An old girlfriend of mine—let’s call her the Girl from Ipanema…no, on second thought, we better not—had a type when it came to men: blond hair and blue eyes. That worked out well for me—for awhile. Then a ghost showed up—taking the form of an ill-fated previous relationship with a man who looked remarkably like me. That, children, was when I was introduced to the wonderful world of transference.

Frank Lake describes transference in his book, Clinical Theology:

The displacement of feeling from one object or person to another, and particularly the process by which the patient shifts feelings and attitudes primarily applicable to parents or other significant persons, onto the analyst, or onto others who evoke similar associations. These feelings of transference are either positive (i.e. of love, trust, and expectation of kindness) or negative (i.e. of hate, distrust, or expectation of unkindness or hostility). Transference reactions occur whenever a relationship of trust is established, if the dependent person begins to bring into the relationship the backlog of unsolved personal problems, including those in infancy deriving from parent-child interactions.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately because I’ve been witnessing it happening in my life and in the lives of others I know. If you are involved in lay or professional ministry, and you lead, disciple or mentor others, you will most likely experience this phenomenon called transference. Since it’s likelihood makes it practically inevitable, does that mean it’s also trivial? With a master of theological psychology right here in-house, I decided to pose the question directly to Mockingbird’s own, the Rev. Dr. Paul F. M. Zahl, and he was kind enough to reply. Here he is:

Clergy are seldom taught about transference and its ubiquity in parish ministry. Then when it hits, usually through someone in your parish whom you thought you knew, you’re at first shocked, then hurt, then embittered. To understand the dynamic and virulent nature of transference is to unlock the key to parish ministry, at least horizontally speaking. Sadly, that understanding tends to come “late in the game” and you’ve either been burned to a career-ending point of despair or have become life-long embittered on the subject of human nature.

So, yeah, I’d say that’s pretty non-trivial!

There is a feeling of shock and hurt experienced, as PZ says, when you are blamed for the mistakes of someone else’s someone else. Often, the other person doesn’t know when they are doing it, compounded by the fact that the person on the receiving end doesn’t know why it’s happening in the first place. What makes ministry so prone to this problem?

A fun fact about me is that I love to eisegete scripture (the process of forcing the intended meaning of the text into the meaning I want) and hey, don’t we all? Take 1 Corinthians 4:15 for example:

For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

I like to make this verse mean that there can be a parental quality to discipleship and mentoring—but parental through the example of Christ, not our parents. There can be, after all, a positive side of transference, as Frank Lake indicated. It’s not that crazy really. For example, Scott Jones often points out how we commonly use the word “impute” as a negative—i.e. Imputing bad motives to someone, but as a Christian, I’m thrilled to have Christ’s righteousness imputed to me. Impute away! So with the hyperbole drive engaged, it has often seemed to me that a healthy, nurturing type of transference and counter-transference are almost built into the dissemination of, and the discipleship in, the Christian faith—in the best sense. Heck, it’s reinforced even down to the clergy titles: Father, Mother, Brother and Sister. The church as family…potential trouble right there. I mean, remember your family’s Thanksgiving last year? Think about it: a big group of sinners bumping into each other all the time—with lots of “Timmy pulled my hair” and “Jane ate all my blue Legos, again!” Stick a parental figure up front—fait accompli. It doesn’t always play out in the best sense, does it? Much of the time it reminds us less of, say, Red Beard and more of Curse of the Golden Flower. We’ve all seen less healthy versions of counter-transference coming from a pastor in response to their flock, falling into the role of Over-Protective Dad, Fun Mom, Strict Mom, or Detached Father.

So, how do you handle it? I asked a couple of friends of mine about their experiences with transference in the context of ministry, taking into account PZ’s thoughts on the subject. First up to bat is Tyler Miller, a pastor at Story City Church in Burbank, sharing this example of the disorientation that can happen when you’re transferred upon:

Entering into a vulnerable and uncomfortable—risky even—space with a broken congregant, we stumbled upon what I experienced and still perceive as a loving honest, vulnerable, conversation regarding his particular wounds and brokenness, and where the gospel might intercept them. We ended the conversation with a hug and love. Much to my surprise and dismay, the next day he called me and told me that he had spent the evening laying in the dark alone in his apartment due to our crushing conversation. I had to come to the grips with the reality that I was paying a price for wounds I did not inflict.

Picking up on PZ’s comments, Ryan Pryor, pastor at Mission Hills Christian Church in Los Angeles, shares some thoughts of his own:

As PZ mentioned, transference was never discussed at any beneficial length during seminary, but within my first year as a pastor, I found myself wavering and wondering why so many extreme emotions were directed toward me. It is through the awareness of this strange phenomenon that I was able to give more grace to myself and those engaging in transference. In this process of confusion and hurt, there was the opportunity for moments of presence. Transference shouldn’t force us to cower in our relationships or check out of leadership so that we won’t experience disruptions and suffering. Rather, it is the gospel that inspires me to continue to create brave spaces for being present with our neighbors, friends, and strangers in the wildernesses of life.

PZ, Ryan, and Tyler all know from first hand experience the hurt and chaos that transference causes, to them and to their flocks. Interestingly enough, for each of them, as ministers of the Gospel of grace, their reaction to it, cause identified or not, is the same. The grace they were shown, the Gospel they preach, has enabled them, shaped them, to run towards those who are acting out, hurting and wounded. Each of them can share story after story of the transformations they have witnessed in the lives of their flock, as a result of that grace. I know; I’ve heard those stories, and witnessed a few myself.

In his amazing book, Grace in Practice, Paul Zahl writes:

Grace is one-way love. Take an inventory of yourself. Watch other people about whose happiness you care. You will see it over and over: one-way love lifts up. One-way love cures. One-way love transforms. It is the change agent of life.

1 John 4:19 says, “We love, because He first loved us.”

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