NOTE: This commentary was originally published Sept. 18, 2019, under a different title. Its content is unchanged.
In the wake of prominent evangelical pastor Jarrid Wilson’s recent suicide – and the light it has shed on clergy struggling with issues of identity, anxiety, depression and suicidality – I am reminded of advice I received from a more senior colleague during my first pastoral placement. Namely, that I should manifestly avoid revealing “too much” of myself to the congregation, especially the parts that this minister had deemed “overly political” or “too personal.”
Several years later another colleague recommended something similar when I joined the church staff, mentioning that I might “scrub” or “clean up” anything online (i.e., my social media feed) that might create unnecessary confusion among congregants about who I am.
Eventually, I left a pastoral calling I deeply loved not because I no longer felt called to that ministry, but because I had nowhere to put the incongruity between who I actually was and who the role required me to be and believe and say about some things none of us knows for certain. I realize now that I lacked a good model of how a pastor can be their true self in front of the congregation (not just with other clergy folk at professional conferences) and how they can apologize whenever this self occasionally offends sensibilities and sensitivities, or even how being their true self can be a needed and oft-neglected gift of pastoral presence to other people of faith who don’t get paid to pray.
Later, after becoming a psychotherapist, I was struck by something that sounded familiar – the concept of the professional “frame” that therapists utilize. Beginning therapists are reminded to “keep the frame” whenever political talk bubbles up in session, or when patients ask us direct questions about our personal lives, or when they call on the weekend, or even when they begin offering opportunities for a friendship that extends beyond the bounds of a weekly, 50-minute session with a professional.
“I realize now that I lacked a good model of how a pastor can be their true self in front of the congregation.”
Early in my practice, I had a supervisor (more than one actually, from very different perspectives) tell me to “lighten up” when it comes to being myself with patients. I clearly remember a more seasoned colleague revealing to me that a sign of therapeutic experience isn’t that of a distant expert dispensing pithy wisdom from an expensive wingback, but rather when a therapist is professionally, personally and philosophically congruent. In our world as therapists, congruency is the practice of eliminating as much dissonance as possible between who we are professionally and personally in order to humbly embody the qualities and characteristics we would like to see incarnated in the patients seated across from us.
Therapeutic congruency looks like a professional who says they are going to do something and then does it, or they end a session on time without feeling obligated to wrap up a patient’s complex emotionality, or they remain non anxious in the face of a world defined by scarcity, or they apologize directly and non-defensively when their own flaws are laid bare by an angry patient quaking in the waiting room.
Research into therapeutic best practices bears this out. The authors of a landmark study, The Heart & Soul of Change (2014), note that when therapists are steadfastly committed to client-centered, flexible and empathic care rooted in what the authors call “the therapeutic alliance,” things begin to change for people. What was most surprising about the research was the finding that the modality, training or philosophy guiding the treatment decisions utilized by both psychotherapists and psychologists remain important but largely irrelevant when divorced from empathy, openness to patient feedback about their own care, and the presence and flexibility of a professional who congruently believes in the efficacy of the models employed in session.
“I would love to see a pastor who simply acknowledges that the weirdness of their job often occludes their view of what life is supposed to be like.”
I wish someone had told me as a pastor that the secret sauce to congregational health and long-term fitness as a minister isn’t found in one’s disposition, one’s seminary education or one’s Myers-Briggs type or Strengths Based Leadership profile. Nor is it tied to my own (failing) efforts to hide things about what makes me who I am for fear of offending or “closing off” opportunities for ministry with all people. I wish I had been given a pastoral frame rooted in the belief that helpfulness in ministry only flows from congruency and a non anxious belief that the unique work (and shape of that work) to which a pastor is called is the most important part of being a clergyperson.
I suppose what I’m longing for is the creation of a pastoral frame rooted less in the professional embrace of shame, secrecy and inauthentic divine mastery and more in the practice of empathy, flexibility, openness to feedback (even of the painful variety) and the ability to apologize and admit doubt and confusion – not to the detriment of one’s pastoral self, but in service to it.
Jarrid Wilson was an advocate for just such a pastoral frame, and I believe it was his openness, authenticity and embrace of such a novel pastoral identity that made (and will continue to make) his work such a compelling example of what it means to be human in an inhumane world.
I wonder what it might be like for more pastors to apologize regularly and non-defensively – as a spiritual practice – in order to stay faithfully open to the experiences, needs, ideas and longings of congregations, rather than persisting in more of the defensive, corporate, theologically pure and personally removed professional identities that damage pastors, their families and the churches they serve.
I even wonder what it might be like to see a pastor voice a contextually unpopular political, theological or socio-cultural perspective that isn’t shared by a large swath of the congregation, just to see what might happen. What would it be like if this unpopular opinion was unearthed, not in an effort to close off “ministry opportunities” or to risk “splitting the church,” but to model how one goes about being a living, breathing human who respectfully dialogues and sometimes disagrees with other Christ followers about things none of us can know with absolute certainty.
“Jarrid Wilson was an advocate for just such a pastoral frame.”
Who better than a pastor – a person literally paid (however poorly sometimes) to live in a peculiar way on behalf of a group of people unable to live this way most days – to practice the art of prophetically being one’s authentic self, rather than constantly attempting to be one’s best, most marketable self?
Now that I’m a member of the non-clergy class, I would love to see a pastor who simply acknowledges that the weirdness of their job often occludes their view of what life is supposed to be like – much like the job of the psychotherapist who listens to sad things hourly, for instance. In my experience, the naming of the weirdness, the owning of it, and the occasional lampooning of it, is the first step toward the creation of something truly rare in our day and age, an authentically human relationship between people who are totally at home in who they are even in the midst of a strange environment like a stained glass sanctuary or a therapist’s office.
In the meantime, may we all be kinder, gentler and more patient with ourselves and with others. Pastor Wilson’s honesty remains poignant and true: “I’m a Christian who also struggles with depression. This exists, and it’s okay to admit it.”