Q&A with a traumatologist on how to prevent clergy abuse and burnout

Baptist News Global [Jacksonville FL]

June 7, 2021

By Mark Wingfield

The unwillingness or inability to do the hard work of healing from one’s past is fueling the crisis of abusive behavior among clergy, according to a seasoned traumatologist with theological training.

“As Richard Rohr has wisely noted, suffering that has not been transformed will be transmitted,” explained John Loren Dotson, a licensed psychotherapist and certified expert traumatologist who also is an ordained pastor.

Dotson added: “There is simply no substitute for doing the hard work of healing from one’s past.”

That’s why as he continues to hear weekly news about clergy sexual abuse and the abuse of power among both clergy and lay leaders within the church, he wants to get across one simple message: All pastors need therapeutic help to understand their past and how it influences their responses in the present.

Making this kind of mental and emotional work as essential as learning basic theology would dramatically reduce the frequency and severity of abuse cases that occur within churches, he believes.

This is based not just on general observation but on his 30 years of work in individual, couples, family and group professional counseling — including a lot of work with clergy and lay leaders.

Dotson earned a bachelor of arts degree in biblical theological studies from Lincoln Christian College and a master of science in professional counseling from Georgia State University. He also has studied biblical integration at the Psychological Studies Institute, now Richmont University, in Atlanta, and has over 30 hours of post-graduate studies in theology from Master’s Seminary in Los Angeles and New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

Amid this pedigree, he adds one other crucial and transformative influence: He was privileged to study under and be personally ministered to by the late Eugene Peterson, translator of The Message version of the Bible and one of the most admired biblical teachers and authors of the late 20th century.

Dotson, who lives and works in Atlanta, recently engaged with BNG in a conversation about why therapeutic work is essential to clergy health and well-being. What follows here is a lightly edited version of that conversation.

As we consider the various ways pastors can become abusive — whether sexual or otherwise — what might we surmise has been missing from their preparation for ministry that enabled such behavior?

The simple yet crucial missing element is the requirement to place one’s learning history of unhealed relational woundedness before the Lord in a safe, respectful, compassionate therapeutic relationship with a qualified therapist trained and experienced in the art of trauma resolution.

Years of research done by leading experts in the field of trauma resolution (Bessel van der Kolk, Dan Siegel, Bruce Perry, et al.) demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt that the resolution of painful relational experiences, let alone other forms of trauma, is not achieved through traditional talk therapy, which the overwhelmingly vast majority of counselors are limited to.

As Richard Rohr has wisely noted, suffering that has not been transformed will be transmitted. Relational conflict, abuse and neglect — the most tragic examples of which are perpetrated by spiritual leaders who by their perceived power, credibility and authority are particularly positioned to wound the unassuming flock of God — are caused by the triggering of individuals’ unhealed pasts, due to the way the survival brain misperceives threats to one’s need to feel safe and significant and responds as if one’s life or sense of self-worth is actually being threatened.

This dynamic of misperception of threat to ones’ safety or significance is of course by no means the only reason for abuse by leaders but factors into these horrible acts given the damage inflicted by their personal history of unresolved experiences.

When leaders who themselves were sexually abused as children become perpetrators, it is almost always an attempt to exert power to fill the vacuum of powerlessness and shame they feel. When the unhealed past is triggered, people — regardless of role or position — can react with fight, flight, freeze or appease responses, all of which are designed to overpower, neutralize or otherwise escape misperceived threat in the pursuit of survival.

Now, these responses are adaptive and necessary when an actual literal threat is at hand but are extremely maladaptive and destructive when displayed in response to the misperception of threat (which represents 99% plus of what people maladaptively react to). For example, how many times have leaders in a church board or staff meeting become combative, critical and defensive with one another just because they felt slighted or invalidated by a fellow leader?

I’ve been on enough elder boards to see firsthand the surfacing of insecurities and unhealed wounds to know how common this is. At one point many years ago, I became defensive in an elder meeting when I perceived that certain staff members were not being treated with kindness and consideration, the same way I felt mistreated as a child by my father. I had to own the healing of those wounds to mature as a leader. I remember back in my seminary days hearing about two Dallas Theological Seminary students who got into a fistfight over a theological difference of opinion! How tragic when our unhealed wounds trigger reactions so profoundly unbecoming of the One we claim to follow.

In the case of clergy sexual abuse of parishioners, we know that many of these perpetrators were humiliated and stripped of power and control as victims of sexual violation themselves. The resulting damage to one’s sense of self and the experience of powerlessness that sexual abuse causes results in the perceived need to exert power and control over others as the individual seeks to overcome the painful feelings of insignificance originally inflicted upon them.

The Catholic Church is notably and egregiously responsible for untold thousands of victims, in particular, I believe due in part to the unbiblical requirement of celibacy when the Scripture indicates that celibacy is a spiritual gift (1 Corinthians 7:32-34), not something that is easily practiced just because a vow is made. Singleness requires the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.

Without such a basic requirement to understand the effect of past unhealed wounds on present functioning and do the work to resolve these injuries, seminaries will continue to graduate individuals who may have a good grasp on theology and church administration but are woefully unprepared to relate to themselves and others with the humility, kindness and compassion of the Jesus they profess to follow — let alone radically retool church culture around the centrality of safe healing relationship as the quintessential feature of genuine discipleship.

Given the reality of ministry as spiritual warfare, how much more critical is it for leaders to do the underlying work of their healing as the failure to do so makes them exponentially more vulnerable to the influence of the enemy?

It seems a number of seminaries in the past 20 years or so have added a focus on “self care” for clergy, but has this focused on the right things? So much of this seems to relate to superficial things rather than hard internal work. Is that a fair assessment?

In my professional opinion, it is a fair assessment indeed. Self-care is vital but it is not a substitute for doing the hard internal work of what I believe Jesus was referring to when he said in Luke 9:23-24: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”

Paul referenced this same process of dying to our willfulness in many of his letters.

Regarding the importance of self-care, in any capacity where the constant giving of emotional, spiritual, physical and mental resources is central, all people-helpers are susceptible to compassion fatigue and other forms of exhaustion. Self-care is critical to sustaining one’s health and longevity. As a traumatologist, self-care is a non-negotiable part of what enables me to continue the kind of intense therapeutic work I engage in with trauma survivors.

To illustrate the limitations of self-care, though, imagine a person with a broken leg who relies on crutches and frequent spells of sitting. This approach is not a root-cause treatment of the issue but rather an attempt to minimize the pain and discomfort of the root problem. The answer is to heal the broken leg. Once healed, self-care will still be essential because the use of one’s legs requires respite from physical activity, but the functioning of the person is vastly improved once the root cause has been resolved.

There is simply no substitute for doing the hard work of healing from one’s past. Jesus could not have been clearer about the cost of following him: Death to the false, willful self.

Now, I realize this concept may not necessarily be commonly referenced in pastoral circles, but it is a central concept in psychotherapy. The false self, or what I refer to with my patients as the survival self, is the self typically formed unconsciously in response to painful experiences of abuse, neglect and trauma of all kinds, most commonly experienced in childhood. It is the self that desperately seeks to avoid additional experiences of fear and shame but uses unhealthy measures to achieve its supposedly self-protective objectives. The list of these maladaptive strategies is seemingly endless, include things like addictions, arrogance, pride, pretense, rigid black-and-white thinking, posturing for power and influence, defensiveness, hiding and denying, abusive control, self-righteousness, lack of humility and accountability, willful refusal to accept responsibility for correcting wrongdoing and resolving one’s history of hurts, and appearing to be one person in public but living another life behind closed doors.

Without the commitment to address our learning history of unhealed wounds, spiritual leaders are vulnerable to the use of these maladaptive self-protective responses to the detriment of themselves and those under their charge.

Particularly in the free church tradition — such as Baptists and Bible churches and non-denoms — there are few mechanisms in place to flag abusive persons before they take on leadership. How might we do a better job on this?

Unfortunately, this blind spot will not be mitigated until the church returns to the authentic model of biblical discipleship as demonstrated by Jesus himself. This is the sad legacy of form replacing function that all organizations are susceptible to.

That Jesus commanded us to make disciples makes the churches’ failure to do so as he modeled rather shocking to me. With all due respect to seminaries and their leaders, Jesus did not prepare his core disciples by establishing a seminary. He led a small group of rough-around-the-edges yet committed men in a three-year process of intimate learning about their flaws, fears and failures and taught them to discover their true God-created selves.

I love Gene Peterson’s translation of John 1:12 — “But whoever did want him, who believed he was who he claimed and would do what he said, he made to be their true selves, their child-of-God selves.”

For example, Jesus taught them that power is not position or posturing but rather serving with humility and compassion. Because the best definition of a leader I’ve ever heard is “the one who goes first,” until pastors-in-training are required to do the dying work of healing their learning histories of personal suffering, those under their care will not know how to find healing for themselves. We are delivered from suffering through suffering.

What should be the role of therapy both in pastoral preparation and in the pastoral life?

In a word, essential. Churches and religious organizations are populated by sincere but broken people who often do not have the training or personal maturity to provide genuine seekers of spiritual growth and healing with a safe confidential context for processing their histories of suffering.

Virtually all church attenders, to one degree or another, feel it is not safe to disclose the actual hurts, failures and traumas of their life without fear of privacy and confidentiality being breached, or of eliciting the judgment of others whose unresolved issues have been triggered by their courageous vulnerability.

Many of my patients through the years have shared heartbreaking stories of disclosing, for example, profound emotional abuse in their marriages only to be told that the only justification for divorce is adultery or abandonment by an unbelieving spouse. Clearly, these are scripturally evidenced justifications. Tragically, many pastors do not seem to understand that the Bible was not written to codify every conceivable way that one spouse can denigrate and destroy the soul of another — and trust me, I have heard of dozens of such destructive patterns of behavior and witnessed the pain and suffering caused, none of which are ever mentioned in Scripture.

What is particularly disturbing about the rigidity of certain pastors’ positions (some of them quite well known) is that it completely ignores the fact that the Jesus of Scripture always chose compassion for human suffering over law — always. The legalists of Jesus’ day hated him for the posture of his heart toward such suffering and relentlessly attempted to trap him in some kind of unscriptural position all to justify their uncompassionate self-serving misrepresentations of his Father’s heart.

If I sound like I am being hard on these kinds of leaders, I am. Jesus was furious at those who chose law over compassion for human suffering, and so am I. Many of his parables and stories were specifically designed to illustrate the Father’s heart for human suffering. There is, therefore, no excuse for such blindness.

Seminaries need to require therapy for every candidate for the ministry due to the sacred fiduciary responsibility of shepherding those in their care. As a licensed psychotherapist in the state of Georgia, the state demands rigorous attention to the preparation of those entrusted with the emotional well-being of clients. Why are seminaries and churches not also required to do all that can be done to ensure such care and protection for the hearts of God’s people?

Due to the ongoing demands of life and ministry, pastors also should be required by elder boards to seek therapy in the pursuit of further healing and ongoing self-care.

Ironically, pastors have traditionally been called upon to counsel their parishioners without adequate training for doing so in seminary. You cannot adequately lead another person down a road you have not first traveled yourself. Pastors who do pursue their healing are at the same time learning from professional therapists how better to counsel their parishioners.

Need any more be said than the words of Paul in 2 Corinthians 1:3-4: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.”

Why isn’t this happening? Is it a financial issue, a stigmatism, a lack of time?

The best analogy to explain the answer to this question seems to be the American worship of pragmatism in general and the American educational system, which reflects its values, in specific.

Although I do believe it is the responsibility of parents to train children to become godly caring people, the fact is that often this does not happen, at least not adequately, and so the school system, which, in part, represents the responsibility of society to protect and care for its citizens, needs to teach children how to do life well.

The social context of school is a ready-made place to teach and model the value of and ability to achieve emotionally safe connection with oneself and others through compassion for the fears and hurts of oneself and others, kindness and caring, considering the needs of others as equally as important as those of oneself, and numerous other internal skills and attitudes for actually becoming more than a money-making machine. It also is the ideal setting for inculcating the healing supportive power of safe community.

In other words, as valuable as academic learning is, virtually nothing of purely academic value equips students to be healthy people, to know how to love God, oneself and others with humility and dignity — the essentials of life well-lived.

Institutions have a preference for that which appears to be measurable (“So, pastor, how many did you have in attendance this Sunday?”). As necessary as they are, courses and exams fit this template nicely, but the actual process of transformation does not.

Transformation is not easy, measurable, clean or efficient; it is messy and frustrating, difficult and often discouraging. It requires that we have the courageous power of compassion with which to face our fears and failures and those of others. It means unplugging our easily offended ears so we can contain the anger, confusion, desperation and sometimes profanity of wounded souls who can’t otherwise find the words to express the speechless pain they feel — not to mention the patience and tenderness of God’s Spirit supporting each soul in and through their redemptive suffering until the image of Christ is more fully-formed within.

The best answer I can give to why this is not happening to any significant degree is that the power of fear and shame often prevents such effort. Until the very culture of the church supports the need for providing safety and acceptance of our humanity, many Christians will not see the absolute need for a safe way to experience the transforming power of the unconditional love of God through the church.

I left the vocational ministry because in the churches I served there was very little appetite for authentic discipleship, so it didn’t take long before I realized I had to leave to help God’s people heal. For many people, life is essentially about hiding the reality of the fear and shame they feel rather than stepping into it to be delivered from its debilitating influence.

Without the leaders of the church doing this work first, it is unrealistic that the institutional church at large will be restructured to support this biblical model of discipleship.

Another factor affecting the lack of attentiveness to preparing for ministry has to do with how some pastors fear losing their perceived spiritual authority if they admit their brokenness and not only pursue healing but openly share their stories of suffering and the benefits of therapy with their people.

I remember sitting in a seminary class with about 30 of my fellow students when the professor, a senior pastor of a large congregation, proceeded to tell us in no uncertain terms never to let a congregant get close to us, let alone know anything personal about us lest we be perceived as less than authoritative and lose our moral-spiritual high ground as spiritual leaders. What resulted was nothing short of a mutiny as one by one we vociferously confronted this professor with how egregiously inauthentic his attitude was. He might as well have said, “Well, gentlemen, because we all know that the sheep are stupid, dirty and do things that can make your life difficult, whatever you do keep your distance from them lest they sully your life!” Regardless of what was intended, that is exactly what we all heard and were shocked by.

What kind of experiences have you had in counseling parishioners who have been traumatized by clergy? What’s the scope of this issue?

The scope of this issue is both quantitatively and qualitatively significant.

Quantitatively, I have had and continue to have many of my clients express the need to heal from the wounds of outright abuse as well as egregious insensitivity and uncaring attitudes and behaviors by leaders in the church.

Qualitatively, the breadth and depth of the wounds inflicted are deeply disturbing. I have treated everything from years of weekly rape by Catholic priests, to the betrayal of individuals who served faithfully for years only to be replaced in their church positions because they were no longer young-looking enough to fit the seeker model.

I know there are no perfect pastors. Perfect people are not what is needed to stop the hurt. What is needed, in addition to leaders doing their healing work, is the awareness of and sensitivity to how the very culture of the average church reinforces the very structures of power and authority that make believers extraordinarily susceptible to experiences of hurt and betrayal.

Believers are taught to trust and respect their leaders. Paul understood the inherent danger in allowing leaders to have such influence, which is why he required the standard of godliness and integrity to be so high. I have served on elder boards with men of little depth or character just because someone thought it was a good idea to have an attorney or some wealthy businessman on the board. Not a lot of pastoral care was accomplished there.

The cry of the heart wounded by the church is always the same: “I never expected to be treated this way in the church. I feel so betrayed, so how am I ever supposed to believe I will feel loved and safe out in the world?”

How could these situations have been prevented or made better? What could have been done differently?

Until the model of power, knowledge and position is replaced with the Christ-centered power of humility, seeking and serving, seminaries and churches won’t make much progress toward preventing these weaknesses or making things better. The means to such a radical reorienting of spiritual leaders to the character and model of the One we claim to follow will require the acceptance and application of the kind of specific tools and strategies commonly used by professional therapists and professional life coaches.

Counselors typically focus on recovery, coaches on discovery (of strengths, gifts, resources). Therapists trained in trauma resolution are even more effective since virtually all dysregulation of human behavior, thought and emotion is traumagenic in nature, meaning it has its origin in and is directly affected by shock and/or developmental trauma.

The therapeutic community has developed extraordinarily helpful tools for assessing and treating underlying problem areas such as untreated trauma, depression and anxiety — which are commonly the result of unresolved trauma — not to mention serious undiagnosed conditions like personality disorders, which can wreak havoc in relationships.

I personally know pastors who are narcissists and cause tremendous pain to those under their care. God help you if you dare confront them with the effect they have on others. The culture needs to be reorganized around the kind of safe compassionate discipleship I have described and, fortunately, the infrastructure already exists. The people-helping professions of coaching and counseling have tremendous knowledge of the process of transformation if church leaders would only realize this and pursue what they have to offer.

Of course, pastors who understand the limits of their training readily refer their parishioners to qualified professionals, but therapy involves time and resources that not every son or daughter of God necessarily has. If the church were better structured to embrace and encourage deep healing and more willing to seek the guidance of those of us on the front lines of people’s suffering, many more souls could be helped and the influence of the church significantly improved.

We the church still, after all these years, seemingly have not yet understood that unbelievers are not impressed with our pious veneer of goodness when they know and see us in our wounds and flaws and failures. They are looking for a place that teaches people how to be real.

We have missed the opportunity to emphasize not our piety but the mercy and grace of Jesus for the human condition. Ironically, one of the most helpful tools in the spiritual transformation of seeking people is usually relegated to the church basement – Alcoholics Anonymous. The power of this program is in the spiritual focus on humble admission of one’s struggles within a nonjudgmental safe context. The church could learn a lot from AA.

As we emerge from the isolation of COVID, what new dangers should we be on the lookout for?

Human beings were created for safe, unconditionally loving connection, which in clinical terms is referred to as secure attachment. COVID has wrought havoc on people’s need for connection in general, the fear of the unknown and isolation being the chief culprits.

As a therapist, I and my colleagues are being overwhelmed with a wave of people suffering from COVID-related anxiety and depression. Medical doctors are reporting the same. Relative to the question of dangers, COVID has been one of the more destructively polarizing issues in America as both the “freedom” side and the “responsibility” sides of the issue have clashed. Jesus warned us that a nation divided against itself cannot stand.

I have been deeply troubled by what I see as an “America first, Christianity second” mentality among a certain political brand of believers. I see this surrender of truly biblical values as more dangerous than the pandemic itself. As believers, we are not called to place our interpretation of the U.S. Constitution above that of the values of the kingdom of God. For example, how can a professed believer justify not considering “other’s needs above their own” and refuse to get a vaccination?

Is the Scripture not clear when it says in Philippians 2:1-4: “If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care — then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.”

The church has been hijacked by the politics of so-called “personal freedom” and “rights,” and we have lost our way, our will and our influence.

What advice would you give church pastor search committees or personnel committees based on your experience?

I would urge them to stop evaluating potential leaders simply by their resumes and CV’s and require a minimum of an initial evaluation by a qualified professional therapist (someone who is clinically trained and counsels from a Christ-centered perspective) with the results being communicated to a select group of leaders who understand the value of such an evaluation and would support the individual getting the help they need.

A candidate who demonstrates a humble acknowledgment of the need for healing and is willing to commit to transformation is a better candidate than someone who has not. Paul pointed out that the only way to truly minister with compassion to others is to have needed the compassion of God for one’s own struggles.