[The following informal remarks were made to the Pastoral Counseling Network, Charleston, SC, on October 14, 1997]
I should begin by saying how grateful I am that this group exists. It’s a marvelous initiative that is needed across the ecumenical spectrum. Hopefully something analogous will grow up within our own tradition (I belong to the Orthodox Church in America), to enable us as pastors to share fellowship and prayer on a regular basis while we focus on some of the difficult problems all of us face.
The topic we want to look at this afternoon is “Caring for the care-giver.” This is an appropriate title because it places the accent where it is so needed today: on what can be called the “clergy crisis.” We as Christians may be very much divided historically, ethnically, doctrinally, and liturgically. But in addition to our basic faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, we definitely have in common the problem of stress associated with today’s pastoral ministry. It is this stress that lies behind so much of what we refer to as the “clergy crisis.”
Crises similar to those clergy persons face in the United States occur in other countries and cultures as well, of course. Yet it seems that American clergy and lay leaders suffer today, more than their counterparts in other areas of the world, from acute stress, exhaustion and burn-out, all of which either results from or leads to various forms of dysfunctional and/or addictive behaviors. This covers the gamut, from alcoholism to clergy sexual misconduct. Clergy crisis might well be described as a syndrome. And to some extent, all of our churches are marked by it.
We need to begin by stressing a point that is absolutely true and foundational. That is the fact that we are dealing here with spiritual warfare. The crisis we are speaking of is not just a psychological, sociological or even an ecclesial problem, in the sense of organization and institutional structures. It is a profoundly spiritual problem, in the sense described by the apostle in Ephesians 6. This means that to recover an authentic ministry – to relate in a way that is genuine, honest and loving, with God, with others and with ourselves – we need to recover a particular theological perspective.
We all have roots in Christian orthodoxy, grounded in a Trinitarian vision of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit: three divine Persons united as One God in a communion of love, and sharing a common mind, will and purpose. It is this personal dimension of God’s life and activity that provides the model, the ground and the source for everything that makes us truly “personal” beings. We are truly persons – and not merely individuals – to the degree that we manifest the “personhood” of God.
Consequently, if we take seriously the biblical affirmation that we are created in the image of God, we recognize that there is no such thing as “total depravity” in the absolute sense. Despite our sin, the image of God – that is, the potential for genuinely personal communion – is never effaced, even in the depths of the darkest soul. (To Calvin, the idea of “total depravity” meant simply that everything we do is tainted with sin, not that the human person is irredeemably depraved.) We live, certainly, in a fragmented world of acute individualism. Yet we are called to move – in body, heart, mind and soul – from all that sets us against and in competition with one another, toward recovery of our “true image,” of what it is and means to be a “person.” This means that we are called to look other persons in the eyes with acceptance and understanding, to commune and share with them, and to bear their burdens insofar as we are able. And we do so in response to our most fundamental vocation: our commitment and devotion to Christ that lead us to assume self-giving stewardship in his name.
Appreciation of the essentially “personal” aspect of human life – grounded in the loving interrelationships of the Persons of the Holy Trinity – is obligatory, therefore, if we are to achieve real healing in the midst of the crisis we are presently facing as pastors within the Body of Christ.
Let’s move on at this point to a few practical considerations. What are the causes of the problems that impede really genuine and deep devotion to Christ and hinder our service to him and to his people? First of all, it seems necessary to distinguish between external and internal obstacles. Each of us, to some degree, is shaped by internal pressures that are built into us from childhood. Sometimes those pressures are severe enough to create various dysfunctional patterns of behavior that continue with us into adulthood. It is well known that people who go into service ministries – social workers, psychotherapists, nurses, and clergy – often come from what we refer to as dysfunctional families of origin. Many clergy persons, for example, are the first-born of a number of siblings. In families marked by dysfunction caused by alcoholism or some form of abuse, the first child often has to take over parental responsibilities and play the role of the “hero.” The parents have abdicated their responsibility because they are caught up in a cycle of addiction and co-dependency. As a result, the child assumes a parental role in order to maintain “homeostasis” or reasonable, bearable equilibrium in what would otherwise be a household totally out of control. And that child usually grows up learning ever new ways of controlling the world and, all too often, of manipulating other people. He or she also becomes a “people-pleaser,” not for reasons of pride, but in order to survive in a world perceived as constantly hostile.
Children who grow up as family heroes will often play out the same role in other social environments, such as the local church. Their parents’ dysfunction has created similar dysfunction, or unhealthy behavior, in their own lives, and they transfer their need for control and acceptance to the parish situation. (Acute illness suffered by one of the parents, or any circumstances that lead a child to feel abandoned, can also create this kind of syndrome.)
The hero role is not the only possible one, however. Specialists in the area of addictions often speak of the other siblings in the family as playing the “scapegoat,” the “lost child,” or the “mascot.” These are caricatures and generalizations, of course, but they are close enough to day-to-day reality that they are useful in helping us to understand family and parish dynamics.
The scapegoat is often the second child. Jealous of the older sibling and angry with the parents for lavishing more attention on the first-born – which the parents must do in order to reinforce that child’s hyper-responsible behavior – the second child acts out. It’s preferable to be beaten than to be ignored: even negative attention is better than no attention at all. This learned behavior then carries over into the life of the adult. In the church, it often leads a parishioner to undermine the priest or pastor, in an unconscious effort to win attention and secure control (power). In its most aggravated form, it creates of the person what we have come to refer to as a “clergy killer.” This is someone who exhibits a pathology of intentional destruction that plays havoc in the pastor’s ministry and family life. Clergy killers perceive the pastor to be a rival, a heretic, or a nuisance; and they do everything possible, consciously or unconsciously, to destroy the enemy, all in the name of parish welfare and service to the church.
Dysfunction, then, can influence both the pastor and the parishioner. In order for us to begin to care for the care-givers, it is essential that we come to understand these “family systems” dynamics and the impact they have on the life of the entire community.
Statistics show that if both parents are alcoholic, chances that the children will also become addicted are as much as 80%. A very high percentage of pedophiles and other sexual abusers were themselves victims of childhood sexual abuse. Such maladies are transmitted from generation to generation. The dysfunction of the parents is visited upon the children, even to the third and fourth generations. Consequently, in addition to ACOAs – adult children of alcoholics – there is a focus today on GCOAs: grandchildren who manifest behavior characteristic of an alcoholic grandparent, even when the parents are teetotalers. (An excellent book on the subject by Edwin Friedman is appropriately titled From Generation to Generation [New York: Guilford Press, 1985].)
A major result of these family dynamics, which can impact church life in devastating ways, is what we call “co-dependency.” In the simplest terms, co-dependency is my allowing other people to determine how I feel: about them, but also about myself. You get angry with me, and that in turn triggers my own anger (or fear, or anxiety, or some similar response), even though I have nothing to do with the source of your anger. You affect my feelings. You even determine how I feel about myself and the value of my ministry, my person, my life. I am co-dependent, “addicted” to your addiction.
To some extent we all react this way, and it is perfectly normal. Criticism and judgment can make us feel angry or depressed, just as “strokes” (praise and other expressions of approval) can make us feel pleased and happy. True co-dependency, on the other hand, allows these responses to cripple our actions and attitudes. Co-dependent persons permit others to determine how they feel about themselves. If I am co-dependent, I accept another person’s judgment of me, however right or wrong that judgment may be in objective terms. If you criticize me, I don’t just get upset, I feel bad about myself. If you build me up, offer me strokes and approval, it doesn’t just make me feel good. It shapes my own self-identity. It may well be an identity built on sand, but nevertheless I seek that kind of reinforcement.
It is co-dependency that leads to a phenomenon widespread among pastors: the need to be needed. In several decades of seminary teaching I’ve seen this in every generation of students, particularly those who graduate and take up parish ministry. In order to feel good about themselves, they need to have others rely on them, seek out their counsel and advice, and provide them strokes of encouragement at every turn. (As a rule of thumb, it’s best never to take seriously, for example, praise lavished on a sermon. The person who has really been touched by your preaching is the quiet one who doesn’t say a word, but who goes home to reflect and maybe repent.)
In this light it would be easy to become cynical, arguing that social workers, clergy and health care specialists are simply exteriorizing their own dysfunction through their professional activity. The miracle, however, is that God works in and through even our dysfunction, our emotional handicaps. He calls us, not because we are perfect or even particularly stable, but because he can achieve his will and purpose through us. And he can do so because we, like the Virgin Mary, have said “yes” at a critical moment in our life. Just as the Virgin did nothing but remain receptive, we do nothing by our acceptance of God’s call other than allow him to enter into the realm of our weakness, our fears, our anxieties and our brokenness. No matter how deeply we may sink into co-dependency, depression, burn-out, and even suicidal ideation, God can enter our darkness and raise us into his Light. We are like the psalmist, so often attempting to flee from the face of God. Yet to our relief and our joy we can cry: “If I ascend to heaven, Thou art there; if I make my bed in Sheol, Thou art there!” (Ps. 138/139:8). All of our hope lies in the conviction that God will indeed “be there.” And it is out of that Sheol that we can reach out, by God’s power and grace, to minister to others who journey there, to bring them a word of strength, peace, hope and life.
One of the greatest external threats to effective pastoral ministry is the fact that we are asked and expected to play a multitude of different roles: roles that often conflict with one another. For example, the pastor tends to function as a cost-free psychotherapist because of a basic confusion that exists in our minds between spiritual and psychological counseling. Only a few of us are trained to act as psychologists. Each of us, however, is called to be a pastoral guide, a spiritual elder. Too often, our parishioners who really need psychological counseling come to us for help because they don’t want to pay the high costs of professional therapy. We then accept a role that we are not trained or prepared for, then wonder why we are subsequently faced with failure and possibly a lawsuit for malpractice. If it were not for the “need to be needed,” much of the confusion we ourselves have created in the domain of counseling could be avoided. We would know immediately to refer the parishioner to a specialist, rather than attempt to “fix” what only a medical professional can heal (yet never forgetting that Christ alone is the true Physician of our souls and bodies).
Care for the care-giver also involves discernment in relation to parish expectations of a practical nature. For example, many parishes are looking for a “twofer.” They hire and pay the priest or pastor, then expect to have his wife do just as much work as he does, free of charge. The parish counsel pays one salary and expects the pastor’s spouse to assume the tasks others in the community refuse to take on. We have found that when this occurs with our own priests, both they and their wife eventually burn-out.
The clergyman’s wife in particular is susceptible to a crushing sense of loneliness. She often feels more or less abandoned by her husband. He devotes himself tirelessly to parishioners and parish demands but has no time left over for his wife and children. The kids become “P.K.s,” and the wife becomes a “single Mom.” One morning while I was still teaching at St Vladimir’s Seminary, I was at the breakfast table with my wife, Lyn. With a coffee cup in one hand and a red pencil in the other, I was grading papers before an upcoming class. She very quietly said, “When you’re here, you’re not present…” That comment jolted me into more reality about priorities than I had had for a long time. Care for the care-giver, in other words, is inseparable from care for the care-giver’s family.
This leads us to another characteristic of pastoral care-givers that requires healing. I am referring to what we call today “workaholism.” This, too, we learn as children, either by imitating a parent or by striving to win attention and avoid punishment. Contrary to the popular image, the workaholic is not more effective, efficient or productive than less active colleagues. To the contrary, the addiction to busyness is often an escape that undermines productivity and, in the church, impedes effective ministry. Yet we are judged in this country basically by what we do, what we accomplish, rather than by who we are and how much loving concern we show toward others. Therefore we become addicted to work, even though it monopolizes our thoughts, keeps us awake at night, and prevents us from relaxing and enjoying other people or life itself. Workaholism goes hand in hand with perfectionism: it is the fruitless attempt to “be perfect”: not like our heavenly Father, but like the fantasy we have created for ourselves, which we feel we must live up to at all costs. Ironically, perfectionism usually results in chronic procrastination: If I don’t get started, I can’t fail… Workaholism, with its tendencies toward perfectionism and procrastination, is a major and often devastating dynamic in pastoral ministry. Diane Fassel, who wrote a very good book called Working Ourselves to Death (New York: Harper, 1990, p. 165), raises an awkward but important question in her section on the clergy: “How can you teach ‘life and life more abundant’ when you are working yourself to death?” The point is well taken.
These, then, are a few of the elements that contribute to stress, distress and clergy burn-out: components of the present “clergy crisis” we all face. What are we to do about them? I don’t pretend to be able to offer anything in the way of a systematic or comprehensive answer. There are, though, a few points I would like to mention that may have some relevance to your own pastoral situation.
The most basic and important factor concerns a return to the call or vocation we first received when we began to consider ordination and lifetime service within Christ’s Church. For most of us, this is a precious memory, when we first beheld the glory of God, heard his summons, and experienced his love for us and for those he was calling us to serve. It was a very special moment in our life, when we were touched by the hand of God and felt overjoyed to the point of tears. The road to a healthy ministry begins with recovery of awe in God’s presence, coupled with a deep longing within the heart to unite with him in an intimate and personal communion. This is what the Orthodox tradition calls “theosis” or “deification.” It is the most fundamental goal of human existence: to participate eternally in the very life of God. Without that goal, and the longing that inspires us to strive toward it, there is little chance that we can realize a genuinely pastoral ministry. Like so many of our contemporaries, we will end up efficient administrators, perhaps eloquent speakers and admired leaders. But our life and work will amount to nothing that is truly pastoral or that constitutes an authentic ministry in the name and in the image of the true Shepherd, the true Pastor of God’s flock.
The Good Shepherd, though, is also our High Priest, the Celebrant of his own self-offering, the one who offers and is offered for the life of the world. If we are called to imitate him in carrying on his pastoral office, we are also called to continue his office of High Priest. This means that each of us is to exercise what is essentially a “priestly” ministry. Whether we call ourselves “priest” or “pastor” is irrelevant. The essential thing is that we recognize and honor the connection between the “priesthood of all believers,” bestowed on every Christian at baptism, and the ministerial “priestly” service implied by our ordination.
What exactly is that priestly service? Any trained lay person can preach, teach, or perform works of charity. What is the unique function of a priest? In a word, it is to offer. This is clear in the gestures we repeat in celebration of the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist. We receive from God what is his: bread from the earth and fruit of the vine. Then we offer it up to him, that he might receive, bless, transform and offer it back to us as the Bread of Life. The same gift of offering is made in the form of our sermons: offering up to God his Word which we have received, that by the inspirational power of the Holy Spirit working within the community of the Church that Word might nourish and transform the lives of those “who have ears to hear.”
Our essentially priestly ministry, then, consists in receiving from God the gifts of life; offering them back to him, so that he might transform and charge them with divine power and saving grace; then receiving them back again, in order to offer them for the spiritual nurture and salvation of God’s people. In the language of the Orthodox Eucharistic Liturgy: “Thine own of Thine own, we offer unto Thee, in behalf of all and for all.” The specificity and uniqueness of ordained ministry, then, is precisely this priestly function of offering through both Word and Sacrament.
There is a form of offering, however, that anyone can make. All baptized Christians are capable of performing the priestly function described in our Orthodox litanies as offering “ourselves and each other, and all our life, to Christ our God.” The seventh century Eastern saint, Maximus the Confessor, spoke of the human person as both “microcosm” and “mediator.” As microcosm, the human person recapitulates in him- or herself the fullness of God’s creative power and purpose. As mediator, the person joins in the activity of Christ and the saints, to make perpetual intercession before God on behalf of others and of the cosmos as a whole. Intercessory prayer, therefore, is an indispensable part of Christian vocation, of the priestly ministry common to all members of Christ’s Body.
This means that “care for the care-giver” properly begins with intercession. Just as the priest or pastor prays for the congregation, so the people offer their spiritual guide to God through their own prayer. It is the ages-long experience of the Church that this kind of prayer on behalf of another is the most powerful and effective way to bring about healing, both for the pastor and for the congregation. While it is important to avoid creating “cliques” within the parish, it is quite appropriate for the pastor to request of those closest and most open to him that they keep him and his family in their prayer. Where parishioners accept the responsibility of interceding for the pastor, rather than relying on him to pray for each and all “because he is paid to do so,” the parish can find extraordinary strength and capacity for ongoing renewal. Mutual intercession, in fact, is the bedrock of any community’s spiritual life.
Much of the care needed by care-givers, though, must come directly from the care-givers themselves. There are at least three steps involved in a process of personal renewal and growth required by the Church’s pastors: examination, acknowledgement, and repentance. Let’s look briefly at each of these.
The first step is to examine ourselves and the situations in which we find ourselves called to serve. We need to take stock of the various behaviors we manifest, to determine whether we are giving in to the temptation to “fix” others rather than to offer them firm and compassionate direction that can bring about lasting change. They come to us feeling depressed, lonely and alienated, often because of past or present abuse inflicted on them by themselves or by others. We succumb to the easy solution by trying to make them feel good, by “encouraging” them with pious sermonizing or by a psychological pep talk. They may well begin to feel better and leave our office with a smile. But all too soon they are back in the depths of their own misery, because we have done nothing but put a Band-Aid on what is in effect a seriously infected wound.
Then all too often, because of our own needs and insecurities, we try to please those who rely on us and come to us for guidance. Rather than confront sinful or otherwise destructive behavior on their part, we “enable” them, apologize for them, and thereby simply drive them ever deeper into their unhealthy behavior and persistent sinfulness. Why is it that we capitulate before some people and can be very firm and effective with others? Usually it is because those to whom we capitulate trigger something in us that we cannot really deal with, often some painful experience or buried memory from our own past. If we grew up threatened by authority, we tend to cave in before authority figures – or else we react to them with hostility and rejection. Transference of feelings from a real source of threat in our past to an imagined source in the present is one of the most common human reactions, and clergy are by no means exempt from it. But we can help ourselves a very great deal just by recognizing the symptoms in our own behavior of “people-pleasing” and “enabling.” It is useful, by the way, to keep a small and very private notebook of daily self-examination in order to facilitate this task. When it is done conscientiously and in continual prayer for personal discernment, this kind of examination can do wonders for our own “self-image” – the way we evaluate ourselves and the effectiveness of our ministry – and it can lay the foundation for a truly healthy and healing approach to pastoring others.
The second step is acknowledgement. This means to admit to God and to ourselves the nature and power of our negative, dysfunctional or destructive patterns of behavior. We need to be honest and realistic in facing our shortcomings, and willing to surrender our weaknesses and incapacities to the mercy and grace of God.
One of the most effective ways of acknowledging both our lacks and our sins is through the sacramental act of confession. God calls us to confess our sins to one another, just as he calls us to pray for one another (James 5:16). Many Christian denominations have given up the practice of personal or individual confession with the priest or pastor, largely, it seems, as part of the unconscious legacy of the Protestant Reformation. There where it is retained (including in the Orthodox churches), it is often neglected. Recovery of the grace of confession, however, should be a priority within each of our communions.
In Orthodox practice, the penitent and priest stand together before the Gospel and a cross, while the penitent offers prayer and a recital of sinful acts to God. After a word of spiritual guidance, the priest places the stole over the penitent’s head and offers a prayer of absolution. In that prayer he affirms that it is not he who forgives, but God (“who can forgive sins but God alone?”, the Scribes ask [Mk 2:7]). For those who take the act seriously, who explore their conscience and their soul in depth with the intention of unburdening themselves in prayerful confession, there comes an extraordinary sense of liberation. God forgives; and the power of his forgiveness can lift away any burden, heal any wound, and “justify” any sin.
Yet curiously, we avoid confession like the plague. It has even been abandoned in many Orthodox and Catholic churches, or replaced with a safe and superficial “general confession” that avoids the awkward business of acknowledging just who we really are and how we really behave. That is a loss. I’d urge all of us, then, to give serious thought to the possibility of restoring what was once a vital aspect of every Christian tradition: the sacrament of confession. Whether it be done in a formal liturgical setting, or in quiet conversation with a trusted friend, confession brings freedom. Of course, absolute confidentiality must be respected by the one to whom the confession is made. If that can be guaranteed, and the penitent can speak freely and honestly, then the way is open to acquire what St Paul calls “freedom in the Spirit.” And that freedom is needed as much by the care-givers – the pastors and other leaders within the churches – as it is by the “common” parishioner.
The third step, then, is repentance. Repentance means change. We tend to resist change because it is threatening. Women who get divorced from an alcoholic first husband will very often marry another alcoholic or, in any case, someone with a similar addiction. Unconsciously they are resisting genuine change. It seems (but only seems!) safer to stick with what is familiar, even if it is destructive, than to adopt something new. The same can be said for patterns of sinful behavior. Even if we regret them, it is often extremely difficult to abandon them, to give them up. Either we secretly delight in them, or we are hobbled by anxiety at the very thought of changing the way we do things and react to particular situations. In the pastoral ministry, this refusal to change can keep us mired in perfectionism, workaholism, people-pleasing and general co-dependency. And to compensate, we tend to cling to more personal forms of sinful behavior that distract, amuse, challenge or gratify us, even when they are obviously destructive of our ministry and our personal well-being. If I am mired in my own treasured sin, how can I help others find release from theirs?
Inner change or repentance involves us in a never-ending process or pilgrimage. There are several elements that make up that process. We can note especially the following.
First, there is the matter of prayer – not just the vain repetition of familiar formulas, but prayer as communion with God. Evagrius, one of the early desert fathers, declared: “a theologian is one who prays, and one who prays is a theologian.” Seminary training, like other forms of pastoral experience and intellectual exercise, is important in shaping pastors to be theologians, persons who understand and communicate effectively the Word of God. More important, though, is the practice of authentic prayer that focuses on the presence and person of Jesus Christ. In Eastern Orthodox tradition we speak a great deal about “prayer of the heart.” This is a form of internalized prayer based on repetition of the divine Name, usually expressed as: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Shorter forms are also used. The essential point is that this invocation can fill one’s mind and day’s activity. By allowing it to enter into the fabric of our consciousness, we can literally “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17). This includes praying for healing from sin and for the inner freedom to “change,” to “repent,” to “turn from our evil ways and live.” Repentance begins and ends with prayer, because ultimately, like prayer itself (Rom 8:26f), repentance is a divine work, the work of the Holy Spirit acting within us for our liberation and our salvation.
Second, hand in hand with prayer there goes the need for silence and solitude. These are very foreign notions to most Americans. The Japanese refer to us as the most “exteriorized” people on earth, always drawn outward and away from the vital center of our being. This is what the spiritual tradition of the Church knows to be the “sacred space within,” the “temple of the heart,” where God dwells. It is there, in the silence of the “secret heart,” that God speaks to us in a “still, small voice.” Silence is essential, therefore, to enable us to hear a sacred Voice that is normally drowned out by the noise of the world. And solitude is also necessary, to enable us to sense an inner Presence that is otherwise obscured. Silence and solitude – not as means of escape, but as conditions for communion with God – are indispensable virtues in the process of repentance.
But so is celebration. For most of us, the term celebration evokes images of the Sunday morning church service, with all the hard work it entails. Therefore it’s not always a positive notion. True celebration, though, is a dance, a liturgical choreography that enables us to express, through gestures as well as words, the deepest longings of the heart for eternal life in union with God. The Old Testament prophets and priests danced before the divine presence. Even today Coptic and Ethiopian Christians include dance as a vital feature of their liturgical worship. Each of our services could be a sacred dance, whose effect is to sanctify the time and the space of each day’s activities.
Ancient monastic tradition gave us the daily cycle of our worship services: Vespers, Compline, Nocturne, Matins, the Hours, and finally the Eucharistic Liturgy. By celebrating a full day’s cycle, the Church sanctifies the world. Her prayer becomes celebration insofar as it lifts up the world – time, space and life – to God. Through that celebration, the Church experiences the presence of God in her midst: “Emmanuel, God with us!” Thereby celebration of the Church’s services, which seem so irrelevant to the activities and attitudes of the ambient society, serves to sanctify all things, to make all things holy. Life itself becomes “sacrament.”
Celebration, then, creates for us and for our communities the conditions necessary for an ongoing process of repentance. It injects joy and spontaneity into worship, thereby making it vital and supportive; it sanctifies the time and the space in which we live, act and relate to God and to others; and it enables us to “practice the presence of God” (Brother Lawrence), which enables God himself to work out repentance within us.
A fourth element in the process of repentance is basic to pastoral work in general. This is the need to establish a network of support among friends and colleagues in whom we can confide and on whom we can depend for help, according to their training and capacities. I have always urged my students, when they move to a new parish, to pick up the telephone book and look under the Yellow Pages. The first entry is usually Alcoholics Anonymous. Then there are various abuse and suicide hot lines. Finally, they should get to know the local police and hospital personnel. This needs to be complemented, of course, by relationships with fellow clergy, whether or not they are of your particular tradition.
Such networks are invaluable as resources for referrals or for mutual support in difficult pastoral situations. But they are equally useful for the support they offer in our own quest for healing: from dysfunction, from ill health, or from sin. As pastors, we need pastoring. At times that need will lead us beyond the circle of church relationships we have established, to seek the help of counselors, psychotherapists or other health professionals. At other times, it will lead us to seek out friendships both within and outside our own church circle. While they can encourage us to adopt healthy modes of behavior – just having fun from time to time, for example – they can also be of great help and support in our quest for personal, inner change. Repentance is never a private affair. In fact, within the Church nothing is private. Even the work of repentance affects the Body as a whole. Therefore I need the support and loving care of members of that Body if I am to achieve the inner transformation I seek and so clearly need.
Finally, any movement toward genuine and lasting repentance requires that we be guided and upheld in prayer by spiritual elders. One of the great graces that sustained the Orthodox Church in Russia through 75 years of Communist domination was the fact that during the previous century there were a great many spiritual elders, both men and women, to whom people could turn for help. There were no psychotherapists or self-help groups, and there was no perceived need for any. Christian people recognized and accepted the fact that many if not most of our psychological and even practical problems are fundamentally spiritual.
These elders, through their prayer, ascetic struggles and personal faithfulness, often acquired the gift of discernment. They could recognize emotional imbalance, sense personal needs, and diagnose sin-related illnesses before the person even began to speak of his or her situation. And they could offer sound advice and counsel, as well as make a continuing offering of the person in prayer, as a means of leading that person toward healing and salvation. As Russian society deteriorated throughout the 19th century, these spiritual giants laid the foundation for a faith among the common people that carried them in relative safety and extraordinary commitment through the worst period of organized persecution the Church has ever known.
We suffer today from a tragic lack of such spiritual leaders. Especially in the United States, we are reluctant to entrust ourselves to those older and wiser than ourselves in matters of faith, even though we devour “How To” books and follow blindly after any self-proclaimed guru who attracts public attention. If genuine spiritual elders do exist within our churches, they tend to be unsung and even ignored. The pastor has been reduced to a psychological counselor as we search vainly for answers to our daily dilemmas and emotional turmoil, unwilling to acknowledge that the problem is indeed an ultimately spiritual one. And even where the true nature of the problem is recognized, our pastors (we ourselves…) are often better trained and equipped to administer an institution and preach pop-psychology than we are to guide souls and proclaim the living and life-giving Word of God.
A partial answer to this lack of spiritual guides today could be found if we recognize that each of us is called to render this blessed service to others, as we receive it from others for our own spiritual journey. The apostle Paul calls us to bear each others’ burdens. We can do this within our own confessional body. We can do it as well across denominational lines. As pastors and care-givers, we need this kind of help, support and direction. We need each other’s prayer and counsel, each other’s discernment and love. It is by reaching out to the other – to the souls entrusted to us in our church communities, but also to each other as consecrated care-givers – that we can find for ourselves and offer to each other something of the care that we so urgently need.
As pastors of God’s flock we have as a primary task precisely this role of spiritual guidance. We can properly and faithfully exercise that role, though, only insofar as we seek such guidance for ourselves. “Physician, heal thyself!” It is an ancient maxim, yet it speaks as forcefully to us today as it did in Jesus’ time. To offer healing to others, we need to be healed ourselves. And that healing requires that we relate to one another, in prayer and love, as members of a Body, a living organism of mutually interdependent members. God has called and ordained us to the most crucial and vital service of all: to lead his people to the ultimate source of healing, salvation and life. He himself offers us the power, the strength, the peace and the grace to assume this ministry faithfully. This is the work of his Spirit within us, who achieves his saving purpose through us. It is an awesome, difficult and constantly challenging vocation. But it is one we can accomplish with faith and even with joy, insofar as we turn ceaselessly to the resources God himself makes available to us.
Those resources, once again, are essentially spiritual, that is, grounded in and gifted by the Holy Spirit. God bestows them on us for ultimate healing: healing for ourselves, for the people he has entrusted to us, and for one another as care-givers in his name.
May God bless, guide and strengthen us in our common effort to minister faithfully to those he has entrusted to us. And may he grant us as well the desire and ability to offer to one another the care and mutual support needed in any ministry that strives to serve his purpose and his glory.