The Pastoring Patient
As a clinical psychologist, minister of the gospel, and grandson of pastors on both sides of my family, I am keenly aware of the demand that is relentlessly placed on these special individuals as they seek to fulfill the call of God to shepherd people. Interestingly enough, I also work as an embedded mental health professional in the primary care setting where I experience firsthand the psychological distress of the patients the primary care providers (PCPs) often ask me to see, as well as hear of the compounding psychological stress that comes from PCPs who say “I’m just doing my job.”
I can’t help but ponder, compare, and contrast the work of PCPs and the work of Pastors and am quite astonished at the similarity and overlap in the rigor and focuses of their work. A growing discussion has been initiated in how to help medical professionals, who are our frontline go-to’s when it comes to our natural health and wellness, to prevent burnout. But who is discussing and problem-solving around how to help spiritual professionals (that’s what they are), who are our frontline go-to’s when it comes to our spiritual health and wellness (sometimes even natural health and wellness depending on culture and values), to prevent burnout?
Over time, I have witnessed firsthand (and many times vicariously) the toll that the work takes on Pastors while they continue to work through it to meet people’s needs. Furthermore, I have noticed that Pastors are inclined to feelings of guilt - perhaps due to the weight of their call or the self-imposed standards and rules to which they hold themselves or even the pain and struggle that they sense from family or those closest to them because they are not as “available” as they need to be for them.
Here are a few tips to for Pastors who are feeling more like a patient these days:
1. Understand your own limitations. This will help you to say “no” when needed without feeling guilty.
2. Set firm boundaries with the people you lead. You are their Pastor and nothing more. Although you may want to be everyone’s everything, you should not try to occupy/fill multiple roles for people. Be their Pastor and that’s it. Boundary-setting includes: face-to-face time; phone time; personal disclosures, giving money, and family interventions.
3. Carve out time weekly to engage in non-ministry related activities and communicate with those you lead about the “sacredness” of this time for you. In essence, you will be modeling a strategy that will bring them benefit in their lives as well.
4. Delegate responsibility where you can. Identify others in your congregation (particularly as the congregation grows) who have pastoral gifts and callings, train them, and place them over groups to pastor under you.
5. Seek out a personal therapist. There is nothing wrong, unspiritual, or weak about having someone (particularly someone who understands the nature of ministry and has the training in psychology) with whom you can process, be vulnerable, vent, and from whom you can gain insight and awareness about self. A therapist can provide a fresh perspective, identify barriers to growth, challenge, support, and heal with no complications due to blurred lines, emotional ties, or dual relationships.
I believe that as times change and churches continue to be involved in the business of helping people, neighborhoods, communities, and beyond, a wise church will include in the budget for their leaders not only time for vacation, but offer the ongoing support of mental health professionals as part of their compensation packages as well.