PTSD, Pastors, and a Program for Healing

ouch sign

Art by Nick Fewings, unsplash.com

By Joe LaGuardia

I had a spell of post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) today. I am writing while it is still fresh in my mind. People who suffer from PTSD never know when it is going to hit. We try to identify triggers, but sometimes they are unavoidable. Living in these stressful, fear-laden times does not help. I am writing so that you can catch a glimpse of what its like.

The first thing about PTSD is to acknowledge that its real. It is not something that a person can help or “choose” to get over. It is not narcissism or doubt or paranoia or a temper tantrum. PTSD is a disorder because it is objective, something that happens to a person and within a person. We who suffer from it are victims, not people seeking attention. We cannot “get over it.”

PTSD is debilitating. When there is a trigger and you enter that place of suffering, you enter a deep, dark hole only a few people have known well. If you find other people who suffer from PTSD, then you know you’re not alone. But even in a community of other victims, you all suffer the disorder at different times. When you’re in the hole, that’s when you text or call a buddy who can lend a hand.

That’s what I did. I texted some friends and reached out to my wife. They responded with open hearts. The best ones do not tell you what to do. They do not make light of your situation. They know, like Job, that sometimes you just have to sit in your ash heap until the clouds pass. They will sit with you and put their needs on hold for a few minutes.

Meanwhile, the storm rages inside, and the demons are accusatory:

“Why are you still feeling this way–your trauma situation happened so long ago?”

“Don’t be a baby, and snap out of it!”

“What did you do to feel this way? Don’t make it everyone else’s problems–its none of their business!”

“You’re so selfish! Why do you have to ruin everyone’s day and draw attention to yourself?”

And when you do reach out, sometimes it backfires. When I get into that PTSD mode, I have to try not to react. It takes effort not to say or do things that you might regret later. I try not to make decisions until it passes, and sometimes that means retreating into bed and just closing your eyes until things take a turn.

Unfortunately, when this morning’s trigger occurred–in a communication text thread about a certain situation–I did respond (by text) before thinking it through. I tried to respond positively, as a way to help people think differently about a topic they were discussing, but the response I got back was, This isn’t the place for you to write these things, Joe.

That might be true. Actually I know its true. But, at the same time, a “Thank you, Joe–we’ll talk more about this later,” would have been helpful (at least to me).

Its no excuse for my reaction, but it is my reality. And I apologize for my reaction, but I am not going to apologize for my hurt.

To be fair, not everyone knows I suffer from PTSD. We who are victims know it as a lonely road, and we don’t like to broadcast it. Some of us have therapy pets, but our culture is increasingly hostile to pets these days since all they hear about on the news are sensational reports of therapy peacocks and therapy pigs. But this is no joke. If you don’t have a pet, you just deal with it in suffering silence, although 99% of your days are great and joyous.

My feelings at the time were authentic. I wanted to blame the text thread for triggering my PTSD. I wanted to tell my correspondents where to go. I wanted the world to know that there are many of us hurting (in my case, from gun violence).

But that’s the first reaction to PTSD, and that’s when you know you are having a PTSD situation: You want to lose control and lash out to those around you.

I went to bed instead, and my wife followed. I told her I was in bed because I didn’t want to take anything out on her and the children. Its not fair to victimize everyone else and weaponize the trauma we have to live with every day.

Not all PTSD cases are the same–mine is one in a million. My bouts can last anywhere from 10 minutes to a couple of days depending on the situation, but when bouts come I am grateful for a church that lets me retreat for the time I need to get past things.

And that’s the difference. Our churches need to understand PTSD, and our pastors need training on recognizing PTSD, responding to it, and providing best practices for how to handle it. And pastors need to know that it doesn’t only affect normal people. CEOs, doctors, pastors, professionals, clinicians, psychiatrists, therapists–they can suffer from it too. PTSD does not discriminate for education, income level, or ethnicity.

Only by understanding PTSD, that is, by reading testimonies like mine and studying up on trauma-sensitive theology, clergy and churches can facilitate support by being midwives to healing and resiliency. They can utilize biblical and historical resources that promote a type of faith that finds solidarity in the trauma-laden Christ-event of death on the cross and the new life of resurrection.

I am grateful for all the support I receive on those rare days when something triggers my PTSD. I am grateful for God’s mercy, which always carries me through–and the Spirit who gives me the voice to write things like this to help others know they’re not alone in their stunted journeys of faith.

My prayer is that others will listen and take note, and then respond accordingly. There are many of us in the world today that it cannot be ignored.

Moving from Coronavirus Anxiety to Missional Action

white and blue textile on brown wooden table

Macua Photo Agency; unsplash.com

By Joe LaGuardia

As a pastor, I take note of what other pastors and churches are doing. Its a great way to get good ideas and to spot bad ones. In the wake of the Coronavirus and church closures, I’ve seen some great, creative ideas out there, as well as burdensome solutions that hurt congregations more than help.

In seeing both, I imagine that some of our social media and technological solutions to church closures are fostering a sense of anxiety rather than gospel-centered action. Take one church I know of, for instance: The church is producing a video every day, a pastor’s podcast of sorts.

I understand the need to stay in touch with parishioners during this crazy time. After all, pastors, as local leaders, feel the need to assuage the fears or concerns of their flock. But, under normal circumstances, would that pastor really communicate with the church daily? Probably not.

Live-streaming services is a great idea, but is it necessary for everyone at home to gather around their screens at the same time on Sunday for something to be “church”? Have we inquired whether God wants us to use these resources in this manner, or are we over-communicating with our congregations?

I have felt the need to connect with my parishioners too, so questions about anxiety vs. action are very personal. I know– and its been on my mind constantly!– that we won’t have church this Sunday. I know we won’t have the same connection–which means loss of intimacy in the body and loss of revenues from the offertory.

That kind of anxiety makes me want to keep in touch with my church more. I feel pressure to connect through videos, social media, and emails. I want to get in front of people and on their screens because I want people to remember the church in prayer and in support.

We pastors want people to stay connected because congregational connection is what drives us. So let me say this with confidence and clarity: Pastor, fear not.

You do not need to connect with parishioners every day for them to remember the church in prayer and support. People know this season is temporary, one of social distancing; but people are patient and look forward to getting back into the routine of church as quickly as you do.

Chances are that people are not thinking about the church as often (and daily) as you are anyway, so stay faithful and rest in the Lord. Do what you do, but do not go out of your way to do what you would not ordinarily do. People are more concerned right now about getting toilet paper than getting a call from their pastor. People need your prayers, not a podcast that takes them away from their family.

Psalm 91 says,

You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day, or the plague that stalks in the darkness…”

The psalm affirms that God is our refuge and strength. We have no reason to fear, although the reality of not making ends meet are heavy burdens to bear. But don’t concern yourself with every creative social media connection that grabs your attention. You can just as easily record a worship service on your phone and upload it to YouTube than live-stream. You can put in the time to make phone calls and go old-school by writing letters; they are as good as visits!

And don’t worry about making sure people know how busy you are during the week. People know we’re busy–now more than ever. People know we’re on the forefront of prayer, support, and community engagement.

Make sure your communication strategy is born out of a gospel-centered missional strategy rather than deep-seated anxiety.

I write this not because I have all the answers, but because of all the anxiety I have lived with this past week. I’ve been tempted to make a video every day for the church, to pursue live-streaming, and come up with some fancy, creative way to stay connected. But with every thought, the Spirit has met me with comfort and hope that all will be well.

Do what you can do. Produce good social media content. Produce quality videos and, if you can, live stream. But let your families in church do some of the work too. Encourage them to use this time to find new ways to be the church to one another. Let people have permission to take off on the weekends–to pursue other ways to connect with God: rediscovering spiritual disciplines; re-imagining the rigors and importance of Lent in this time of social scarcity; and taking some time to delve into some spiritual reading.

Hang in there, Pastor. You’re not alone. Everybody’s in the same boat, so don’t fret. Do what you can to bring life to your congregation through meaningful connections. Don’t worry about the rest, let tomorrow worry about itself.

And don’t feel the need to drown your congregation in your anxiety. We are the church — God will take care of us!

The Coronavirus Blues

By Joe LaGuardia

I think I have what I am officially calling the “Coronavirus Blues.” Here I am, without having to quarantine myself or miss out on too many gatherings (since our county does not have any cases of the virus), and I have been depressed for the last week of what surely will be a loss of community and human interaction.

As a pastor, I believe that most people in the ministry (I’m willing to take a poll) thrive on community, human interaction, and routine. We value community because its what we ministers do: gather people, guide people, encourage people, inspire people, anticipate the Spirit’s empowerment of people. Ours is a Gospel of disciple-making, not detachment.

Although I have not neglected community, I can see it waning around me. Our church was half-full last Sunday. I don’t blame anyone; we have an older population, the most vulnerable to the virus. People have reached out to me to let me know they won’t be coming, so I wasn’t surprised. And, yet, I feel a pang of loneliness. “Welcome,” writes Jamie Metzl, “to our disembodied future.”

People mean a lot to us when we shepherd a congregation. Its all so depressing!

We pastors yearn for human interaction. If you were to talk to most ministers, you’d likely learn that the reason why we got into this business was (1) God’s calling and (2) we enjoy experiencing the relationships that make ministry tick. We like journeying with people in faith, supporting people through the rigors and rites of passages of life, and edifying those who are in need and hurting.

Its not as if we like the attention we get from helping people. We sincerely like cheerleading and encouraging people along the highways and byways of growing together in Christ. We long for experiences, not accolades. We worship God for miracles in the lives of others, not seek men’s praise.

And I’m sure that pastors like me like routine. We depend on a very intentional rhythm that moves from Sunday to Sunday: Sunday, we preach our hearts out; Monday we rest and visit; Tuesday, we prepare for mid-week ministry; Wednesday, we meet with staff and cheer on our fellow ministers who do youth and children’s ministry; Thursday and Friday are days dedicated to writing that sermon; and then, Sunday, it starts all over again.

This rhythm is our life-blood. The exhausted pastor says, “Sunday comes every week, and we have to have a sermon for every one of them!” But the pastor also says, “Sunday comes every week, and it brings order to my life!”

This virus has ultimately interrupted my routine. Meetings are cancelled. I don’t see the people I normally see through the week. I miss hugs from seasoned saints who have hugged their pastors for over 70 years; and I feel lost now that Sunday won’t see the advent of the next worship service (we are closed this Sunday…).

A long time ago, my wife and I noticed that I get the blues whenever I went on vacation or an extended trip. We asked what my problem was: Was I that restless that I got depressed whenever I wasn’t “working”?

No, I get down when my routine goes awry. This virus has interrupted everything, and I can’t even get a package of paper towels (its our routine to buy a package once a month, and we just ran out at home!!). You know how annoying that is? To go to the store and deal with people buying things that we are not likely to run out of in a week or two? I’m just glad I have enough toilet paper for the next week. I swear….

So here I am, World! Please tell me I’m not alone, because I know I’m not. This is the coronavirus blues, and I ain’t the only one singing them! Comment below and share your woes. We have the time.