Monday, November 23, 2009

Pastoral Stress

As multiple deployments of military personnel continue to Iraq and Afghanistan, more and more reports filter back concerning the rise of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in our troops. It stands to reason that these men and woman cannot receive repeated trauma and not react both physically and emotionally. It all builds up over time.

Given the title of this blog article I do not want to insinuate that much of the normal stress endured by pastors is comparable to the overwhelming stress of a battle environment. My point, however, does concern a difference between normal working stress and the kind of stress that is serious enough to eventually result in physical and emotional harm. With training in CISM I recognize that sometimes 'critical incidents' - incidents that are more intense than normal - can and will be life-changing and personally destructive if ignored and left unattended.

Many outside of the immediate working of the pastoral ministry probably do not realize the potential for such stress in the life of their shepherd. They may marvel at times how he seems to deal with death so professionally, or navigate congregational conflict with such calm, that they believe he is untouched by the events themselves. But he isn't. He may be able to distance himself emotionally from the event at the time, allowing an emotional 'buffer' so that he can function. However, back in the quiet of his home or office with time to process the events, he may begin to eventually feel the accumulated burden of what he has carried.

One area that exacts so much toll on pastors, yet is probably too often ignored, is inner church conflict. Unlike the parishoner who blows up at a meeting or storms out of your office, pastors, by and large, do not feel the luxury of allowing themselves to lose control. Instead, they absorb the energy of the anger and frustration, attempting to patiently listen and empathize, yet all the while the intensity within begins to reach dangerous levels. Yet all that we know about stress tells us that the worst possible thing to do is to internalize it. For when we do this, it will express itself elsewhere, usually in inappropriate or hurtful ways. Do we wonder why the marriages of pastors too often suffer the same fate as those in the rest of the community? One might pause to look at what unresolved stressors are affecting his and his family's life.

The pastor's family often absorbs the stress of the parish right along with the pastor. They, too, feel limited in how they can express their own frustration and anger. Living in the 'glass bowl' of the parsonage they feel on regular display, many observing how they will deal with their lives. It is a mixed blessing to be in such a position. On the one hand one has the opportunity to model Christian behavior to those who need to see how one can live our Christ in their family and community. On the other hand pastors and their families are also quite human and have the same emotional needs as others. Finding appropriate venues to express these remains an ongoing challenge.

Pastors know that in accepting the mantle of their office they accept the burden of their calling as well. By and far they are no given to 'whining' or complaining about the weight they carry. In fact, most, like traumatized veterans returning home, will even go to great lengths to avoid talking about it. So many others need their listening ear and understanding presence. How can they be so selfish as to burden others? Furthermore, their churches need their steady leadership in the midst of the tumultuous storms of parish life. Someone has to be calm when others are losing their cool.

Yet stress is stress, and untreated will harm the person enduring it. Much over the years has been written about pastoral burnout, but one wonders if much has been done to address the underlying causes. It's not just from being too busy, although overwork will take its toll in time. The problem is that buried frustration, fear, and anger. That is the hidden culprit. Hopefully most pastors have opportunities at winkels to 'vent' and receive brotherly encouragement. My guess is that many do not. But to let these emotional ghosts drift unseen is to welcome eventual breakdown. I am encouraged to hear of some who are addressing these matters, not least of which is DOXOLOGY. May many more pastors be able to take advantage of these opportunities to release and heal. The church depends on it.


revalkorn said...

When I was forced to resign from the congregation I last served, one of the reasons given was, "It was more your frustration with yourself, seeming depression references" which they had gleaned from my blog at the time. I always found that an interesting comment to come from Christians. He's down on himself; let's kick him while he's there.

I'm encouraged to see that more pastors are admitting that something is wrong, and I'm even more encouraged to see their parishioners stepping up to pray for their pastors, supporting them as they go through treatment for depression, and standing by them in tough times. Thank God for such faithful people!

Don Engebretson said...

Pr. Alkorn,
Unfortunately there has been too much misunderstanding or unwillingness to acknowledge pastors and their very human struggles and a lack of initiative with parishes to come up along side of their shepherds to help them rather than dismiss them. I am sorry that such seemed to be the case in your situation, but with you I am also pleased that progress is being made. Pr. Peperkorn has recently written a book entitled "I Trust When Dark My Road - A Lutheran View of Depression" which should hopefully help to address this issue better for pastors and churches alike. I would like to get a copy sometime soon and read it and review it here. If anyone has read it and would like to share their insights, that would be great!

revalkorn said...

I posted a review at my blog: