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Why ‘Pastors’ Become Therapists

Several weeks ago I was at The Hideaway Experience doing co-therapy along with another former ‘pastor’ turned therapist. It’s not unusual to find therapists and counselors who were former pastors, but I think that vocational movement is often looked at with a sense of skepticism. That somehow, when a pastor leaves the pastorate to do counseling, they somehow also leave God behind in the process.

But what I am finding to be true in my own life and in the lives of many other therapists and counselors who were former pastors, is that they feel that God is now more alive and present than He ever was in their pastoral work. That is not to say that God was not or is not alive and present in both contexts. But what it does perhaps call attention to is the nature of pastoral work and pastoral identity and what that really means in our contexts, especially the North American context.

Eugene Peterson in his new book and memoir, The Pastor: A Memoir, says this:

“The vocation of pastor has been replaced by the strategies of religious entrepreneurs with business plans…..

I wonder if at the root of the defection is a cultural assumption that all leaders are peole who ‘get things done,’ and ‘make things happen.’ That is certainly true of the primary leadership models that seep into our awareness from the culture—politicians, businessmen, advertisers, publicists, celebrities, and athletes. But while being a pastor certainly has some of these components, the pervasive element in our two-thousand-year pastoral tradition is not someone who ‘gets things done’ but rather the person placed in the community to pay attention and call attention to ‘what is going on right now’ between men and women, with one another and with God—this kingdom of God that is primarily local, relentlessly personal, and prayerful ‘without ceasing.’”

As my friend and I (both former pastors now turned therapists) talked about that night at The Hideaway was the fact that for some of the first times in our lives we felt like we were free to be a pastor. But being a pastor didn’t come for us in the context of the Evangelical American Church, but rather in the mix of intense therapy work with couples who were struggling to put the pieces of their lives and marriages back together. There we were eating dinner with the couples, doing therapy, praying with them, crying with them, celebrating with them…witnessing all that life has to offer.

We felt like pastors.

But in the Church we as pastors often aren’t very pastoral. Instead we spend our time on budgets, on architecture plans, raising money and developing curriculum. All good things but it often pulls us away from what I think Eugene Peterson is describing when he says pastors “the person placed in the community to pay attention and call attention to ‘what is going on right now’ between men and women, with one another and with God…”

Instead of a pastor “paying attention” and “calling attention” to what is happening in a church community’s context, we end up taking on areas of specialization.

For example there is the 45 minute a week keynote speaker (aka preaching pastor). But many pastors who fulfill this role often remove themselves from the role of being a pastor to their people. They make statements and set boundaries that communicate something like “I’m too busy to spend time with you, so don’t expect me to ever come to dinner with you, or email you, etc.” They leave someone else to do the marrying, burying and hospital visits…the very things that make up the daily fabric of life. Perhaps they have removed themselves perhaps from the very act of pastoring.

I just wonder if in the process of specializing ministry positions the very essence of pastor then becomes lost. So now we have to designate someone to do pastoral care…i.e. to do the very things that a pastor does but that no pastor wants to do.

I have been a pastor (by title) for the last 13 years. But over the course of that time I have always struggled with who and what a pastor is. My expectations and the expectations of the churches I worked for were often very different. That is okay. But there should at least be some clarity when we talk about pastors then, because maybe we are all coming at it with different definitions. One way that that clarity manifested itself to me in ministry as a pastor was by the type of books we were recommended to read on staff (business books, leadership books, vision casting book, planning books, strategy books….all okay stuff in moderation, but what happened to the books on pastoral care, prayer, hospitality, spiritual direction, death, etc.?)

The books we read often indicate what kind of pastor we desire and strive to be.

In my 7 years as the college pastor (actually director since my denomination will not call me pastor unless ordained) at Bel Air Presbyterian Church, I honestly think my students would say of me that I was a good pastor…meaning I was good at “paying attention” and “calling attention” to what was happening in our community and pointing out the work of God in our midst. But I was not a good pastor in the context of how it is defined in the Evangelical American context. I wasn’t much good at budgeting and planning and coming up with strategies that would grow our ministry tenfold over a two year period. I could get by for a while, but I was not gifted at that, nor was I passionate about that.

Ultimately I had to make a decision on what type of pastor I wanted to be.

So what does one do when they feel like they are good at pastoring by “paying attention” to and “calling attention to” the work of God in people’s lives, but they are not good at being a “religious entrepreneur?”

They become a therapist.

I have found that in therapeutic work I am more of a pastor than I have ever been in my church ministry work. I am privy to parts of people’s lives that they would never share with me when I was their pastor, and in that interaction I have seen the work of God in ways that I was never witness to when I was in the pulpit.

Let me end by saying, I love being a pastor (I’m still on staff of a church), and if I could be the type of pastor in a church that Eugene Peterson talks about, then I’m totally open to that. But for now, I love being a therapist and I love the pastoral work that I get to do in that context.

I just wonder if we need to re-think…re-define…re-imagine who and what a pastor is in our modern day, Evangelical American Church context.

How do you wrestle with this as a pastor?

Is it something you struggle with?

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rhettsmith@churchleaders.com'
I'm a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Associate (MDiv, MSMFT, LMFT-A) and pastor to youth and families. I write about the relationships between psychology, theology and technology.