Peril: toils and snares of ministry

A church, synagogue, cathedral, temple, mosque, or parish can be a dangerous place. In the Protestant tradition, there is a well-known song with a comforting line: “Through many dangers, toils, and snares, we have already come….”1 We sing it with gusto—never suspecting that the toils and snares may lurk within the religious institution itself.

Uninformed interactions with unhealthy parishioners or dependent congregants can be hazardous. The mechanisms of projection, transference, and countertransference can operate without our conscious knowledge and impact our ministries for better or worse. Compassion fatigue or self-depletion takes an alarming toll on religious professionals and thins our ranks each year. Dysfunction in the three families of a religious institution (the pastor’s own family, the church as a family, and the individual families within the church family) can wreak personal havoc on the pastor her or himself. Pastors need to be smart, know their limits, and be aware that, just like families, the church can be dysfunctional. In addition, ministry is fraught with depressed, lonely, angry, and grief-stricken people who will affect the pastor’s own health and also the faithful living of others in the church. With so many obstacles, how can we gracefully navigate the perils of parish living?

Ministers as Endangered Species 

Pastoral care and counseling is becoming more attentive to its preventive function. In other words, while maintaining its focus on reacting to crisis and to need, it is also developing an attentiveness to proactivity and to prevention of crisis and need. Pastoral caregivers are much more vocal on care of the self, including themselves. No longer is the injunction that Christ gave in Luke 10:27 shortened to stop at “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor.” The injunction is now fully developed to include the message to “love yourself.” The good Samaritan has become a paradigm for these three loves; more ministers and pastors now delegate responsibilities to the inn and the innkeeper without guilt! More  finish their journeys, while balancing care of the other and care of the self. More feel free to spend a night of refreshment and rest in the inn! 2

Elephants in the Church

Dr. Mary Lynn Dell, psychiatrist and theologian, and I, minister and professor of pastoral care, combined our years of training and expertise to write about perils in ministry. The Elephant in the Church: What You Don’t See Can Kill Your Ministry is designed to proactively address the issue of ministers as endangered species. “A church, synagogue, cathedral, temple, mosque, or parish can be a dangerous place. As mentioned earlier, the hazards often lurk within the religious institution itself. In fact, these perils may be so obvious, they are like ‘elephants’ standing in the fellowship hall, sanctuary, pastor’s study, or any room in the church. The word elephant stands for an obvious truth or issue that is ignored or unnamed, yet allowed to occupy a large amount of space in the minds and hearts of those that tiptoe around it. The ‘elephant’ squats in the fellowship hall, yet we put the punch and cookies in the corner and carry on light conversation as usual. The ‘elephant’ lumbers around the sanctuary as we worship, yet we try to ignore it and concentrate on the sermon—which, of course, does not mention the ‘elephant.’ It is hard to stay focused in the pastor’s study, because the ‘elephant’ distracts us from what we really want to say. We keep denying there is a problem with the ‘elephant’ occupying the church because it would upset the way we have all learned to cope and squeeze around it. We guard the children and elderly from being stepped on by the ‘elephant,’ all the while remembering how we have been hurt by its presence.”3

“Elephants” in the church are not physical or fictional animals; rather, they are larger-than-life issues that loom in our midst. They can be as varied and as complex as the fictional (Dumbo) and actual (Jumbo) examples that I have given. Elephants can be innocuous; they can be entertaining; they can be deadly. In the church, they can be used in warfare. The purpose of our book is to learn to identify “elephants” in the church and to lead them out of the sacred space. To do this, you will become an “elephant rider,” one whose leadership skills can sensitively and appropriately maneuver the elephantine issues that threaten to trample the life of the church. Pastoral care, then, is not only herding the sheep to green pasture and still waters; it is removing the elephants that may hinder the health and safety of the church—and the minister as endangered species!

1 “Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound” by John Newton, 1779.

2 Jeanne Stevenson-Moessner, “A New Pastoral Paradigm and Practice,” in Women in Travail and Transition, eds. Jeanne Stevenson- Moessner and Maxine Glaz (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991), 199–212.

3 Ibid., xiii.

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