Not all pastors are pastors in the same way. Sure, we can turn to Titus 1:5-9, 1 Tim. 3:1-7, and 1 Peter 5:1-4 to learn something about what it means to be a pastor. What is often not talked about is what kind of person the gift of pastor falls upon. In this article I want to share with you, from my own personal experience, a few challenges that can accompany the pastor who is also an empath.
Why write an article like this? For much of my pastoral ministry I was unaware that I was an empath I actually had no Idea what an empath was. If I would have had access to or stumbled upon an article like this several years ago I might have avoided some of the poor leadership advice of pastors who were not like me. Seeking wise counsel regarding certain difficulties would often be accompanied by comments like “Able, don’t be so sensitive”. I have tried to shut certain aspects of what it means to be “me” off but ultimately they don’t work and guess what? It’s not healthy; Imagine that?
What is an empath? Writing for Psycology Today Judith Orloff M.D. has written the following about empaths:
“The trademark of an empath is feeling and absorbing other people’s emotions and/or physical symptoms because of their high sensitivities. These people filter the world through their intuition and have a difficult time intellectualizing their feelings… When overwhelmed with the impact of stressful emotions, empaths may experience panic attacks, depression, chronic fatigue, food, sex, and drug binges, or exhibit many other physical symptoms that defy traditional diagnosis.”
Citing Dr. Elaine Aron; Dr. Judith writes
Empaths share all the traits of “Highly Sensitive People,”.
Dr. Judith goes on to explain that these traits include:
…a low threshold for stimulation; the need for alone time; sensitivity to light, sound, and smell; and an aversion to large groups. It also takes highly sensitive people longer to wind down after a busy day, since their ability to transition from high stimulation to being quiet is slower. Highly sensitive people are typically introverts, while empaths can be introverts or extroverts (although most are introverts). Empaths share a highly sensitive person’s love of nature and quiet environments, their desire to help others, and their rich inner life.
If you’re an empath in pastoral ministry you are a “HIghly Sensitive Pastor” in a vocation dominated by what can seem to be somewhat insensitive pastors. Let me put it this way as an empath you are like Yoda in a context prefabricated for someone like Walt Longmire. Here are some of the challenges Highly Sensative Pastors (HSPs for short) face along with some practice advice on working through them.
ONE: The Challenge of The Leech.
Ministering to people can be draining at times for any type of person it’s normal and most HSP’s know themselves enough to understand when its time for a break or time out. It is not the congregations fault or even an individual persons fault its just the nature of working in the people business. There are, however, certain types of people that you need to avoid as a HSP like the narcissistic leech. The leech presents a bigger challenge for an empath because they can’t simply shut thier unique ability off and often times they are ignorant of the leech’s characteristics. There is a predatory like draw in the mind of a leech to attach themselves to people who seem, naive to their snares. Though I am not qualified to diagnose a narcissist I can tell you by experience that the leech is a person who has many of the characteristics. Here are some of the things I have learned from my interaction with a leech
1. The leech will often have no sense of your time nor do they respect it.
2. The leech will constantly invade your personal time and space and you will often times think to yourself “who does this?”.
3. Leeches will even come to your house without letting you know and will occasionally invite themselves in.
4. Leeches continually talk without stopping and when they do stop they are not listening to your response
5. The leech brings up a new conversation as soon as you indicate you need to leave.
6. The leech is more interested in talking, bragging and being heard than anything else.
7. The leech does not seem to be capable of noticing normal subtle indicators that you need to go.
8. The leech is a constant victim.
9. The leech will cry without tears.
All of these together and more have been my experience with every leech. After reading this you might be thinking and concerned that you might be a leech. Don’t worry if you are even concerned you are most likely not one. I want to be very clear most people are not leeches there are only a handful that I have experienced over the years. There is a difference between a person who is going through some intense periods of challenge or struggle in their lives and a Leech.
My first piece of advice? You need people in your life to help protect you from the leech. God has people all around you that will see this and understand. They can help confront a person for/with you in a way that you cannot on your own. My second piece of advice? Do not plan an open ended meeting with a suspected leech. The leech will take all the time they can get from you to feed their ego. Bookend your meeting with another meeting so you can have control of your time. My third piece of advice? Be firm, say no, clearly and authoritatively make your boundaries clear and be prepared to cut the relationship off. The leech will pretend to be hurt (something they know nothing about) but they will move along to find their fix in some other way from someone else.
TWO: The challenge of the missing “off switch”.
As I indicated above as an HSP you do not have an off switch. You will work hard to find it but you wont locate it. So how can my Yoda like heart get through this day like Longmire? Fake it. You will not get a person who is relatively low on the empath scale to understand and you really don’t need them to. I have learned to surround myself with other empaths for understanding. Both actual friends and authors. Collectively they understand what I am going through and provide me with a great deal of resources. It is very healing to find other HSPs who have learned to survive in pastoral ministry. One particular author, for example, that has helped stop me from quitting pastoral ministry is Eugene Peterson. If you are a HPS you will appreciate his work. He will fill you up. Aside from this though whats’s the most practical thing I have learned to do? Find certain times during the week to not be immediately available. This should be true for everyone right? But for the HSP you need to know your social threshold or you will crash. A book that I highly recommend to everyone HSP or not is the book “Quiet” by Susan Cain (Yes Able does like Cain). You will be empowered by this book if you are an HSP and better informed of our value to culture if you are not one.
THREE: The challenge of being/feeling uncomfortable in order to do the essential work of pastoral ministry.
Every job has its uncomfortable moments. As an empath the smallest public interactions can be magnified as a high energy experience. After preaching and teaching on a Sunday morning I am exhausted mentally and emotionally. I don’t want to talk to anyone. I just want to be alone and recharge. But what I want is not always good for me or the ministry God has entrusted me with. I have learned that shaking hands after service, something very difficult for me, is a very comforting and encouraging part of Sunday morning for many people. There are some Sunday’s where I just simply cannot so I will play some music while people exit. But for the most part I try really hard to do certain things that I find uncomfortable because I know that it can help give comfort to others.
I struggle with certain unspoken social rules when communicating. I often have a very difficult time with communication that is impersonal. Impersonal religious ceremony can be a challenge for me. It is a challenge to just talk about something or go through the motions without trying to make some kind of personal connection. For example, I remember being called to the Hospital late at night a couple of years ago. A Native American family had just lost a close relative and could not find their Roman Catholic Priest. The Hospital asked if I would come. When I arrived I tried to make warm small talk in order to catch something of the lady’s personality and perhaps her name but it just seemed to make them feel very uncomfortable. I prayed for them sat next to them for awhile and left. Later on I was speaking to a friend of mine who is a Catholic Priest and he said they were just looking for you to give last rites. They were probably confused with how personal you were and how you only prayed without certain ceremonial things they were used to. Though it is super uncomfortable, if a Catholic family calls me today, I am very formal, liturgical in an evangelical sense and impersonal (to the best of my abilities). The difference in how they react is pretty amazing. I don’t understand it, I often feel uncomfortable but they feel comforted.
Here is the best piece of advice I can give you from my experience as a HSP. Find a responsible well qualified psychologist you can trust. Meet with them on a regular basis and discuss how you can overcome some of the challenges involved in communicating as a pastor in healthy meaningful ways to people who are different than you. Ask them to help understand some of the struggles you are experiencing. You are a counselor and counselors need counselors. It’s healthy and you will gain confidence in your ministry. I learned that I am an empath from a good relationship with a psychologist while I was almost at the point of burnout. It saved my ministry.
If you are in congregational pastoral ministry and find yourself experiencing some unique challenges that come along with being a HSP feel free to get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Perhaps you can share some of your HSP experiences below in the comments?
I would love to hear from you.