I’m going to insert a parenthetical thought in this series I’ve begun about bio-chemicals and our relationships to others. It’s called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Something I’ve struggled with after 40-plus years of ministry.
Last week I introduced the subject of the stress hormone called cortisol—a chemical triggered by the stimulation of amygdalae (ah-mig-dah-lye) located on both sides of our brain. The amygdalae exist for our survival. They store up memories of stressful, traumatic events in our lives such as a dog attack or other life-threatening experiences. The traumatic memory is recalled by the amygdalae when confronted by a repeated (or similar) threat. It triggers glands to immediately release a rush of cortisol into the bloodstream to induce an extra surge of blood sugar for strength and energy to run from or face the danger. This can happen in any fear or stress inducing environment.
Studies have shown there’s a possible connection of the amygdalae to the emotional reactions found in patients with PTSD. We tend to associate PTSD with war veterans, but it can apply to anyone who’s undergone serious or sustained traumatic events over time. A steady dose of cortisol remaining in the bloodstream breaks down and damages vital organs, our cardio-vascular system, and the neuro-transmitters in our brains. A neurological breakdown can cause chronic anxiety and depression.
This brings me to my story, one that long-term pastors, business owners and other professions should consider along the course of their journey. Two years ago, I resigned from pastoring after forty years of ministry. My wife and I handed our last church to our successor in a celebratory fashion and retired to pursue a new chapter our lives.
One thing was different this time. We didn’t move to another state like we had the other two churches I handed over to successors. This exposed me to PTSD. Not on the same level as a war vet, but real just the same. Here’s what happened.
Once I removed my mantle of responsibility, we attended other churches to wean the congregation from my wife and I to embrace our successors and the way they would lead the church. I disappeared for a year with an occasional visit, my, however returned six months later.
In this season, I visited other churches to meet pastors. I’ve enjoyed this process because I no longer carried the responsibility of pastoring. It felt good to watch those who’ve come up behind me to continue in their calling. But then something happened I didn’t see coming. I had eventually planned to return to the church my wife and I planted. She was already back in that first year, while I returned occasionally.
During my second year out of the saddle, I visited our church more frequently and preached several times. But something troubled me, my inner peace left whenever I attended. I felt anxious and stressed. I didn’t want to go back. Guilt and shame beat me up over feeling that way about the church my wife and I planted and served from 1998-2015. Our successors who replaced us had served by our side since 1999 and are to this day our dearest of friends.
I wanted to support them as they had supported us. I wanted to be as loyal to them as they were to us. But I struggled whenever I went to church. Their church. My stress had nothing to do with how they were serving and leading. I just didn’t want to be there because I felt anxious and angry and resentful about being there. I never felt that way in the other churches I visited.
I couldn’t explain why I felt this way, and I couldn’t help my wife to understand. She had not been impacted the same way and felt right at home among her friends and church family. Many times, I didn’t have another church to visit, so I stayed home while she went to church. This went that went against everything I’d ever taught and believed. Again, more self-inflicted guilt.
One day, my wife told me that in a recent conversation with our successor, he had mentioned that pastor’s wives could experience PTSD (he’s a practicing, licensed counselor with a Master’s Degree). Upon hearing that a light bulb went off in my head. That’s it! That might explain my anxiety. So, I looked it up on the internet.
Pastors experience a lot of stress in the ministry. The stress of preaching, teaching, spiritual counseling of church members, promoting building funds and outreach campaigns, committee meetings, leadership-team meetings, officiating funerals and weddings, trying to maintain a balance between the demands of ministry and the needs of our spouse and children, the weight of the welfare of the families in the church and their spiritual growth, the never-ending demand of E.G.R.S. (Extra Grace Required Saints) who can drain your virtue quickly if you don’t set boundaries (a pastor can’t pick or choose who they want to join their church).
The stress of “spiritual warfare” is another component that daunts a pastor’s efforts to keep the ship on course. Waves and storms arise that can traumatize a pastor. Betrayal or disloyalty from disgruntled members who sow discord. An unexpected coup to overthrow your ministry from someone in your leadership team. If the dissension gets too out-of-hand the pastor might take themselves out of the equation for the sake of the church. There’s also intense stress on pastors and their families who cycle through congregation after congregation as directed by the hierarchy of denominations.
All this trauma, though subtle some may be, can compound over decades of a minister’s calling. Steady daily doses of cortisol released—beyond normal—wreaks havoc on the mind and body of a pastor. When younger, it goes unnoticed. In time, it can turn into PTSD. The amygdalae have stored up all those traumatic memories so that when the body is older, the anxiety and stress becomes more pronounced.
Any visual “present day” experiences that resemble something that occurred traumatically in the past, can trigger the cortisol adrenaline rush that makes you want to run from the source triggering the anxiety. Nothing wrong is happening, only the visual or symbol of something that reminds you of a negative experience from long ago.
This began to define my condition. I was done with “pastoring” people. I know that sounds harsh, but I didn’t want to get pulled into a counseling session. I didn’t want to get pulled into a prayer meeting. I didn’t want to get put in a place of responsibility to help grow the church. I didn’t want to engage in deep, interpersonal relationships that would commit me to “shepherding” someone again (not the same experience in mentoring relationships).
I didn’t like the anxious feelings of “run! Get out of here!” I felt horrible thinking such thoughts. I diagnosed it as selfish and not living out what I had taught others. When younger, I never understood why older folks, retired pastors, or former leaders wanted to sit back and not get too involved. I used to be critical and judge them in my heart. I found myself in the same place, judging my own seeming hypocrisy.
Today, I’ve come into an understanding that healing in my brain and body needs to take place. Emotional healing. It’s a bio-chemical thing I had no control over, other than to direct my thoughts toward God to heal me. He may choose to do so miraculously, or he may allow my body to take its course to heal and reset in a time of indefinite transition. Either way, I know he’s with me. In the meantime, I no longer see this as a selfish thing, but the by-product compounded stress that had taken its toll. This understanding gives me hope and to fall upon the grace of God, the help of others, and to learn how to manage it.
To all you who are current leaders and pastors, again, I encourage you to take care of yourself. Be aware of this potential for PTSD. Manage your life with balance. Take time to reflect, to learn from traumatic events that has or will hit you some way in the future. Make sure you watch your health through diet and exercise. Take your weekly Sabbaths to renew your soul and recalibrate your center upon God. If you’re a pastor, your Sunday’s are work days, not a day of rest.
Take time for solitude, for regular restful retreats, manage regularly scheduled days each week with your spouse and children—they you’ll have the rest of your life—your church and its members you’ll not. Take God seriously, but never yourself too seriously. Keep your sense of humor. Don’t take on more than your calling, graces and gifts allow.
Get good at a few things, let the other things be done by others better at doing those things than you. Build your staff with givers, not takers; fill jobs among your staff where you’re weakest in, not the strongest. Where you can, as often as you can, work yourself out of job descriptions you have as soon as possible, except where your strengths contribute the most and are most valuable to the overall purpose of your mission and vision.
Finally, find a mentor or professional counselor who is of the same gender. They must be outside the orbit of your friends, acquaintances, associates and family. The ideal is to meet once a month to have a brain dump and talk about anything stressful you might be going through.
Leaders need someone to talk to in a completely safe and confidential environment. We can’t store up our “stuff,” keep it locked up in a mental vault, and expect it to go away. Consider it as important as keeping your car tuned, oil changed, or maintaining a regular exercise routine. Include this in your budget as a necessary item for the well-being of your life as a leader.
Article on the Pastor and PTSD: https://www.ministrymagazine.org/archive/2016/01/the-pastors-ptsd
The Amygdala: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amygdala