Therapy is also valuable for helping pastors unravel the complexities of relationships with people in their congregations. There is a common psychological phenomenon between pastors and church members called transference. Transference is when people re-direct emotions, desires, and expectations from their childhood onto someone else. What this can mean in a church context is that members transfer their childhood issues onto pastors, subconsciously viewing them as parents. A pastor, after all, is an authority figure who speaks to lives and hearts, much like parents, and in some traditions church leaders are even called fathers or mothers. Transference too is a result of unmet emotional needs seeking satisfaction. Even though they mentally and physically mature in a normal manner, those who experienced physical or emotional trauma as children, or were wounded by other unhealthy family dynamics, may find their emotional development arrested or delayed.
I remember the first time I realized that someone in my congregation looked to me, subconsciously, as a parent. Twenty-five years my senior, he was incredibly successful professionally, excelling in everything he tried, exuding confidence and decisiveness. Yet when he was in my presence, he seemed highly unsure of himself, unable to make eye contact, and deferential on every matter, whether we were talking about the Bible or about what kind of coffee to offer during the fellowship hour. Confused and frustrated with his lack of leadership in the church, I took this matter to my therapist, who helped me see that although this man was in his 50s, his emotional age was far younger. With this new understanding, together we worked on strategies for how I could communicate with this man and motivate him to lead in the church.
Transference is dangerous because it happens without conscious thought and it often leads churches to place inordinate expectations on pastors. People hope that their pastors can fill the emotional holes left by their old wounds. They subconsciously want pastors to make up for the mistakes their parents made, to be available where their parents were unavailable, to provide the direction or accountability or compassion that their parents never did. Transference is one reason why church members can take a pastor's failure or resignation so hard. On a primal level, it feels like a parent has disappointed or left them, and they feel vulnerable, scared, and abandoned.
Compounding the issue is the pastor's temptation towards countertransference, allowing ourselves to be caught up in the expectations that people place on us. We can give in and play the parental role, doing our best to meet all of their emotional needs, rescuing them from pain and uncomfortable situations, and masquerading as the spiritual superhero. Or else we can reverse the roles and place our congregations in the position of our parents, desperately hoping to please them and win their praise. In these complex situations, everyone is looking for a parent but everyone is left feeling orphaned.
These are just a few examples of the issues I worked through on the therapist's couch. It's easy to see how the lives and ministries of pastors can be choked by these knots of tangled motivations, relationships, and wounds.We do not have the expertise or the courage to untie these knots on our own.
I'm hopeful that if pastors would commit to unraveling these threads in the safe place of a therapist's office, we could live in the reality that we are being parented and healed by a Father who approves of us and loves us. We could learn to live and serve as we truly are, and not as the person we or others think we should be. That, to me, is the key to joy, freedom, and longevity in ministry.