Pastor, Your Body Keeps the Score

by Jared C. Wilson April 26, 2021

And after you have suffered a little while . . . — 1 Peter 5:10a

I finally went to the doctor. Here’s the deal: I’ve been suffering from a sporadic driving anxiety for about eight years now. For a long time, it was just an every now and again thing. I could go months without any trouble. For some stretches of time, however, I will experience it nearly every time I drive — especially on highways (high rates of speed), in heavy traffic, over bridges, at night, or in bad weather. It doesn’t always happen, and I could often take the same route in the same conditions with no issues one time, only to experience overpowering flashes of panic another.

I remember the first time it happened. I was driving back to our home in Vermont with my family from a ministry trip in Boston. On the interstate in our final leg of the journey, I began to have this overwhelming sensation of losing control, like my body was going to fly out of the car. I had to pull over and let my wife drive. Since that time, I’ve had this recurring issue.

In the last year or so, it’s struck me so often, I’ve started taking back roads everywhere. It takes me longer to get where I need to go, but I don’t seem to have any issues when I do. But that’s no way to live, right? So I finally went to the doctor. In a way, it was a follow-up, because I’d had my one and only non-driving panic attack January 2020. That was so bad, I didn’t realize that’s what it was at the time and thought I was having a heart attack. I started eating better, working out more, and — thanks to Covid — slowed my ministry pace considerably. But the driving junk persisted and actually seemed to get worse.

She asked me if I’d been any traumatic events related to driving in the past, any car accidents. I had, but a long, long time ago, and neither of them anything serious. Just regular fender-bender type stuff. I drove for nearly twenty years after the last accident with no problems at all. “I don’t think so,” I said.

“Well,” she said, “what was happening when the incidents started?”

“I was coming home from Boston–” I started.

“No,” she interrupted. “What was going on in your life?”

I thought for a second. And then I said, “Ohhhh.”

I don’t know if she was on to something or not. I’m not a psychologist, and neither is she. But when these incidents started, I was neck deep in a very long period of suffering in our church. Lots of death, including the death of friends. Lots of sitting by bed sides in hospitals and hospice rooms. Lots of grief and grief counseling. Funeral after funeral.

On top of all that, I realized, right when I was on the verge of burnout (for which I never had a substantive break), I was on the receiving end of multiple angles of conflict in the church. I was carrying a heavy weight and giving my blood, sweat, and tears to the ministry, and it didn’t seem to matter with some people. The criticism, anonymous and otherwise, was demoralizing.

When my wife and I came out of that situation six years ago, we both felt very beaten up. I would attend members’ meetings at our new church in Kansas City and feel jumpy, waiting for someone to come after our pastors. It never happened, but it was still difficult to go without feeling anxious. My body may be telling me, “You’ve never healed from this, bucko.”

You might say that being so far removed from that time, I shouldn’t have any “issues” today. But we know that incredible stress takes an incredible toll. Those who suffer far worse — abuse, the horrors of war, front-line first responder work — can tell you about the long-residual effects of past trauma that lingers in your mind, your nerves, overtaking you in sudden moments for years after the fact. It would seem that, as Bessel van der Kolk has said, the body keeps the score.

I don’t at all wish to put pastoral ministry on par with those experiences, but the impact is similar, I think. And others have said the same.

Every day it seems I read about or even hear from pastors who are struggling with anxiety, depression, or other severe effects of hard ministries. The burnout rate for ministers is too high, and things have only gotten worse over the last year and a half.

I take a weird comfort, I admit, when I read the apostle Peter characterizing the ministry of the elder as one of suffering. “And after you have suffered a little while,” he says (1 Peter 5:10). He makes no bones about it. Good pastoring means hardship. The emotional and spiritual weight of normal ministry is very heavy by itself. Good pastors take seriously the reality that they are responsible for the souls of their flocks, that they will give an account for all the precious people stewarded to them. The apostle Paul calls this just the “daily pressure of anxiety for the church” (2 Cor. 11:28). Add to that conflict, other harsh treatment, gossip, false accusations, weaponized disappointments, the frequent loneliness of leadership, financial stressors, and the like, and — well — the pastor’s body will keep the score.

If you’re not a pastor and you’re reading this, you may think it’s all overblown. You may think your pastor has it great and is doing fine. And he might be. (I pray he is!) But far too many are suffering in silence. This isn’t a call to throw pity parties. Pastoring is a great privilege and an incredible joy. But it can also take a serious toll.

If you’re a pastor reading this and nodding your head, you know it’s not overblown. I could probably say a lot more. But you may somehow already suspect that the irregular heart rate, sleeplessness, inability to relax, recurring feelings of depression, or even anxiety or depression may be your body telling you it’s getting frayed around the edges. You are physically dealing with something very spiritual. Your body has kept the score.

If that’s you, I want you to remind you of God’s affectionate grace. Yes, ministry is “suffering for a little while.” But this suffering is sanctifying. It is making something great of you, even as it makes you small. God’s strength, remember, is perfected in our weakness. Don’t be afraid (or too stubborn) to get help, to speak up, to do whatever you need to do to take care of yourself.

If you’re a pastor struggling with what my friend Jeff Medders calls “pastoral PTSD,” you should also know that you are not alone. There may not be many people around you, but the Lord is right beside you. He is facing down all the things you struggle to pick your head up and look at. He bears the scorn with you. And he is keeping track of all your hurts, all your godly anxieties. He will trade your ashes for beauty. He is storing all your tears in a jar (Psalm 56:8).

And when all is said and done, what feels like drowning now will strangely feel like victory. The greater your pain — and I really believe this — the greater your reward. That’s not a call to be a martyr; it’s simply a call to look to him. He will not forget you in this age or in the age to come. He remembers, and he will more than compensate you.

Yes, yes, pastor, the body keeps the score. But, then, so does Jesus.

And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. — 1 Peter 5:10