2014, Spinning the Sacred Yarn

Do You Have a Complex?

By Aida Irizarry-Fernández, New England Conference

Many years ago, when I was in supervision for my LICSW, my supervisor at the Great Brook Valley Health Center in Worcester, Massachusetts, said to me, “Aida, you must get rid of your Messiah complex; otherwise you will not be able to truly fulfill your call.” Jackie was a former Roman Catholic nun, a very skillful clinician, and an intuitive woman of faith. Her statement took me by surprise; I remember that the word that made me most uncomfortable was complex. I immediately lifted my guard and deployed my defenses: “I have no complex; what are you talking about?”

She carefully listened to my argument and with a smile, asked, “Have you ever heard of the Messiah complex? Do you have any idea what it means?”

I truly had not heard the term before. I responded, “Umm, by its name, does it mean that someone believes that he or she is the Messiah?”

She was quiet; I had no cues from her to know whether or not I had the right answer. Then I confessed, “I really don’t know.”

In her unique way Jackie suggested that if  I “lower my guard,” I may feel comfortable enough and able to think about what the concept meant for me. There was a long pause; she let me ponder as I played with my fingers on the arm of the chair.

[Finally,] I said to her, “I get it, Jackie; I believe that I could save every single situation, every single person that comes to me with a problem.”

“Is that all?” she inquired.

I sat still for a while, wrestling with the stream of thoughts and images that came rushing to my mind; it was like watching a movie. Then, an insight slowly emerged from my heart.

“Jackie, this is not easy,” I said, looking straight into her hazel eyes. “I realized that my wanting to save every situation and every person comes at a very high cost: my own well-being.”

You know, I was not expecting my clinical supervisor to guide me through such a strenuous spiritual path. Nevertheless, I was so appreciative of that unforgettable dialogue; it was hard work, but it took place in a safe environment with someone I trusted.

Through the years that epiphany moment has helped me recognize when the vestige of my Messianic complex is attempting to once more crawl back into my soul. Today, I understand that we are constantly bombarded with what I call “capitalist subliminal” messages. Let me explain this made-up concept.

To me there is no doubt that in our Western society the call for excellence in ministry has been highly influenced by concepts such as production, competition, investment, spending, and profit. In this postmodern era, ministry is perceived as a profession rather than as a vocation—a profession which those with a competitive edge spend long hours of work and invest themselves at a high cost for the production of a larger church, mission, or new religious enterprise. The clergy and laity with a great productivity rate and a good record of compliance with institutional policy are rewarded/promoted more often than those without them.

If you are not with the designated program, you are no longer needed; therefore, you are asked to exit from the profession. The mask behind the so called excellence by the religious institution is a capitalist corporate mentality. The subliminal message is, You must be highly productive, be perfect, be a superwoman, be an astonishing leader.

Thus, our confused souls unconsciously distort the genuine call to be Christlike, [replacing it with our own call to] be a christ superstar.

Consciously and unconsciously, we feel the heavy pressure and responsibility to save situations, individuals, nations, the whole world. We may even come to rationalize that the daily crucifixion inflicted by multiple stresses are okay. The danger of such distorted perception is that if it is not acknowledged, it will seriously deteriorate the emotional, physical, and spiritual self. Those daily crucifixions may indeed lead the Christian leaders to a slow, torturous death, like the one Christ suffered at the cross. The well-intentioned leader may experience the death of his or her passion for ministry; worse yet, that same leader may go through the death of his or her soul. The increasing frustration and guilt over not being able to do it all and do it almost perfectly generates an incredible guilt and stress that will gravely damage, if not destroy, the core of our well-being.

In an article published by the Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling in the winter of 2002, a team of researchers reported:

The existing research indicates the Protestant clergy report higher levels of occupational . . . [and] family stress . . . On the average, United Methodist clergy spend 56.2 hours per week in ministry, and 12 evenings a month away from home on church duties. About one in four of the pastors surveyed work more than 60 hours per week . . . In part because of time pressures and financial distress, the burnout syndrome has  . . . become increasingly associated with pastoral work . . . Pastors are the primary health counselors for tens of millions of Americans. They are frequently the first persons to help with a family or marital problem or a personal crisis . . . Clergy are seen for assistance with even the most severe forms of mental illness, including schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder.  One great concern . . . [is that nearly one in 6 clergy showed signs of serious distress with their high levels of isolation, loneliness, fear, abandonment, anger, and boredom. Pastors without a strong sense of well being and personal judgment will have a hard time guiding others in their spiritual development.] [1]

The call to the priesthood of all believers is a call to a way of life, not a call to waste precious life. For many of us it is our life vocation. Do not let the idols of this postmodern era poison your genuine desire to serve Christ.

I love the way Jesus talked to his disciples in the gospel of John, “You are my friends . . . I do not call you servants any longer, . . . but . . . friends” (John 15:14–15). In this mentoring conversation we find Jesus carefully preparing the disciples for what was coming. He was giving them comfort as well as practical instructions to care for each other, and for the new community of followers. To me this was a heart-to-heart dialogue where Jesus was telling them, “Please, take care of yourself; as you do, you will be able to care for my Reign.”

I sincerely hope that we all confront our messianic complex. I pray for a healthy Christian leadership. Seek help if you feel you are on the edge of the precipice. Find solace in the companionship of friends, in spiritual direction, in therapy, or through a sabbatical. Use common sense to move from burnout to restoration. Sometimes I say that common sense is another way to say, “God’s grace.”

Jesus’ Prayer: A Latina Interpretation

Our God who lives in heaven and in the heart of those with imagination,

Blessed be your Holy name.

Your Reign of justice, always at hand,

It is present, when we do your will on this planet as in the endless universe.

Allow us to prepare a lavish banquet for those who hunger, and for those who cross borders.

Forgive our sins of neglect, silence, and omission,

As we forgive those who find pleasure in hurting us.

Help us to discern good from evil. Lead us to do all the good we can.

For yours is the whole creation, and the power, and the wonder, eternally. Amen. 

[1]  Andrew J. Weaver et al., “Mental Health Issues among Clergy and Other Religious Professionals: A Review of Research,” Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling 56, no. 4 (Winter 2002): 393–95, 398.


2019 – Unity in the Church

2018 – Claim Who We Are in Christ

2017 – Bodies, Oppression, and Gospel

2016 – Birthing a Worldwide Church

2015 – Clergywomen Lead Vital Congregations

2014 – Empowerment for All

2013 – What Next?

2012 – What Does the Lord Require of Us?

2011 – See, I am Doing a New Thing

2010 – Voicing Truth With Grace

PDF archive – 1987 to 2009



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WellSprings, A Journal of United Methodist Clergywomen, is published by the Division of Ordained Ministry, General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.

Editor: HiRho Y. Park

Managing Editor: Barbara A. Dick

Editorial Circle: Patricia Bonilla, Neelley Hicks, Anita Phillips, Jacqui Rose-Tucker, Trudy Hawkins Stringer