A recent blog post by Philip Wagner on "The Secret Pain of Pastors" has created some good--and really necessary--conversation about the challenge of pastoral leadership today. I'll add my two cents with a few re-posts of blogs I wrote after the NY Times ran a similar article in 2010. These posts were written right at the time that I started coaching pastors and working on a book on leadership development. Today, after 200 conversations with pastors, I'm more convinced than ever that there is a clergy leadership crisis that is only increasing.
In the Greek myth, Narcissus dies of starvation. Cursed to fall in love with the next face he sees because he cruelly hurts another, he sees his reflection in a pond, falls in love with his own image and can’t pull himself away—even to eat or drink. Continually ‘feeding’ the adoration of the image, he never eats and dies.
Today, the debate over what “causes” narcissism is filled with as many varied voices as there are experts. But almost everyone agrees on this: Pastoral ministry is rampant with narcissistically wounded people. We clergy join politicians, entertainers, and business leaders in this category. And I want to suggest yet another cause for the “burnout” we see amongst clergy: We are actually soul-starved.
The projection of others onto our roles, the requirement of being constantly “on”, the necessity “wooing” people who are growing more disinterested and resistant to our messages, and the stress of living professionally and personally in the “family-system” environment that is the church feeds our images and starves our true, whole, authentic-to-God selves.
To be clear, the popular description of the narcissist as the self-absorbed, “me-centered person” actually misses the deeper, more painful reality. Most narcissists are themselves wounded souls, who for whatever reason need to defend against our insecurity or fear of abandonment. As Peter Steinke describes it, “Outwardly vain, the narcissist is inwardly impaired. “
We gravitate to the limelight, because that is where we have found that we get the affirmation and affection that we all need. Whatever the complex circumstances, (and every one of us has a different story with differing degrees of woundedness), most of us grew up in environments where we were praised and affirmed when we were “on” and felt ignored or rejected at least in part for our true selves. We pastors, as Henri Nouwen said, are all “wounded healers” and that in one way, this is how God works in our lives to redeem our brokenness—by letting us use our pain to minister to others.
But when this broken place in our lives is denied or rejected; when we stay stuck in our lack of self-awareness, (some think the word “Narcissus” comes from the Greek word for “slumber” or “numbness”) we create and continue a pattern that feeds our images but ignores the needs of our true, wounded, selves.
For Steinke, when unexamined and unacknowledged, this creates a cyclical pattern of relationship between a pastor and congregation The narcissistically wounded pastor requires the congregation to ‘supply’ affirmation, and the congregation, enthralled by the giftedness, insight and spiritual magnetism of the leader feel themselves to be ‘special’ and so keep supplying the pastor's ego needs.The dynamics of narcissism revolve around the lack of self-knowledge.
So one person remains intoxicated with all the praise and adulation he manipulates from others, and the others are enthralled to be associated with someone larger than life. Those who function narcissistically do well so long as they have people who adore them. But some can be so insecure inside that they must ensure their specialness with more and more admirers. They thrive on the ecstasy of numbers.
As a pastor, I have spent the better part of the last twenty-five years figuring out what really feeds me, what really nourishes my soul and what is little more than “swooning” over my image. When I raise my hands in worship, all stand and give me attention; when I speak they listen in rapt silence, when I finish a good sermon, people line up to tell me that they LOVE me. (When was the last time you told your plumber, lawyer or financial advisor that you LOVED them for doing their jobs.) But if I spend my life getting nothing more than the love that is projected on my role, I will not just burn out and fade away, I will die vocationally.
Even worse, the problem with the language of “burnout” is that it actually feeds the image we need to resist. We live in a world where people admire those who “give their all”, who “leave it out on the field”, who give a “110%”. But if we could become more aware that we actually starving ourselves we can choose to take responsibility for our own soul-nourishment.
To that end, let me offer some steps and some resources that I use and suggest for my pastor friends that I partner with, mentor or coach.First, admit that, if you are feeling soul-starved, very likely you have fallen into the trap of trying to get the love and affirmation you need from your image or role rather than for your deepest, most authentic self. It will be easier to do this if you know that you are not the only wounded soul in the pulpit, so, start by doing a little reading. Read Susan Howatch’s Glittering Images, or Henri Nouwen’s Wounded Healer and embrace that at least in some small way, our issues soul starvation are really about our feeding a real need in the wrong way.
Second, try to become more self-reflective, more “awake” and pay attention to how often we go into a numb ‘soul-trance’ when we are in our roles. Specifically, try to become aware that every time that you get a “charge” from serving in your role, you are very likely at that moment, being drained, not filled. What you really need in order to serve the congregation and the people
in your life in a healthy, enduring way, can only come out of the
limelight, in the moments when you are most authentic, real and
vulnerable, open to God in truth and to those who see beyond your role
to your self. In order to lead, you need allies and partners in the
church, but in order to thrive most pastors need friends who don’t need
them to be “the pastor.” Read Ruth Hailey Barton’s Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, or Leighton Ford’s The Attentive Life. And then...
Third, intentionally build in structures and relationships that attend to your whole self. If the soul, as it is best understood biblically, is the ‘enfleshed spirit’ of a person, then what we need is MORE attention to ourselves, not less. That is our real selves and not our roles. I have found, that I don’t just need vacations to get a break, I need them to get out of the spotlight and enjoy the restoration that comes from being with a family who loves me and old friends who have no investment in my role. I need to hike and ski and run and engage my body in ways that both challenge me and for which I get no “public” affirmation (I am NEVER going to win my age group in a marathon, I am not exactly built like a Kenyan.) When I spend time in nature, I get reconnected to the reality of a world that is much bigger than me and in which I am a very small part. When I travel I become more aware that the world really doesn’t revolve around me and that is not only very good news, but a genuine relief. In addition, I have spent the better part of twenty years off and on in therapy and why even as I coach pastors, I have my own coaching group and covenant group to continually pay attention to the ways that I can fall back into numb, soul-starving patterns of feeding my image and not my self.If we re-frame burn out as soul starvation, then we realize that with the right fuel, we can probably keep doing ministry for a long time. Unlike a withered branch that burns up, we are actually capable of being re-nourished and re-fueled. If we can continually attend to our souls, then maybe the flame that consumes us can actually be for us and for many, a good flame that lights the way for a good long life of ministry.