Motivation and the Ministry (abridged)

Malcolm R. Sutherland, Jr.

Berry Street lecture, 1957


read before the Ministerial Conference

Boston, Massachusetts

May 23, 1957


When a parishioner comes to us—in the pew on Sunday, in our study as an individ­ual with a problem, or in the parish parlor as a member of a study group—what canpsychology teach that will help us to under­stand him more fully and serve him more adequately? What insights from psychology can help us as ministers to see our task more clearly and fulfill it more effectively?


One contribution which psychology has made to our understanding of man is the recognition that every aspect of his nature and experience affects his thoughts, feel­ings, decisions, and actions—his total be­havior.


The experimental psychologist has dem­onstrated the influence of certain basic drives, appetites, and tendencies—the need for food and rest, companionship and sex; the tendency to avoid pain and seek com­fort. These may be more or less consciously recognized influences. There are others: our fears and feelings of guilt, our con­scious frustrations and obvious conflicts, our desires and ambitions and goals, our at­tachments and loyalties. Although we may be conscious of their existence and influ­ence, we may not recognize or understand their origins.


The depth psychologist has uncoveredthe existence of unconscious motivations—inner tensions and insecurities; compulsions, inhibitions, and fixations.


Not the least of the influences upon our behavior, the social psychologist adds, are the pressures under which we live: the frag­menting and depersonalizing forces in our industrial-urban society, the pressure toward conformity, the drive for success, and the need for safety in thought and se­curity in action.


Influences are intricately interwoven


Our entire life's history—physical, men­tal, emotional, and social, including our responses to all these forces, whether in conscious memory or not—influences our attitudes and learning, our judgments and decisions, and finally, our performance. All these influences upon human behavior are intricately interwoven. Indeed, they are often agonizingly in conflict.


Since psychology seeks to understand and reveal this complexity and its effect on hu­man behavior; and since we in the ministry are concerned with how people feel, and think, and live; all of us need whatever illu­mination psychology can give regarding human motivation.


To begin to understand and to affect hu­man lives, we must recognize and be disciplined by this insight: that the dynamics of human motivation are fantastically complex and interrelated and often uncomfortably antagonistic.


One particular aspect of this complexity is especially relevant to our task as ministers. Psychologists are now saying emphat­ically that of signal importance to human motivation is man's need for meaning, his need to have some picture of what life is all about, what his life is all about, some view of the world which includes him and involves him—within which he can locate himself and understand his experiences and measure his significance and his growth.


Man's picture of life—his faith, if youplease, in what life is all about—is not always enriching, or profound, or mature. It may be a view that ultimately fails to reinforce his emotional stability or his mental health. It can be, and often is, naïve and childish and illusory. It may even prove threatening and hostile to the very meaning man seeks. But whatever the character of man's view of life, he will have one, it seems apparent, for its need is fundamental.


To recognize and acknowledge this fact about man helps us distinguish our funda­mental task as ministers from that of the practicing psychologist, while its recogni­tion by the psychologist promises an in­creasingly rich working relationship be­tween our two disciplines.


It can hardly be considered the psycholo­gist's primary function to offer man a basis for significance, or ground for meaning. In his day-to-day labors, the psychologist must be concerned primarily with individualman's adjustment to the world immediately around him—to society.


But the minister is preeminently con­cerned with a man's faith, with his ulti­mate loyalties and profoundest convictions about the nature of life, and seeks not man's adjustment to society, but man's transfor­mation and the subsequent transformation of society in the light of this basic faith.


Minister must question everything


As a consequence, while the psychologist minimizes the making of judgments, the minister must bring into question everything about human life. It is his task to provide the larger setting within which man's total adjustment can be made and which gives his adjustment its ultimate value.


It is the minister's primary responsibility to offer from the richness of tradition and the wealth of human experience his ap­preciation of those worthwhile choices, hopeful convictions, and promising values that will give reliable coherence to men's lives, and through his ministry to provideopportunities for experiences that will test, challenge, and refine these values and man's appreciation of them.


When we ministers fail to distinguish between the two disciplines, we tend to embrace psychology not merely as a new tool but as a new definition of our central task. We tend to become preoccupied with helping men adjust to the here and the now, and to sidestep the question of life's pur­pose and destiny.


Even though the functions of minister and psychologist can be distinguished at this point, I do not suggest that the two disciplines separate here. It is precisely here that their relationship must be main­tained and their communication increased.


If the psychologist asks, "How can men become and remain sane?” and the minister asks, "To what should man direct his san­ity?” the promising answers a minister finds as to rewarding human goals help not only to reinforce that sanity but to enrich the psychologist's definition of human sanity. Similarly, the insights of the psychologist as to the elements necessary for the achievement of sanity should enrich the minister's appreciation of rewarding human goals.


We cannot afford to lose sight of the character of our primary function, which distinguishes us from the practicing psy­chologist.


No longer is it enough for us to conceive of our task merely as that of amateur psy­chologists, or passive listeners letting our parishioners get off their chests what they have on their minds; or to conceive of our task in terms of "psychological first aid," presumably until real help can come along; or merely to diagnose psychological malad­justment too serious for us to handle—im­portant secondary considerations as these may be.


Need to believe can't be by-passed                                                                                          

Pastoral counseling cannot avoid or by­pass man's basic need to believe, to have some fundamental convictions about the nature of life. We must counsel in such away as to encourage consideration of those enduring values in life, or those promising ways of life which have been discovered and in which we believe, and help to reduce barriers to their consideration, evaluation, acceptance, and achievement. We must help a man to understand himself not alone in limited psychological terms, but in view of a significant appreciation of life.


This requires counseling with all psychological insights, to be sure, but not alone to make choice possible, not even simply to make choices actual, but to make them ful­filling and fruitful.


There is a place in some counseling sit­uations for non-directive techniques, but religion points a direction. Religion deals with those values from which our lives derive their meaning. Direction is the task of re­ligion. We are transmitters of the valuable insights within our spiritual heritage, hand­ing on the accumulated wisdom about the rewarding goals of life—without arrogance but without apology.


As ministers, we are concerned with a man's faith, with the sustaining convictions that pull him through, the compelling con­victions that inspire and direct, the reward­ing convictions that enrich and ennoble, and the fulfilling convictions that release his spirit for creative expression and ultimate satisfaction.


As ministers, we are concerned with the loyalties which will serve man despite his psychological inadequacies and emotional instabilities, or the strains and stresses placed upon his psychological and emotional life.


Within the tradition of the free church and liberal religion, this is a highly disciplined responsibility. It is not enough merely to provide from the richness of our tradi­tion and history's wisdom one great and in­flexible faith to direct and motivate the lives of all men. It isn't even enough to provide men with the most promising alternatives our tradition can reinforce, contemporary experience justify, and modern learning re­spect—although this we must do if we are to be true to free man and our free tradition.


We must also help men develop within themselves the capacity to choose wisely and to refine the substance of the faith we pre­sent, rather than merely contrive to have them accept our wisdom as their own.


Assist men to make sound judgments


With today's psychological insights, we can learn enough about human motivation to manipulate people to do or to accept almost anything, if we are subtle enough or ruthless enough. But rather than manipulat­ing them for our own ends we believe to be theirs, we must use our increasing insights to assist men to make sound judgments of their own.


Further, we must not only seek, using all available psychological insights, to increase and maintain inner freedom, but, using all social courage and skill, we must also seek to increase and safeguard liberty, securing and preserving the free social order in which the right to make these choices is guaran­teed and in the atmosphere of which thesechoices can be made without penalty. For it is becoming increasingly clear to the psychologist that men must have both the inner capacity for a certain degree of free or non-compulsive behavior and thought, and the social opportunities for it in a milieu of liberty, in order to consider wisely, embrace fearlessly, and respond loyally to a promis­ing and reasonable faith.


Further, we in the liberal tradition mustseek to relate men to an ever-evolving frame of reference as to the meaning and destiny of human life, helping them through psy­chological insights to feel at home in this dynamic situation and to see their destiny in terms of considering and accenting ever-growing ends. In order to do justice to ma­turing man, conditions must permit a grow­ing view, without fear that growth, orchange or differences are wrong, or wicked, or weak.


There has been a discernible tendency within our own ministry, however, in the name of preserving freedom of choice and of faith, to fail to be specific about the na­ture of our own convictions, or to give our parishioners anything to choose. We have tended occasionally to operate with our own theology a secret, as though this were a virtue.               

To my mind, if we liberal ministers are to fulfill our claim of respect for the in­sights of science, we no longer can continue to belittle theology as though no right-thinking person need be concerned with it. For the very science we would acknowledge is making abundantly clear that basic to human motivation and, indeed, to mental health and emotional stability, is man's need to believe. Psychology will help make him capable of belief; we must help him discover what is worthy of belief.                                               

When a parishioner comes to us for help, we have an initial obligation to see his sit­uation in terms of the larger framework of our own convictions about the nature of life, and to relate to him and his problem in such a way as never to betray or deny our personal faith, but rather to express and re­veal it. At the same time we must fulfill our corresponding obligation to help him become the kind of free person who can dis­cover and build for himself a reliable faith that will place his problem in the perspec­tive of a comprehensive meaning for his whole life.                                                                                             

If you will accept this as a partial defini­tion of our primary responsibility, and if you will return to our first psychological insight about the complexity of human motivation, you will begin to see how difficult our task is.                                                                                                                                                                                         Ministers' motivation is complex, too


In the first place, it is not only our parish­ioners who are so complexly motivated and so difficult to move. We ministers are equally complex in our motivation.                        

We, too, are in some ways driven and in other ways self-directed. We, too, have con­scious drives which we recognize but the origins of which we do not always appreciate. We have our hopes, dreams and com­mitments, and loyalties. We, too, have unconscious motivations we do not recognize. We have been influenced by all the forces in our experience and have anxieties, inhibitions, and compulsions. This we need to remember.


But more important, we are dealing with man's over-arching need—his need for meaning—and occasionally we forget that our parishioner not only needs some picture of life, but that when he comes to us, he already has one. He comes to us with some picture which is serving him, however, in­adequately. To the degree that he feels de­pendent upon it for meaning, he will seek to defend it and maintain it. Indeed, as his life is measured by it, so his life helps to reinforce it, and even though he harbors reservations about its validity, he cannot eas­ily give it up.


No matter how sensitively and cautiously we function in our effort to enrich this pic­ture, we will appear to some degree as a threat, a threat to his fundamental serenity and sense of meaning.


It is important to recognize that we ap­pear so because he must indeed defend hisground of meaning until we can relieve his dependency upon its present exact and in­flexible character.


Even a man with a wholesome and crea­tive and fulfilling view, who is asked by us to re-examine it, or by our new insights has it challenged, sees us as a hostile force; and we must not be surprised at his resistance to it, or to us; nor should we interpret this resistance as his intentional cussedness; nor can we ever afford to take it personally and be offended by it. Rather, we must recognize that this resistance is natural and under­standable until we can introduce him to a clearly more rewarding and promising view.


Our parishioner, even though he may try hard and listen intently as we begin to share ideas, hears from us only what he is capable of hearing. He is limited by his own psychic complexity as to how he will consider it and what he makes of it, and he is limited still further as to what he will propose to do about it, and what he finally can do about it.


Thus, our insights may be altered, re­duced, misunderstood, ignored, or betrayed, and what we have conveyed, different as it may be from what we meant to convey, be comes one more factor in the person's total complex motivation to be expressed in some fashion through his limited talents and skills.


The wonder is not that we fail so often,but that we ever succeed!


In our haste, enthusiasm, sense of urgency, or dedication to principle, we cannot afford to forget the complexity of the personalities of those to whom we minister, nor the origin and persistence of the personal patterns and convictions we seek to challenge or to change.


Psychological insights ease task


The psychological insights we have beendiscussing, however, not only remind us how difficult our task is but also serve to assist us in achieving it. For example, to acknowl­edge the psychic complexities we are and the complexity of the parishioners with whom we deal helps us to recognize how much of our lives as human beings areirrationally motivated—that is, motivated at a level other than conscious reasoning. Once we recognize this, we shall no longer behave as though we can alter such patterns merely by rational argument. Neither shall we con­clude that the alternative to rational argu­ment is high emotional appeal.


Rather, we shall recognize that if we are to influence irrationally motivated behavior, we first must seek to have our parishioner understand and accept the irrational basis for it. We must help him become aware of what it is that makes him behave; think, or decide in the fashion he does, and then help him combat these forces effectively.


There is a further and somewhat subtler psychological insight which disciplines us even more rigorously.


In dealing with patients, psychiatrists have discovered that whenever they increase a person's desire to approach a worthwhile goal, they inevitably increase his fear and conflict. Even after they have succeeded in diminishing exaggerated feelings about the danger of some goal, the fear and conflict remain.


This led them to conclude, tentatively, that in an effort to heal a patient, it is morepromising to concentrate on reducing avoid­ance—that is, analyzing resistance—than to try to increase approach. They concentrate on uncovering the blocks to the patient's effective response rather than increasing the attractiveness of the goal.


Helping people to discover, "I can”


This suggests that we are more likely to assist our parishioners in achieving the ca­pacity to approach worthwhile goals if we not only concentrate on what may move them forward, but also try to discover and modify whatever it is that holds them back. It may prove fruitful to design our ministry not merely to get people to vow, "I will,” but to get them to discover, "I can.”


To facilitate this task and to help guaran­tee that the faith achieved is creative andworthy and the sufficient basis for continued growth, and to help guarantee that it does grow, we have not only our preaching and counseling skills, but also the possibility ofproviding opportunities for deep and creative experiences in group participation. Through group inquiry, discussion, and activity, we can help our parishioners achieve a redefini­tion of themselves, of others, and of their relationships with one another.


By introducing them to shared experiences through which they can enjoy not only the feeling but the reality of being included and wanted, we can increase their appreciation of their own worth and role, enlarge their respect for one another, uncover the irra­tional basis for their prejudices, and help them explore satisfying convictions and chal­lenging goals. The value of this living, crea­tive fellowship, which our churches can pro­vide, is difficult to over-estimate.


There is a perennial danger that we shall be satisfied with group activity at a lower level than this, measuring its value in terms of the group's size or popularity or the num­ber of meetings it holds, or the inches of publicity it has merited in the local paper, or the significance of the resolutions it has passed.


We must guard against being content with this aspect of our work as another device for enhancing our own professional reputa­tion. It's fun for ministers to be group ex­perts and win acclaim as competent chair­men who know how to run a good show.We must be careful never to measure group achievement in terms of our elevated pres­tige or in terms of our success as a social agency executive secretary who can make things hum and fill every room of the church every day of the week.


The test is not how many groups we can administer, but how deep and creative an experience we can offer the individuals participating in whatever groups we provide. But for us to discover that we have a significant tool in guided group experience is not to say that the role of the minister is changing and that his preaching function, which has given way greatly to his counsel­ing function, must give way to his group leadership function.


If we accept the multi-motivational char­acter of human life, we must recognize the value of many different approaches andshould be wise enough to see their       comple­mentary character. Effective preaching may make group participation more purposeful. Effective group work may make it possible for a person to respond more readily to counseling. Effective counseling may in­crease a person's receptivity to preaching.


But however effective our personal coun­seling and group guidance may be, the great formulations of faith must still bemade without apology; prophetic utterance must still be heard with clarity; compelling ser­mons, designed to help men enter the King­dom of God, are as necessary as ever.


The ministry is complex as we humans are complex, and the psychologist reminds us of insights we must learn, skills we must master, and disciplines we must be willing to accept if we are to increase our effective­ness. But fundamental to these skills and far more important than the tools we learn to use is our own discovery and continued re-examination, both in thought and in life, of a personal faith for ourselves that may prove increasingly worthy not only to moti­vate and direct our own lives but to be seriously considered by the men and women we seek to serve.