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Five Types Of Necessary Coping Relationships

Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A.

Number 14

The ability to cope with trauma is dependent on numerous factors. Perhaps the most important area to consider is the relationship dimension of trauma.
 
The importance of a healthy and diverse range of relationships is especially critical during pastoral crises. Though not often recognized under "normal" conditions, crises clearly and unmistakably reveal the strengths (or weaknesses) of "normal" relationship patterns. Perhaps the greatest value of conflict is that it creates an opportunity to see which relationship areas need to be developed for healing, recovering and dealing with future trauma.
 
Effective coping relationships which assist one through trauma and crisis are dependent
1) on the breadth and depth of relationships, and
 
2) on the relative generality and specificity of the relationships.
 
The Five Coping Relationship Types
 
Type I: Relationship Generality (Not Conflict Oriented)
 
This relationship dimensions refers to the general broadness and diversity of relationships. Many of these relationships are not generally considered "essential" for normal functioning. Indeed, most of these may be considered slight acquaintances. One may not know even know their names.
 
However, this broad and diverse range of Type I relationships give one a subjective reference of general approval or disapproval in our relationship world. In general, individuals function best when they perceive that the world in general is positively disposed to—and approving of—them. 

Type II: Relationship Specificity (Not Conflict Oriented)

This relationship dimension includes a very small number of trusted people with whom we associate every day. Composed of those "significant others," this category refers to those deeper relationships (e.g. family members, spouses, and long-term close friends and confidants) that one enjoys on an ongoing long-term basis.
 
It is important to note that these relationships were generally not formed primarily during crisis, focused on crisis, or formed in reaction to crisis. Instead, these relationships grew largely as a result of shared personal preferences, mutual sharing, need, personality "chemistry" and the like. 

Type III: Conflict Relationship Generality (Conflict Oriented)

This dimension, like it’s sister dimension, Conflict Relationship Specificity, recognizes that relationships change during conflict. Betrayal, side-changing, and degrees of loyalty and trust all occur during conflict with surprising--and sometime tragic--results. Indeed, conflict is just as great a generator of community as it is a destroyer of community.
 
Conflict Relationship Generality refers to the general level of perceived support from the general masses during the conflict. Support by these individuals will not be intimate, regular, or necessarily "substantive." However, such individuals will cheer the leader on from the sidelines with their prayers, acceptance, and occasional encouragement.
 

Type IV: Conflict Relationship Specificity (Conflict Oriented)

Conflict Relationship Specificity refers to those relationships which begin—or are intensified—in response to conflict. Given various individual responses to crisis, these relationships may or may not include those normally considered "significant others." Indeed, spouses, family and once-trusted leaders may not have the strength, motivation or ability to be effective supporters during the heat on intense on-going conflict.
 
Those most likely persons fitting into this category may be those members of the congregational staff or lay leaders in which one places almost unconditional trust. Obviously, great care must be taken to ensure trust levels with those individuals connected with the congregation. Mistakes or misjudgments here can be extremely costly. Jesus’ maxim for identifying prospective Conflict Specific relationships in a congregation is certainly applicable:
 
Those who can be trusted with little can be trusted with much. Those who can’t be trusted with even a little can’t be trusted at all at this level.
 
Others who may fit into this category are individuals outside of the congregational structure including other pastors (within and outside of one’s denomination), denominational officials, consultants, seminar presenters, small group facilitators, professional counselors and personal and family therapists.
 
After the conflict issues subside and are effectively dealt with these relationships may or may not persist…sometimes causing intense pain and grief. This is especially so if circumstances (e.g. financial issues, death or transfer of the individual, pastoral transfer, et al.) cause the premature aborting of one of these critically important coping relationship.
 
Whatever happens with these "Lone Ranger"-like relationships, their essential help, support, prayers, and intervention will never be unappreciated or forgotten. The sense of profound gratitude will forever be a part of our long-term healing.
 
Some Observations

First, this paradigm underscores the necessity for pastors and professional ministries to continue developing and diversifying relationships at all levels both in and out of the church.

Second, one’s sense of self-esteem is dependent not only on "significant others" but on the perceived general consensus of those with whom we are associated. It certainly is normal that a perceived (or actual) loss of support or enthusiasm from the congregation in general can deteriorate our psycho-physio-spiritual-emotional strength.

Third, those in our relationship depth dimension (e.g. spouse, confidants, friends) may or may not necessarily be available—emotionally or physically—during crisis. Seeing the grief of one they love and care for may push their own personal coping mechanisms "over the edge" causing further drain on the pastor's relationship coping mechanisms. This is a major source of the loneliness of crisis.

Fourth, especially during crisis, it is of vital importance for the pastor to avoid isolating himself from the congregation. Instead, as hard as it may be, it is important to adopt an intensive seelsorger (i.e. "soul-caretaker") mode and begin a membership visitation mode. Members will appreciate the care given by the pastor and, unknowingly, may help to enlarge the pastor’s positive Type III relationships.

Fifth, when all four relationship dimensions are functioning well, the pastor will enjoy a strong sense of confidence needed to deal effectively with typical conflict-related congregational issues: vision setting, reconciliation, morale, etc. (cf. Glenn Daman's article, Raising Morale In The Small Church, found in MH Reprints and Resources).

Sixth, perhaps the most important relationship dimension for coping in crisis are those relationships of the Type IV variety. When pastors do not seek—or do not receive—necessary assistance and intervention from denominational sources, from their ministry brothers, or neglect (or refuse) professional assistance (including counselors, therapists, medical doctors, psychiatrists, etc.), they are doomed to failure. Both pastors and denominational leaders should take note of this. Individual and denominational responses in crisis may be the most influential factor as to whether pastors resign or recover from the crisis experience.

Seventh, when any dimension of one's relationship network fails, the potential for mental illness and the addictions and compulsions which may appear, increases. This tendency toward mental illness is incremental and almost imperceptible except to trained professionals. Thus, seeking professional assistance and support is absolutely essential and should be initiated in the early stages of crisis.

  Assessing Coping Relationships

In general, the more relationships one has in each of the four dimensions discussed, the greater your ability to cope with crisis and the greater your morale.
 
A simple way of assessing the broadness is to make a Johari’s Window (cf. below) with each square labeled with its respective type of relationship dimension. In each box, list a first name of all who fit into each dimensional type. Do not duplicate names. In the general categories, a general number or percentage of congregation, will suffice.

Five Types of Coping Relationships

  Not Conflict Related Conflict Related
General
(Relationship Breadth)
Type I
Relationship Generality
Type III
Conflict Relationship
Generality
Specific
(Relationship Depth)
Type II
Relationship Specificity
Type IV
Conflict Relationship
Specificity

Type V 
Plenary Spiritual Connection
(Under Girds And Supercedes All Other Relationships)

Type V: Plenary Spiritual Relationship
 
The most important relationship of all, however, is the "Type V" relationship. This is our relationship with God. As illustrated in the illustration above, the Type V relationship is the necessary and essential foundation for coping relationships. Human relationships and ties may be broken or betrayed. The connection with God is permanent and immovable. Like Types I and III, this relationship recognizes that "in Him we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28). In this sense it is general.
 
It is also specific in that, through Christ we are "in Him." Thus this relationship is "plenary" or completely permeating of our being and situation. This is true whether we are in crisis or not. Type V is perhaps best represented as an overlay over the entire Johari Window represented by the double border.
 
Without a vibrant spiritual faith-base which transcends simple forms, formulae, doctrinal constructs and rigid ritualism and tradition, one is vulnerable to the unexpected crisis in life.
No, one does not need to become immersed in mysticism to endure trial. Neither should one simply cast aside those familiar aspect of spiritual life and worship. Indeed, familiar spiritual items (e.g. hymns, prayers, liturgy, Scripture verses, etc.) may be the most comforting and spiritually therapeutic aspects of coping in crisis.
 
However, unless one’s connected-ness with God is regularly nurtured and strengthened, unless it goes beyond a sterile "formal" faith, pastors can be caught off-guard and unable to cope with the profundity and depth of the crisis experience. Indeed, such connected-ness is what enabled Job to declare, "The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord!" (Job 1:21).
 
For us, such connected-ness may extend Job’s words to an even more profound understanding and acceptance that sometimes the Lord gives by taking away!
 
Such connected-ness will remind us that we can trust God’s power to know that after every flood there’s a rainbow, after every storm there’s a calm, after every crucifixion there’s a resurrection, and for every thing in creation there’s a gracious restorative re-creation.
 
When Jesus ascended into Heaven, He comforted His disciples, "Lo I am with you always, even unto the end of the world." This was not just a promise. It was also a Type V coping mechanism by which Jesus gave the disciples unbridled and unprecedented cause for confidence in His authority over all things (Matthew 28:18). The ascended Lord also gives us the same confidence and power to cope in all circumstances.
 
May God enable you to seek out, build and enhance all types of relationships to support you in all times and circumstances of your ministry.
 
Thomas F. Fischer

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This page was revised on: Tuesday, October 05, 2004 11:04:32 PM