September was Suicide Prevention Month. Despite the subject trending after Robin Williams’ death last summer, our culture and churches stay curiously silent. A stigma surrounds suicide. Sufferers feel ashamed to speak of it. And most of us don’t want to hear about it because we feel powerless to know how to help. But some of us don’t have a choice. We’ve had to face it first-hand.
Like V.A. Vet Manny Bojorquez, a Marine gunner who lived through 8 suicides by men in his battalion after returning from Afghanistan (Philipps, 2015). Most of us don’t deal with that level of trauma, but many of us experience the suicide of friends or a family member. When I was 10, my cousin Connie had a brilliant career as a ballerina in New York City. Despite rising to stardom at 30 something, she came home one weekend, shut the garage door, stuffed a rag in the muffler, sat in her car and turned the engine on. My aunt Gertrude found her in next morning. The car was still idling, but Connie was dead. Like Frederich Buechner’s family after his father’s suicide, “we rarely talked about it ever again to each other or to anybody else” (Telling Secrets).
More than 34,000 individuals feeling “hopeless, helpless and hapless” (Graham, 1978) take their own life each year. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death among adults in the U.S. and the 3rd leading cause of death among adolescents. - See more at: https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-Conditions/Related-Conditions/Suicide#sthash.az5swvD5.dpuf
. For that reason high risk states like KY and WA require clinicians to be trained in assessment and prevention. Last weekend I attended a training hosted by the American Association of Pastoral Counselors.
Dr. Loren Townsend who won the 2012 Oates Award and also wrote a book entitled Suicide: Pastoral Responses,
led our workshop. Making the point that “suicide is not new,” Townsend said that Socrates dialogued about it, Camus wrote about it and people have been “killing themselves since the beginning of time.”
Clinically defined suicide is “self injurious behavior with an intent to die” (Goldman, 2015). While suicidologists differentiate between thoughts, attempts and completions, it’s always important to take talk of suicide seriously. In 2013, 41,149 completed suicides were reported in this country and 494,169 attempts treated in emergency rooms (Centers for Disease Control
). Some numbers are never reported because not all sufferers seek services (Parks, et al). Suicidal thoughts or behaviors are both damaging and dangerous and are considered a psychiatric emergency. Anyone experiencing these thoughts should seek immediate help from a physician or counselor (Bertolote & Fleischmann, 2002). And though 90% of those who struggle have a mental health condition, that doesn’t mean someone is weak or flawed. - See more at: https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-Conditions/Related-Conditions/Suicide#sthash.az5swvD5.dpuf
Moving from the head to the heart, feelings to commit suicide build over time into an emotional tsunami. Townsend (2015), described it as a “psyche ache of increasing pain that becomes like a toothache that won’t go away.” I’ve never struggled with suicide myself. But sitting with others who have, I’ve seen a numbness that disassociates from life and isolates family and friends as a way to transcend unrelenting pain. When alcohol and drugs are involved it becomes a toxic mix. Believing they’re a burden to others and a “bad seed” (a client’s comment), it becomes a catastrophe that rips apart precious people created in God’s image and rupture the lives of their loved ones left behind. Aftershocks can linger a lifetime. It’s almost impossible to demonstrate causality but we can know the warning signs and learn what to do.
Know the warning signs…
Threats or talk of killing themselves (known as suicidal ideation)
Increased alcohol and drug use
Social withdrawalfrom friends, family and the community
Dramatic mood swings
Talking, writing or thinking about death
Impulsive or reckless behavior
Feeling abandoned family, friends and God
Moral injury of an injustice suffered that can’t be forgiven
Support and share your concerns…
Share your observations using “I” (instead of “you”).
“I’ve noticed you’re [sleeping more, eating less, etc.]. Is everything okay?”
“I've noticed that you haven't been acting like yourself lately. Is something going on?”
“It makes me afraid to hear you talking about dying. Can we talk to someone about this?”
“How can I best support you right now? Is there something I can do or call others to help?”
“Can I help you locate & make an appt. for mental health services and supports?
“Can I help you with your errands/appointments until you’re feeling better?”
“Would you like me to go with you to a support group or a meeting?”
Act on imminent danger when you see sufferers…
Putting their affairs in order and giving away their possessions
Saying goodbye to friends and family
Mood shifts from despair to calm
Planning by looking around to buy, borrow or steal needed tools to commit suicide, such
as a gun, knife, drugs or prescription medication
Using/abusing alcohol and drugs with any/all of the above behaviors
When you are unsure how to assess risk…
- Call 911 or your local emergency number right away.
- Tell a family member or friend right away what's going on.
- Get help from a trained professional as quickly as possible.
- Ask your friend/family member for their therapist/doctor’s phone number.
- Call the suicide hotline at 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255) to speak with a counselor.
Christians aren’t immune from suicide. In fact, there’s at least 7 suicides recorded in the Bible: Abimilech, Sampson, Saul, Saul’s amour-bearer, Ahithophel, Zimri and Judas (Meredith, 1980). In all cases there was no judgement nor moral consequences. Five were singled out for their sin. The exceptions were Saul’s armor-bearer (no comment on his character) and Samson who knew his actions would lead to his death though the goal was to kill the Philistines and not himself.
While scripture sidesteps moral commentary on suicide, it doesn’t condone it either. The 6th Commandment would seem to say suicide is self-murder (Thou shall not kill). Not only does it destroy people created in God’s image, but suicide defies the sacred trust that the Holy holds “our times in God’s hands” (Psalm 31:15). Even so the Christian response isn’t condemnation (which seems the greater sin), but compassion. C.S. Lewis’ eloquently exemplifies this in a letter to his suffering friend Sheldon Vanauken. After pleading with him that suicide won’t provide any real resolution to his pain Lewis concludes:“You must go on. That is one of the many reasons why suicide is out of the question. There’s no other man, in such affliction as yours, to whom I’d dare write so plainly. And that, if you can believe me, is the strongest proof of my belief in you and my love for you” (Hooper, 2006).
Summarizing, September is Suicide Prevention Month. While the numbers are growing our awareness is dimming. Feeling helpless too, we stay silent and unwittingly stigmatize sufferers because we don't speak of it. Let’s agree to light a candle and ask God to give grace like Lewis...to offer hope and prevent suicide. This hope we have as an anchor of the soul is both sure and steadfast (Hebrews 6:19).
Bertolote J.M. & Fleischmann A. (2002). Suicide and psychiatric diagnosis: a worldwide perspective. World Psychiatry, 1(3): 181–5.
Buechner, F. (1991). Telling Secrets, (pp 7-8). San Francisco:Harper
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System (WISQARS) [Online]. (2013, 2011) National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, CDC (producer). Available from www.cdc.gov/injury/wisqars/ index.html.
Goldston, D. (2015, Sept 8). Saving lives from suicide. University of Louisville Depression Center.
Graham, Victoria. (1978; July 9). St. Petersburg Independent, 3-A.
Hooper, W. (2007, p 606). The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis. San Francisco, Harper-Collins.
Meredith, J.L. (1980, pp 143-44). Meredith’s Big Book of Bible Lists. New York: Inspirational.
Parks SE, Johnson LL, McDaniel DD, Gladden M. Surveillance for Violent Deaths– National Violent Death Reporting System, 16 states, 2010. MMWR 2014; 63(ss01): 1-33. Available from http:// www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/ss6301a1.htm
Philipps, D. (2015, Sept 19). In unit stalked by suicide, veterans try to save one another. New York Times, p 1.
Townsend, L. (2006). Suicide: Pastoral Responses. Nashville: TN.
Townsend, L. (2015, Sept 23-4). Assessment, management and treatment of suicide risk. American Association of Pastoral Counselors, Midwest Fall Conference.
In 1983 President Ronald Reagan designated April as Child Abuse Awareness Month. Most churches know something about this subject because of required Boundary Training for clergy and Safe Church policies for child care workers. Awareness raising is often motivated by a fear of litigation rather than the realization that it’s a crime against the state and constitutes violence toward persons created in God’s image. Because clergy and volunteers are often front line workers with children, in most states they are considered Mandatory Reporters (https://www.rainn.org/public-policy/laws-in-your-state
). Child sexual abuse (CSA) is nonconsensual sexual contact with minors that includes sexually suggestive conversation, sexual exposure, showing sexual materials, touching and penetration.
By virtue of the inherent power differential, any sexualized behavior
between adults and children is considered nonconsensual. Most perpetrators of child abuse are relatives or friends of the family. For that reason few children tell for fear they won’t be believed. Research suggests only 38% disclose (London, et al; 2003) even though few allegations (4% to 8%) are fabricated (Everson, et al; 1989).
I experienced this conspiracy of silence first hand in a church where I served as Associate Pastor. A choir member of 30 years began dating a new church member who quickly rose in rank to deacon. He was charming, charismatic and well liked by the congregation. One night this beloved deacon was caring for this choir member’s children. She returned from work to find him in bed with her two children. Pressing criminal charges, some in the church called her a “whining woman.” But when the case went to trial, he was convicted and sentenced to 9 years in prison. Still in denial, a church Elder created an 800 number so that church members could call to support the offender. Congregants took sides, stayed silent and marginalized the mother. Shame took root resulting in the bottom-line message that the offender was right and the family was wrong. I wish this was an exception. But I’ve heard this story-line recycled across conservative and liberal church corridors throughout the country.
An old adage tells us that time heals all wounds. But children don’t grow out of child abuse. Instead, they grow up to be adult survivors. In the words of a scholar and survivor (Schmutzer, 2011), recovery is a “long journey home with life-altering effects.” Because most survivors are surprisingly resilient, many become successful professionals who overcome obstacles at all odds. Hence, connecting what we see with their stories can be a stretch when we don’t know the symptoms. Well put-together perfectionists to deflect shame, survivors struggle with low self-esteem, chronic emptiness, unstable relationships, life-altering anxiety, ongoing mistrust of others and unpredictable emotions alongside health issues and alcohol abuse to medicate psychic pain. Most that I see in my clinical practice feel small in size, rank and influence. Surviving by splitting feelings from thinking, theirs is a disease of denial locked in a long silence that in the words of one client “feels like seeing fish under a frozen pond.”
The scope of child abuse in this country is so staggering that it’s considered a “hidden epidemic” (https://www.childhelp.org/child-abuse-statistics/
). It’s estimated that 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men are victims of child abuse before the age of 18 (ACE,
1996). According to one of the most respected studies of child abuse (National Incidence Study
, 2010), there are more than 135,000 reports of child sexual abuse in United States annually. Thirty seven percent are incested by a biological parent, 23% by a step parent and 87% were abused by a male with girls being sexually abused at a rate over five times that of boys. As a tax-payer you'll be surprised to find out that in the U.S., reported cases of child sexual abuse represent the second most expensive victim crime behind murder, costing the U.S. billions annually (Fang, et. al; 2012). Because churches are embedded in society, credible statistics suggest that the rate of abuse is no different in churches than society. This means that more than 25% of the members of a typical congregation have experienced abuse. Therefore, says Presbyterian pastor James Poling, “victims, survivors and perpetrators are present in every congregation whenever a sermon is preached” (1998).
Faced with this human rights issue of epic proportions why do churches stay silent? We speak up about racism, hunger, and homelessness. Why so silent about abuse? Dr. Janelle Kwee suggests that unlike facing some disasters, psychological trauma causes us to confront two troubling aspects of human nature: “the repulsive capacity for evil and our profound vulnerability to one another” (2011). Psychiatrist Judith Herman echoes a similar sentiment stating that in the aftermath of a natural disaster, a witness naturally sides with the victim since there’s only one to choose (1997). But in cases of sexual abuse, right and wrong isn’t as clear-cut. Consider the Jerry Sandusky case where colleagues clearly saw the crime, but chose to stay silent to preserve brand, reputation, and the status quo. That said, systemic silence is nothing new. It happened in the Holocaust, Abu Ghraib, the Catholic Crisis, Protestant Churches and continues across this country on college campuses, military bases and sports teams. It happens where people see something, but won't say something.
In such a time as this how can we break the silence and become a sanctuary for victims and survivors of child sexual abuse? Is there a way to believe survivors and hold offenders accountable that affords a restorative response for all parties involved including the church community? These are critical questions for the 21st Century Church that wants to follow Jesus Christ. Boundary Training for clergy and Safe Church polices for congregations aren't enough.The clarion call is to educate ourselves (see Darkness to Light
), raise awareness in our congregations, proactively craft a plan with church boards, refer victims to qualified counselors and collaborate with civil service agencies rather than conducting inside investigations when a crime is committed. We can no longer circle the wagons, protect our brand and stay silent. For in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil.”
Everson, M. and Boat, B. (1989). Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. 28, 2:230-35.
Fang, X., Brown, D., Florence, C., Mercy, J. (2012) The economic burden of child maltreatment in the United States and implications for prevent. Child Abuse & Neglect, 36:2,156-165.
Herman, J. (1997). Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence-From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Kwee, J. (2011). The adult survivor. The Long Journey Home, Smutzer, A. (Ed.). 277-292.
London, K., Bruck, M., Ceci, S., & Shuman, D. (2003) Disclosure of child sexual abuse: What does the research tell us about the ways that children tell? Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 11(1), 194-226.
Poling, (1998). Preaching to perpetrators of violence. Telling the Truth, 72.
Sedlak, et al. Fourth National Incidence Study of Child Abuse an Neglect. (NIS-4): Report to Congress. Washington, DC: US Dept. of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families.
Shumutzer, A. Ed. (2011). The Long Journey Home. Eugene, OR: WIPF & STOCK.
Ullman, S. E. (2007). Relationship to perpetrator, disclosure, social reactions, and PTSD symptoms in child sexual abuse survivors. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 16(1), 19-36.
Weinhold, B. (Dec. 20, 2011) Systemic silences. The Courier-Journal (Letter to the Editor).
Much of our pain in our lives can be summed up with the word loss. Loss isn’t just about death. It includes divorce from a spouse, estrangement from a child, retirement from a career, relocation from a place or disability with declining health. Catholic priest Henri Nouwen says we’ve lost so much, that life can seem like one long series of losses: “When we were born we lost the safety of the womb, when we went to school we lost the security of our family life, when we got our first job we lost the freedom of youth, when we got married or ordained we lost the joy of many options and when we grew old we lost our good looks, our old friends or our fame. When we become weak or ill, we lost our physical independence and when we die we will lose it all.”
The emotional response to loss is called grief. It’s the mourning after. We can’t avoid mourning. We can’t live above it, underneath it or around it. We can only go through it prompting questions from my clients who come for grief counseling. What does grief look like? Am I going crazy? Are there predictable stages? Is there anything I can do to make this better? I’ll address these.
Simply stated, grief is the emotional process by which we cope with loss when we lose someone we love or something we feel we need to flourish. Rabbi Earl Grollman defines it this way: “grief is love not wanting to let go.” It’s gut-wrenching to lose people we love, share life with, make love to and depend on. It equally heart-breaking to lose jobs, health and homes that we derive our identity from. It fact its crazy-making. Feeling like you’re going crazy is a common reaction to grief and loss. Further symptoms include physical sensations like tightness in the throat, heaviness in the chest and queasiness in the stomach. Many lose all appetite and have trouble sleeping (Lindemann, 1944). Add to this the emotional effects of crying, sighing, confusion, social withdrawal and searching as well as calling out for the loved one to come back (Bowlby, 1977). Compounding these complex layers are also spiritual shifts when people get angry with God and question the foundational core-values. Grief is more than a wave to be surfed. It’s a tsunami to make sense of and recover from. Far from an event, it’s a journey.
Because of the seismic psychic shifts, grief can be misunderstood as clinical depression. This, coupled with the significance of loss and the length of the symptoms make a case for conversation with a qualified professional. That said, its important to recognize that grief isn’t pathological but “normal, natural and necessary” (Haugk, 2004). Holding these truths in tension makes the process more manageable promising light at the end of the tunnel. On a similar note, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ landmark book Death and Dying, normalized 5 stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. As helpful as the stages are, further research makes it clear that the experience of grief is less like a linear line and more like a spiral staircase. No one that I know moves through stages in a neat order like the common cold. Instead, it’s a back-and-forth, recursive movement. We tell our story over and again to self and another, feel guilty about what we should have done, get angry about being left on the lurch and are left wondering if we could have loved better, seen sooner and acted quicker. Rather than looking like stages or the same as another, “bereavement is as unique as a fingerprint or a snow flake. No two people grieve in exactly the same way. Five, ten, fifteen years after a profound loss we will not make sense out of it in the same ways we did when it occurred” (Grollman, ibid).
Since there’s some truth to the old adage time heals, it prompts the question of agency: “Is there anything I can do to make it better?” If its about Kubler-Ross’ stages or other researcher’s “phases” (Sanders, 1999), is the mourner’s role a passive one to sit back until the storm passes? Or to Freud’s point of “grief work” can a mourner take action. Harvard researcher and my first psychology professor, William Worden says yes. He recommends these 4 tasks to which I’ll add specific steps from my own clinical practice:
Task 1: Accept the reality of the loss.
When we lose someone/something that we love there’s a sense it hasn’t happened. Sometimes in shock we experience denial and expect them to return. I remember picking up the phone to call my mother months after her death. Earlier researchers spoke of this as searching behaviors (Bowlby, 1980; Parks, 1972). Often those who have suffered loss literally call out for the lost person. They might think they saw them on a city street, hear them saying their name, or attempt to reinvent them in another relationship. The bottom line is that its gut-wrenching to let go. But if we stay stuck in denial too long, complicated bereavement can set in. This is when a normal grief reaction (uncomplicated grief) can cascade into clinical depression. Acceptance is key and begins by using the right language. Rather than saying my brother “passed,” intentionally say “Bob died.” Another step toward making the loss real is making a memory book with the deceased. Story your relationship with pictures. Create rituals to remember this person on holidays. And tell your story over and again since doing so softens the sting.
Task 2: Work through pain and grief.
Worden wisely uses the German word schmerz for grief. It includes the physical, emotional and spiritual dimensions of pain. It’s impossible and “unthinkable” (Hutson, 2015) to lose someone/something you love without feeling pain. Pain is not the enemy American culture paints it to be. Neither are negative emotions. Positive thinking isn’t the pathway to happiness as so many think. “In fact, more evidence based research suggests that there’s an upside to negative feelings. Negative emotions are not only crucial to our existence but also—ironically—to feeling good. To live optimally in the world and endure its challenges, it's necessary to engage the full range of psychological states we've inherited as humans” (Matthew Hutson, 2015). To ignore negative emotions puts us at risk to know when something is wrong. It creates a false facade that promotes superficiality and side-steps true intimacy leaving people feeling empty and alone. It’s better to acknowledge, language and sit with pain. Cry. Give feelings a name. Journal it. Share it with a friend or therapist who specializes in grief work. Then life becomes more manageable.
Task 3: Adjust to an environment without the missing person/place.
Worden targets 3 areas: external adjustments-how it effects our functioning in everyday life, internal adjustments-how the loss effects our sense of self and spiritual adjustments-how the loss effects our beliefs, values and assumptions. My little article can’t adequately address these areas, but for simplicity’s sake here are succinct insights into each area to think about: external adjustments refers to the roles a person played in our lives before the relationship was lost. Perhaps they paid the bills, filed income taxes, shopped for groceries, etc. These are called secondary losses that force us to learn new skills to replace lost roles. Internal adjustments challenges us to reframe or reinvent our identity in light of the loss. If we’re codependent-we find our identity in someone else-we feel like we’ve lost ourselves too. We may believe we’ll never love again, be married again or even matter again. The internal task for the mourner is reframe your meaning and reinvent your purpose. “Who am I now? How am I different from loving him/her?” (Attig, 1996). The final task targets spiritual adjustments that can shake the foundations of what we believe about God, the world we live in and people in it. For some it can trigger a crises of faith. We wonder if God is good, if the world is a benevolent place, if people can truly be trusted. There’s no easy answers. Instead we reflect, search and struggle. We weave back and forth between what we once held true and making meaning out of new realities. It’s important to reach out for friends and to lean on support group...and when needed contact a trusted therapist to navigate the terrain.
Task IV: Emotionally relocate the loss and move on with life.
When Worden wrote his first textbook on grieving for therapists, he listed Task IV as “withdrawing emotional energy from the loss and reinvesting it in another relationship” (1976). Years later (2002), he changed this task based on further research that supported that mourners never sever bonds with those they lose. “A mourner never altogether forgets the dead person who was so highly valued in life and never totally withdraws his investment...We can never purge those who have been close to us from our own history except by psychic acts damaging our own identity” (Volkan, 1985, p 326). Christian apologist C.S. Lewis, echoes this same sentiment in A Grief Observed (1961). While funerals and rituals can relocate a person/situation in time and space, spiritual practices like detachment and mindfulness are more efficacious in helping mourners free themselves from obsessive thinking and put the matter more to rest. The task too, requires resolving unfinished business in relationships no matter how loving. Naming, blaming, owning our part, and parceling out memories move us toward forgiveness and peace-making with the past. This process reveals redemptive strands in even the deepest loss; leaving us with a sense that the journey though tragic was transformative.
Summarizing, grief is the emotional process by which we deal with life’s losses. It’s unpredictable, painful and uniquely personal. Though there are definable stages, the movement through grief is less linear than spiral. Rather than moving forward in a straight line, we circle back and forth and make new meaning with each cycle. Because grief is a journey more than an event, it’s made more manageable by partnering with the process rather than remaining a passive recipient. Therefore, tasks instead of stages are recommended to make grief matter. For a one page takeaway of Worden’s tasks: https://www.hov.org/sites/default/files/file_attach/four_tasks_mourning.pdf
. “Only people who are capable of loving strongly can also suffer great sorrow, but this same necessity of loving serves to counteract their grief and heal them” (Tolstoy). Perhaps that’s why Jesus said “Blessed are the mourners, for they will be comforted.”
Attig, T. (1996). How we grieve: Relearning the world. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Bowlby, J. (1977). The making and breaking of affectional bonds. I and II. British Journal of Psychiatry, 130, 201-210; 421-431.
Bowlby, J. (1980). Attachment and loss: Loss, sadness and depression (Vol III). New York: Basic Books.
Freud, S. (1957). Totem and taboo. (Standard Edition, Vol. XIV, 1913). London: Hogarth.
Grollman, E. (Apr 19, 1993). Sun-journal. Grollman on grief, 9.
Haugk, K. (2004). A time to grieve, I, 3.
Hutson, M. (Feb 2015). Psychology Today. Beyond happiness: The up side of feeling down, 44-82.
Kubler-Ross, E. (1969). On death and dying. New York: Macmillan.
Lindemann, E. (1944). Symptomatology and management of acute grief. American Journal of Psychiatry, 101, 141-148.
Nouwen, H. (1994). With burning hearts. New York: Orbis.
Parks, C. M. (1972). Bereavement: Studies of grief in adult life. New York: International Universities Press.
Sanders, C. (1999). Grief, the mourning after.Dealing with adult bereavement (2nd ed.).
New York: Wiley.
Volkan, V.D. (1985). Complicated mourning. Annual of Psychoanalysis, 12, 323-348.
Worden, J.W. (2002). Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy (3rd ed). New York: Springer.
Charles Dickens' opening words in the Tale of Two Cities ring true: “It was the best of times...it was the worst of times.” These are common feelings when we get together with family on holidays. Some of us have lost loved ones. Others are estranged from beloved family members. Memories of the past are peppered with the paradox of gratitude of being together, but sadness due to dysfunction. Aware of the long history we’ve shared alongside admitting toxic tension, we stay stuck in the past. We don't know how to move forward. Most of us want to make it better but genuinely don’t know how. Fearing making matters worse, we stay silent and go through the motions.
What is dysfunction? This concept emerged after World War II. Most likely it began in the 1940‘s with the recovery movement and Alcoholics Anonymous. It gained greater definition with Dr. Murray Bowen’s family systems approach to psychopathology. Rather than emphasizing the individual patient, he focused on the dysfunctional family (Foley, 1984). Popularized by social worker Virginia Satir, dysfunction came to be seen as a set of behaviors that locked family members in rigid roles (Nichols & Schwartz, 1998). Broadly defined by Salvadore Minuchin, dysfunction became “interrelationships that serve to detract from, rather than promote, the emotional and physical health and well-being.” Here’s a list of what dysfunctional dynamics look like.
- locking people in deeply engrained roles that disallow change
- denying conflict rather than negotiating differences
- blaming others without taking any personal responsibility
- holding onto grudges that harden into resentment
- fearing the expression of honest feelings
- triangulating with others instead of speaking directly to the person
- blurring boundaries that disrespect another’s space and personal privacy
- caretaking another's feelings rather than speaking your own truth
- disrespecting others by top down relationships instead seeing all as equal
In all fairness, these traits creep into all of our relationships because of our common humanity. But if we care about coming closer and if as Christians we care about peacemaking, it's important to rethink a new way. Speaking theologically, sin didn't just impact our souls and bodies but our relational skills and how we treat one another. Because our churches act like families instead of being reframed by the Spirit of God into communities of faith we've recycled these same dysfuctional relational patterns. For the same reason family members cut off because they can no longer cope with these unhealthy behaviors, church members leave their parish for the same reasons. In the words of Paul, how can we be "renewed in our minds" to find the courage to change, tell one another the truth and navigate conflict in new ways? Here's some tips to flip the script:
Reframe old roles
Recognize that it’s unfair and disrespectful to freeze-frame people into old roles. Maturing people change and grow. Some are life-long learners who even reinvent themselves. Rather than locking people into old roles or labeling them by past behaviors, it’s important to see and accept who they've become. It’s judgemental to pigeonhole people in roles or define them by the worst moments. Some of the pain of getting together on holidays is feeling we have to play a part from our past. “Once a child always a child” one of my clients bemoaned. “Every time I’m with my mother I collapse into what she wants me to be instead of being who I am. So I stay away.” Naturally my client feels resentment. The flip side is that her mother feels rejection. The net result is distance, disrespect and cut off. A reframe might look like being curious, expressing interest in one another and accepting the changes even when we don't approve. This stance equalizes relationships and requires that both parties relinquish the need to be “right.” Instead of convincing another we affirm them and ask “Given these changes, what do we need to renegotiate in our relationship?"
Communicate honestly and directly
Renegotiating roles requires honest communication.This is tough for those of us who grew up with the message "don't talk, don't feel and never disagree." But staying silent about such things and sweeping them under the rug ruins relationships. It not only takes away our agency to author our own stories but hits at the heart of our identity as individuals created in God's image. Staying silent at the expense of pleasing people and keeping peace has a high price-tag. Unwilling to confront problems directly we triangulate. We tell others who take sides and polarize our problems to the point of becoming a needle in a haystack.If we want to treat people with dignity and respect, its important to communicate with them directly.
Reciprocate: learn give and take
It's one thing to restore a relationship. Its another thing to maintain it. Reciprocity is key. While we can unilaterally accept differences and even forgive, it takes 2 to make a relationship. Fearing rejection, some try too hard. We go 95% across the bridge to make it work. Systems theorists call this over-functioning. While one person over-functions, the other under-functions. For instance, do you do all the initiating, calling, giving, talking, caring and hoping? This takes a toll down the road. It damages trust and erodes hope. Sooner or later the over-functioner gets tired and angry. They realize there’s no real relationship.This is a painful. But if we've shared our feelings over and over and nothing changes, sometimes the next best step is to let go. Letting go isn’t cutting off. It simply means that we can't do all the work. It allows another the spaciouness to reconsider their role in the relationship without demand. Melody Beattie's prayer puts it this way: “Today I will stop doing all the work in my relationships. I will give the other the gift of requiring both people to participate. I will accept the natural level my relationship reaches when I do my share and allow another to chose what their share will be. I will trust my relationships to reach their own level. I don’t have to do all the work; I need only do my share."
Boundaries are personal limits that are fluid depending on safety and trust. But healthy boundaries are not walls. Boundaries define the personal property lines of who we are, what we’re willing to take and how we want to be treated. They give shape to our identity, help us navigate relationships and protect us from harm. Because people are all different, our boundaries are different. People differ because of temperment, intellect, physical/psychological limits, life circumstances, and wounds from the past. Knowing our own limits and respecting another’s is paramount to emotionally mature and long-lasting relationships. Boundaries can be impaired or even broken by life circumstances. This soul rupture from the past informs present relationships. Triggers from trauma are often projected onto partners, spouses, friends, family and authority figures. Unwittingly, relationships become strained and even estranged as one seeks space and needed perspective to re-narrate the past with redemptive strands.This is deep inner-work for our loved ones and requires loving patience. As we all trust God and focus on our own journey, resolution of old wounds and recociliation of relationships has its best chance. This is good to remember on holidays. Giving one another space to come and go and stay as little or as long as people want instills safety. Safety is the hallmark of healthy relationships.
Be defined but stay connected
As irritating as behaviors can be on holidays, most research says that staying connected is better than cutting off. While cut-off happens around issues of money, divorce and religion, the real battleground is self-differentiation (seeing ourselves as adults and not children). While cut-off can feel better for a brief time, it's benefits are short lived. Over the long haul it heightens anxiety and deepens depression. Studies further suggest that cut-off from families effects work relationships, friendships, and marriages/partnerships. Because the social systems of people who are cut off tend to be smaller, the relationships they have are more intense creating overly reactive emotions that leave people feeling “socially adrift and suffering." Hence, “patterns of cutoff are like cancer that spreads into all areas of life” (Gilbert, 1992). If you find yourself cutting off, step back and recognize the pattern. Do whatever is necessary to gain perspective and see things against wider sky. Remember: All of the good memories and gifts from this relationship. Ask: “What is my part here?" “Is there anything I can do to bridge the cutoff?” “Could there be a way to regulate my emotional intensity and make a new game plan?" Be defined but stay connected.
Summarizing, holidays are hard because dysfunctional dynamics recycle that sabotage our relationships and keep us stuck in the past. While attempts to bridge the gap might not alter another’s behavior, we can take steps toward undoing our own dysfunction. Working toward reframing roles, communicating honestly, reciprocating and doing our fair share, respecting boundaries, and attempting to stay connected instead of cutting off can keep us together. Because without families we are all strangers who shiver alone in the dark. In a world of gathering darkness doing all we can do to bring light our of darkness with God's help we can move the dial from the worst of times toward the best of times.
Beattie, M. (1990). The Language of Letting Go. United States: Hazelden.
Foley, V. (1984). Family therapy. In R.J. Casini (Ed.). Encyclopedia of Psychology. New York: Wiley.
Gilbert, R. (1992). Extraordinary Relationships: A new way of thinking about human interactions. Canada: Wiley.
Nichols & Schwartz. (1998). Family Therapy: Concepts and Methods. (4th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Weinhold, B. (2011). Healthy Boundaries: Recovering our God-given limits for the good of the church. Louisville Seminary: Doctoral Project.
Ray Rice punching his wife Janay in an Atlanta elevator was a poignant reminder that October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Domestic violence is a “pattern of abusive behavior in which a person uses coercion, deception, harassment, humiliation, manipulation and/or force to maintain power and control over an intimate partner” (Miles, 2011). Because it's a silent epidemic of epic proportions, presidents since 1987 designate October Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Still, churches seldom speak of it.
The scope of the problem is stunning. According to a 2010 national survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 1 in 3 (35.6 percent) women and 1 in 4 men (28.5 percent) have “experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime.” That same survey found 1 in 4 women (24.3 percent) and 1 in 7 men (13.8 percent) have been “hit with a fist or something hard, beaten, slammed against something) at some point in their lifetime” by an intimate partner.
Since credible statistics say domestic and sexual violence crosses all cultures, classes, races and religions, the church is not immune. According to Presbyterian Pastor James Poling “more than 25% of the members of a typical congregation have experienced violence. Therefore, victims, survivors and perpetrators are present in every congregation whenever a sermon is preached” (1998). Shocked by this silent epidemic Sojourners' Jim Wallis calls domestic violence “the most prevalent but hidden injustice in our world today. From rape as a weapon of war to human trafficking to attacks on young girls seeking education, the treatment of women and girls across the globe is in a state of crisis” (http://sojo.net/blogs/2013/05/16/its-time-outrage-sexual-violence-and-church).
Cautious because clergy can be untrained, Presbyterian Pastor Bob Owens is reluctant to refer victims to pastors: “If a battered woman asks me whether she should talk to her faith leader or not I usually say no. I doubt that the leader has been trained. If s/he has been trained then s/he would have been talking and praying about it from the pulpit to let people know that they were trained, aware and available” (Fortune, 2010). LifeWay Research echos Owen's concern by citing that (62 percent) of the pastors polled said they provided “couples or marriage counseling” to those disclosing domestic violence (ibid). Many professionals believe this to be a dangerous practice that can escalate violence.
Another roadblock to responding effectively is conducting in-house investigations rather than partnering with outside agencies. Without a partnership with other specialists we can miss warning signs and take sides too quickly. I was consulted in a case like this early in my career. A church leader was berating and battering his wife. It took a toll on their two boys. Hoping for help, his wife told the Elders of the church. But they refused believe her. Naive about the complexities of why women stay, they blamed her because she didn’t leave. That, coupled with her husband’s charismatic personality and popularity resulted in blaming this victim and not holding the offender accountable. Sadly, her husband continued his ministry uninterrupted, but she was relieved of her duties as a lay-minister to the church women. This pattern prompted Catherine Woodiwiss' resource for churches: ‘I Believe You.’ Sexual Violence in the Church (http://www.amazon.com/Believe-You-Sexual-Violence-Church-ebook/dp/B00K1MMX9S).
Speaking for most faith leaders, often our silence comes from not knowing what to do. But because we are sacred sanctuaries and front line responders, God calls us to break the silence surrounding domestic violence by speaking up:
- Speak up by posting the Center for Women & Families crisis line (502) 581 7222 in church restrooms.
Summarizing, Judges 19 stories a Levite priest who pushes his wife out the door into the hands of an angry mob. They abuse her all night and leave her for dead in the morning. When the Levite woke and opened the door, her hands were draped over the doorway. The writer concludes the chapter with the words: “Consider it, take counsel and speak up!”
For "if no one remembers a misdeed or names it publicly, it remains invisible. To the observer, its victim is not a victim and its perpetrator is not a perpetrator, both are misperceived because the suffering of the one and the violence of the other go unseen. A double injustice occurs...the first when the original deed is done and the second when it disappears" (Miroslav Volf).
Miles, A. (2011). Domestic Violence: What Every Pastor Needs to Know. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress.
Poling, J. (1998). Preaching to perpetrators of violence (p 72). Telling the Truth: Preaching Against Sexual and Domestic Violence. Cleveland, OH: United Church Press.
Woodiwiss, C. (2014). ‘I Believe You.’ Sexual Violence In the Church. A Sojourners eBook.