By Dave Hughes
The first time the risks of my job hit me was in my substance abuse class during my first semester of grad school. My professor gave us our final assignment. Unlike every other class, this assignment wasn’t a presentation or a research paper, but a 6-page self-care and assessment plan. Far from advocating salt baths and the self-indulgent “self-care” that you see on social media feeds, this assessment got right to the evidence-based warning signs and solutions that help one properly diagnose and care for oneself. “I can do everything but put this into action for you,” my professor said. “But rest assured, you will need this at some point. Probably multiple times.”
I discovered a harrowing truth: I was high risk.
That same professor introduced me to an emerging area of therapy that works directly with the nervous system and the fight/flight/freeze response in treating trauma, stress and anxiety. Most of us think of the obvious traumas: sexual assault, domestic violence, and war. But in recent decades we’ve discovered that trauma is both more neurological and more common than we tend to think.
Trauma can be caused by things like vehicle accidents, major illnesses or injuries, unhealthy relationships or toxic family environments, and trauma can be a singular event or something that occurs over time. My professor gave us this assignment because he knew we would be especially vulnerable to a particular form of trauma: insidious trauma.
Spending so much time in other people’s emergencies takes a toll. When I give my trainings to first responders and Army Reserve soldiers, I’m always very clear: you have a trauma history. It may not have affected you in ways that you can recognize yet, but it’s there.
What Does Trauma Look Like?
One of the reasons that insidious trauma so often goes undetected is that it doesn’t look exactly like what we imagine when we think of something like PTSD. Trauma that occurs over time often looks different that trauma that happens in a single event.
This could mean constantly feeling ‘keyed up,’ having an enhanced startle response or it could look more like depression. It might present itself with irritability, emotional overwhelm, dissociation, or sleep and digestive problems. As someone who specializes in trauma and resilience, one of the biggest challenges in treating it is that people often don’t realize that they’re experiencing trauma.
Specific Ministry Risks
To be a pastor carries, to at least some extent, the same risks for trauma as my job. You may not spend as much time doing specifically trauma-focused pastoral counseling, but the trauma, the funerals, the hurt is all there. To add to this, church members often view their pastors as 24/7 lifelines who should always be available. In American church culture, this is often accompanied by a pressure not to be seen as just as human and frail as everyone else. Ministry can be a lonely place — with all the risks of a trauma counselor and often significantly less support.
To be certain, our culture bows at the altars of busyness and hustle. But Jesus invites us in Matthew 11:28-13 to
Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
Christ’s rest ought to mark our lives and ministries. Our Christ-centered self-care should stand out against the culture around us.
Self-Assessment and Care
In light of this truth, pastors need to prioritize care for their own souls. When I say self-care, it might be helpful to think of car maintenance. Are getting gas and washing my car maintenance? Sure. But maintenance doesn’t take place in just one or a few areas, nor does it happen at the same interval in every area. My professor’s assessment and plan (and a modified version that I use in my trainings) cover areas like:
- Emotional awareness/coping – The awareness of and ability to express emotions.
- Cultural identity – Satisfaction and support around one’s cultural identity or community.
- Creativity – An open-minded, ability and desire to be creative in all facets of life and solve problems.
- Humor – The ability to use humor to cope, appropriately laughing at oneself or others.
- Exercise – Leading an active rather than sedentary lifestyle.
- Nutrition – Paying attention to the quality and amount of food, mindful manner of eating.
- Stress management – Self-monitoring the need and structure of self-care techniques.
- Leisure — Creating free time and participating in positive activities.
- Spirituality — Religion, prayer, meditation, or belief in control outside of ourselves.
Let’s just pick one: spirituality. I imagine that you don’t spend every day practicing the spiritual discipline of solitude. However in our insanely busy world, do you have occasional extended alone time with God? In the scriptures we read about Jesus intentionally getting away for solitude and prayer (Luke 5:16). What about the daily maintenance? The fundamentals of daily time in the word? Both daily habits and more infrequent ones are needed.
As a mental health clinician who happens to also be a seminary student, I get a front row seat to the conversation on mental health and the church. I often hear a lot of good discussions, but we would be remiss to leave out the discussion on pastors’ mental health. Healthier, more resilient pastors mean healthier, more resilient churches and that means better spiritual hospitals for those who come to hear the gospel and heal. Our churches should absolutely be a place where people can bring their mental health struggles and find comfort, hope, and resilience. That means Jesus’ under-shepherds as well.
Dave Hughes occasionally offers trainings to help pastors navigate such trauma. Learn more.
Pastors, you can find more encouraging resources at our sister site, The Center for Preaching and Pastoral Leadership.