March 29, 2019

The Codependent Pastor

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Sometimes it feels nice to be needed, but if you need to be needed you may be a codependent pastor. In my previous article, Are You in a Codependent Church?, I defined codependency as excessive spiritual, emotional, or psychological reliance on a person or group. For many pastors, their identity is tied up in being a pastor, spiritual leader, or caregiver. They derive their sense of self from what others say about them or how much their church relies on them. This isn’t healthy service; it’s codependence.

You can’t lead people if you need people. – John Maxwell

Needy Pastors

Everyone needs some help and emotional support from time to time. When John Maxwell said, “You can’t lead people if you need people,” he wasn’t referring to this kind of need. He was talking about the obsessive neediness that drives people to seek all their emotional well-being from others. Jamey Johnson describes how it looks when the pastor is the needy person:

“Codependent pastoral leaders have a huge need for being Mr. Answer man or Ms. Answer woman, as well as not letting others take responsibility for themselves. Codependent pastoral leaders have a tendency to surround themselves with excessively needy people in hopes to become the ‘ONE’ to care-take the individual. Have you ever come across a pastor who has the tendency to become obsessed with and controlling of the people and problems in their environment? What about the pastor who is so preoccupied (excessively worried) with the problems or persons in the ‘church,’ so much so, that the needs of their family go unmet? Emotionally dependents, caretakers, rescuers are all names that fit the codependent pastor.”

How does this happen? What causes a pastor to become codependent? While there may be a variety of causes, I see two prominent reasons: family of origin and toxic congregations.

Family of origin

Codependence is most often carried over from relational patterns in our family of origin. Living with overbearing, critical, or manipulative parents can cause a child to believe they need to control the emotions of their parents in order to be loved. As this child grows into adulthood, if they don’t intentionally break the pattern of dysfunction, they will become either a manipulator or a people-pleaser. These are both forms of neediness that depend on the other person for emotional stability.

Toxic congregations

When a pastor enters into a dysfunctional congregation, it only takes a short while before he either confronts the dysfunction or adopts it himself. Pastors who inject health into an unhealthy system usually don’t last long. Dysfunctional churches resist healthy leaders until their negative patterns break or until the leader changes. Often the pastor’s frustration with the church will drive him out long before the church becomes healthy.

These toxic churches usually treat their pastor as a hired hand, not as a servant of God. The atmosphere is so unloving and controlling that the abused pastor can fall into people-pleasing as a survival tactic. They have been beaten into submission by criticism, power plays, and neglect. I’ve seen good leaders overwhelmed by toxic church cultures. It can happen to anyone.


The culture of pastoral ministry encourages pastors toward overworking. Driven by their own vision, many pastors will work 55 to 70 hours every week. This drivenness can become self-destructive as the effects of stress take their toll on the body and mind. Working more than 40 hours a week benefits no one. Starting with Henry Ford in 1926, studies of workplace habits show that working more than 40 hours per week diminishes effectiveness and productivity. Those extra hours are wasted! The 200 Churches podcast interviewed ministry coach Dave Jacobs; they say:

“Dave encourages all the pastors he coaches to schedule themselves 35 hours in a week. Why? Because being a pastor can really take it out of you! We take ‘work’ home with us, send emails on the go, talk to our spouses about the latest goings on at the church, and generally carry the spiritual burden of the church 24/7. If we’re not careful, we can start to work 50, 60, or even 70+ hours a week! That’s bad for our health and definitely bad for the health of those around us.”

Sometimes the temptation to overwork doesn’t come from drivenness but from the unrealistic expectations of the congregation. These expectations placed on the pastor (and his family) create a stress-filled, people-pleasing environment. Jeff Brumley explains:

“The temptation to please a congregation – or some of its more influential members – can be so strong that it detracts from a minister’s ability to function in the Christ-focused way he or she is called to do. In turn, lay people come to rely on ministers for inspiration and motivation, thus denying themselves authentic participation in the ‘priesthood of all believers.’”

A Christ-focused pastor will adopt the slow rhythms of Jesus’ unhurried life (e.g. Luke 5:16; Mark 1:35). This will allow him the space to recover from stress, love his family, and worship God in his own Sabbath rest.

Learn Self-Differentiation

How can a pastor break the cycles of neediness and overwork? By learning self-differentiation and identity in Christ – the realization that who I am is found in Jesus not in my church. To do this we need to have the courage to say no to the demands of others. This isn’t easy. When we say no, people get mad. We need to learn to find our priorities in God so that we aren’t just saying no to people but yes to God. Scott Endress explains how we find this ability through our inner life with God:

“Of course we don’t want people to hate us. There is pastoral risk in saying no to the wrong person as well as in our aversion to conflict and disagreement. Instead of being outer directed, which most pastors are, it may be time to look at our core, our center, our true self, not as servant, but as beloved child of God, the lover of our soul.”

Differentiation of self comes from Murray Bowen’s theory of family systems. This separateness describes how a person with a developed, healthy sense of self is able to distinguish between emotional pressures and the facts of the situation. When we root our sense of self in Christ’s work for us and our identity as a child of God, we are more free from the emotional pressures of others. When we have the wisdom of God, the wisdom of the world (what God calls foolishness) is not so enticing.

Practice Holy Indifference

One of the best ways to root our identity in Christ and to achieve separateness is to practice holy indifference. This doesn’t mean we become cold and heartless toward others. It means we seek to become indifferent to everything but God’s will. As we seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, we are actually able to love others better. Holy indifference makes us more loving and Christlike. As Jesus said, “My food, is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work” (John 4:34).

Holy indifference isn’t something we can just put on; it requires a work of God. To become truly separate and focused only on God, we have to ask the Holy Spirit to change our hearts. As we pray for the miracle of focusing on God’s will alone, we are slowly changed into what we pray for. The Holy Spirit loves to grant this request because his work is to transform us into the image of Christ (Romans 8).

As we become more focused on God’s will, we also become indifferent to our own desires and to the expectations of others. Our neediness and people-pleasing will diminish. This gives us the freedom to say “no” in a kind and gentle way. Rather than being a codependent pastor, we become God-dependent pastors. Isn’t that what the church needs?