Transference and the pastorate

By Michele Langmead

We have an unofficial open door policy at work. One day, excited about a project idea, I went to my supervisor’s office only to find her door closed. Dejected, I returned to my office thinking, I don’t want to share Mommy with anybody else. What? I suddenly asked myself. Share who? Mommy? I laughed out loud! Here I go again, I thought, turning my boss into my mother!

My reaction is a common phenomenon known in psychology as transference. Used in therapy as a therapeutic tool, it enables a client to get in touch with buried feelings from the past, work through them and experience healing. Since the unresolved issues are usually related to childhood and parents, a client will sometimes unconsciously transfer onto the therapist positive and negative characteristics of their primary caregivers. The therapist becomes the “unloving mother who can’t be pleased” or the “angry, critical father.” The therapist’s job is to help the client see where these feelings originated and to whom they rightly belong. In this way, the age-old pain is released, resulting in healing and greater emotional freedom.

David Hansen, in his superb book The Art of Pastoring (1994), says this about transference: “We react and relate to another person not only on the basis of our conscious experience of the person in reality, but also on the basis of our unconscious experience of him [or her] in reference to experiences with significant people in infancy and childhood – especially parents and other family members. We tend to displace feelings and attitudes from these past figures onto people in the present, especially if the person in the present has features similar to the person in the past” (pg. 125).

The risk for pastors

Transference reactions can occur in any relationship, but tend to occur more frequently and intensely in relationships with authority. A pastor friend of mine once commented that pastors and their spouses are “high transference liabilities” not only because they are in positions of authority, but because they also symbolize loving parents. If a person’s parents were kind and loving, they will likely experience their pastor as kind and loving, whereas if a person’s parents were harsh and demanding, they might experience their pastor, who is actually firm yet loving, as harsh and demanding.

As a pastor, you’ve likely had the experience of walking into a roomful of laughter only to be met with silence as you enter. This is a typical transference reaction. You could read it as “Daddy’s here, he’ll be mad if we don’t behave.” Or a parishioner might worship the ground you walk on. You could interpret this response as, “You’re the mommy who will finally give me all the love I need.” Although the severity of the transference varies, it is rarely pleasant to be on the receiving end, since transference situations have a tendency to blow up.

So what happens when these intense feelings are transferred onto a pastor who is not trained to help someone work through them, or even to recognize a transference reaction? Usually, the pastor feels sideswiped and can’t understand why someone who was considered a friend would suddenly turn cold, distant, bitter and angry. If angry enough, this individual may even turn others in the congregation against the pastor. The conflict often centres on the personality and/or character of the pastor, who has come to represent someone’s unloving, abusive, critical parent. When this occurs, congregations sometimes split into two groups: those who love the pastor, and those who despise the pastor.

The eventual consequences of transference can be devastating. Pastors, hurt and bewildered, are tossed out of churches they once loved; long-standing parishioners leave their beloved church angry and bitter. Sadly, we sometimes prefer to destroy present relationships rather than heal the pain of our past that fuels our anger today.

The risk for pastors’ spouses

Pastors’ spouses are susceptible to transference as well, and can often be perceived as an all-loving, nurturing mother or father figure. Here’s an example from an experience a pastor’s wife shared with me. A woman friend made some hurtful comments to her about their relationship, stating that she had noticed that my friend was “nicer” to the other women in the church, that she paid more attention to them, spent more time with them and in general just wasn’t as loving to her as she was with others. The pastor’s wife, who is also a friend of mine, was devastated. As one of those who know her, I can testify that these comments don’t fit the kind of person she is.

In this case, the woman was not interested in drawing closer by giving constructive feedback but, at an unconscious level, was likely transferring onto my friend old hurt and unresolved anger towards one or both of her parents. Ouch! No matter how much my friend tried to “work out” the issue, the woman was not willing to let go of her negative perceptions. To do so would require that she face the pain of her past. And unless a person takes ownership of their transference reactions, reconciliation is unlikely.

Understanding counter-transference

Another phenomenon closely associated with transference is counter-transference. Counter-transference is my response to someone else’s transference. For example, a parishioner might see the pastor as a perfect Jesus-like figure, and the pastor, rather than recognizing this as a distorted perception, takes on the role. The pastor begins to feel that they must be perfect, that they don’t want to let the parishioner down or disappoint her, or make her angry. The pastor and parishioner are now involved in a fantasy relationship. As with transference, counter-transference reactions also have their roots in childhood and are excellent indicators of areas in need of further healing.

How to identify transference and counter-transference

It is essential that pastors (and all of us!) become aware of our transference and counter-transference reactions so that we can avoid becoming enmeshed with others. The clearer we are about our issues, the more effectively we can speak into the lives of others and not get “blown to bits.” If that’s not enough motivation, Jesus calls us to clean the inside of our cup (Matthew 23:26), which is where we discover the roots of our transference and counter-transference reactions.

Transference is not easy to identify because it looks like normal behaviour. Some signs to watch for start within. Ask yourself if the person makes you feel any of the following:

  • That you should be perfect?
  • That you should take care of them?
  • That they need your approval?
  • That you want to avoid them?
  • That you cannot give them constructive feedback for fear of hurting their feelings?

Affirmative answers to any of these questions may indicate that the person is not seeing the real you but has created a fantasy of you.

If someone’s reaction is out of proportion to the situation or if an apology is not accepted, you can be pretty sure that transference has been triggered. Watch for comments that include phrases like “you should,” “you never,” “you always,” or “if only you would.”

How to deal with transference and counter-transference

Your antennae should be buzzing when you sense someone has you on a pedestal or sings your praises so highly you feel embarrassed. Once you suspect that someone’s reaction may be a transference of feelings from their past, ask questions or make statements like “I sense you would like me to take care of you” or “I feel like you expect me to be perfect.” Bringing your feelings out in the open can help dissipate the emotional reaction in the other person.

Counter-transference usually takes the form of criticism. If you catch yourself saying or thinking certain critical phrases, they may be red flags that point to unresolved hurts in your own life. Watch out for phrases such as:

  • She’s so cold, just like my mother.
  • If only he could be less critical.
  • Don’t they know how hard I’m working?
  • Why does this person treat me like a little kid?

If you suspect counter-transference may be an issue for you, talk to a trusted mentor, friend, or counsellor to help you take ownership of these feelings and find the root causes. Jesus wants to heal us, but He rarely does so until we understand what He wants to heal.


Michele Langmead was a Clergy Care counsellor  at Focus on the Family Canada at the time of publication.