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Tod Bolsinger Offers Wise Insights on Pastors and Their Souls

By Mark D. Roberts | Friday, April 9, 2010

A couple of days ago I posted excerpts from a recent letter of John Piper to his congregation. In this letter, Piper explains in strikingly honest terms that he is taking an eight-month leave of absence from his pastoral duties in order to focus on his marriage and his soul.

Today, on his blog, It Takes a Church, Tod Bolsinger offers some reflections in response to Piper’s letter. Tod, the Senior Pastor of San Clemente Presbyterian Church in Southern California, has some very wise things to say about pastors and their souls. I’d strongly encourage you to read the extended excerpt below, even if you are not a pastor.

Here’s what Tod writes:

I once was part of a leadership group with renowned CEO Max DePree. Someone made the comment about how hard we pastors work and someone else chimed in that pastors work harder than anyone. Max wisely and calmly chided us, saying that from his experience pastors don’t work harder than any other executive or mid-level manager in most companies he knows.  I wholeheartedly agree.   I don’t travel nearly as much as most of the men my age in my congregation. And while I work hard, I also get lots of support to balance family and personal time with work time. (I am even taking a few days off this week to recuperate from Holy Week.)

However there are two ways, that both collude very negatively and demonstrate how pastoral work is at least a bit more COMPLICATED than other professions.  And it is that complexity that is potentially very dangerous to souls, relationships and, yes, ministries of pastors and other Christian leaders.

1. We work in what Ed Friedman calls “an emotional field”.  That is that our work, by it’s very nature, is work that demands that we constantly negotiate and monitor our own emotional issues while at the same time navigating the emotions and anxieties of other people and the church system.  We not only preach, teach, lead, administrate, counsel and consult, we do it while also attending to the emotional health of the church system, tending to (mostly unspoken) projections and expectations  of a community that is by nature filled with confusing boundaries.  The church is a “family” and a “business” at the same time.  People want us to be both “professional” and “personal”.  We get criticized for not knowing everything there is to know about the mystery of God and not knowing every person’s name in our congregation when we run into them at the grocery store.  Our congregation is both our “customer” and our “client” and our “partners” and our “bosses” all at the same time.   Again, we don’t work harder. It’s just really complex and emotionally really demanding.

2. Ministers are very prone to confuse our “self” with our “roles”.   In our “roles” we are admitted into the holy ground of people’s personal lives and literally into every setting in the church life. (And in the church itself: I  have a coveted “#1 key” that can open every door in our church. An apt symbol for the role of a pastor.)  We are often asked to pray at OTHER people’s family gatherings, we get welcomed into hospital rooms that even family members can’t go in.  People trust us with family secrets. I can walk into any meeting, any classroom, any conversation on the patio at our church and they will literally stop what they are doing to welcome me and listen to whatever I want to say.  But that is because I am the “PASTOR”. (”Tod” can’t do any of that. Because when I try that at home, my 13 year old daughter says, “Daddy, you’re interrupting!” )  And the respect and affirmation we get as pastors is heady stuff and often in great contrast to the “normal” lives we live outside the pulpit and away from the congregation. As a pastor, when I preach a sermon, people literally tell me they “LOVE me.”  And I think, at that moment, they really mean it. When God works in people’s lives, they genuinely feel something of love toward the messenger.  And since most of us who go into ministry do so as “wounded healers” who are working out their own brokenness, it is really tempting for ministers to work out their personal foibles in the church setting and neglect their emotional, relational and spiritual lives.  It is very tempting to believe that because others are being saved, sanctified and comforted through you, that you MUST really be as secure, holy and solid as WISH you were.   Most Christian leaders problems come from confusing the “role” that God gives us and equips us to play with the “self” that is always in need of grace, community, and truth to be whole.

We pastors must indeed bring our real “self” to our roles, but we must keep clear that we are NOT our roles. We are children of God in need of discipline by our heavenly father, we are spouses and parents and siblings and friends.  We are saints in need of sanctification and sinners in need of forgiveness.  We may pray eloquently and preach passionately, but we also snore and swear and have hurt feelings and very humble foibles and fears.  If we only play the role all the time, not only do our families and relationships suffer, our souls will die, too.

In the famous story, Narcissus is cursed for being cruel to another. The curse is that he will fall hopelessly and helplessly in love with the next face he sees.  He sees his own face in a reflection in a lake and then can’t take his eyes off of his own reflection, so he sits by the lake pining in sadness until he dies.  We tend to think of narcissists as ego-maniacs who “love themselves”.  But as the best psychology will tell us, narcissism is a wound that comes from not getting enough love and care for our “real” selves.  We narcissists (and pastors are in the same category with actors, politicians and business executives here) are those who have learned to get affirmation for our “image” that we can’t seem to get for our “selves.”  We must never forget that in the myth, Narcissus, dies of starvation.  He can’t pull away from attending to the image in the lake to feed his genuinely hungry self.

Thanks, Tod, for these wise words.

Topics: Church Life |

2 Responses to “Tod Bolsinger Offers Wise Insights on Pastors and Their Souls”

  1. Dave Moody Says:
    April 9th, 2010 at 2:45 pm

    Brilliant. And true. Thanks Mark (and Tod).

  2. J.Falconer Says:
    April 19th, 2010 at 5:59 pm

    Rev. Roberts & Readers, Thanks a lot for a philosophical view!! I’ve met a few pastors & other “Christians” –sheeps in wolves clothing–more interested in money than kindness and or helping people & saving souls How sad, but true. Paul’s ancient writings & world travels reflect a similiar fate God knows all the individual hearts alive & passed on-people’s character & motives & is only the truly Perfect spirit. It’s disheartening for the true believers–maybe music & the web can help this dilemma. PS Forgive typos & grammar sincerely J


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