Your Pastor’s Emotional Vocabulary is a Key to their Sustainability

I was 24 years old when I sat down in a counseller’s office for the first time. My fiancé was seated next to me and I remember studying the room in nervous anticipation for what would happen next. What do you talk about during premarital counselling?

The counsellor greeted us warmly and asked some questions that didn’t require much thought. But later, he probed a bit further and asked something that I was completely unprepared for. My fiancé had just explained how she felt loved and appreciated when I spent focused time with her. After listening intently, the counsellor turned to me and said, “and how does that make you feel, Keith?”

“How do I feel about what?” I asked.

“How does it make you feel knowing that Melissa feels loved when you spend time with her?”

How do I feel about how she feels? I thought to myself. I wasn’t sure what to say, but I mustered a confident, “Good,” and left it at that. In retrospect, I believe I said this more as a question than an answer, but I was too busy exhaling from my moment of vulnerability to notice.

“Good” isn’t a feeling

“Good isn’t a feeling,” the counsellor quickly replied. “Tell me how you feel.”

Good isn’t a feeling? I thought. What’s that supposed to mean? I’ve been telling people I feel good for years.

“‘Good’ describes an object or a condition,” the counsellor explained. “It doesn’t express how you feel. I want to know how you feel.”

Forced into choosing a different word, I struggled to identify my actual emotion. But the counsellor was well prepared. He gave me a long list of emotions to look over and the options were greater than an eight-year-old’s Christmas list.

That experience taught me that I was keenly unaware of my feelings. Suddenly equipped with hundreds of emotions to choose from, I discovered I had been using less than ten words to describe virtually every experience I had ever had.

Pastors sustained in ministry use more feeling words

Identifying and expressing emotion is a critical part of being healthy. This was recently emphasized in a MinistryLift training event led by Keith Mitchell, an Australian lecturer who specializes in pastoral sustainability. His research shows that pastors who are sustained in ministry can articulate their feelings with twice the number of words than those who are not sustained. Their ability to express themselves with a wide variety of words is a contributing factor to their emotional processing. My 24-year-old self never would have guessed that an expanded vocabulary could make such a difference on a pastor’s longevity, impact, and sense of satisfaction.

Like the counsellor I visited years ago, Dr. Mitchell equips pastors with a vocabulary list of emotions to help them identify their feelings. The exercise is very defined—simply select five words that express how you feel, regardless of whether you think of them as “positive” or “negative” feelings. Dr. Mitchell explains that experiencing an emotion isn’t wrong; the value of the exercise comes from expanding our repertoire of words and expressing how we truly feel.

Give it a try

You can find the list of emotions here along with a video resource that will guide you through the process of expressing how you feel. Take a few minutes to browse through the list and consider how you’re currently feeling.

MinistryLift’s event on Pastoral Sustainability was directed in partnership with the BC Conference of MB Churches. Click here to find more resources and information from the training.

[Keith Reed is the Director of MinistryLift for MB Seminary.


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