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Recovering From Post-Conflict Trauma
Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- trying to control others;
- trying to help and understand others while ignoring our own needs;
- confusing our responsibilities with those of others;
- repressing feelings;
- being emotionally involved with addicts;
- believing that our self-worth is based on how someone else behaves.
- 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
- "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,
- 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.
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
- 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
"What Ever Happened To
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was revised on:
Tuesday, October 05, 2004 11:02:42 PM