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Congregational Healing After a Pastoral Trauma

Updated on December 28, 2017

Congregational Pastoral Trauma

Congregational pastoral traumas can be varied in their nature and intensity. From the untimely death of a pastor to a pastor who has committed an adult sexual sin, or a pastor guilty of child abuse to the mentally or behaviorally ill pastor, all kinds of traumatic events can happen in the pastoral realm that can profoundly damage multitudes of individuals in a congregation and the congregation as a whole, including the central mission to carry the Word to people in need. Each of these trauma types will be addressed in turn, in the order of intensity and dysfunctional effect.

Untimely Death

The death of a pastor or a member of the pastor’s family while the pastor is serving is a tragic and obviously congregation-wide event. Fortunately, death events are something that most congregations are well versed in, and to some degree, are naturally occurring events that while sad and surprising, are part of life and duly expected. Unless, of course, the pastor’s death was by suicide. Since a pastor is so central to a congregation, every member will experience some level of shock and grief. It should be noted that not every member will be as traumatized as the next, because even in congregational life, there are varying degrees of intimacy with any pastor.

As with any death of a loved one, friend, or even casual acquaintance, the measure of time for shock and resulting grief will vary. In most cases, human grief is something that is influenced by the surrounding culture and closeness of relationship to the person who has died. For a non-family member, but highly significant person such as a cared for pastor, a congregation would be expected to be well recovered and on the way to the acceptance of a new pastoral head in three to six months.

Adult Sin

When an ordained person is accused or discovered to have committed a sexual sin with another adult in the community, the resulting trauma to the congregation can be profound. From the destruction of trust in the individuals to how such behaviors can taint some member’s views of church and even God can be devastating to the central mission of the church. Especially when there is a drawn out process of suspicion, innuendo, and rumor prior to the actual ‘calling out’ of the offending pastor, lengthy scandals that go unaddressed just keep adding more and more toxin to an already bad situation of trauma to a congregation.

Indeed, aside from the sin having the weight of sexuality, the hushed but growing preponderance of evidence and inevitable rumor ‘leaks’ from one congregant to another tends to be extremely damaging to the life of the congregation, not to mention the central mission and programs of the church. From top to bottom, no one in the congregation will be left unscathed: disgusted adults, elders and councils with a hot potato, and young people bearing witness to such hypocritical behavior. Not to mention the intense pain and damage done to family members of the pastor and whomever the other adult is that the sin took place with.

Though traumatic for a congregation (and even the wider denomination and church as whole), the church has a strong tradition of understanding that everyone is a sinner (even pastors), which can serve to mitigate the shock and trauma to some degree for many members. Though tragic and scandalous for the members, congregations can recover from such traumas with intervention and support from a variety of sources, including a specialized interm pastor who is skilled at listening and binding up wounds, and with a strong effort to refocus on the central mission of the congregation. Such traumas could very well benefit from the professional consultation from a clinical counselor with skills in trauma and family/group work.

Child Abuse

It goes without saying that when an ordained person sexually abuses a child(ren), it is a heinous sin and a clear crime. Because the safety of children is so near and dear to most adults and church communities, when an ordained person is guilty of sexual abuse of a minor, it is especially traumatic to many, many people. Not just the child and the child’s family, but the congregational community, the larger faith community, and the community at large is traumatized and begin to feel far less safe with ordained people and churched people in general. Of course, it reflects badly on organized religion as well.

But the primary concern is for the victims of child sexual abuse. The trauma that such a victim sustains is life changing and permanent. The trauma to the child’s family is deep and very, very difficult to heal. The damage to the congregational community and community at large is tough to contain and mitigate.

In most cases, an adult who gets caught sexually abusing one child is just the tip of the ice-berg: adults who molest children have been doing this for years (maybe even decades), and the extent of their victims can be in the hundreds. Many ordained abusers are able, due to the silence and hushing of institutions and larger communities, to travel from one congregation and community to another, with the new community none the wiser about what rumors and innuendos existed in the previous community about Pastor’s strange and troubling behaviors with kids.

When child sexual abuse happens by an ordained person serving in a church, the trauma recovery may be a long and complex journey, and one that is best guided by a person or team well versed in clinical counseling skills. Because adults that molest children surely have more than one victim, the trauma can be drawn out as more and more victims come forward with the truth about the abuse. No congregation should ever ‘go it alone’ in these situations.

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Mentally or Behaviorally Sick Pastor

Some studies indicate that as many as half to three quarters of ordained people have some form of depression or anxiety, and a very high number proportionate to the general public have personality disorders. Because of the nature of the position, some evidence suggests that people with personality disorder may be especially attracted to ordination. Ordained people, though hopefully in a loving community of believers, may often feel sad, isolated and lonely, or anxious about their job and flock. Fortunately, it is not the pastors with depression or anxiety that are the major problem; the ones with personality disorder are.

There are many different types of personality disorder, but the ones that seem to create most havoc in society and in congregations are the ‘Cluster B’ personality disorders. These include Histrionic, Borderline, Narcissistic, and Antisocial disorders. There are many overlapping characteristics of each of these disorders, but suffice it to say that they all share a very self-centered, selfish, exploitative, clandestine, and predatory behavior set.

Pastors with these disorders are extremely destructive and disruptive to any community in which they live, from their own family and the congregation to the larger community. The sheer number of trauma victims of pastors who have personality disorder is staggering. In some cases, the above noted trauma issue of adult sexual sin, and in all cases of child sexual abuse are the direct result of personality disorder.

Certainly not all pastors with personality disorder commit sexual sins, but they do commit a multitude of other sins that are often hidden and insidious in nature. These sins/behaviors include manipulation, attacks, character assassination, disingenuous, lying, pitting members against each other, playing favorites, veiled and direct threats, puppeteering, power plays, and even spiritual abuse. In most cases, the evidence of a pastor with personality disorder is reflected in a sharp decline of membership, congregational in-fighting, and polarization of ‘those against’ and ‘those for’ pastor. Such dysfunctional dynamics can go on for years, even decades, until the personality disordered pastor is either transferred, fired, or retired. Along the way, there will be dozens, even hundreds of wounded people, and a congregation in shambles.

The Usual Approach

The typical reaction to a pastoral trauma is to observe a period of shock or grief, followed by a search for a new pastor. As mentioned, there may be an interm pastor assigned that has, over the years, gained some skills in helping congregations in the aftermath of a pastoral trauma. But many congregations simply pin their hopes that the new pastor will have what it takes to help the congregation to heal, or at least forget the nasty bit and inspire them to ‘move on’. Sadly, the larger Christian Church is not very well versed in pastoral traumas that have their source in pastors with personality disorder. In fact, the public in general has sparse information or even awareness that such a thing exists (something that favors the personality disorder).

Because most congregations and denominations barely have a clue about personality disorder, they do not have adequate structures in place to identify the problem and address the issues that such a pastor creates. The story that is well known in the Catholic Church, transferring the offending priest to yet another congregation to abuse even more unsuspecting children and families, is not just a Catholic phenomenon. Mainline protestant denominations do pretty much the same thing with ‘problem pastors’. The personality disordered pastor often comes into a new congregation with glowing references and praise for what a great fit they will be.

When congregations simply try to ‘put it behind them’ by hiring a new pastor, the wounds are never fully healed, and members who have been disenfranchised are left hanging in the wind, hurt and confused by their experience. Sweeping it all under the carpet with a new pastor not only leaves scars in the congregation, it is a sure means to sabotage the start-up of a new pastor.

It is not until either the membership begins to make complaints to the bishop of the denomination, or the attendance (and income) begin to drop alarmingly that the higher administration even gets ruffled, let alone take steps to mitigate the damage or protect yet another congregation from the devastation that a personality disordered pastor can inflict. In some cases, congregations cannot even get the help they need at the higher administrative level, because the disordered pastor has manipulated the administrator into believing a fully contrived and twisted version of the problems at hand. Or, the disordered pastor is so acutely aware how to not cross boundaries but still be abusive, that the bishop cannot do anything about the congregation’s complaints. In some denominations, pastors even make a promise at ordination to never interfere with another pastor’s ministry. This leaves an incredibly large opportunity and job security for abusive pastors.

In independent churches, a personality disordered pastor may have no higher administrator to be accountable to; though they may have a guiding, elected body of members who are supposed to be the check and balance to the pastor’s power, these people are often victims of the clever manipulations of a disordered pastor who knows how to create almost blind allegiance to their will. In churches such as these, the church often eventually dies of attrition of members.

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The Informed Approach

It is a wise denomination that takes the high rate of personality disordered pastors seriously, because these dysfunctional ordained people are a blight on the Church. Denominations and congregations can intentionally seek out education on the disorder and find remediation for it. Not only are ordained people at risk for personality disorder, but so too are lay leaders in any congregation. Any individual with personality disorder can create bedlam in a congregational community.

Denominations can create structures and task force early intervention strategies for pastors who are suffering from the disorder, offering or even pressing them to remedial care and clinical counseling. The earlier the intervention, the more chance it has of repairing the situation at hand. In addition, denominations can have specialty teams at hand who have experience in helping communities to work through issues that inevitably come up between pastors and congregations when the pastor is behaviorally ill.

Professional clinical assessment of the stage that the dysfunction in the congregation is at is key to applying the most advantageous intervention strategies. If the congregation is at the latter stage of enduring a pastor with personality disorder, and the release of the pastor is imminent, the congregation or denomination would be wise to seek out the consultation of professionals who are well versed in family/community therapy approaches to facilitate a quicker and thorough recovery.

Such skilled professionals can help the congregation determine things like a healing plan that outreaches to individuals and groups in the congregation that have been wounded or disenfranchised. This professional team can also be of tremendous assistance to help the lay leadership understand where in the congregational-relational dynamic adjustments in things like the lines of communication and healthy communication need to be addressed. They can also provide direct skill training to leadership and even the congregation as a whole to repair the damages that the personality disordered pastor has created.


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