Monday, April 30, 2012

The Clergy's Need For Affection

One of the frequently recurring findings on the assessments done for clergy (both candidates and already ordained) is an above average need for affection. There is no way to know if the reason this exists is consistent among this population (my guess is that it is not). What is more important to know on a more global basis is that this need exists. The follow up question would be, “How is it expected that this need will met by becoming clergy” or even if it is met at all. My experience is there are answers to both questions.

Let’s first look at how this need may be met by becoming clergy. The need for affection reflects a desire for positive emotional connection between people and the amount of closeness a person seeks. These criteria can be accomplished by expressing personal feelings to someone who is empathic, being supportive of others in troubled times, responding to others who share personal information in an empathic manner, and enjoying the encouragement of others for your efforts or encouraging others. They also indicate that the need for affection can be met both by showing affection and receiving affection.

These exchanges can be expressed verbally or behaviorally. Sometimes gifts are exchanged, loyalty is demonstrated in conflict situations, being flexible or accommodating, people pleasing, and giving others more than they want or need are examples of how this can happen in a pastoral relationship. There are also physical shows of affection that go beyond behavioral in that they involve the actual touching of two people. This is not always an appropriate option for clergy and their congregants. Certainly handshakes, high fives, and a hand on the shoulder can be appropriate as well as inappropriate – context is what makes the difference.

These expressions are common to the workplace and are many times not only shared between colleagues, but also between supervisors and their charges. The second question, the one that wonders if these needs for affection are met at all, is wrapped up in the answer to the first question.

There is a unique conundrum for clergy in the pulpit. What role do they play in the lives of their congregants? What is expected from them by the congregants and leaders of the church? Those who are active in church leadership are usually volunteers and rarely are they easily dismissed if their leadership is troublesome for the pastor. It is rarely clear who is in charge – is it the pastor? is it the lay leadership? The pastor is expected to lead the very people who sign their paycheck. Ideally, this becomes a well functioning partnership for the advancement of the kingdom. Anyone who spends much time in the church knows that this situation is rarely ideal.

This combination of dynamics is the perfect storm for clergy burnout. If the clergy’s need for affection has him people pleasing, working to satisfy everyone’s needs and desires, taking on work that others should be doing and participating in most of the church meetings, the first impact will be seen in the amount of time the clergy is spending ‘at work’ each week.

Secondary impacts will result from how this spent energy is interpreted by the congregants. Some congregants will offer gratitude. Because the need for affection is fed by gratitude, the clergy person is rewarded for this overfunctioning behavior, is led to do more to get ever increasing affection and a pattern has then been established. Pulling back is difficult because then congregants frame this as the clergy person ‘isn’t doing enough’, or some other negative connotation could occur.

Conversely, if the clergy isn’t getting any show of gratitude for what she feels is good work, she will work harder to get the withheld affection. Either way, the clergy is working very hard to earn the affection of the congregation. As they say, something’s gotta give! This endless, tiring circle of effort fuels burn out.

When burn out sets in, logic and rational thinking begin to fade away. Rationalizing bad behavior becomes easier. This is the point at which the clergy may seek out inappropriate affection from church members. The burnout problem becomes more than burn out, it becomes unethical behavior. At this point, clerics are risking their entire career.

How can this be managed in a way that is healthy? There are a few things that can help.
First, a supportive spouse can be a life saver. Second, a formal assessment of this need for affection will determine objectively for the clergy what their level of need is. An elevated need for affection is not a bad or good thing – it just is. What one does with this information is what determines good self-care. Another pro-active approach would be to consult a clergy coach. An open, honest conversation with that coach about how one responds to criticism and appreciation and how they affect pastoral behavior can help a cleric develop a personalized, planned response to these situations rather than become reactive in a manner than will compromise otherwise good ministry.