Landmines in Ministry: Proceed with Caution

Evelyn M. Forsyth is a family therapist serving on the faculty of the Dept. of Family Medicine, Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario.

We are presently witnessing significant changes in all institutions in our society which are profoundly affecting the way we do things. Some call it a "paradigm shift," a phrase introduced by Thomas Kuhn to describe "the radical change in thinking that follows the change of existing conceptual boundaries." One of the most notable manifestations of this change is the challenge to authority structures and traditional notions of professional relationships. The medical profession, for one, is deeply concerned about these changes, and their impact on the practice of medicine. In a paper delivered to the College of Family Physicians of Canada in Aug.'91, entitled Changing Public Expectations, Dr. Lynn Curry commented on the increase in consumer involvement.

With higher levels of education and the ubiquitous effects of the media, consumers are becoming more knowledgeable about all areas of professional practice. The consumer movement is articulate about the desirability of patients taking an active role and becoming a partner with professionals in the delivery of professional service. This change has enormous consequences for professional practice in all areas. 1

Replace the word "patient" with "parishioner" in the above quote and consider the implications for the practice of ministry. Many might view this as a very positive change, in that it signals a new interest among people in the church to become involved participants rather than passive recipients sitting in the pew, but contributing little else.

However, we need to look a little closer at some of the unique aspects of pastoral ministry, characteristics that set ministry apart from other professions. Changing definitions of pastoral/lay relationships, unless we have the means to respond effectively to them, could well put the professional practice of ministry into a state of confusion, if not crisis. The potential for a serious disempowering of ministerial leadership may, in fact, be a threat to the church at large.

The Presbyterian system of church government is based, formally at least, on an equal balance between clergy and laity within the regional governing body. This works reasonably well as long as the role of the minister holds its own authority. People in the past were generally respectful of the "position" of the pastor, if not always his/her "person." However, with the rise of consumerism, the situation has changed. People are now looking for the "best product" in a congregation as well as in a minister. If they do not perceive they have found the "best product" they will move on to another congregation or alternatively, stay in the congregation, but press for a new minister.

The column "Vox Populi" in the Presbyterian Record, April '96 issue featured an anonymous entry entitled "What I look for in a Church." I assume this column was written with a serious and helpful intent representing the voice of the laity, but its implications for the practice of ministry are worth considering. It expresses a "consumer mentality." A young father seeking a church for his family writes about what he likes in a church and what he doesn't like. There is no mention of this young man's or his family's reciprocal responsibility to the Body." It's a "what's in it for me?" mentality.

Donna Sinclair, writing for the United Church Observer quotes Rev. Allan Lynk, personnel staff for the Bay of Quinte Conference (United Church). "[We expect] certain services from people like doctors or lawyers or ministers. If we aren't happy with our lawyer's work, we find another. But people have a feeling of ownership over the minister, and how the minister should be, which gives them the freedom to attack, pass judgment, criticize." "The culture has changed so much", says Rev. Doug Trask. "Everyone is more outspoken about how they are feeling, not just 'going along with the crowd.' But if tensions develop, the clergy are labeled as the culprits. They are the visible ones." 2

Add to this the unique transference that occurs between pastor and congregation. To many people in the pew, the pastor represents the "authority of God." Dr. Archibald Hart in his seminar presentation, "The Emotional Challenges of Ministry" expands on this dynamic in congregational ministry:

    Wherever you have an authority role, a very specific kind of transference happens. The "role" of pastor, not the "person," but the "role" encourages a complex set of transference reactions. 3

People idealize you and then "transfer" to you their unmet dependency needs that they carry over from childhood. You become the good loving parent they never had. You become "Better than… Purer than… Kinder than… Gentler than… ." The pastor, being the human being that he/she is, will sooner or later disappoint people, who in their disillusionment will begin to turn on their leader who failed to meet their needs after all.

A Search Committee recently met in a local Presbyterian church to list their priorities for a new minister. At the top of their list was: "A person who will meet the spiritual needs of the congregation." At first glance, this looks fine, but look more closely. No human being would be equal to the task, because God alone can meet spiritual needs. The task of the minister is to point people toward this Source. Whether they choose to draw from their Source is beyond the minister's control. "Problems come… from expectations that clergy — perhaps because of their perceived association with God — can do superhuman things…" says Trask. "Congregations can put unreal expectations on the clergy, when there is not a legitimate way for the clergy to respond to concerns without appearing to want to hit back." 4

Dr. Hart warns; "Congregations cannot stand too much transparency, because they [have a need to] idealize you. They cannot relate to you as human… It is not so much you as a person," he says, "but the role you play." 5 When you step out of the role, you immediately start to get into trouble. Things fall apart. The pastor has a relationship of power, Hart maintains. You can only "resolve" the transference by stepping out of the pastoral role, but you do that, he argues, at the peril of the pastoral/congregational relationship. 6 In one-on-one counselling relationships, where transference inevitably occurs as well, the goal of therapy is ultimately to resolve the transference, by enabling the client to begin to assume responsibility for his/her own dependency needs. One wonders how a congregation that transfers its collective needs onto one pastor, can ever grow into wholeness and maturity — if the transference can never be resolved, as Dr. Hart seems to suggest.

Back to the changes that are occurring on a broader social scale. There is a flattening of hierarchical structures with employees and consumers having more and more to say about what services should be delivered and how they will be delivered. Medicine, law, and education are moving to adapt themselves to this shift in consumer demand. "Docs in a box" (drop-in medical clinics), "store-front lawyers" and shopping mall drop-in dentists are here to stay. Dr. Curry suggests this decrease in professional authority offers a chance for the "remaking of the professional model." We should see a decrease in the desirability of the detached professional as a role model, and a subsequent increase in the desirability of the model of a caring, participative consultant. This role model change should result in an increase in the human bond as professional and patient work jointly to achieve an optimal outcome. 7

How do we put Dr. Hart's observation about congregational/pastoral transference together with Dr. Curry's challenge to "remake the professional model" in response to a lessening of professional authority? What are the implications for ministry? In view of a changing balance of power, a shift towards consumer empowerment, we may well have a potentially dangerous combination, given the transference dynamic inherent in the pastoral role. At the point that an empowered laity loses confidence in a professional leader, who has failed to meet their unconscious dependency driven expectations (no one but God can meet the needs of the wounded deprived "child within"), they will begin to move against him/her.

Because the essential underlying problem has not been recognized and addressed, a cyclical, repeating pattern can manifest itself where a congregation moves through one pastor after another, subjecting each successive leader to the same process which as often as not culminates in dismissal. This repeating scenario, says Rev. Linsell Hurd "… can be a by-product of a dynamic going on in the congregation." 8 One minister says he was driven out of his congregation by a couple who had managed to move out not only his predecessor, but ministers as far back as the 1960s. The fact that the congregation pays the minister's salary, and often controls his/her living circumstances, contributes to a deep sense of insecurity for the minister who may have moved his/her family from a considerable distance away to assume leadership in a congregation.

What about the pastoral charge where the pattern is repeated over and over again? That points, Sinclair says, "… to a problem in the whole church family. When the pastoral charge acts like a dysfunctional family, its difficulty may rest within its own complicated web of relationships — not with the minister who has accidentally fallen into it." 9 Edwin Friedman, in Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue describes the church congregation as "…the one non-family emotional system that comes closest to a personal family's intensity." By focusing on the clergy-as-problem, the congregation can deny the very issues that may ultimately harm the entire [church] family." 10 In a dysfunctional family [or congregation], writes Michael Crosby in The Dysfunctional Church, "… roles become identified with persons, continually getting enacted in a rigid, anxious manner; functional family [or congregational] rules distinguish the role from the person, are invoked only when needed, and then in a relaxed flexible way." 11

What lies beneath the conflicts that surface in a congregation? What is the war all about? We need to identify the points of stress in a congregation, and discover how they are affecting the whole. Such a systems analysis of the congregation, however, is difficult to do from within. Pastor and congregation are too closely involved with the situation to see with a clear perspective what forces are at play. Sometimes the situation is just too far gone.

Enter the Presbytery. A commission or inquiry is set up. If a minister, or concerned layperson, does call on Presbytery for assistance, that body needs to be alert and skilled enough to answer, Sinclair maintains. She quotes an embattled clergy person: "Presbyteries need to be more aggressive, more able to say, 'This is not healthy.' Presbyteries need to use rules to discipline congregations as well as clergy. They give lip-service to the idea that the minister is not at fault here." 12 But who is asked to leave the congregation when the problem becomes insurmountable? To settle the matter it's easier to "sever the pastoral tie," even though the problem may well lie elsewhere, among a group of parishioners, for example.

The question is "Do our familiar ways of governing ourselves, our tried and true ways of processing problems, fit this changing social paradigm?" What happens when a movement against a pastor gains momentum by a group of people who believe their spiritual needs have not been met? Often in the "counter-transference" (that is, the minister's personal response to the attack) the minister will take on the shame and the blame, coming to believe that it was, indeed, his/her fault that things have not gone well. At this point, the pastor begins to develop a codependent vulnerability, a gradually weakening, deteriorating condition which can become a "fatal disease" of the soul, and even of the body.

Add the force of sheer numbers in a congregational conflict, and the situation becomes ripe for scapegoating the pastor. Hart suggests the pastor should be willing to be scapegoated, should even expect it. "One of the functions of being a leader," he says, "… is being willing to fulfill that role." 13 Is this part of the minister's calling, that he/she should be "offered up" in response to consumer dissatisfaction, that he/she should take on the blame for perceived congregational failure? What if this scapegoating leads to loss of job, home and income?

I've always believed that ministry was different somehow from politics or sports. When the political leader fails to perform in the polls, the leader has to go. When the team starts to lose, the coach has to go. So when the church is not growing in numbers and the finances are flagging, the minister has to go. Perhaps that is logic, plain and simple. Given the combination of consumer expectations, however, and the belief that one leader should meet the spiritual needs of all members, the potential for ministerial "failure" grows with each new person added to the flock. Neither the political leader nor the sports coach are seen as representing the "authority of God."

Do we need to find new models of ministry that suit the current climate without changing the heart of the Gospel message? It may in fact be true that the change that is taking place, will offer fertile ground, for the development of a model that more closely approximates the biblical notion of the "body of Christ." A question that has loomed large in my mind during 25 years of life in a minister's family is this: "Are the minister and his/her family part of the body of Christ as that body is expressed in the local congregation?"

Personally, I have rarely observed such undisguised cruelty, or such a disregard for principles of natural justice, (or due process) in dealing with disputes, as I have witnessed in certain situations in the church, the (so-called) "body of Christ." The harm in the minister's family at hearing their spouse/parent maligned is a source of deep wounding, and another piece of this growing problem.

A strange thing I have observed about ministers as opposed to other professions, is that they tend to turn on their own when under fire, at least at the presbytery level, if not at a more personal level. Physicians, by contrast, move in to protect a beleaguered colleague, almost to a fault at times. Rules and regulations governing their professional association are weighted towards a physician's right to practise medicine. Any action to remove that privilege becomes a quasi-legal process with a detailed investigation and full rights to representation by defense before the Association's tribunal. Why is it that ministers often fail to support one another in the crunch? Perhaps it is assumed that part of the minister's role is to maintain peace, and to keep the loyalty of their congregation. If they can't, it's their failure and therefore they must move on. Given the complex mix of consumer demand and unresolved transference dynamics, we may expect to see many more ministerial "failures," if in fact they don't become the norm.

Ministers, professional caregivers, often struggle with codependent character traits such as a need to please, a need for approval, and a desire to control and fix things, even if it means sacrificing their own, in order to appease an angry dissatisfied congregation. Presbytery severs the pastoral tie and the minister leaves or appeals the decision to a higher church court or (more are choosing this option) turns to the civil court and charges the Presbytery with "wrongful dismissal." In one Ontario Presbytery, over a period of seven years, there were three pastoral ties severed, one elder removed from a congregation, and a $2,000,000 lawsuit for wrongful dismissal filed against the Presbytery by one of the "severed " ministers. Following one particularly gruelling Presbytery meeting, one minister whispered to another. "I wonder who will be next — you or I?"

Talk to many of our ministers in private, and they will tell you a similar story. Many do not trust one another. Many hate the competitiveness among clergy. They hesitate to risk sharing weakness or vulnerability with one another, certainly not with the Pastoral Relations committee of Presbytery, because the very members of the committee might at some point be involved in a Presbytery Commission investigating a complaint against them, which might lead to loss of job and livelihood. If ministers do belong to pastoral support groups, they are usually (not always, thankfully) interdenominational groups composed of clergy outside the denomination whom they have no cause to fear. With each severing of the pastoral tie, except in clear circumstances of a betrayal to the pastoral trust, the whole of the Presbytery is diminished. Each minister is privately asking him/herself "When will it be my turn? Who will support me when I'm up against it and a complaint is lodged against me?" Trust in one's colleagues is eroded.

Long after the Presbyters return to their own congregations, the wound of a "severed pastoral tie" continues to fester. The pastor leaves via a "bitter divorce" with unresolved feelings which will surface in another congregation. The congregation is left to ponder the question "What happened?" and is often no further ahead since the essential dysfunction in the system, implicating the whole church family, pastor and parishioner alike, has not been recognized and exposed.

The crux of the problem is not that conflicts occur in congregations. Conflicts occur in any healthy group of people, whether family, workplace or church congregation. The difference between a healthy family and a dysfunctional family, is that a healthy family recognizes when it has a problem, confronts it, and moves to resolve it. Disputes are rarely resolved by "severing the pastoral tie" except in extreme cases of immoral, fraudulent or criminal behaviour, when such action is appropriate and necessary. Such action rarely brings people together in a true spirit of reconciliation. We need an alternative mechanism in place, for resolving disputes between clergy and congregation. We need to look for win/win solutions.

Congregations need to become "recovering communities" says Crosby, building honest relationships at a deep level, and resolving problems in a healthy way, as they arise. When family therapists work with troubled families, they look at communication patterns between members rather than the internal pathology of individuals. Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse contrasts unhealthy "addictive" family systems with healthy family systems, placing them on two poles of a continuum. Unhealthy families are characterized by a "no-talk" rule, unexpressed and often unrecognized feelings, unspoken expectations, entangled relationships and control by those in power. In healthy families on the other hand, communication is open, feelings are expressed openly, rules are clear and explicit, and individuals are respected. There is an open-minded, trusting, loving climate that encourages individual creativity and growth. 14

What can we do for congregations in the throes of dysfunctional dynamics? We most certainly need new ways to resolve disputes that will create healthier, more loving ways of being together. A crisis in a congregation, in fact, because of the instability it generates, can offer fertile ground for constructive change and new healthier patterns of relationship to emerge. In this sense, the crisis becomes the opportunity. There are significant developments within the larger community that could be usefully applied in the church context.

Dr. Scott Peck has pioneered some ground-breaking work in the "technology" of building healthy communities. In The Different Drum, he describes the process that any group of people must go through, he believes, to build genuine community. A high level of interpersonal honesty is required for true community to be achieved. "Genuine community" is characterized by a deep opening among people, a high degree of tolerance, a sense of connecting through attentive listening and thoughtful sharing. People are responsible, patient and "real." True community feels safe. It is energizing, loving, and freeing. However, it takes personal risk and focused effort to achieve genuine community, moving through the stages he describes as: 1) pseudo-community or surface "niceness"; 2) the stage of chaos when conflict begins to rise; 3) the stage of "emptying" when people begin to risk honesty and vulnerability, letting go of their judgments and pre-conceptions; 4) and finally genuine community. 15

Does this not describe more nearly the "body of Christ" as presented to us by Paul in 1 Corinthians? Positive community — building needs to be an integral on-going process within every congregation. The pastor could offer leadership in this area, initiating positive community building strategies and working through conflicts among members on an on-going basis as they arise.

Where conflicts rage out of control and elude the pastor's best efforts to bring harmony, outside intervention may be necessary. Skilled facilitators could go in and work with congregations in a similar manner to the way family therapists work with troubled families. In such interventions the ability the achieve a solution would be the operating assumption. The integrity of both pastor and lay members would be respected, and their mutual right to a place in the "Body" would be recognized.

"The eye cannot say to the hand, 'I don't need you!' And the head cannot say to the feet, 'I don't need you'" (1 Corinthians 12:21). This is not to say that a minister stays forever in one congregation, anymore than a lay person. It does mean, however, that his/her leave-taking is lovingly embraced as a calling from God to new paths of service. The congregation commends their pastor to the care of God in moving on to new responsibilities. This is very different than the pastor leaving in the midst of unresolved conflict and resulting woundedness. Perhaps where bitter wars have been waged, the expectation should be that the rift will be healed and reconciliation brought about before the pastor moves on.

Mediation, or "alternate dispute resolution" in legal circles, has become an area of recognized expertise within the last ten years. Family mediators deal with custody/access disputes; labour mediators deal with union/management disputes. Richard Blackburn, from the Lombardy Peace Centre, has developed a model and methodology for congregational mediation. Some of our ministers have taken his workshops. Consultants trained in this model could be provided to Presbyteries, to offer skilled intervention to congregations in trouble, the goal being to bring reconciliation.

A fellowship of reconciling love bears truth to the Gospel of Christ. Jesus makes a loving fellowship the primary means through which the world will "come to believe." It is fundamental to evangelism and church growth. "Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men (and women) will know that you are my disciples" (John 14:34,35).

"Father, just as you are in me and I am in you… May they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me" (John 17:21).

More than any other characteristic, it is the depth of love in a congregation which will speak to truth-seekers in our towns and cities. People will be drawn by a power they cannot resist. Our love will bear witness to the presence of God's Spirit. This is what people are seeking. If they experience strife and tangled conflictual relationships where "ties are severed" never to be re-mended, they can quite fairly come to the conclusion that the fellowship is not a true Body of Christ.

Let us therefore seek the unity of the Spirit where the Body functions as an harmonious whole, where divers ity of views is honoured and variety of gifts embraced. Let us recognize and affirm our mutual interdependence as our local congregations become true expressions of Christ's body. Let us provide to our congregations the practical means, both pastoral leadership and skilled consultation, where needed, to bring this about.


  1. Lynn Curry, "Changes in Public Expectations," Report of the Board, College of Family Physicians of Canada, August, 1991, p. 1.
  2. Donna Sinclair, "The Persecuted Pastor," The United Church Observer, November, 1994, p. 39.
  3. Archibald D. Hart. "The Emotional Challenges of Ministry," (Session VI. Transference and Countertransference). Ministry Enrichment Conference, Ontario Theological Seminary, February 18-20, 1991.
  4. Sinclair, p. 39.
  5. Hart, (The Transference and Countertransference).
  6. Ibid.
  7. Curry, p. 3.
  8. Sinclair, p. 39.
  9. Ibid., p. 39.
  10. Edwin H. Friedman, Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue, (New York and London: Guildford, 1987) p. 13.
  11. Crosby, p. 101.
  12. Sinclair, p. 41.
  13. Hart, (Session III, Anger and Resentment).
  14. Crosby, p. 101.
  15. M. Scott Peck, The Different Drum, Community Making and Peace, (Simon and Schuster Inc. New York, 1987).