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July 1973 · Vol. 2 No. 3 · pp. 79–83 

Am I Preaching or Unloading Personal Problems?

Clarence Labun


John P. Kildahl of New York (The Minister’s Own Mental Health), a psychotherapist with ministerial training and some parish experience, puts it this way, “When personal needs become so enmeshed with the program he espouses that one cannot determine where one stops and the other starts”, one is in for trouble. More bluntly put, when the therapist benefits more than the client from therapy sessions, he should stop charging for the time.

Almost every minister believes he is in the most important vocation in the world, and this is an awesome responsibility. His work is never done. He may not have the status—or elicit the fear of a doctor or lawyer—but expectations are certainly of a high calibre in that his motivations are expected to be more noble, his thoughts more pure, his life more dedicated, and his sacrifices more generous. When his vocation becomes his whole reason for living, and the pastor becomes so identified with his work that he cannot separate himself from it, it becomes the sole source of his emotional security, i.e., the fulfillment of his wishes for prestige, self-respect and respect of society. For anyone so entirely wrapped up in his vocation, any failure in his work becomes an intensely personal failure—with attendant emotional distress.

The danger when he says “I must build the church” may be an emphasis on “I must” rather than “the church”. One might say at this point that the pastor is no longer serving the church.

Here Kildahl suggests the need for non-professional satisfactions. He belabours the point that many pastors think their work so important that it is worthy to occupy their every waking moment. The promotion of the faith becomes their whole existence, so that they eat, sleep, and breathe religion and religious programs, and all the things that make them feel worthwhile are then related to the church program. The suggestion is that the non-professional life be so satisfying that the need to use the church’s activities or people as a means for gaining a sense of well being are not required.

The pastor should feel that he is a decent and adequate person, even when he preaches the world’s worst sermon, has his official board ready to lynch him, and sorely offends the president of the Ladies Aid. If he can be this free from the pressures that surround him, it is axiomatic that he will do a great work in the parish. Kildahl mentions five needs that need to be met in part outside the church program.

  1. A feeling of self esteem and moral worth.
  2. A feeling of being able to cope with one’s environment.
  3. Meaningful interpersonal relationships. {80}
  4. Oral, excretory, genital and motor satisfactions.
  5. A unifying view of life that gives coherence and direction to one’s existence.

One should not put all one’s egg in one basket. If the minister begins to press too hard and he becomes too involved to be objective he suffers personally with every minor delay and the parishioners begin to resent the fact that they are being used by him.


How then may the minister dedicate his life and health to God with obedience and clarity of purpose?

By courageously facing and dealing with the impediments of past and present commitments that obscure his vision of God and understanding of his purpose. Such entanglements may relate to unresolved conflicts with parent figures, siblings, and other personal problems. He may feel limited, bound, isolated, and diverted by confusing the folk ways and traditions of his flock with the purpose for which he is to minister. He may even reject completely the proven ways of functioning of the professionally educated class of people and become overworked, confused, and frustrated to the point of sickness from sheer neglect of the disciplines of the ministry on behalf of a sense of calling from God and a need to have a “chummy” friendship with everybody to whom he has to minister. He may be able to maintain his equilibrium in a small church, but could not become the pastor of a larger group without cutting down some part of his responsibility or by becoming sick or disabled in some way.

When he studies the lives of great pastors and develops an image of “the man of God” which seemed to suit that day, his studies in seminary and the modern setting of the large, usually city church, just do not lend themselves to the same role. Pastoral care and public relations, then, seem to be only some of the duties he may be called upon to fill.

He may find himself “turning professional” in a secular definition of the term and neglect the distinctly pastoral purpose in his life. To maintain his ideal he may have to recognize his work as both pastoral and professional, participating as a man who has his commission from God and as one who has grasped the treasures of empirical science to fulfil this commission.

The healthy minister, in other words, is one who can bring things both old and new from his treasure, see the relation between them, and through prayer and discipline cause them to glorify God in the love of his neighbour.

There are two sources of weakness here.

  1. His flock may expect the minister to know more about his role than they do, while the minister may expect them to work for him.
  2. The “chummy” kind of minister tends to reject the distinctly spiritual content of his role and is left to face the demands of the role with no more resources than if he had never been ordained.

How can these weaknesses be overcome? Well, by teaching his flock what to expect. The pastor is not overworked by the many things he does, but because he does not know how to plan his time for the things that he uniquely can do. What may the flock expect?{81}

  1. That the pastor will pass opportunities for the “limelight” around to others—younger ministers, other workers in the church, and so on.
  2. He will learn more than one pastoral resource for meeting people’s needs, e.g., he may decide between a visit, a telephone call, a letter, or a group meeting. He may choose five half hour conferences with one person rather than a whole afternoon at the expense of his sermon preparation for that night. He may draw on the resources of professional or business people in his community, and so help to bring the “love of God and neighbour” to those who need it.
  3. In order to maintain directness it is necessary to stay in control of one’s feelings. There is the danger of becoming hostile, resentful, uncertain and guilt ridden. The first lesson here is to get the church to support the minister by a salary and not through private gifts. The second lesson is to be aware of his hostile and guilty feelings and channel them toward justified and worthy targets even in the presence of authority figures. He must cease to waste his ammunition on small and unworthy targets, and maintain his sense of humor in the presence of darker feelings.
  4. He may work through his hostilities with a group of other ministers or professional people.
  5. He will learn best to practice directness and to express his true feelings in his own face to face encounter with God in prayer. Dr. Wayne E. Oates, from whom much of this material is taken, says that the Psalms have been of lasting help here because they help articulate the inmost strivings. If some hyper-pious scribe had been allowed to edit these out of Scripture some of the chafings of spirit, the blazings of anger, and the direct challenges of the spirit would never have found words before God.
  6. The minister must keep himself from becoming stuffy by attending elsewhere than in a religious atmosphere sometimes. Jesus was the friend of publicans and sinners. He learned their language from them, and not in the temple. A Christian must seek those outside the church not just for their good, but for his own. Thus he stays in touch with life and human need.
    He may benefit from “upgrading” in a setting other than the theological. Vacation time may also be useful for this.
  7. The minister must know what he is getting paid for. He cannot escape a burden of guilt if he does not know what he has been hired for and if he does not do his duty. Certain groups and individuals must not take away all his time so that he can not tend his flock.


Immature behaviour on the part of a pastor is often indicative of deep-seated emotional problems. Lack of trust, doubt, guilt and lovelessness are very basic faults that may reflect developmental deficiencies in early childhood. These may be considered to be spiritual deficiencies, but have been well described by Erik Erikson in the psychiatric sense as defects in development of trust, autonomy, and initiative in interpersonal relationships. Tournier, in his book The Person Reborn gives some background to this description in the chapter “Technology or Faith”. He states that there are some whom technology seems unable to reach, and on the contrary, there are some who have been greatly helped by technology {82} and have then been able to receive faith and hope. Furthermore; technology has been of great help in understanding the Christian ministry of soul-healing.

Bovet says that, “Anxiety finds its sustenance in the past, its occasion in some physical weakness in the present and its specificity in fear of the unknown future. It is the job of psychological technique to explore and liquidate the past, that of physical technique to rectify the present, and that of faith to illuminate the future with the assurance of God’s love.”

For example, a person may be dominated by an unconscious complex and be blinded in his consciousness of it. He is unable to see his wrong behaviour in those, areas ruled by his complex. He may display unbridled aggressiveness and have no conviction of sin on account of it. He will be unable to see that it contradicts the brotherly love that he believes in. He may be cured a) by a spiritual experience that suddenly opens his eyes, brings a conviction of sin concerning his aggressiveness, and leads him to recognize the complex which is its cause. On the other hand b) he may be cured by a psychological treatment which makes him aware of his complex and from there he may come to a realization of the aggressiveness that flows from it, and to see that this aggressiveness is a sin which he can bring to God and give up. Technique has here brought about a result that is spiritual.


Some clergymen consciously or unconsciously exploit their profession to satisfy childhood needs for attention. Children who are insecure or lack affection endeavor to obtain these things by attracting attention to themselves. We are familiar with the child who makes a nuisance of himself by “showing off”. But as the child grows, he is usually able to satisfy his needs for affection and security in a way consistent with his stage of development. Of course, other men may also suffer from immaturity and depend on “status prestige” to bolster their ego. Such men often have a need to be authoritarian and depend on their admirers for inner security. Other signs of immaturity are the constant threats and hostility that some pastors manifest in their preaching. A pastor may think that he is trying to warn the evil doer, and be unaware that his motive is not love but anger. Closely related is the “suffering” minister. The unconscious seeking after suffering has been termed masochism. Its roots are said to be in early childhood, when the child could not obtain attention or gratification except by rough handling or punishment. This may become a self inflicted handicap that has no relationship to the genuine love for God. Those who make unusual sacrifices may be experiencing infantile needs for punishment which are not due to obedience to righteousness but have emotional implications. This may also be the root of asceticism.

A minister who is excessively rigid and unable to acknowledge the possibility that an opposing viewpoint has validity may be revealing fear and insecurity. Maturity implies flexibility and the capacity to modify one’s point of view. Men—take note. It is not only a woman’s prerogative to change her mind, but sometimes a sign of mature thinking.

A particularly vicious fault is that of projection to impute one’s own character disturbances or deviations upon another person. Jesus talks about that in the sermon on the mount when he refers to the splinter {83} in the other person’s eye. The beam in one’s own eye had escaped detection. A rule of thumb is to note that what we hate in others is often most threatening to ourselves. Jesus also said, “Judge not, that ye be not judges.” Inability to forgive is a sign if immaturity.

A terrific pace may reveal a desire to atone for conscious or unconscious misdeeds. Guilt and repressed anxiety may be found in such persons. Occasionally there may be frustrations or disharmony in the family. There may be a compulsion to be a leader and to prove that at least in the parish and community one is an acceptable and needed person.

Jesus was aware of these things when he mentioned the proverb in Luke 4:23, “Physician, heal thyself”, to the people of Nazareth. He was unable to do acceptable work in that town, and had to go elsewhere to receive a hearing.

May God help us to work where he has placed us.

Dr. Labun, until his death in 1972, was a psychiatrist at the Eden Mental Health Centre, Winkler, Manitoba. This is the text of an address he gave at the Ministers’ Course, Mennonite Brethren Bible College, Winnipeg, Manitoba, in 1972.

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