The Pastor’s PTSD: When You Cannot Bounce Back After The Conflict Is Over

PTSD is a helpful analogy to understand what pastors go through in hard times in their ministries.

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?

 

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
Forgiveness
Patience
Friendship
Sabbatical, solitude, and retreat
Reengage

Read More

Editor’s note: Since the author mentions the Psalms of Lament, here is a good resource on this: A Heart Set Free: A Journey to Hope through the Psalms of Lament.