Pastor as Emotional Surrogate

When you read the title of this post, if you know anything about counseling, your red flags are probably going off because you’re thinking “codependency” but I want to explain more specifically what I mean. The theory of pastoral care that I am operating under is the pastor is like the “friend who sticks closer than a brother” Proverbs 18:24. He is a person who walks along side you and tries to model the love of Christ. A friend who provides wisdom, who helps you see what is going on in your heart without judgment.

If you are walking along side a person in that role, especially a person who is less than healthy, but really anyone, you will experience what I call “emotional displacement”. You are taking the emotional burdens that their other relationships have been unable to bear. For example, let’s take a person with severe rejection issues. A person like this often has at least one of their parental relationships completely broken. A person like this also acts in ways that ensure they get more rejection. They might have awkward communication styles, or say things at in appropriate times, etc. These behaviors will run off any “normal” person who just wants to be a normal friend. This means that the person experiences more and more rejection. In fact, some times they will test you by dong things designed to make you reject them.

In this role as “emotional surrogate” you do not react like a normal person, by rejecting, leaving, mocking, etc. You act like the perfect “Christ-friend” who loves them in the midst of their dysfunction. And by that I don’t mean “you’re dysfunctional, but I love you anyway.” I mean you overlook their behavior and continue to stay in the friend posture anyway. This is a lot like what a parent does. When your child acts up, you do not reject them, you correct them and continue your posture of unconditional love. And as a parent, you might be selective about what you correct and when because the most important thing is that the child maintain that love connection to you regardless of what else might happen.

What you are doing a parent is modeling a healthy relationship, and helping your child conform to that healthy relationship. If you get down and have a childish argument or mock or pout in response to your child, then of course you are modeling an unhealthy relationship, and they will enter into life without those capacities. Which as a pastor, is exactly what you will encounter a lot of. People who never had a healthy relationship where unconditional love was modeled and therefore they have to rely on various coping mechanisms. You are in some ways trying to participate with God as he “re-parents” the person. In that role you have to model unconditional love and show them how to better respond to their issues.

This doesn’t mean you are actually “over” the person to the extent a parent is. Again, you are more in the posture of an older brother, or perhaps an adult parent. A friend who loves all the time, who knows things, and who helps you stop sabotaging your life. I call this an “emotional surrogate” because you are playing the role of Christ’s earthly model, the perfectly loving person.

What this means is that if you are emotionally invested at all, you will experience all kinds of emotional fall out. For example, some people run hot and cold. They will be extremely open, and move forward quickly for a while, and then later they will just shut down or disappear.  This of course is a hurtful behavior. As a normal friend, you might simply just quit calling, but as the pastoral friend, you simply pick back up and continue to model love. Now this does not mean you do not address their behavior. In fact, that’s a key part of what you are doing in this role — progressively addressing their various dysfunctional behaviors. But you need to do so in “priority order.” You don’t just fire off and start correcting everything they do, you work one item with them, while you wink at others.

When you begin to address these issues, what you will find beneath are the true pastoral issues. “Why did you disappear for a week?” might lead to “Because I was afraid I was burdening you emotionally” which gives you the opportunity to reinforce your love for them. As you reinforce your love, you are demonstrating to them what it’s like to really be loved by God. You are helping their heart learn a new behavior.  Whoever was in their life before was easily run off by their strange behavior, but you aren’t. You are modeling God’s relentless and constant love. By playing that role, you help them to really grasp God’s love and release the dysfunctional behavior.

Part of my message here is that this will cause pain. Loving someone who is functional who really loves you back (like your spouse) of course has ups and downs and moments of pain, but loving someone who is less functional and less able to appreciate and reciprocate your love is hard. When they run away from you, it hurts. When they shut you down, it hurts. When they reject specifically because you loved them, it hurts even more. I have found, however, that feeling this pain helps you really understand God’s love at a whole different level, since this is exactly how God loves you all the time. He loves when you ignore Him, and He keeps on loving, seeking you, forgiving you, and always being nice regardless of what you do. In response we run, reject, and do all kinds of dysfunctional things. Of course if you don’t “get down into the trenches” with them you can avoid the pain, and just dole out advice, but I just don’t see God that way. He came down to earth into the middle of our lives and experiences it with us.

In your role as pastor, there are limits and boundaries of what exactly this means, but I fundamentally believe that this kind of “bonded love” is the conduit through which the healing flows. You form a bond with the person, and show them love through their seasons, which you help them deal with the roots of the behavior as well a changing the behavior itself.

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