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Posts Tagged ‘PTSD among pastors’

My wife and I recently watched a television show where a soldier who had seen combat overseas was experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder back home.

The soldier kept reliving an attack upon an enemy compound, leading him to believe, for example, that a routine thunderstorm outside his house was really caused by enemy fire.

I’ve seen these kinds of shows before, but what struck me during this episode was the real source of the soldier’s pain.

After reenacting events, it came out that the soldier was torn up inside because he saw his commanding officer accidentally kill a fellow soldier … and nothing in his training had prepared him for that moment.

He couldn’t comprehend how a leader on his side could take the life of a colleague.

Only when the truth came out was the soldier finally able to start the healing process …. and sleep through the night.

In churches all across our land, pastors and their family members are suffering emotional and spiritual trauma, even to the point where some have been diagnosed with PTSD.

For example, I recently read an article about a pastor’s son in his early teens.  Because this young man couldn’t handle the attacks upon his father any more, he contemplated suicide by standing above a river … and nearly jumping in.

What causes such trauma for pastors and their family members?

It’s not criticism.  Pastors get used to that.

It’s not having people disagree with you.  Pastors automatically factor that into their ministries.

It’s not watching people leave the church.  Pastors know that they need “blessed subtractions” from time-to-time.

No, what causes trauma is when professing Christians – especially Christian leaders – relentlessly assassinate their pastor’s character, seeking to destroy him at all costs … and the congregation lets it happen.

Why is that traumatizing?

Because pastors teach their congregations to love one another … to work out their differences … to treat each other with dignity and respect … and to realize that we’re all made in God’s image.

But when the pastor is treated like he’s a criminal … or evil … or demonic … there is nothing in his theology or his experience he can draw upon to make sense of things.

Pastors cannot fathom how Christians – including church leaders – can act like non-Christians inside God’s holy church.

When I wrote my book Church Coup, I removed the following quotations because of space, but I thought I’d share them with you now:

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Dr. Shelley Rambo is professor of theology at Boston University.  In her recent book, Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining, Dr. Rambo challenges Christian leaders to think about trauma survivors in a theological way.  Citing Dr. Rambo’s work, columnist Anthony Bradley explains:

A traumatic event is not like a death of a loved one or being rejected by a friend.  Instead, it involves activities that were life-threatening, either physically or in one’s perception, creating a sense of unrecognizable fear, utter helplessness, or horror.  Rambo points out that trauma is a wound that ‘remains long after a precipitating event or events are over,’ and it ‘exceeds categories of comprehension’ related to an event.  Trauma is an encounter with death that exceeds the human capacity to take in and process the external world.  In fact, because of trauma, what one knows about the world is shattered.  What is true and safe are ruptured . . . . Life is not the same anymore.  The trauma interprets life for the sufferer.[1]

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Did you catch that?  “What one knows about the world is shattered … the trauma interprets life for the sufferer.”

I know pastors who were forced out of their churches who experience similar trauma nearly every day.  They ask me, “When will my suffering end?  When will I be whole enough to serve God again?”

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Bradley continues:

Surviving post-trauma is a life of navigating one’s way through a minefield of triggers that remind the sufferer of the traumatic event or events.  Triggers can lead to random bouts of sobbing, irregular and disturbed sleep patterns, outbursts of anger, depression, anxiety, loss of hope, loss of interest in things once loved, thoughts of suicide, self-medicating with drugs or alcohol, as well as running away from thoughts, conversations, people, places that might arouse traumatic memory.  Because trauma survivors re-experience the event in ways outside of one’s control, healing is not a matter of believing the right things about God.  Or getting the gospel right.  Time does not heal traumatic wounds.  Traumatic memory is something only God can heal.  The Holy Spirit must empower trauma sufferers to re-imagine their future . . . . Those limping around in life after experiencing trauma need people who love them enough to realize that they may never ‘get over it’ and that their on-going struggle does not represent weak faith.[2]

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In our case, my wife was diagnosed with PTSD by a counselor.  My wife and I are familiar with the triggers:

*Christmas and Easter

*visiting a worship center laid out like our former church

*seeing a random comment on Facebook by a one-time opponent

*running across a photo showing the faces of people who betrayed you

*trying to explain for the umpteenth time why you are no longer in church ministry

*reading our situation into a TV show or movie plot

*noticing what David wrote about his enemies in the Psalms

Several months ago, I gave a copy of my book to a family, who passed it on to a family member who had once been a pastor, but was forced out of his church.

His response after reading the book?  “I am glad to learn that I am not alone.”

It’s one of the most common responses I receive from pastors.

People sometimes ask me, “Are you healed now?”

My answer is always the same: I feel much better, but I will probably never fully get over what happened 52 months ago … and I know I am not alone.

Why not?

Because there is nothing so traumatic as knowing that fellow Christians are intentionally shooting to harm you.

May God forgive each one.

[1] Anthony Bradley, “When Trauma Doesn’t Heal,” World Magazine Online, 4 May 2011; available from http://onlineworldmag.com; Internet.

[2] Ibid.

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