is being goal-oriented and having clearly defined boundaries. The weakness of it, on the other hand, is that people can fall through the cracks, and it seems very bureaucratic, distant and sometimes hypocritical (I am different at work than I am in real life).

3. The perfectionist brings parts of his professional role into his private life in the form of burdensome ideals. As a pastor, you are constantly proclaiming ideals of how things should be. Not long ago I came across a test which was being administered to future pastors in a certain denomination. The test took several hours, several people take you through it, and on the basis of the results, it is decided whether or not you are qualified to embark on the path to becoming a pastor. The test is really well done; although, at the same time, I was drawn to how high the standards are here—standards in basically every area of life—from private to professional. I look forward to meeting someone who has passed the test…I certainly wouldn’t. Not that I have anything against tests or anything against ideals. I simply want to point out the following: if we know that we are fallible sinners, then unless one is completely hardened, we somehow also have to ask the question of whether or not we are practicing what we preach. We can find, of course, some who don’t burden themselves with such questions, but let’s leave them aside for the moment. These ideals can become a burden to some, or some may have to push aside some of these struggles. In short: Can a pastor or missionary doubt the existence of God? Eternal life? His/her salvation? God’s faithfulness? …? If I answer yes, then the question remains of how I can pass on hope to others! How can I prepare them, for example, for baptism? If the answer is no, then I am reminded of the following quote by Philip Keller: “A faith without some doubts is like a human body with no antibodies in it.” How to solve this dilemma? Surely there are pastors who do not doubt, but what about those that do? Or perhaps they don’t doubt, but they do not live out the ideals they preach. They try, but somehow they can’t. A strong point of this approach is honesty and integrity, trying to apply what is preached and proclaimed. The weak side of it is a paralyzing conscience and loss of the awareness that all is grace.

 4. The pirate. This last approach has no strong point. This is about using professional opportunities to build and control relationships for one’s own personal, private ends. When I wrote an article some time ago about the wrong approach to discipleship, I received dozens of testimonies from people who had been abused by pastors. These people had come to faith, opened their lives to a “spiritual authority” and then things began to happen which some could not recover from even after many years. As a pastor, you can (but don’t necessarily have to) learn a lot of very personal information about someone which can be used to help that person, but also can be misused. It is certain that the one who has information has power. And power can help, but can also destroy. People expect advice, and you can use that to help or to harm. Sometimes you come to a source of money. In other words, “you can lead or have a share in the financial leadership of the church” which sometimes is subject to very weak accountability and can lead to temptation. It is said that pastors (and not only pastors, but any kind of leader) come under three temptations—sex, money and fame. There is something in that. Many withstand the temptation, but… To be honest, it seems crazy to me when pastors take control of, or are too involved in, the finances of the church, when they lack close friends around them who speak to them calmly and out of love when they have done something stupid (I emphasize the word “friends”; when someone who doesn’t know me says it, it can be an insult), when they spend too much time with those of the opposite sex, and when their work is not held accountable to anyone.  But some choose to do their own thing, and you know what is often the rest of the story. In any case, pirates do turn up sometimes, and thus it is necessary to write about such things.

Nothing I have described is an absolute. At the same time, however, we or our pastors and leaders may be inclined to one of these approaches. The goal of this short overview is to see and name these tendencies, because we can solve what we have named. I know it would have helped me, if years ago I had known about similar things, because I would have been better able to deal with some of my own feelings and struggles.


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