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Three Keys To Resiliency

Thomas F. Fischer

Number 327
One does not have to be in the ministry long to recognize that it has many ups and many downs. Sometimes the "ups" are greater than the "downs." Sometimes the "downs" are greater than the "ups."
Though such is the nature of life itself (yes, "normal" people face crises too!), leaders of the community of faith often feel additional pressures to always be "up." This pressure may be due to individual factors such unrealistic expectations and perfectionistic personality tendencies. It may also be due to social and institutional pressures to perform according to various standards of accountability. This pressure may also be due to a theological imbalance stressing Law over Gospel.
Whatever its cause, the bottom line is that when it comes to Christian leaders and faith, someone's always watching. They look to pastors and Christian leaders to model the "perfect" unwavering faith.
The Harsh Reality
The harsh reality, however, is that pastors and Christian leaders do not--and cannot--model Christian faith perfectly. Perhaps no one knows that better than the pastors and Christian leaders themselves. They get discouraged like everyone else. They get down like everyone else. They get frustrated like everyone else. They feel like throwing in the towel like everyone else. They doubt like everyone else. They even question God like everyone else.
Like everyone else, pastors and Christian leaders are also susceptible to trauma. Continued frustration at Sisyphusian progress, burn-out from doing "the same-ole same ole" year in and year out, unexpected rejection, and painful betrayal are only the tip of the iceberg of the deep pain which pastoral ministry can bring.
The Best Defense
Unfortunately, pastors and Christian leaders often have little if any effective defense against these and other barriers to personal faith even while mentoring faith among the faithful. Certainly they know and trust in the absolute certainty of God's leading in their lives. Yet, without a good defense, even the most dedicated--and especially the most dedicated--may find themselves at the extreme painful end of severe, unprecedented and inexplicable trauma.
Raymond Flannery, Jr. in his excellent book Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: The Victim's Guide to Healing And Recovery (New York: Crossroads, 1999), describes numerous symptoms of PTSD. Though the book is specifically directed to victims of abuse and other severe trauma, his insights certainly describe the effects of ecclesiastical trauma as well.
These symptoms fall into three major categories:
1) Physical Symptoms: Many of these symptoms are the result of maintaining a continued state of full alertness, even when there is no crisis. Yet, as Flannery notes, the person is so preoccupied with safety they cannot relax. 
Examples of physical symptoms include hypervigilance; exaggerated startle response; difficulty sleeping; difficulty with concentration or memory; mood irritability--especially anger and depression;
2) Intrusive Symptoms: These symptoms, according to Flannery, are due to the brains characteristic alternation between recalling the pain to better understand the trauma and going to great lengths to repress or forget it. Some tend to be unable to keep from dwelling on the event. Others try to depersonalize the event, pretending as if it happened to someone else. 
Intrusive symptoms can include recurring, distressing recollections (thoughts; memories; dreams; nightmares; flashbacks); physical or psychological distress at an event that symbolizes the trauma, grief or survivor guilt (i.e. feels guilty that they survived while others did not); and
3) Avoidant Symptoms: This category of symptoms is demonstrated by traumatized individuals who "go out of their way to avoid any specific thoughts, feelings, activities or situations that could remind the victim of the traumatic event and bring an unwanted return of the painful, intrusive recollections" (Flannery, p. 12).
Avoidance behaviors may include avoiding crows, friends, promotions, fun, challenges, or day-to-day activities which might in any way be related to the trauma. Avoidant symptoms may also include avoiding specific thoughts, feelings, activities, or situations; diminished interest in significant activities; restricted range of emotions (numbness) (cf. Flannery, pp. 11-12).
Learned Helplessness
Severe trauma may also result in other symptoms. These may include dissociation, repetition compulsion and others. Though these may not necessarily result from ecclesiastical trauma, one rather common result may be "learned helplessness."
An avoidant symptom, learned helplessness occurs when traumatized individuals experience things so far out of their control that they are unable to do anything to solve the crisis at hand. As if watching a nuclear reaction gone out of control, those experience this trauma cannot save others or their organizations. Everything is so out of control that they find it difficult simply to keep themselves intact--mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually.

Learned helplessness is based on a false assumption. Because they could do nothing to prevent or curtail the trauma-inciting event, traumatized individuals feel as if they cannot control events in other parts of their life, too. Flannery notes:

"[Traumatized individuals] lose the capacity to appreciate the connection between their actions and shaping the world to meet their needs. They have incorrectly generalized from one situation to all situations. They strop trying to master the environment, and they learn to be helpless…Such persons believe they exercise no reasonable control or mastery over their lives….they assume that any efforts on their part to shape the environment to meet their needs will fail. Such persons may stop trying to cope altogether…" (Flannery, p. 18).

Other indicators of learned helplessness include

1) General Passivity: Non-involvement, with family, friends, career, church, children, etc.; a non-committal attitude to things, people or organizations that would make life meaningful, uninvolved

2) Disrupted Daily Routines: The lack of interest in eating, recreation, sex, friendships may result in sporadic work, disinterest in follow-through, loss of initiative, etc.

3) Social Isolation: The nature of the trauma may result in an intense apprehensiveness, distrust of others, and withdrawal into themselves.

Who's Most Vulnerable?
Of course anyone can be subject to the effects of learned helplessness. Trauma does not appear to discriminate based on race, gender, age or other factors.
1) is increased when efforts by the traumatized to seek help and mastery result in rejection, anger or indifference by those from whom help is sought;
2) becomes more deeply entrenched when individuals, in themselves, lack the skills to solve the problem or the means to escape the trauma;
3) may persist when traumatized individuals come to believe they do not deserve better;
4) may be a means of "laying low" to avoid and escape further abuse and injury when escape is not possible.
When individuals recognize and understand helplessness, they may be more able to assist those who have been traumatized. In ecclesiastical settings, recognizing trauma-based helplessness in its chronic and acute form, can be a most essential beginning point for pastoral care of in the increasing numbers of traumatized clergy and professional lay ministers.
Perhaps all-too-often, traumatized pastors may reach out for help, only to find their cries of "wolf" going on deaf ears. Some denominational officials--even to the highest levels--may be too busy, too disinterested, too unskilled, too short-staffed, or too unwilling to take political risks of assisting the brother or sister experiencing ecclesiastical trauma. 
As Flannery points out, this unwillingness actually increases and intensifies various traumatic responses…including helplessness. It is this sense of helplessness which often triggers resignations of otherwise exceptional called servants into other professions. With proper intervention and support, this sense of helplessness may be preventable.
Clergy Shortages
In 1998 17% of all Roman Catholic Churches are without any priest or lay minister and many of the remaining are being served by lay ministers.* In 1997, mainline denominations such as the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the number of clergy dropped from 8,316 to 7,960 or nearly 4.3%.** 
Unfortunately these denominations are not alone. Instead, they have been experiencing chronic, decade-long patterns of decline in the number of pastors.
Though there may be many reasons for these shortages, the bottom line is that there is an extremely urgent need to address this decline. Yet, it appears that many pastors find themselves alone, without support, and succumbing to a sense of trauma-induced helplessness. Without timely support--or sometimes any support at all--these numbers will continue reflect what may be the church's greatest sin: apathy toward its own called servants.
The Best Defense: Resiliency
Whatever the crisis, whether it be acute or chronic, whatever the sudden, upsetting event, the best defense is resiliency. The word "resiliency" is based on the Latin word resilire "to leap or spring back." To be resilient is to be like a stretched rubber band which, when even stretched to extremes, springs back to its original shape. 
According to Webster's Dictionary, "resiliency" is the 
"capability of a strained body to recover its size and shape after deformation, especially by compressive stresses."

Unfortunately, many traumatized pastors and congregational leaders do not return to their original shape. In his article, "Turning a Church Around Is a Dangerous Calling," author and consultant Bill Easum indicates that pastors

"usually have only one [church] turnaround in their bones. Because of the difficulty, pain and isolation often involved in turning around a church, most pastors tell me that they don't have the energy to do it more than once." (Net Results, September 1999, Vol. XX, Number 9, p. 22)
Could focusing and practicing resiliency reduce the difficulty, pain, and isolation and that traumatized pastors and leaders experience in turn-around chuches? In any church or ministry?
One would hope so. After all, other strategies such as depending on "clichéd" support are virtually ineffective and, perhaps, worthless. "Don't cry," "You must be strong for the church," "You've just got to get a hold of yourself," "Cheer up," "Time will heal," Be tough," "Life goes on," "Count your blessings," "It's God's will," "God helps those who help themselves" and other clichés simply do not give help during time of confusion, pain, puzzlement, and loss.
Instead, what is needed is genuine, honest support and direction. What is needed is a brother or sister to hold your hand and heart and keep you close to the Healer of all: God Himself.
Three Keys To Resiliency
Since ecclesiastical trauma is virtually unavoidable and the unexpected pain and crisis o daily life inevitable, individuals must have a resiliency strategy. This is especially true for pastors.
Harold Flannery in an earlier book Becoming Stress-Resistant (1999) described research on "stress-resistant persons." 
After twelve years of research, he and his colleagues found that stress-resistant persons possessed three keys to resiliency.
1) They exercised reasonable mastery over their activities and their world;
2) They developed caring attachments to others; and
3) They were committed to some goal in life that made their lives meaningful.

"Mastery, attachment and meaning are the very domains that are disrupted in psychological trauma….Subsequent clinical findings have taught us that stress-resistant persons…are better prepared to cope with the severe life-stress of a traumatic event. Such skills can buffer the potential negative effect of the traumatic event itself as well as hasten the recovery process" Flannery, PTSD, p. 25.

Three Keys Explained
Based on Flannery's research, those who wish to be well-prepared to encounter and experience trauma of any kind continually nurture these three areas: sense of mastery, developing caring, relationships, and holding purposeful meaning in life.
Resiliency, then, is the fruit of developing a Christian lifestyle which focuses on these three areas:
1) Sense of Mastery: Resilient individuals keep their bodies healthy and finely-tuned. They cope effectively with a sense of humor. Most importantly, though they continually utilized effective problem solving strategies, the best problem solvers know what can be changed and what can't be changed, and when to redirect their energies from unattainable goals to those visionary ends which are possible and within reach.
2) Developing Caring Relationships: Effective problem solvers, Flannery notes, are not socially isolated. They relieve the sense of loneliness and aloneness by sharing the journey and helping others discover and realize a reason to live. Such daily interactions not only help us feel good about ourselves, but they also strengthen our immune system.
3) Purposeful Meaning In Life: The most resilient individuals are not seeking power, fame, wealth, position and recognition as their key meaning in life. Instead, resilient individuals focus on the legacy they will leave after they die. "What will I leave behind?" "How will people remember me?" "What contribution or difference will my life make to those who survive me?"
This concern for others coupled with a sense that we exercise some mastery over life, can attain, to some degree, the goals for which we strive, and that aspiring and attaining these goals helps give meaning to life are keys to this purposeful meaning in life.
Three Helpful Illusions For Resiliency
These three keys can be helped by recognizing three "helpful" illusions for resiliency. Garrison Keillor humorously quips how everyone in mythical Lake Woebegone is "slightly above average." 
This illusion is more than just good humor. It's good fuel for resiliency.
Flannery notes that there are three of these Lake Woebegone-type illusions which can aid resiliency.

1) Self-Enhancement: It really is helpful to evaluate ourselves in a better light than objective fact might warrant. To feel more attractive, more talented, and more skilled than we actually are can be helpful.

2) Heightened Sense of Self-Control: To feel as if we might be able to handle a situation better than we actually can may help build resilient attitudes.
3) Mild Unrealistic Optimism: To expect better outcomes for the future which are better than what life may provide may keep us optimistic and resilient.
Of course, any of these illusions hold within them the seeds of greater susceptibility to trauma and crisis if believed to an exaggerated, unhealthy degree. An overly exaggerated, perfectionistic sense of self-control, for example, may greatly increase susceptibility to trauma.
"Our understanding is not yet complete, but we do know that men and women who have excessive needs for personal control, and who hold themselves accountable when others would not, are at increased risk for developing helplessness. 
Additionally, those victims who see their traumatic event as one more instance of a long-standing pattern of unhappy life events, and who assume that such events will be of long duration are more likely to develop learned helplessness" (Flannery, p. 19).
The Real Source Of Resiliency
Resiliency, however, is not merely the result of maintaining healthy physiology and understanding psychology. It's not simply having mildly exaggerated positive attitudes and knowing the keys to resiliency. 
The greatest source of strength and resiliency is found in God's Word of grace.
God really is in control. Everything really does work for the good of those who love Him. There really are no coincidences in God's eternal plan for creation and us. He really does give us a hope and a future.
Jesus' Resilience
Perhaps the greatest key to resiliency is found in the One who is most Resilient: Jesus Christ. Even while facing death, He focused on His calling, His work and the eternal plan which His Father had given Him. 
Though in prayer in Gethsemane He asked for the cup of suffering to be removed, it was not. Instead of responding with unimaginable and irrecoverable trauma, He responded in faith. He submitted to God's control and direction, even when things were out of control; even when the end was death.
That He understood and practiced this key to resiliency was demonstrated on the cross when He prayed, "Father, into Thy hands I commit my spirit."
Jesus' resilience was founded ultimately not only one the fact that He knew He had done everything possible relative to His calling. His High Priestly prayer also showed that He had cultivated relationships with His disciples so that they might be one with Him and the Father.
Finally--and most importantly--His life and ministry was characterized even from His youth by a profound sense of calling. "Don't you know that I must be about my father's business?" He asked His mother. Even when she didn't understand and the crowds persecuted, rejected, abandoned, and crucified Him, his singularity of purpose never failed. In all things, He was about doing His father's business. That was, after all, all that He was about.
You, Your Calling, And The Father's Business
Perhaps one of the Achilles' heels for ministry resilience is that we forget our long-term purpose and calling: to be about the Father's business. This business, as any business, is fragile, hazardous, risky, subject to destruction, ruin and failure. This business, as Jesus' life and "business" of ministry demonstrated, is tested and tried by Satan each moment of our existence.
Any business--including God's business of ministry--is not for the weak in heart. It is for the resilient, that is, those who understand, live and breath the reality that we live only and exclusively to do "the Father's business."
Since this is our business, we must daily humble ourselves to God's will. We must constantly recognize that whatever our illusions of ourselves, we are really merely God's tools at His disposal to carry out His business. In this task we must keep focused, ultimately, on God's promise for us. He is, after all, our greatest Hope and our greatest key to resiliency.
"Those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint." Isaiah 40:31 (NIV)
Thomas F. Fischer 
* Paul Harvey, News and Commentary, 9/30/99
** The Lutheran Witness, September 1999 (Vol. 118, No. 9) p. 16. The decadal loss trend was nearly 20% from 1988-1997 (Cf. LCMS Statistical Report).

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This page was revised on: Tuesday, October 05, 2004 11:03:44 PM