Spending time with your pastor can be one of the most helpful, rewarding parts of being in a church community. A caring pastor can bring the Bible’s teachings into high relief, illuminating and explaining God’s Word in order to guide you through the pressures and concerns of daily life, or help you delve into serious issues like trauma, guilt, or deep emotional pain.
Meeting with your pastor can also help you more deeply understand the Bible, drawing closer to God. Whether in a group or individual setting, pastoral leadership has many benefits—feeling more connected to your church family, more deeply concentrating on holy Scripture, or doing good in your church or larger community.
There is a potential “danger” sign attached to close contact with your pastor, however: becoming too close and too dependent. Here are three signs that you may be doing just that:
Forgetting the Mission of Your Meetings
If you are meeting one-on-one with your pastor, have you moved from praying about and discussing the original reason for your counseling into areas that are unfocused and increasingly personal, continually veering off-track? It can be a fine line—you are there to get personal, after all, discussing feelings and emotions. But remember: a pastor oftentimes serves the same role as a therapist, and therefore the same boundaries must apply.
“The relationship you have with your therapist is intimate,” notes Welldoing.org of the therapist/client relationship. “You say things to him or her that you may never even have articulated to yourself before, let alone another person. You show them your most vulnerable side, and parts of your psyche that even you have trouble tolerating, yet they accept all this non judgmentally.” Add into this the layer of “churchiness”— you are speaking with a servant of God, after all, and this helps your discussions feel appropriate, and even blessed. But remember, both you and your pastor are human beings who are discussing very personal things, so both parties must keep the original goals of your counseling sessions uppermost in your minds.
Also, keep in mind your own vulnerability levels. You are perhaps sharing very intimate details of your life, delving into pain, depression, or trauma. This puts you in a very delicate position emotionally. Your pastor may even be serving as a sort of authority figure in your life, able to “save” you from your current troubles. This power dynamic needs to be handled soberly and carefully by both parties.
“A therapist in this and other processes can become an idealized figure for their clients,” explains Welldoing.org. “An idealized figure has a lot of power over you, power that might be helpful, benign or abused.” Perhaps it would be helpful to create your own post-counseling assessment, if you feel you are becoming drawn to your pastor or spiritual counselor. Ask yourself: Am I recognizing that I am in a very vulnerable state right now? Are we spending the majority of time “on target,” discussing the issues that concern me? Could I share the topics discussed in our sessions with others, and not feel embarrassed or ashamed?
Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. (James 3:13)
Being Too Focused on Your Time Together
When interacting with a pastor or spiritual counselor of any kind, it is critical to stay alert and aware of your own motivations. Perhaps you are in your pastor’s office seeking help with a struggling marriage, and he or she seems to be the only one who really understands you. Suddenly, all their biblical wisdom is available to you alone, and this feels good. Their attention feels like a soothing balm in the midst of everything you’ve got going on at home. Your pastor seems to easily see “the real you,” and all your gifts, skills, and strengths.
“The parishioner listens and wonders why her husband does not recognize these qualities the pastor recognizes,” notes Ministrymagazine.org. “The counseling continues, and she becomes infatuated with the pastor, valuing his sympathy and recognition of her attributes. Each session ends with prayer and also a pastoral hug.”
This can be a recipe for disaster, if not handled properly on both sides. What is important to remember is why this attention feels so good—because your life has hit a rough patch. This attention satisfies because of a lack—not because it is right. And due to your heightened vulnerability, you may very well be misconstruing what it is your pastor is offering.
I had a friend who found herself drawn to the very handsome priest in her parish, and loved spending time in his presence. “I went to confession more than I ever had, just to see him,” she shared. “I eventually realized how silly this was—priests can’t date or marry—and I was able to successfully move on, and see him as a forever-unavailable man who has his own flaws, no doubt.”
What if your pastor’s motives are indeed impure? Sadly, this happens. This is a serious betrayal, and you need to be on the lookout for it, should red flags begin to pop up. If your counseling sessions have suddenly moved from the church office to your pastor’s residence for no good reason, or if that hug or gaze seems to linger too long, be wary. You are probably particularly vulnerable to positive attention if you are seeking spiritual guidance, so this may be a situation that is ultimately dangerous for you.
Ministry Magazine’s advice for pastors can extend to the person being counseled, too. “You must acknowledge, immediately, that conditions exist that could lead to unintended indiscretions, along with unmitigated agony and loss to you, your family, your church, and of course the one with whom you are in danger of becoming involved and her family,” the publication shares.
When in any doubt, it is best to find another spiritual advisor—pronto.
Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise. (Ephesians 5:15)
Idolizing Your Pastor or Counselor
Another warning sign that you’re getting too close to your pastor is thinking that they are the authority on your situation—and, in fact, on any situation. If you are receiving marriage counseling, perhaps you brush aside your own partner’s input to focus on what your pastor thinks. Perhaps you are working on the Christmas nativity play or pageant and you dismiss ideas from others on your committee, instead waiting breathlessly for your pastor’s opinion. Or maybe in Bible study, you find yourself stifling your theological questions because you don’t want to “oppose” your pastor’s teachings, or upset them in any way. These are all signs that your pastor’s opinion has eclipsed all others. It is so helpful and important to remember that we are all just human, and your pastor is most definitely fallible. He or she does make mistakes, get things wrong, and—surprise!—even has bad moods, “off” days, and times when they don’t measure up. Only God is perfect.
My grandfather was a Baptist preacher, and my grandmother once remarked on “the shepherd the flock doesn’t see”—the times my grandfather was in conflict, discouraged, or in need of his own spiritual bolstering. As wonderful a preacher as he was, he was also a man; imperfect, and just trying every day to measure up and do his best.
“As pastors, we’re the caregivers,” notes Pastor Chris Larson for Careforpastors.org. “We are the counselors. We’re the ‘spiritual ones’ who walk in wise and sagacious ways. We’re not supposed to be the ones who need help. Neither are our wives or our children. Somehow, we’re just supposed to be this godly Rock of Gibraltar, unfazed by the storms that beat against us.”
A wise person works at staying wise, even in times of weakness, indecision, and tumult. We never fail when we turn to God, the Perfect Counselor, first with our heartbreak and our struggles. Remembering that a pastor or spiritual counselor is only human while consistently respecting appropriate boundaries will help you to get the most from your time together—and hopefully lead to needed healing and lasting spiritual growth.
I will praise the Lord, who counsels me; even at night my heart instructs me. I keep my eyes always on the Lord. With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken. (Psalm 16:7-8)
Photo Credit: © Getty Images/kieferpix
Deirdre Reilly is a writer and editor, and her commentary has appeared on various websites including CBN.com, FoxNews.com, and others. Her new book, “The Pretend Christian: Traveling Beyond Denomination to the True Jesus,” details her own personal journey through doubt and fear into true belief. You can connect with Deirdre via www.deirdrereilly.com, or follow her on Twitter at @deirdrewrites.