By Dr. Terry Rials
May 15, 2017
Do you know the name Edward J. Smith? What about Francesco Schettino?
Edward Smith was the Captain of the HMS Titanic when it struck an iceberg in the northern Atlantic and sunk two hours later, killing 1,517 people. Francesco Schettino was Captain of the Costa Concordia, which struck rock off the coast of Italy, capsizing and killing thirty-two. These men have more in common than their ignominious ship disasters. Most experts agree that both men could have saved more lives if they had reacted differently during their respective disasters. It is widely known that Captain Smith quit issuing orders and withdrew from people while the Titanic was sinking. Instead of supervising the loading of lifeboats, he “froze up” and went quiet. Captain Schettino was so overwhelmed by the circumstances surrounding him that he abandoned his own ship while passengers were still aboard. Mental health experts describe these phenomena by several names: Psychological Shock, Mental Shock, and Active Stress Reaction. Whatever one chooses to call it, it is the response to a terrifying or traumatic event. Put simply, if a person is bombarded by crises and the demands placed upon him are excessive, he may simply freeze up and cease to function effectively. When this happens to a leader the consequences can be disastrous and catastrophic.
Perhaps pastors of churches that are dying experience something similar. Let me propose a scenario – say a pastor of a struggling church experiences a series of crisis-moments in a brief period of time. Several families in the church are unhappy and begin leaving the fellowship. The church’s finances, already at a low point, take hit-after-hit as these faithful, giving families leave in succession. Conflict arises in the church, including conflict leveled at the pastor. The church begins to polarize and there is talk that the pastor is going to be asked to resign. There is a struggle for control of the church and the next business meeting promises to be a full-blown war. Meanwhile, the Youth Pastor, a tremendous asset to the church, is offered a ministry position at another church and tenders his resignation. The deacons of the church have taken the position that, instead of supporting the pastor, they will just help the church to maintain the peace. Teachers and other church workers begin quitting their positions without helping to secure their replacements (more work for the pastor). The pastor begins to have nightmares, begins to lose his appetite. He fixates on certain hateful individuals and rehashes the critical comments made about him. The pastor is tired, his health is failing, his marriage is suffering, and although he has tried to find another church to serve, no one is calling. He questions his calling from God and even considers leaving the ministry altogether. The pastor has essentially shut down. Sound familiar?
So much comes at the pastor, and so quickly, that there is little time to address one problem, let alone multiple problems. Before he can even address these problems, even more problems are added to his plate, and then some more. The pastor becomes despondent and shuts down. He does not want to deal with people or their problems; he has enough problems of his own. He truly loves his church, but is simply overwhelmed by the circumstances. The church expects him to act but he is not able. The pressure to deal with the church’s problems only compounds his circumstances. This form of ministry shock, if not addressed, leads to the familiar symptoms of PTSD, which can last for months, even years.
The truth is, I have been there and the scenario that I offered is basically the nightmare that I lived through in my church. But I am not alone in this. I have spoken to multiple pastors who have experienced the very same thing. One told me that I was describing him and his church to a tee. After I shared this material with the Revitalization Team of my Association, I was strongly encouraged to develop this further and make it available to the pastors and the churches. Let me offer some counsel to you and those you know going through similar trauma.
First, ask for some time. We may feel that the church, and our ministry, is in so much trouble that the church will not be able to pay its bills and may have to dismiss staff in order to survive, but that is not really the case. In all my years of working with churches in revitalization, I can tell you this. Churches live longer than people think. They may be hanging on by a thread, but they hang on for a long time. Ask the church and key leaders for time to address these issues. Ask people to bear with you six months because in six months, things can be vastly different.
Second, you need to know that good people do not fight. It would be nice if some of your supporters would just stand up to the bullies in the church, but they do not. It does not mean that they do not love and support you; good people just do not fight. You probably have the support of the majority of your members, even if they are silent. Do this exercise - take a moment and look up at the ceiling tiles. How many bad ones do you see? Count them…Now count the good ones. You are where you are because God put you there. Stay put and stay faithful.
Third, talk it out. Find someone you trust and talk about these things. Do not keep them bottled up inside you. Remember, Jesus split His own church! In the synagogue in Capernaum many of His disciples decided that following Jesus was just too hard for them. The Apostle Paul admitted that he had enemies. How many New Testament writers addressed conflict in the church? You are not the whole problem; you may be part of it, but you are not all of it. You can be the pastor, but you are not the church.
Fourth, take responsibility for your mistakes. You have to own them because they are of your doing. You must ask for forgiveness if you have hurt people and change your attitude and behavior to prove your remorse. This does not necessarily mean that you will be forgiven. It is my experience that the church is not very good at forgiving, but you will go nowhere without addressing your failures.
If you have yet to experience anything like what I have just described, count your blessings and prepare yourself what will happen to you one day. It is not if this will happen to you, but when it will happen to you! Airlines know that they must train their pilots to deal with multiple system failures, which come at the pilot all at once. Pilots are trained to manage these crises and are drilled over and over until they get it right…in the simulator! Pastors have to do it in real life in real time. Revitalizers like me are working hard to prepare our pastors for the future eventualities of church conflict and decline. We are here to help. For now, prepare yourself mentally for what you will experience one day. Learn to attack problems by addressing them immediately. Peal the onion – take on one problem at a time. Train your leadership to handle crises and practice delegating problems that do not require your attention. We are called to be overseers, as well as shepherds and elders. Never neglect overseeing this part of your ministry.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.