The Long Road From Ministry Injury to Recovery (Part 3)

Helping family members in the healing process after ministry injury

I recently watched a video that captured a 30-car pile-up on a state highway due to icy Minnesota roads. It was a mess. The news report said it took the better part of a day to untangle the chaos. Law enforcement, tow truck drivers and emergency medical technicians all did their part. Thankfully, no one died, but there were a number of injuries and untold delays for people innocently caught up in the accident.

When the church I served had its own “pile-up” (see Part 1 and Part 2 of this series), it felt to me more like a demolition derby. My family got caught in between the wreckage while vehicles slammed into each other and into me. I tried to protect my wife and five children from getting hit but could not deflect all the collateral damage. Like me, they each experienced ministry injury in unique ways, and, though the wounds have healed, they will always bear the scars.

For my wife, this process brought a wide range of emotions—from feelings of anger to guilt for having those feelings, from longing for justice to frustration when no end was in sight. In this emotionally chaotic period of our lives, even glimmers of hope quickly turned into despair with a poorly timed word. While I may have dealt with this injury more directly, my wife experienced more than her fair share of collateral damage. On one occasion, on the eve of a family vacation, one long-term church member told her, “We love you and your children, but if your husband doesn’t have a job when you return from vacation, don’t take it personally.”

When we experience ministry injury, our willingness to move through a process of healing is an example for our families to follow.
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Because of the varying ages of my kids, each one processed this time uniquely—those old enough to be “in the know” reacted to the crisis differently than the ones too young to be informed. Regardless, they all felt and knew something was wrong. They witnessed the late nights, extra meetings, emotional absence and distracted thoughts. They noticed the innuendo, sadness, anger and decreased joy.

It’s with these thoughts and memories that I begin my third and final article regarding my ministry injury and its aftermath. To conclude this series, I’ll focus on how this injury affected my family—specifically highlighting three key elements they needed to move toward healing.

An example to follow

To start their own healing process, my family needed an example to follow. At the time, I didn’t feel like an example, but God still used the feeble steps I took to provide my family with a picture of His grace at work. In Part 1 of this series, I recounted how God graciously provided me unexpected help, and in Part 2, I shared the challenges I had to face—owning my part, forgiving others and trusting God again. When we experience ministry injury—with or without our knowledge—our willingness to move through a process of healing is an example for our families to follow (Phil 3:17). As Paul instructs the Corinthian church in 1 Corinthians 11:

“Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” (1 Cor 11:1)

Part of being an example includes sharing what is happening in your own heart—honesty, transparency and vulnerability with those whom you love most. In my story, this was an important step to take, specifically with my children.

One night, in the midst of the conflict, I went to the room of my two oldest sons (in their late teens at the time) and shared with them that God was asking me to do something I didn’t want to do. He had prompted me to meet with someone who had been particularly unkind to me and my family through gossip. In tears, I told them I didn’t want to do it but had to because it was so clearly what God wanted. With my younger children, I had a similar conversation—I just adjusted the amount of detail and level of emotion. To them, I said, “Dad is struggling with doing the right thing. Please pray for me.”

Our example, both in our words and deeds, is not about modeling perfection but rather being open and honest about God’s ongoing work in our lives.
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It’s not always easy to see or know the fruit of conversations like this. My wife and I have tried our best to be honest about our spiritual journeys with our children. We’ve been discretely transparent about relational pain, work frustrations and ministry injury. We’ve avoided griping to our children and instead have invited them into conversations about life with the goal of wisdom in view (Ps 90:12). The fruit we pray for and have observed in our children is 1) an awareness that there’s always more to the story, 2) an understanding of human weakness, 3) an extending of grace to all people and 4) a growing ability to be honest about their own feelings.

Our example, both in our words and deeds, is not about modeling perfection but rather being open and honest about God’s ongoing work in our lives (Phil 1:6). These transparent moments are transformative moments. They helped my family members be honest and open about their own struggles and emphasized the importance of leaning into relationships for help.

Permission to grieve

When I resigned from my position, each of my family members lost their community of faith. As God called us elsewhere, my wife and children lost the house and acreage they enjoyed so much. With my change of calling and location, they lost the stability to which they had become accustomed. All of this loss resulted in grief.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ model of grief helped me identify the different stages of grief each family member might be experiencing. The five stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance—are usually experienced by terminally ill patients prior to death or people who have lost a loved one, but they can also apply beyond life-and-death situations (e.g. the loss of a job, house, friendship, etc.). These stages were not only present in my family in the aftermath of this season of injury, but they were also complicated by the fact that it all happened within our church community—we’d been hurt by those we were serving.

When a grieving widow asks, “Why did God take my husband from me?”, that may not be the right time to explain God’s sovereignty.
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As grief struck, it impacted each of family members differently—and at different times. Initially, some thought the church might ask me to remain after my resignation (denial). Some, with colorful language, spoke of congregational polity as nothing more than “the inmates running the prison” (anger). Some suggested I find a new career in the area so we could continue to enjoy our house and acreage (bargaining). Some withdrew to their rooms in sadness and with a loss of interest in activities once enjoyed (depression).

My family may not have known what stage of grief they were experiencing, but for me, it was helpful to have some categories. I didn’t call a family meeting and explain the Kübler-Ross’ model, nor did I actually say, “You have permission to grieve,” but I did my best to provide acceptance and understanding of where they were in the process. Phrases like, “I wish things were different as well,” “That makes me angry too,” “I’m going to miss our house and acreage also” and “Some days I’m so sad, I don’t want to get out of bed” helped my family know they weren’t alone in their grief.

Another way I found I could give my family permission to grieve was by not correcting them in their moment of grief. Instead, by listening, asking good questions and gracefully accepting whatever answers were given, I learned to provide my wife and children with a safe, judgment-free space to grieve.

Job 6:26—“the words of one in despair belong to the wind”—reminds us that although the words of those in grief can be extreme and excessive, the time for reflection and correction is later. When a grieving widow asks, “Why did God take my husband from me?”, that may not be the right time to explain God’s sovereignty. Instead, it’s a time to listen, touch and identify with the simplicity of “I’m so sorry for your loss.” (Here’s a helpful resource: “10 Best & Worst Things to Say to Someone in Grief.”)

Time to heal

Different ages, life stages and personalities require different amounts of time to process and heal, especially after an experience like injury within the church. Initially, I didn’t appreciate this and thought my family was just being resistant when they “failed to get onboard” with what God had for us next. I didn’t understand my journey toward healing was considerably ahead of theirs.

I needed to create an environment where “time to heal” was real and accepted.
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One thing this period of life taught me is that when one family member struggles, the rest of the family steps up to carry the added burdens that result. There were several years during the church crisis that my family took care of household, yard, car and other responsibilities that were normally mine. In carrying my burdens, they gave me the space to begin healing.

On top of that, most ministry spouses suffer ministry injury in silence and alone. Even though, fortunately, my wife had some trustworthy friends with whom to talk, she still experienced great isolation from her community of faith. Who could she trust with her pain? What hurtful remark might be said to her this Sunday? And what would be her husband’s emotional state when he came home from work? These were burdensome questions to carry.

In truth, my wife held it together at home so I wouldn’t fall apart at work. And while she held it together, there was little energy available for her own healing.

I needed to create an environment where “time to heal” was real and accepted. This wasn’t about setting up a Gantt Chart with deadlines for my family members; it was about me being patient with them. It was about caring for them and attending to their needs. I failed many times to do this. I often found myself frustrated when someone seemed stuck. And even when I tried to help, sometimes the anger that grief created would be directed at me. It was hard for all of us.

My main challenge was to see beyond the visible. When someone is in a bad car accident, the bruises, stitches, casts and crutches are visible to all, but often, emotional and psychological trauma lie underneath the surface. In the same way, ministry injury is often invisible. The pain and debilitation can be severe, even without outward evidence. People can smile, show up for work and buy groceries, all while living in an internal critical care unit.

I needed insight from the Holy Spirit to provide my family time to heal. Patience and intentional times of family fun became key ingredients in this process. We took time as a family to talk about “the storm,” as we called it, but it wasn’t a daily centerpiece. As one is recovering from injury, life goes on.

Ultimately, it would be God who would bring about the healing, and He would do so in His timing, not mine.
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Healing not only takes time, but progress comes incrementally. Little by little, day by day, as we walk with God and allow others to help, we begin to experience restoration. Some of my family members decided to see a counselor while others processed with a friend. My job wasn’t to prescribe, but to ask gently along the way, “How are you doing with what happened?”, “Are you living with forgiveness?” and “How are things with you and God?” Ultimately, it would be God who would bring about the healing, and He would do so in His timing, not mine.

Aftermath

In Psalm 90:12, Moses asked God for help evaluating life so he might gain a heart of wisdom. In the aftermath of ministry injury, with patient process, good support in place and freedom to grieve, there’s always an opportunity for personal growth. When injuries are properly evaluated, they will lead to an increase in wisdom and the ability to care for others (2 Cor 1:3-7).

There came a moment when this chapter of ministry injury closed. I don’t know when that was, but eventually, transference and triggers that plagued me for many years disappeared. Pain was no longer present. Healing had occurred. Occasionally, sadness still surfaces, but I think this is just being human.

My family and I would never want to repeat our experience, but we’re grateful for what we’ve learned and how God’s grace has changed us. It’s now a redemptive story to tell. Thank you for allowing me to share it with you.

This article is the third and final post in a series on dealing with and recovering from ministry injury by James Petersen, executive director of personnel for EFCA ReachGlobal. For Part 1, read “The Long Road From Ministry Injury to Recovery (Part 1).” For Part 2, read “The Long Road From Ministry Injury to Recovery (Part 2).”

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