By Sue Magrath | Sacred Mountain Ministries

We all have it—that area of vulnerability, the Achilles heel which we hope will never catch up with us. But it does—sometimes in the most inconvenient times and places. Especially for clergy. What am I talking about?

I’m referring to the emotional wounds of childhood that hang around, lurking in a dark corner of your psyche long into adulthood making you vulnerable to people and situations that stir up long-denied feelings and unhealthy coping mechanisms. Research into the stressors of clergy life has found that approximately seventy percent of clergy come from dysfunctional families of origin. Of those, only one third have ever sought counseling to resolve the issues of that early childhood pain. It should come as no surprise then that life in the church, often with comparable relationships and dynamics to family life, has the potential to open up those old wounds and create new problems.

A clergy friend of mine had grown up with an emotionally abusive father that he continually tried to please, to no avail. He had been in ministry for several years and acquired a D.Min. along the way, successfully leading two thriving congregations, when he was appointed to a church in a different state with a vastly different culture. He was stepping into the shoes of a beloved pastor who was leaving to be the district superintendent of the same district in which this church was located.

Wanting desperately to fit in, to be accepted, to gain the approval of this new congregation, Peter (1) agreed to anything the church asked him to do. He said yes to more than any pastor could possibly accomplish, and in the process, laid himself open to disappointing far more people than he impressed. To make matters worse, when some of his disgruntled parishioners complained to the DS, their former pastor, he failed to support and appropriately mentor Peter to resolve the situation. Peter felt betrayed and rejected, breaking open all the old wounds he thought were behind him.

We all have our kryptonite. No one is immune. You cannot pretend it isn’t there or that it won’t affect your ability to function in ministry.

Fortunately, my friend was wise enough to seek help. He found an excellent therapist who helped him recognize that the dynamics of his family of origin were being repeated in his ministry. He was able to recognize that the coping mechanisms of childhood were not productive in his adult life and needed to be set aside so that healthier behaviors could be developed.

These types of experiences happen all the time in churches everywhere. Another pastor who sought out my psychological perspective periodically told me about a parishioner in his congregation that he was having trouble with. The man was very confrontational and intimidating, which made this pastor want to crawl in a hole. I asked him how this person made him feel, and the response was, “small.” I followed up with a question about who this person reminded him of. He thought for a moment, then with a stunned look said, “He reminds me of my brother.” His older brother had been much taller and stronger than my colleague, very athletic and aggressive. “No wonder this guy gets to me,” he exclaimed.

Once this pastor was made aware of his “kryptonite,” I was able to make suggestions about how to deal with the troublesome parishioner in the future. He did implement those ideas, and the situation began to improve, slowly but surely. Perhaps the advice I gave him will help you as well:

  1. When you are engaged in conflict with a person or group that stirs up uncomfortable emotions or that you realize you are not handling well, ask yourself who this person or persons remind(s) you of. This may reveal an underlying issue that is a remnant of childhood wounds.
  2. If you become aware of unhealthy patterns of behavior in yourself, or if you repeatedly find yourself mired down in the same types of situations over and over again, ask yourself how this pattern is similar to the dynamics of your family of origin.
  3. Once you have identified the connection between the past and present, remind yourself that you are no longer the child you once were and that you now have more resources, both internal and external, in order to learn better ways of coping. Make a clear distinction between the person you are dealing with in the present and the person they remind you of.
  4. Instead of responding with self-defeating coping mechanisms learned in childhood, ponder some healthier, less defensive ways of dealing with conflict or take a class or workshop on conflict management.
  5. Most important of all, process these feelings and behaviors with someone, whether it is a mental health professional, a spiritual director, a trusted friend or colleague, or an accountability group that will treat your situation with gentleness, wisdom, and confidentiality.
  6. Finally, recognize that we all have our kryptonite. No one is immune. You cannot pretend it isn’t there or that it won’t affect your ability to function in ministry. It will. What matters is that you become aware of it and seek to heal from it. Remember that you don’t have to travel that road alone. God will bring companions alongside you to walk with you on the path to healing.  (Check out the BOM Helping Professionals Directory here.)

Photo Credit: “Kryptonite” by Flickr user MYPIXBOX, CC BY-NC 2.0
1. Name changed.

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