With Dr. Bruce Hartung
Reader: Do you have any ideas about why I, a pastor for several decades, would be running with my feelings increasingly close to the surface?
I am increasingly edgy. But at the same time, I am increasingly down, with less energy and get-up-and-go. I can’t put my finger on what is going on. Being down in the dumps sometimes and more easily irritated and anxious characterize my life now. I don’t like this.
Perhaps a little background would be helpful. I am very close to those I serve and have been my whole ministry. As far as I know, people in my congregation see me as very sensitive to them and their needs and very faithful with visiting them, especially in times of difficulty. And I think I am. I want to be, and put a lot of energy into being there for the people I serve — emotionally and spiritually.
Over the past years, people who were pretty vibrant have become more infirm and some have died. I have been alongside them and sometimes cried with them and their families.
Ministry has been wonderful, by God’s grace, but it also has been emotionally and sometimes physically tough. Maybe all this has something to do with the way I’m feeling. Again, any ideas?
Hartung: Thanks for writing and reaching out. The characteristics of your ministry that you describe are characteristics I rejoice to see in our pastors and other church workers. Would that this empathic connection between members of the body of Christ (for example, see Rom. 12:15) were part of our daily walk with each other, and that it would be characteristic of all pastoral ministries. You walk with your people, and in that walking you experience some of their pain, as well as joy.
Could it be that this deeper walking has in some way continued to reside inside you, building up over the years? I wonder about this, because I think it is one of the vulnerabilities of pastoral ministry and all vocations of those who walk closely with folks.
We are affected by the circumstances of our people. In other words, we feel with them. We may not feel as much about a particular circumstance as they feel, for it is not our pain, trouble or emotion. It is theirs. But as we walk closely, we will experience some of it.
Over time, multiple experiences of this do build up, because a pastor will be in a number of difficult emotional circumstances with his people. In the literature, one of the terms for this is secondary traumatic stress.
Pastors who remain distant from their people will not be easily affected. Pastors who walk closely with their people will be. So, our most tender, caring and connected pastors are our most vulnerable. You may be one of those pastors.
If you see this as a possibility, there are several routes that I recommend:
- Recognize that this is likely a natural vulnerability that is involved when you walk closely with your people in your ministry. As such, it is not a pathology of something wrong with you, but rather a result of what you are faithfully and empathically doing.
- Seek someone or several people who can walk with you as you have been walking with others. If this is a build-up of your emotional responses to situations in your ministry, it is good to be aware of them, to understand them and to safely release them as others walk empathically with you. That person could be a fellow pastor, a counselor or a spiritual director.
- Set up regular debriefing times with trusted colleagues or counselors who will help you process your pastoral experiences to keep them from building up. This could include meetings with fellow pastors in your circuit.
- Bathe all these connections in prayer, in active reflection on God’s speaking to you in the Scriptures and in regularly receiving Holy Communion.
The Rev. Bruce M. Hartung, Ph.D., is professor of Practical Theology at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.