Why pastors are unprepared for ministry — and how to fix it

A Canadian pastor (who has ministered in England for decades) once told me that the early monastic movement involved an older monk mentoring a younger monk or two. The older helped the youngers in spiritual formation.

A friend with state board certification in counseling and a doctoral degree in psychology once took on post-doctoral work in psychoanalysis. Each student in the post-doctoral program not only had to read stacks of books and articles and attend hours upon hours of lectures, but each student also had to be psychoanalyzed by an elder analyst. Not just one session. My impression was that the post-doctoral students were attending analysis sessions for most of the three-year program. Mandatory analysis!

These demanding situaitons — however gracious — surely at times were uncomfortably personal.

That kind of close examination of the individual — the kind offered in early monasticism and psychoanalysis — is not everyone’s idea of a good time.

Still, conversations in those kinds of contexts illuminate hidden dynamics, agendas, weaknesses and flaws that could damage ministry. These can be hidden behind doctrinal and theological rightness.

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4 responses to “Why pastors are unprepared for ministry — and how to fix it

  1. I thoroughly agree. Psychoanalytical kinds of processes were birthed in or at least carried along by the church, but theology in the Western church became divorced from piety probably around the age of the scholastics. Freud and company came on the scene to fill the void the church had left.

    It sounds like you feel making psychotherapy mandatory for theological education is the solution. If I’m hearing you correctly, however, I wonder about those who would be passive-aggressively unwilling to engage with therapy. And doesn’t this still leave theology and piety divorced? Or am I misreading you?


  2. Hi Matthew — Thanks for commenting, and I’m looking forward to reading more of your blog. Excellent question. Here’s my suggestion of just a possible answer: Perhaps some denominations and even some individual churches would require completion of something like analysis or therapy or spiritual formation. So a student could obtain an academic degree from a seminary, but if he or she wanted to participate in ministry in a particular church, he/she would also have to go through an additional or accompanying time of input from an older and wiser person. To continue just as a possible answer, I think it’s reasonable to realize that some people will go through seminary for more academic and research purposes, while others will go through for pastoral ministry and counseling work with parishioners. Maybe a seminary would offer therapy/analysis/formation without making it mandatory, while a church or ministry could require it for employment or leadership roles.
    Carry on the conversation if you have time!


    • Colin,

      I’m having trouble sorting out what you mean exactly. Are you saying that denominations and churches should require something *like* therapy or should require actual professional therapy? It sounds like you mean the former. I like the idea, though given the lack of psychological understanding that pervades the church, I wonder if guidance from older and wiser persons is sufficient. I fear a potential blind-leading-the-blind kind of thing. Of course, if you call for professional therapy, there’s the plethora of mediocre or even bad therapists out there and the potential for resistance that we all carry and some are more prone to given their particular kind of brokenness. We’re just so fervent at holding on to our sins, aren’t we?

      I know a number of seminaries and Christian universities at least are integrating spiritual formation into their curricula, and it’s offered in some fashion at a significant number, even if not mandatory. Though what spiritual formation means exactly is often questionable. Some understandings are more helpful than others.


      • Oh, I see — I certainly do NOT mean just any older person in a local church. As to what kind of therapy, well, I don’t like the word “therapy” here because not everyone feels a need to be fixed, and some people are more well-adjusted than others. However, I think everyone needs help taking “an inside look” at themselves for numerous possible reasons. Still, I think you want something more specific than that, and I’ll be up-front about the fact that I’m only interested in answering your question half-way because I think other variables in specific institutions would probably take care of the rest. I certainly think someone who is either professional clergy or a certified, licensed psychologist should do the work of helping younger folks take an inside look, but beyond that, my purpose in writing the post was just to open eyes to the fact that there is more than just doctrinal rightness and theological precision for seminary students to get at, and I had some specific corners of Protestantism in mind when I wrote that. (Also, perhaps anti-Freudian Christians could pause and think about how the secular psychoanalytic community might just be doing a more intensive job with training, more intensive than seminaries.) In what I wrote, I stopped short of a firm conclusion because this is just a blog post, and in the big scheme of things, relatively few people will read or consider what I’ve written here! If my thoughts were heard and implemented, I’m sure various denominations and seminaries and churches would make their own variations in criteria. There is only so much anyone can hope to change! Like you said, “spiritual formation” alone means a few different things to different people. So I guess my points only go this far: Each person needs help taking a constructive inside look, and someone with training and some years of experience ought to be helping younger folks who want to go into ministry, ought to be helping them take an inside look. But some denominations will be more open to contemporary psychological and psychoanalytical modes, while others will not.