The Pastor’s PTSD: When you cannot bounce back after the conflict is over
(Mark LaFollette, DVM, MDiv, serves as lead pastor, Riverwood Church, Cannon Falls, Minnesota, United States)
While flipping through the newspaper, she spotted an article about women who have served in war and come home broken, suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD.) As she read their stories of struggling through chronic fear, she thought, This is me. Only she has never experienced a rocket attack or an improvised explosive device blast. She’s my wife, and I am a pastor.
My wife, Judy, and I know what it is like to live through a season of church conflict and not be OK, even after the trouble subsides. And we have found the idea of PTSD to be a helpful analogy to understand what we have been through.
One defining feature of PTSD is that the fear lingers long after the painful event has passed. And this has parallels for us and our families. After a conflict, we can ask ourselves, Why haven’t we snapped out of it yet? But why should we expect to get over it as soon as the conflict burns out? I do not know anyone who believes in instant discipleship. So why should we expect instant spiritual maturity after a painful conflict?
The good news is that, just as spiritual maturity of any kind comes in the process of time, so can healing come after church-related trauma.
PTSD and the pastor
First, let us take a closer look at pastoral pain. When I compare a pastor’s pain with PTSD, I am not equating church stresses with the terrors of war. But when you get inside the causes and symptoms of PTSD, you can find parallels.
By current diagnostic standards, people diagnosed with PTSD include those who have experienced physical violence, severe physical trauma, or the threat of physical violence. But what about the “nonviolent” conflicts that can go on in church life? Here are three common sets of symptoms described by the National Center for PTSD. Pastors and pastoral spouses may find that these sound familiar.
Constant alert: One Iraq war veteran tells of having lived through weeks of random rocket attacks on her base; along with facing repeated hurtful comments from her male counterparts. Years later, after having been at home and reunited with her family, she was still thinking, “I keep waiting for the next bad thing to happen.”1
Like random rocket attacks, repetitive incidents can happen in the midst of a church conflict. One church member uses an adult class in church as a platform to critique the pastor’s character; another may broadcast insults on social media; someone else works the perimeter of the church board looking for a leader who might side with him or her. In that kind of environment, it can be easy to slip into a nerve-fraying exhaustion of constant alert and wariness leading to PTSD—like fear and fatigue that leave you and your spouse thinking, When’s the next crisis?
Avoidance and self-protection: Years after being out the service, a Vietnam War veteran sat with his back to the wall at restaurants, fearing that someone was after him.2 As with this veteran, many with PTSD get stuck continually protecting themselves against threats that are no longer imminent. But church crises involve real people who are usually still in the church. So avoidance and self-protection can easily become a means of trying to cope. Who wants to spend time with people who are hurting you? Yet, you see them down the hall in church or at the next island over as you are pumping gas. It becomes common to try to create distance.
Dreams and flashbacks: A war veteran who survived a roadside bomb explosion was later haunted by nightmares and panic attacks as the horrible images of the explosion played over in her mind.3 In a similar way, past church trauma can find its way into a pastor’s or family members’ dreams at night. Memories can play like a video loop in the mind. An average day can be filled with reminders that take the mind back to the painful experience.
The fatigue and wear and tear of deep, long-standing conflicts can leave you exhausted and unhappy, and make it hard to minister.
What to do
What can we do to begin stepping out of the darkness? In his book The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis imagines hell as a world of charcoal-grey skies like the darkness before the dawn.4 The sun never rises, and those who live there are alone in their thoughts, their minds continually churning over every sad happening and unrealized dream. For all eternity, they try to convince themselves of how good their lives could have been if not for the hateful, incompetent people around them. They relive events and reargue their cases, seeking comfort and vindication. The trouble? No one is listening.
Much of what I offer amounts to making intentional steps out of the deep grey and into a place of healing and growth. One important step may be to seek help from a skilled Christian counselor or therapist. According to the National Center for PTSD,5 if you have had symptoms for more than three months, like those mentioned above, and they are causing distress or disruption to your work or home life, you should seek help. In addition to receiving supportive care for your emotional healing, you and your spouse may need couples counseling.
Here are also a few other steps to consider.
Learn to lament. For me, one of my most significant growth experiences in recent years has been to take a fresh look at the Hebrew lament tradition. Lamenting is very different from the unproductive thinking that we do in the deep grey. To lament is to speak directly to God about all the pain, confusion, and frustration you feel toward people, and even toward God. The feelings are there. What do you gain by trying to hide them?
Psalm 44 is a striking example of a lament. The psalmist candidly writes about how he feels toward God; he goes as far as accusing God of being asleep (Ps. 44:23–26). We all have moments, maybe even seasons, when our feelings do not line up with our theology. And one of the healthiest steps toward aligning feelings with truth would be to lay the feelings out there for God to deal with. So lament prayer, perhaps with journaling, is a beautiful way to engage God in the growth of your soul.
Forgiveness. Once, when she was recounting a past hurt, my wife told me, “The past distracts me from the future.” One of our biggest distractions can be the ongoing raw-nerve feelings we have toward those who have hurt us. And the obvious thing to say to the raw nerve is, “You need to forgive.” But when it comes to forgiveness, it is one thing to lay down your hostility toward someone, but another to be in that person’s presence and no longer on guard. You need to come to a place where memories of the events are no longer replaying in your mind, especially when attempts to resolve the conflict have been less than successful. There have been times when I have forgiven someone before God, acknowledging my own sin in the process, and yet have had pain resurface when something brings back the memory. I have had this happen just before I get up to preach. And I need to forgive, again. It is as if my first act of forgiving was a necessary step, but not the last one. Again, spiritual maturation is a process, not an event. And to forgive is to take a step toward an undistracted future.
Patience. Do you have realistic expectations of yourself and your spouse? Spiritual growth happens along a continuum that does not serve our time expectations. Carrying unrealistic expectations of your spouse could be putting strain on your marriage. Patience is the key. As I heard a family counselor once say: “We need to accept that we’re all going to be a little crazy part of the time.” So part of what you may need to do is cut both yourself and your spouse a little slack and realize that, while all this has been going on in church, you are on an inner spiritual journey filled with challenges and discoveries.
Friendship. Finding and building life-giving friendships often does not come easily in ministry. But they are worth having. Nothing compares with a friend who knows you and understands what you are going through. Friendships with other pastors, particularly those outside your denominational circles, can provide objective help.
Recently the elders in my church created pastoral support teams, which have been very helpful. A group of three elders meets with me monthly. Most of our meeting time involves them asking me how they can be praying for me and my family, as well as for the church.
Sabbatical, solitude, and retreat. Other parts of my lifeline have been solitude time, retreats, and a sabbatical that I took four years ago. Times of solitude and prayer are to the soul what breathing is to the body. The time does not have to be heroic in length. Thirty minutes of good hearty lament time can be a great sanity builder for the aching pastor.
Judy and I have also found times of retreat to be life-giving. You may find pastoral retreat centers and ministries near you that are free or at a low cost. A well-structured pastoral retreat ministry allows you a substantial amount of non-structured time on your own, while it also provides opportunities to talk and pray with people who understand the challenges of the ministry.
Although it can be a challenge to arrange, a well-planned sabbatical can be a significant help. After Judy and I returned from our sabbatical, someone said to me, “I don’t know what you did while you were gone, but since you’ve been back, you’re preaching with a fire you didn’t have before.”
Reengage. Sometimes the defenses that we build to get through a long-term crisis become part of our problem. One of those defenses can be distancing ourselves from our congregations. As pastors, we may withdraw to study or conduct other elements of our work that put us in a kind of unhealthy retreat if sustained for too long. And the best thing you can do is to decide to put people first and before your own feelings. If you have been a long time in a wounded prisoner mode, you need to decide how to structure your time in ways that get you around the people who need you in your church and community. In giving comfort, I receive comfort.
When the apostles Paul and Peter talk about the suffering of God’s people, they call it fellowship with Jesus Christ (Phil. 3:10; 1 Pet. 4:12, 13). When you suffer in His service, there is a mysterious and powerful identification that you have with Him that has implications far beyond the troubles and fears of this moment (Matt. 5:11, 12). Too often I take my communion with Jesus in His suffering too lightly. While it does not feel at all good at the time, there is a privilege in it, not only to believe in Jesus Christ but to know Him and suffer for His sake.
So when you encounter a PTSD-like season, remember that spiritual maturity is a process, not an event. This takes time. And God is faithful to see you through it.
1 Barry Yeoman, “Women Vets: A Battle all Their Own,” Parade Magazine, November 10, 2013, 8–12.
2 National Center for PTSD, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, “Understanding PTSD,” www.ptsd .va.gov/public/understanding_ptsd/booklet.pdf (August 2013), 5.
3 National Center for PTSD, “Understanding PTSD,” 4.
4 C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (New York: HarperCollins, 1946, renewed 1973).
5 National Center for PTSD, “Understanding PTSD,” 3.