Caring for the Heart (Part 3): Why Message Ministers are Poor Counsellors
(this is a continuation of Part 2: When Religion Hinders Help)
A message church that follows the message of William Branham is a challenging environment to introduce anything using material outside of itself. For myself as a Message minister with a pastoral personality, it was problematic. Obviously my desire was towards my own congregation. I saw needs and I wanted people to have tools to help work through personal and relationship problems. But there were limitations as to what was acceptable; it needed to fall within what the message fundamentally condoned.
In order to specialize in sincere, caring counselling that was less concerned with appeasing the critical minds and more concerned with results, one had to be willing to be honest – even to the extent of discomfort. It was a difficult thing in instances when the evidence of “problems” pointed towards poor leadership in Message pulpits and rigid perspective on the human experience.
So – why do I think the leadership was lacking?
1. Message Ministry: Lack of Training & Tools
Sincerely, I don’t mean to pick on Message Ministers from this standpoint. I remain convinced that most of the men I knew within the ministry were ultimately good and well-intentioned. They were working within a sect system that limits their ability to think, react and ultimately help in the manner I am speaking with this subject. In most cases, they are doing the very best they can – to the extent that the few tools available in the message tapes/books allow. All of this, while harbouring an ongoing fear of looking at it from a different perspective.
I was no different – and I had the same preparation and tools to work with. I had approximately no training for situations that had a deep impact on people. When you consider that people walking into my counselling office were fighting addictions, depression, anxiety, marital problems, sexual issues, abuses of all kinds – it’s a massive responsibility. You are, in many cases, making statements, directing decisions and giving advice that will shape the future of people giving you their absolute trust.
My education consisted of moments in observation of my own pastor and how he handled highly delicate matters with members of our church. Eventually, as I married and had children, I had more experience to draw from. But all of that was still wrapped in Message-ology. If you consider that churches outside the message (denominational) often require their pastoral staff to be trained in aspects of mental health, and professional psychologists cannot even legally counsel one-on-one without a doctoral degree – that puts the message minister on shaky ground.
I do believe that some men, with or without training, are more naturally capable when dealing with people than others. I know several men in the message who were very good with people. Their temperament and approach made them more effective. I also knew some men who had the tact and sensitivity of a sledgehammer. They bludgeoned their congregations with fear, guilt, shame and hyper-spiritual platitudes – and could conveniently hide behind the authority of “the prophet”. I still recoil at some of the stories I was told of how a “pastor”, supposedly endued with the power and wisdom of God, emotionally massacred people in their counselling office. For those men who were more naturally gifted, it still doesn’t replace actual trained knowledge and understanding of human behaviour and the mind. In the Christian context, having a Godly disposition should season those natural gifts with a love required for effective help.
For myself, I could only do my best as per my natural gifts, personality and how I interpreted the message. I sincerely believed that I was in my right position in the body, and therefore, I trusted God was giving me wisdom. But in all honesty – I lacked, just like every other message minister I know of.
2. Education is of the Devil
I know the Message argument made against it’s leaders having formal “education”. In fact, it was almost a credential and badge of honour to decry any formal education/training. To be raised up in the Message is to be falsely schooled and propped up with the idea that “we know more and better” – by virtue of our birthright in the message.
Keep in mind, in the Message, ANYONE can be a Pastor/preacher. With a knowledge of the Message and a little charisma (“a gift”), and the gumption to get up and speak, any man can end up in a position of leadership. The only requirement was to claim to be “spirit led” and to demonstrate a reasonable ability to handle “the word” (aka quotes of the prophet). If you didn’t have a pulpit available, you could just start your own church (which many men did).
Due to this fact, one need not demonstrate skill, accountability or respect to the profession of counselling. By claiming to be spirit led, it provided the only necessary credential for him overseeing the personal matters of a trusting group of people who are well-trained to listen fearfully. Often, men seeking ministry only took into considered the “preaching”aspect of ministry. Dealing with people on a personal and intimate level was an afterthought, and far less “glorious” then the glow of the pulpit.
3. Enormous Trust in Ministry
Message ministers are given enormous trust, and people place near absolute faith in their leading and wisdom – because the pastor is in a “headship” role. I observed many men who did their very best, and I believe did served their congregation with genuine concern. But I also believe most men were drunk on their position of authority, and their interest was in holding that position more than helping their people (the same can be said of many churches/groups outside the message). When I say they were “drunk” – I mean that they drank, and benefitted, from a system that provided them privileged status. Once they tasted how much their opinion weighed in the affairs of the people, they lost control of the ability to handle situations with a sound mind.
Even when they were bereft of ability to advise a desperately broken soul, the imperative for those leaders was to posture that they had things under control, and knew what to do. To do otherwise would to admit weakness – and such humility might reflect badly on the appearance of being the alpha leader in their church. The men I respected the most were those who could admit: “I need help, because I don’t know what to do”. Unfortunately, that usually meant looking to another Message pastor – but at least they acknowledged their inability. That spoke well of them.
Regardless of the man’s character, in the Message, there is a highly unnatural dependancy on men in roles of authority. I didn’t realize how much so, until realizing the depth of the problems – and saw how the “sovereign” governance of Message churches left few checks and balances in place for blatant pastoral malpractice. The casualty in these situations are the people who (especially in the worst situations) don’t realize they are being roped and advised by men who are frighteningly ill-equipped to actually help. This is the dynamic and system in place and is thoroughly protected by Message indoctrination and culture – wherein preachers are essentially “celebrities”.
4. Reliance on William Branham
The entire premise of the message relies on the prophetic office of William Branham. For the ministers, they feel empowered to think they wield a superior knowledge and truth that can deliver the people from the clutches of the entire world. For the followers/believers, they abide in that same sense of empowerment. They give trust that the ministers had “the Word” at their disposal to lead and instruct with unmatched wisdom – and no denomination or secular source could match it. Afterall, the message had an answer for everything.
Thus, the antidote to problems followed the pattern of William Branham’s supposed demonstration of superior prophetic knowledge, and his power over demons and spiritual forces. Bringing people and their problems subject to “the Word” (the message) was the answer. And in confidence, many preachers lay hands and speak loudly the lofty words that would bring the same power by the authority of the “God of the message”. For the typical message minister in private counselling, they would pray sincerely, draw quotes which seemed to apply, recommend a message book or two, read a few verses from the bible and appeal to God’s spirit to provide overcoming virtue.
Although I always strongly believed in the power of God that William Branham demonstrated, I’ll be honest: I saw pretty much none of the same power demonstrated by ministers in the message. Many would claim boldly that the bride had the same right and spiritual possession, but – honestly? They could make noise and promises, yet demonstrated a destitution of authority/power over spiritual and natural matters. It is my opinion that to many believers, their confidence was an illusion of faith in the superior power of message ministry. The appearance of power, or the hope that their pastor could conjour it provided a placebo for issues; people would walk away feeling better (for a while).
While I know there were ministers who did demonstrate compassion, wisdom and practical sensibility – it is my opinion that it was gravely uncommon (understatement). To be “helped” (not talking about the results – but the prescribed solutions) usually pulled someone deeper into the Message culture. A characteristic of an unhealthy system is to use immersion into it’s own culture as a means of medicating a problem (you need to come to church more, be in fellowship more, listen to the preaching/tapes more – because “more” is the answer). It literally creates a dependancy on the culture/system to feel hopeful and establish a sense of ‘good’ or ‘normal’.
Bringing it Into the Message
I know that ‘hurting people’ are found everywhere. The goal isn’t to say that the message is the worst place in the world, and everyone is broken and falling apart because of the Message. However, given the nature of the Message where imperfection and vulnerability is routinely covered by facades of outward conformity, solid faith and spiritual stability – it is an environment ripe with pressure for countless people to conceal and hide their secret fears and suffering. What message believer, couple or family wants to admit they are a mess at home?
There is little help, other than to bury pain with hope of eventually finding enough faith to overcome. I was called “critical” when I began to acknowledge and address the problems I was clearly seeing in Message culture. Because I was a minister and privileged to know some of the personal stories behind people’s lives, I was told I was becoming jaded by seeing to much of the “backside” of people. Perhaps there’s some truth to that – some of the information I learned was shocking. But what I do know is – I was alarmed at how issues were dealt with – and no church in the message was an exception. I had always considered my own church to be extremely proactive and healthy – but it became clear to me in the last months I was a member of it that there were NO exceptions. There was a serious problem – and it was a culture issue which the message system protected. I had major concerns .
The very last sermon I preached was in Tennessee at a youth youth meeting. I came to those meetings excited to help and I will gladly share my notes from that sermon. You can download them at your leisure (CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD/VIEW PDF). I was still very much a message believer when I preached this; I had faith that the Message was true, and that the counselling material I was learning worked within things William Branham had taught (notice the quotes I used). However, I was sick of pretending everything was okay. Seeing ministers preach lofty spiritual sermons, as well as pushing people towards appearances/performance wasn’t meeting people where the rubber hit the road.
To me, hearing a sermon about the revealing of the Bride and/or the Revelation of the Seven Seals would mean next to nothing to a person sitting on a bench buried in fear and anxiety because (for example) maybe they had to go home to a household that was dysfunctional, abusive and pressure filled. I wanted people to realized that the reason they might be struggling to find joy in the “deeper things” was because they were humans wrestling with very real personal issues. As William Branham called it, we had “complexes and clogs” that prevented us from living an overcoming, joy filled Christian experience. I was going to the heart of that.
But to do that involved calling things out in uncomfortable ways. It went strictly against the culture of posturing and pretending that everything around us was “healthy”. It came with consequences – and the backlash I received began to make me question that – perhaps – the problems were more systematic of the Message itself. That’s when I began to really acknowledge the possibility that all the controversies about “William Branham” had more merit than I wanted to accept.
In those meetings in Tennessee, I had kids disclose things to me that I’ll never be able to talk about. Many of them were scared, vulnerable, afraid to tell anyone their secrets. I will always remember looking across the congregation and I spoke, and I saw a crowd full of emotionally raw faces – many with tears streaming down their cheeks. It was speaking a different kind of truth – and I believe I was rooting down towards where they were living deep down inside. I have no apologies for what I said in those meetings – but it would signal the end of my ministry in the Message.
In the following additions to this Series – I want to get more into the actual counselling – and how/why it works.
Thank you for reading.