When a Church Member Has PTSD
What pastors need to know
Sally* sought counseling because of problems in her personal and professional relationships.
During our first session, Sally explained she hadn’t felt like herself lately.
“I have been very short with people, and I am feeling overwhelmed by even the smallest tasks,” Sally said.
She complained that her mind was racing, and she expressed concerns about forgetting important things. At night, she struggled with insomnia, bad dreams, and a sensation of being restrained.
As we worked through these issues, I became aware of Sally’s unprocessed childhood trauma. I learned she was sexually abused as a young girl and had been exposed to recurring domestic violence. These experiences stunted Sally’s emotional development and left her with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Many people experience trauma, but most do not develop PTSD. Still, about 7% of Americans will have PTSD at some point in their lives, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
Symptoms of PTSD can include flashbacks, sleep disturbances, frightening or negative thoughts, tension, angry outbursts, an elevated startle response, and a sense of detachment. These problems may persist for several months or many years.
Anyone of any age can have PTSD. Chances are someone in your church is living with the disorder. As a pastor, it’s important to be aware of this issue so you can minister with empathy and compassion and help sufferers get professional care.
Trauma can affect people in ways that go beyond the traumatic event itself. How we process trauma depends on our reactions to the event, how we interpret what happened, and the internal and external resources available to us at the time.
The severity can range from mild impairments to major disruptions in daily functioning. If symptoms are persistent, debilitating, and last longer than one month, a PTSD diagnosis is assigned.
PTSD can be a response to a one-time event or a prolonged season of intense stress. It can arise from unusual experiences, such as witnessing a violent crime, or from more common ones, such as suffering a job loss or illness. Symptoms may appear immediately, or there may be a delay in the onset.
Environmental cues — such as smell, taste, touch or interactions with others — can trigger trauma symptoms.
For instance, a person like Sally who experienced abuse growing up often continues to feel vulnerable and at risk for abuse. Stressful, confrontational interactions with others years later may trigger that sense of vulnerability and bring on PTSD symptoms. This can lead to a response that is inappropriate or disproportionate to the immediate exchange and an escalation of tension.
Church leaders often receive complaints about churchgoers who struggle to get along with others. However, it is a good idea to consider what might be influencing a person’s thoughts, feelings, and actions as we address such relational problems.
Help end the stigma surrounding mental health issues by being willing to learn and talk about them in nonjudgmental ways.
Create a Safe Environment
Creating a safe environment starts with being proactive. Take into account all the factors that might be contributing to a problem — the biological, psychological, and spiritual elements. Help end the stigma surrounding mental health issues by being willing to learn and talk about them in nonjudgmental ways.
Avoid jumping to conclusions, making assumptions, and speculating about the cause of problematic behaviors, however. This can exacerbate a PTSD sufferer’s symptoms. But if you suspect PTSD or another mental health issue, do address these concerns as soon as possible.
A safe environment is a place that is stable, predictable, and authentic. It is paramount for a traumatized person to start the process of healing and recovery.
Ask Open-Ended Questions
Asking open-ended questions about a person’s experiences and perspectives in a non-threatening and disarming manner can aid the process of self-discovery, insight, and healing.
Open-ended questions create opportunity for victims to tell their stories. For professional counselors, these stories are like verbal X-rays that allow us to see various methods, structures, shapes, forms, and patterns survivors have utilized and constructed for protection and safety.
I like to think God conducted the first counseling session in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve. Although their trouble was self-inflicted, God took time to help them process it.
Like so many trauma survivors, Adam and Eve experienced a break in normalcy. They responded by running, hiding, and trying to cover up (Genesis 3:7–8).
God asked them several open-ended questions, even though He already knew the answers: “Where are you? ... Who told you that you were naked? ... What is this you have done?” (Genesis 3:9,11,13).
As we ask open-ended questions, we allow churchgoers to come out of hiding and to explore not only spiritual matters, but also psychological concerns.
Listen With Empathy
Behaviors of PTSD sufferers are often misunderstood and misinterpreted. This is especially true when people evaluate them without sensitivity to, or knowledge of, the events that led to the issue.
Even though you have not shared the same experience, empathy is the attempt to understand the plight of another at a heart level. James 1:19 says, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.”
Empathy requires patience, curiosity and a willingness to listen without making judgments. A survivor may need to share his or her story repeatedly. Talking is part of the recovery process, and it is important to validate what the person is feeling, even if you don’t agree with his or her actions.
Ministers should not attempt to treat PTSD. The pastor’s role is to walk alongside hurting people and offer spiritual and emotional support. The most important thing anyone can do for a person who is suffering from a mental health condition is to help them get professional help.
There are many Christian agencies and providers who have training in trauma-focused therapy. If you suspect someone you know has PTSD, refer that person to a mental health professional.
Over the past 12 months, people have endured a pandemic, racial tensions, and political division. As people return to church, leaders are likely to encounter some who are suffering from PTSD and other mental health issues. It is important to provide a place for traumatized individuals to start their process of recovery.
We serve a God who comforts weary hearts and provides space for people to learn, grow and heal. Consider the words of Jesus in Matthew 11:28–29:
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.
*Sally is a composite of a number of clients with PTSD I have counseled.
This article appears in the April–June 2021 edition of Influence magazine.