Today the minister is taking a closer look at the potential area of cooperation between pastor and psychiatrist, religion and mental health. Organizations and conferences formed to implement cooperation have greatly benefited the participants.


Demand for working unity arose for several reasons. As the pastor moved among his people, he felt a need to become more conversant with the complexities of human nature. Even as a seminarian, he had had trepidations about the practical features of pastoral duties. Later he surmised that his theological training had not fully prepared him to meet the crises of congregational life. In visiting the sick and sorrowing, he sensed at times that his approach was inappropriate and often less than assuring.

The minister also became uncomfortable about the attitude of mild disdain toward him, occasionally expressed by students of psychology or other scientists. Although he resented this attitude, he suspected that if properly applied and integrated, contributions from the field of psychology might be useful in his own work. Some ministers rejected that idea as so much modern sentimentality, while others, in their enthusiasm for the new look, elevated psychology above theology. The majority, however, were instinctively drawn to new perspectives that would increase the effectiveness of their pastoral work and enlarge their role as ministers of reconciliation.

The need for a wider understanding of human functioning was evident also in other areas of social relationships. At one time child training, formal education, penology, and industrial relations were marked by a flavor of retaliation against obvious, conscious misbehavior, rather than by a realization of complex motivations contributing to it. Today progress has been made in these fields, but there is still room for further investigation and deeper knowledge.

Objections have been raised as to the inroads which psychology has made in the study of religion, and many have expressed fear that the former discipline might displace the principal pastoral prerogatives of authority. Intelligent application of psychology, however, does not minimize the stark reality of sin, nor ascribe all misconduct to “sickness,” nor rule out the importance of personal responsibility, nor supplant scriptural authority. It is no substitute for the work of the ministry, but can be an enriching supplement to it. Any understanding of patterns of action and behavior will make pastoral care more effective.

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The pastor does not have to become an expert in human personality or acquire a detailed knowledge of mental and emotional aberration. Neither does a psychologist have to aspire to be a teacher in Christian faith and living. The pastor remains a minister of spiritual reconciliation, and his calling requires him to enter often into the lives of his people, both to share their heartaches and appreciate their deepest needs and aspirations.


As the pastor encounters mental and emotional disorders, and also patterns of antisocial conduct, he can evaluate them only in the broader perspective of the whole personality. The personality operates as a unit, and a disturbance in one aspect decisively affects all.

A distinction must be made between “person” and “personality.” The person, the unity of body and soul, is a mystery beyond scientific search. However, man’s personality is decidedly an object of philosophical reflection and scientific study. It is a product of constitutional endowments and propensities, and its character structure has developed in and through interpersonal relationships. The interaction of propensities and characteristics causes the personality to be in a constant state of flux, either growing or regressing. Like a prism, its facets determine its brilliance or dullness.


Child psychology is a broad and fruitful field of study because the emotions bear heavily upon the development of personality. The impact of emotions is most evident in the impressionable and pliable infant and child. The child derives his attitudes, feelings, sentiments, desires, and inclinations largely from the atmosphere of the home. Parental friction, anger, disparagement, and rejection (of which “oversmothering” is one form) almost invariably arouse emotional reactions that cripple the growth of his personality. Poisons of fear, distrust, and rebellion infuse his character.

Conversely, the glow of personal warmth, firm and consistent guidance, enduring love and support cultivate a self-dignity that promotes sociality and a life of service. One who receives such loving interest is able to love others because he accepts himself. His inner unity and security stimulate physical well-being, intellectual expansion, moral conviction, social skill, volitional decisiveness, and spiritual strength. Early emotional experiences will have vibrant repercussions in his adult life, even though their effects may be modified and revised by later influences.

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The spiritual harmony of the adults about him significantly sets the emotional tone of the child’s personality. Through the eyes of his parents, he sees life and adopts their conception of God. After all, it is his parents who constitute his whole universe. He draws his strength from them to grapple with a strange and often threatening world. His growing love and trust readily appropriate the spiritual dimension of love for God if he sees evidence of this in his parents. On the other hand, resentment and distrust can blind him to the existence and possibility of this spiritual relation. In later life, he may project his rebellion against all figures of authority. While bitterness and fear are dominant in his nature, God will remain to him an object to defy.

The pastor will do well, then, to look behind the scene and note motivations that have arisen from conflicting experiences and meaningful events in a person’s earlier life. Current stresses and strains also have a bearing on one’s attitudes, but they are more likely to act as aggravating factors that tip the balance and bring inner turmoil to the surface. Each problem of alcoholism, marital discord, social deviation, moral delinquency, and spiritual laxity has its own unique background, and any lack of positive response to pastoral ministrations may be rooted in the person’s emotional distortion as well as to willful indifference or antagonism. Such an individual, therefore, cannot be expected to change his ways by means of superficial, meaningless counseling.


There are times when a pastor is required to take official action with a member who shows no outward sign of repentance. In these circumstances, let him ask whether the individual has willfully hardened his heart or is being carried downstream by a force beyond his control? In many instances, there is no simple answer. A Christian does well to recognize that the disruptive forces of sin are constantly at work, and they express themselves in conscious defiance and disobedience. But that sin also manifests itself subjectively in inner isolation and estrangement is not so easily recognized.

Any disunity separates man from himself, his neighbor, and God. Fortunately, a state of disorganization in human life can be sufficiently modified for a while by the healing power of human love, and the recipient of such love may enjoy an adequate degree of personal unity. However, any deprivation of this love will revive and intensify the desolation of his former dilemma, and will in turn show up the basic anxiety and disturbance in the social relationships of the individual. Thus, in a sense, every personality breakdown is a sign of distress, a cry for help, an attempt to restore inner unity and safety. In the face of such perplexities, the pastor should proceed with a caution consonant with charity and patience.

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The apparent paradoxes of human reactions may be clarified by an analysis of specific situations. Marital discord is often a sign of personality imbalance in which one partner or both may possess insufficient resources to establish marital bond. Responsibilities in married life lead to further sapping of strength and result in bickering and recriminations which subsequently become more violent and culminate in threats of divorce. Fear of separation and isolation causes one or the other to grasp feverishly at a tenuous hold on himself, and in so doing he defends himself against the onslaughts of that fear by relating his turmoil to current incidents of money, sexual incompatibility, rivalry for the children’s affections, or the attentions of a third person. These outward disagreements are usually the complaints presented to the pastor who may be able to smooth them over temporarily. But if the deeper ramifications of the family trouble have been left untouched, they are certain to recur in full force.

Similarly, the alcoholic seeks the release of his inhibitions to overcome his feelings of dependence and resentment. He needs desperately to function at a mature level but realizes only his inability to attain to it. He seeks in alcohol a way to conquer the deficiency he cannot define. As the effect of alcohol proves to be only an illusion, he increasingly loses the esteem he set out to find, and any appeal to his will to stop drinking is fruitless because of his inherent inability to exercise it.

By being aware of the vagaries of human motivation, the pastor can lighten the social pressure of stigma and fear of contamination that it so often placed on people in distress. His forthright, calm handling of personal problems will cause parishioners to value his understanding and feel more free to consult him in the earlier phases of their personal or family problems. He may enter his people’s homes whenever it appears necessary; and, if he is alert to incipient forms of trouble, he can possibly nip the serious disturbance in the bud.

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In conference the parishioner may be strangely silent, or he may, conversely, engage in extensive circumlocution in order to evade the core of his problem. The careful pastor will respect these sensitivities as protective measures against painful and shameful revelations. Because they also give clues to the direction and extent of the person’s difficulty, he will excel in the art of skillful listening and evaluation, avoiding as much as possible the introduction of premature or extraneous interpretations to the specific situation.

Another conferee may speak volubly of intimate affairs to implicate the pastor personally and gain favor for himself. Still another may touch unwittingly on certain propensities within the pastor, to which the latter may raise his own defenses for maintaining his emotional balance and respond with coolness or excessive sympathy. In cases where the rapport is likely to suffer, the pastor may be called upon to evaluate his own emotional status.

Finally, the pastor may become discouraged when the resolution of a particular problem is delayed or unattained. However, such an outcome must not be regarded as failure on his part, for it usually is an indication that the problem lies outside of his sphere of activities. He is justified, in cases of this nature, in seeking assistance from qualified persons in the community. A working relationship with mental health clinics or other community health organizations is both useful and essential in the discharge of his pastoral duties. In fact, it is good insurance for the preservation of his own sanity, for in his position, he cannot escape the claims people lay on him in almost every contingency.

Johannes D. Plekker, M.D., is a psychiatrist at Pine Rest Sanitarium, Grand Rapids. A graduate of the University of Michigan and the Wayne University Medical School, he has lectured for University of Michigan extension courses.

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