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Recovering From Post-Conflict Trauma

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

Number 156

The conflict's over. But the pain is still there.
 
What's Going On?
 
No matter what you do, you can't get rid of it. You feel isolated, lonely, and weakened. Nobody seems to understand. Indeed, you can't understand yourself why it takes so long to get back to your "old self" again.
 
What can you do?
Sure you can "fake" it. The facade is convincing to others. In the meantime, however, you continue to bear a deep--seemingly fathomless--pain and heartache.
 
Pastors and church professionals who are enduring or have recently completed an encounter with severe trauma may find recovery difficult. Energy levels are low. Expectations are high. But something just doesn't click. The anticipation of a quick recovery from conflict is frustrated. The frustration can last for months or even into years.
 
What IS Going On?
 
Certainly a number of factors keep energy levels from instantly resurging after conflict. Even the strongest, most resilient leader will experience depletion of energy levels after conflict. Indeed, some might say that it takes more energy to endure conflict than it does to lead a major building program.
 
Some of the greatest outpourings of energy have been to assist traumatized people and organizations. Those who have ministered to a dying family member or friend for many months have experienced similar outpourings of energy. After the person has died, the caretaker may feel as if several years have been taken off their life. The energy expended to maintain themselves in the face of severe loss is enormous. Often it leaves the caregiver almost totally depleted. Pastors in post-conflict trauma can feel the same types of energy depletion.
 
Conflict Depletes Energies
 
Conflict requires enormous amounts of energy. In conflict, large amounts of energy may be directed to numerous necessary tasks intended to keep the conflict under control. Areas in which these energies are directed include:
 
1) Keeping control. Leaders may take necessary initiatives which draw on intense amounts of energy resources.
 
2) Ministering to others. Trying to keep others ministered to and secure is exhausting. Often, the ministry to the traumatized is a burden above and beyond the normal energies used in ministry. Visits with traumatized or troubled members can required hours of visits, follow-up, and repeated support.
 
3) Taking care of others' needs. In conflict, people-pleasers become convinced that if they just make everybody happy, the conflict with go away. If they can do or say just the right thing, the antagonists will quiet down and cooperate. Limitless energies are expended for this cause.
 
4) Tightening Up Administrative Procedures. In order to avoid greater criticism, pastors will often become defensive and perfectionistic. They don't want to experience greater criticism. They don't want to give any reason for escalated attacks. So they work slavishly--and neurotically--to have a place for everything and everything in its place.
 
5) Taking Risks. Attempts to reconcile may work. They may also backfire. Whatever the results, the risk must be taken. Pastors may also take risks to trust others and empower them. They may take risks to try to get ministry momentum going. If these risks succeed, the depleted energy levels may find restoration. If the risks fail, depleted energy levels may experience even greater depletion leaving less energy for the next risk.
 
6) Self-Esteem Maintenance. Ministry is not just a "job." It's a calling. There's no "clocking out" at the end of the day. Wherever the pastor goes, the pastor's sense of identity and self-esteem all too often may be insufficiently differentiated from the parish. Since the ministry and the church are so closely associated, pastors may find it hard to avoid unhealthy enmeshment of themselves in their ministry.
 
During conflict, undifferentiated pastors may find themselves feeling failure when members leave, finances drop, programs falter, and their own reputation and character are questioned.
 
7) Spiritual Searching. Conflict and trauma are often triggers for the initial stage of spiritual maturity, the "search." Conflict causes the pastor to have to confront painful questions of existence, of one's calling, of one's purpose, and God's will.
 
Pastors have two alternatives. They can respond in denial and suppress these questions or they can deal with the issues. Either way, large amounts of energy will be used. The only healthy way, however, is to deal with the issues and to yield to the calling to being the long, hard process of deep, heart-wrenching spiritual searching.
 
Neglected Areas Deplete Energy Too!
 
Having focused enormous resources of time and energies toward the preservation of the church, neglected areas add to the energy drain. These include...
 
1) Neglecting one's own needs. As unhealthy as it may be, pastors often overlook their own needs in conflict. They will work harder, pick up the slack caused by resignations, and generally work to maintain the congregational status quo as much as possible. Pastors will neglect regular exercise, proper diet, time for self, vacation times and days off in an attempt to keep the momentum going.
 
Pastors often don't realize the enormous energies expended until the storm is past. In the calm after the storm, pastors may find themselves nearly lifeless. Their energies are depleted. Their soul is nearly lifeless. They are lonely, hurt and alone with seemingly no one to talk with.
 
2) Neglect of one's family. Enormous amounts of time used to manage conflict steals precious family time. Conflict moves the pastor's focus of caring away from the family. Frustrated, family members may rebel, retaliate with rage, or recoil from their family attachments, loyalties and responsibilities. The fragmentation of the minister's family can be the source of even greater anxiety for the pastor.
 
Having neglected the needs of his own family, the pastor may distance himself from the family. Family frustration may turn to anger. Anger may turn to exasperation. Exasperation may turn into an apathetic independence in the family.
 
Communication also may suffer amid the anger, anxiety and tension of church conflict. The resulting anxiety challenges the integrity of the family unit. The marriage is challenged, the children rebel, and the only "peace" in the family may be the deadening sounds of silence and separate-ness. Efforts toward family restoration heavily tax the pastor's limited emotional resources.
 
3) Neglect of faith. In frustration and grief, sometimes pastors find it easier to jettison God, their calling, and the church. The cumulative effect of conflict's consequences working to destroy every single aspect of the pastor's professional, personal, family, financial, and spiritual life is seen to be worse than death. It has been a long way down. The way up will not be easy...and it will be long. Just thinking of it can expend an enormous amount of energy.
 
Three Overall Results
 
Perhaps the areas most difficult to overcome in post-conflict recovery relate to Claudia Black's three rules for people experiencing traumatic stress...
 
1) Don't Talk.
 

Exhausted, it is normal to want to be alone. It is natural to want to have time for oneself to recuperate and regenerate. By not talking, loneliness is guaranteed...even when surrounded by people. Being withdrawn and preferring introversive behaviors are signs that the grief is still very much present. Yet, the grief also hinders pastors from sharing the hurt. 

2) Don't Trust.
 

The effects of multiple rejection, betrayal, and disrespect shatter even the most trusting pastor's sense of trust. Boundaries become significantly--even severely--reset.

The only absolutely positive way to control being hurt more is to withdraw. Pastors may run into the castle, pull up the drawbridge, and isolate themselves to avoid further pain. Unfortunately, the pastor's pain will endure as long as the pastor remains in the castle.

Sooner or later the pastor will rediscover God's plan for relationships. Even in this self-imposed isolation the Christian leader will recognize that "it is not good to be alone" (Genesis 2:18)  Developing new relationships and healing existing ones can seem to be an insurmountable challenge. For some, this may be the greatest and most difficult risk for recovery. Yet, recovery cannot and does not occur until existing relationships are renewed and new relationships initiated on a foundation of absolute trust.

3) Don't Feel.
 

In order to avoid a repeat of the painful feelings of failure, traumatized individuals may simply avoid feelings. Love, friendship, attachment, commitment and enthusiastic participation in life are jettisoned.

The fear of experiencing a rerun of the painful feelings of trauma is so great that traumatized individuals move into a "feeling management" mode. If one can avoid feelings, they reason, they can avoid pain. Just turn off the heart, turn off the attachments, and turn the cold shoulder. Don't get involved. Don't have friends. Don't make commitments. Don't empathize. Don't get passionately involved. Don't feel. After all,   traumatized individuals reason, the only these things do is expose oneself to the possibility of more pain and grief. In order to avoid the trauma, one simply must avoid feeling.

Tell-Tale Signs
 
Strangely enough, "Don't Trust," "Don't Talk," and "Don't Feel," are tell-tale signs of codependency. According to Stephanie Abbot, President of the National Foundation for Alcoholism Communications, signs of codependent behaviors include...
In her introduction to Melody Beattie's book, Talk, Trust and Feel (Hazelden, 1991), Sharon Abbott explained,

"Codependency...explains the pain that many people feel. This pain comes from not being able to take care of ourselves while trying to hard to take care of others. The hurt comes from overworking, over caretaking, oversacrificing, while something in us is tired, hungry, needy, and never taken care of...

Codependency is like a mirror. We see ourselves reflected in someone else: our needs, our worth, our ambition, our security, and our hopes are all projected onto other people.

Until we learn to focus on ourselves and develop our own strong identities, we'll probably continue trying to manage and direct the lives of others." (Talk, Trust, Feel, pp. 2-3)

Disintegration Anxiety
 
Pastors and other leaders in post-conflict trauma sometimes find a sense of security in a world without feelings. Unfortunately, it's a very sterile, lonely, and painful world. It's a world without love. It's a world without the power of relationships. Most of all, it can feel like a world without God.

Psychologists refer to this anxious traumatic state as "disintegration anxiety." Disintegration anxiety is the fear that one's self will fragment in response to an inadequately sustained and traumatized sense of self.

Adult children of dysfunctional families experience this state even into adulthood. "Normal" leaders experiencing post-conflict trauma can get an acute experience of the long-term chronic state of codependents and others living in the throes of unresolved childhood trauma. Unless this trauma is professionally addressed the disintegration anxiety can linger and destroy.

Disintegration Anxiety And Psychological Death
 
According to researchers H.S. Baker and M.N. Baker  (American Journal of Psychiatry, Vol. 144:1-9, 1987),  disintegration anxiety can lead to an experience of "psychological death." In order to rescue one's "self" from the extremely devastating consequential fragmentation of self which may occur in post-conflict trauma, individuals may resort to various symptomatic and destructive behaviors. Such behaviors may include drug abuse, sexual promiscuity, perversions, self-mutilation, binge eating, purging, et al.

Though these behaviors have devastating moral implications on pastors and other church leaders, the desperate sense of psychological death that disintegration anxiety brings seeks some sort of instant, at least momentary relief. Thus, for the leader in post-conflict trauma, these actions are

"an emergency attempt to maintain and/or restore internal cohesion and harmony to a vulnerable, unhealthy self" (Glen Gabbard, Psychodynamic Psychiatry, p. 55).  

Those Painful Feelings

As painful as feelings are, healthy recovery from trauma requires a willingness to risk talking, trusting and feeling again. Rebuilding these attitudes does not happen overnight and without significant energies and professional support. Long after the conflict is done, pastors may find two or three years later that they finally return to a sense of being themselves again.
 
It can be a long, painful way back to a healthy sense of self. It can take time before one believes they are strong and resilient, able to withstand pressure, able to see a vision for the future and, most importantly, to be able to sustain one's self and lead the people of God with the confidence of faith.
 
Others may not notice the pastor's struggle and struggle to recovery through the pastoral facade. But the pastor knows it's there. Until it's healed, personal attachments will be strained and distanced. Trust and intimacy in the pastor's family may suffer. The pastor may find it difficult to invest vigorous, untiring, vision-directed ministry into the church. It may require an extraordinary exertion of will to get back out in front to promote the mission of the church. It may be difficult to feel the "fire" of God's vision and vigorously promote it in the power of faith. Slowly but surely the confidence can return and the fire of leadership can be re-ignited.
Toward Resolution Of Post-Conflict Trauma
 
The real problem of any post-conflict trauma may, to the secular world, appear to be merely psychological. Certainly one would be remiss to overlook the psychological dimension and to seek appropriate assistance from helping professionals. Counseling, medications and other treatment interventions may be necessary for individuals experiencing moderate or severe emotional consequences of post-conflict trauma.
 
Discerning Christians, however, will also recognize that the devastation which people feel in trauma may recognize a fundamental spiritual problem: an unhealthy dependence on one's self instead of God.
 
The Scriptures have a well-known word for this unhealthy dependence. It's called "idolatry." Eugene Peterson, in his book Subversive Spirituality (Eerdmans, 1991), refers to this idolatry as "Narcissism" and "Promethianism."
"Narcissism is the attempt to retreat from "Square One" [i.e. the place God wants us] back into the spiritual sovereignty of self. Forget infinity. Forget mystery. Cultivate the wonderful self. It might be a small world, but it is my world, totally mine.
 
Prometheanism is the attempt to detour around "Square One" into the spirituality of infinity, get a handle on it, get control of it, and make something of it. All that spirituality sitting around idle needs managing. Prometheanism is practical. Prometheanism is entrepreneurial. Prometheanism is energetic and ambitious. Prometheans want to put all that power and beauty to good use.
 
Most of us, most of the time, can be found to be practicing some variation of Narcissism or Prometheanism. It goes without saying, then, that most spirituality is a combination of Narcissism and Prometheanism, with the proportions carefully customized to suit our personal temperaments and circumstances" (p. 22).
Back To "Square One"
 
Idolatry--or what one might call "Narcissistic Prometheanism"--is a very subtle phenomenon. It is that fine line that virtuous, spiritual Christians cross without even knowing it. Sometimes the only way pastors and other Christians can realize that they have crossed the line--albeit with good intentions--is in the process of resolving post-conflict trauma.
 
What God gives in resolved post-conflict trauma is discernment. This discernment is that ability or insight to know what is congenial to developing a greater awareness of God in our ministries...and what things detract from God in our ministries.
 
Sometimes the only way we get that discernment is by God knocking us back to what Eugene Peterson calls "Square One." It is the place where, as Peterson describes,
"we return so that our faith is God-initiated, our discipleship is Christ-defined, our obedience in Spirit-infused"
(Subversive Spirituality, p. 29).
Where Our Joy...And Recovery Is
 
However, the real benefit of "Square One" is to bring us back to the absolute, total reliance on the power of God's Word. It reminds us that it is God who makes things happen, not us. It reminds us that our calling is determined and shaped by God and His will for our respective ministries. This calling sometimes entails extreme and unexpected levels of trauma, pain and suffering.
 
Going back to "Square One" also reminds us that whatever our ministry experience, our joy is not in the results of ministry. Our joy is in the love of God who, having found us unfit for ministry, nevertheless called us, by grace, to be His.
 
Finally, when one realizes that post-conflict trauma has brought them back to "Square One," it's a humbling reminder that God has placed us into His will and His healing. It is at "Square One" that God opens our hearts. It is at "Square One" that He feeds us with His Word. It is at "Square One" where we are transformed. And it is from "Square One" that ministers, renewed in God's grace, joyfully arise to a greater awareness and confidence in the power of God for their ministry even after post-conflict trauma.
 
Thomas F. Fischer
 

For further discussion on the experience of suffering
in ministry see Ministry Health's Article #244,
"What Ever Happened To 'Habitus Practicus?'" 

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This page was revised on: Tuesday, October 05, 2004 11:02:42 PM