Monday, May 24, 2010

The Effects of Emotional Dysfunction on Parish Life

Churches, like families, are not immune to the effects of emotional dysfunction. However, in Christian love we may pass certain behaviors off as idiosyncrasies, trying hard not to judge those with whom we struggle. We might also attempt to explain it away by judging ourselves. The problem is ours, not theirs, we tell ourselves. We have not been sufficiently sensitive or accepting. Yet some behavior stems from various forms of what those in the psychological realm call "Mental Illness." Now to some degree we all suffer from a certain amount of mental or emotional dysfunction. No one escapes it all. The pressures of life bring varying levels of anxiety and depression, sometimes to severe levels (as in a crisis such as a loss to death), sometimes less.

Having accounted for this, we are still left with those who suffer from conditions which are not manageable, and which negatively affect the overall health of the congregation. Obsessively compulsive individuals exert excessive control and manipulate others, while anxiety-ridden people drain energy from church workers by demanding undo attention and time. Public meetings become excruciating experiences as normal matters of business explode into heated arguments and power struggles leaving many drained and in emotional pain themselves.

Anyone who has spent time working and volunteering in a church remembers such experiences. They have lived through them and sadly in too many cases have left the church when the discomfort became too acute. They were emotionally and verbally abused, although at the time they may not have recognized it as such. All they wanted to do was to escape and hide, and who could blame them? Meanwhile, church workers, burned out and bruised from one too many battles, limp quietly off the stage of ministry and fade from view, wishing only to find a place of peace.

Comprehending the unhealthy dynamics at play is part of understanding any possible solution. Like a family suffering from abuse it often takes a dramatic change to bring healing again. Unfortunately, though, many within the church often feel intimidated into silence by stronger and more vocal members who do not realize their unhealthy behavior. They sit passively to the side even as events spin out of control, feeling helpless to do anything to stop the abuse. Sometimes, like a fire snuffed out by its own tendency to consume the oxygen that fuels it, the abuse will reach a point where it consumes itself. Yet waiting for this often only prolongs the pain unnecessarily.

So what is the ultimate answer? No one perfect answer exists since each situation presents unique situations. Of course, the Gospel is always the ultimate answer in the end, as the forgiving power of Christ's love brings the only healing that can mend wounds and restore broken fellowship. Yet how one deals with the intricate complexity of human emotional dysfunction remains the challenge for which there are those so equipped and trained.

If you are suffering within such an abusive situation, you have my prayers and encouragement to break the silence and reach out for help. Satan feeds on the silence of our fears and rejoices in our weakness. May the Lord of the Church be with His bride and heal her from the wounds sin has afflicted upon her.

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