Fast-forward three years; Robert is doing well, “really well,” as he states. He sent me a very long email recently. In the email he identified strengths, tools, and resources that have helped him to get where he is today. After reflecting on Robert’s email there are six themes of post-traumatic growth I see in his narrative:
- Was curious
- Reached out
- Joined groups
- Had the courage to look at the traumatic events from a different perspective
- Remained optimistic (hopeful)
- Developed a perspective of gratitude
Nalipay, Bernardo, and Mordeno (2016) completed a study on social complexity and post-traumatic growth that can help us reflect further on Robert’s experiences. In their study, they identify a belief called “social complexity” that predicts post-traumatic growth. Social complexity is a worldview with balanced expectations and “cognitive flexibility” about self, others, and the outside world. Individuals with a social complexity worldview do not believe that they are immune or invulnerable to difficult life experiences.
The key here seems to rest in what Grubbs, Exline, and Campbell (2013) call “psychological entitlement.” A difficulty individuals and groups from certain theological spectrums can face is that they may hold very firm and inflexible beliefs about self, God, others, and the world around them. If their experiences violate their theology, expectation, or worldview, research suggests they will be significantly more prone to spiritual struggle than individuals who hold a greater degree of social complexity and cognitive flexibility. What this means is that people who have firm expectations about how life should go are significantly more likely to experience spiritual struggle, and anger toward God, if life does not go the way they expected. Social complexity engages life with an awareness and expectation that bad things may happen and that people, life, and the environment around them may unexpectedly change.
As pastors, religious leaders, and ministers, what tools and resources do we have that can cultivate social complexity and post-traumatic growth? Robert’s case offers several insights and tangible tools. Rather than generating six tools or resources, I am going to offer a reflection and invite you to incorporate your own lived and local wisdom to construct tools and resources for your contexts.
First, Robert was curious.
- Curiosity is an essential tool for caregivers. Curiosity is a personality variable that predicts post-traumatic growth. It motivates the individual to seek out alternative explanations and understandings that can increase social complexity and cognitive flexibility. In the process, it is likely that a person will also reach out for social support, which can be a predictor of positive coping and greater mental health. (Nalipay, Bernardo, and Mordeno, 2016)
- We can help someone else be curious when we embody curiosity in our listening. Pastoral Theologian Duane Bidwell suggests a stance of learned ignorance and unknowing can facilitate curiosity and de-center power away from the caregiver to the care seeker. In other words, “forget” what you know and try to “hear for the first time” when present with a care seeker. Unknowing is a stance in which the care provider enters the shared space without preconceived notions or judgments.
Second, Robert reached out.
- While pastors, religious leaders, and ministers cannot force hurting members to reach out, they can make resources readily available and frequently advertise these resources. People cannot reach out if they do not see anything or anyone to reach out to. Posture is important here. Reflect for a moment. How does your congregation perceive you? Are you warm, open, and available, or do you come across as busy, anxious, or always-on-the-go? Are you intentionally seeking out and spending quality time with your congregants?
- K. Samuel Lee, a pastoral theologian and my executive training director, has taught me about the importance of a ministry of non-anxious presence. Sam says, “When you are with people, you need to be with people!” Sam requires all therapists and pastoral counselors to be in therapy. As he suggests, if we do not take care of “our stuff,” then we can bring “our stuff” with us to spaces of care and it can prevent us from being fully present and available. Self-care is essential.
Third, Robert joined groups.
- People cannot join a group if there is no group to join. If possible, create a group at your home congregation or partner with other congregations in your community.
Fourth, Robert had the courage to look at his trauma from a new perspective.
- Curiosity, a ministry of presence, and embodied listening can align the caregiver with the care seeker in ways that can facilitate social complexity. The way questions are constructed and the stance a caregiver takes in the practice of care can be deeply empowering for the care seeker (Bidwell, 2013; Doehring, 2015). This can equip care seekers to re-examine, and possibly change, beliefs, behaviors, and goals in ways that generate life wisdom and narrative.
- While optimism may be a personality trait, Robert said, “The people who surrounded me, and who walked with me during the darkest hours of my life, were the people who gave me hope.” As Bidwell suggests in his work with pediatric hope, children do not experience hope as “future-oriented concept.” Instead, children experience hope in the present through relationships. While adults and children are different in many ways, Bidwell’s work and research reflects the wisdom in Robert’s narrative. Hope was generated in Robert’s relationships. Returning to points one and two, what is your posture and stance in the relationships you have with your congregants?
Last, Robert developed an attitude of gratitude.
- As Robert stated in his note to me, an attitude of gratitude did not happen until after the second year. He says that it took him a while to work through his pain, but that eventually he was able to find spaces to work through it and carry it differently. Gratitude, he says, helped. By remembering with gratitude he was able to “feel good” about telling his story. Interestingly, he also said that it helped him feel closer to his lost loved one. Empirically, this is important because Gordon et al. (2012) suggest that gratitude can promote the maintenance of relational bonds. While this study was conducted with people in intimate relationships, gratitude, in Robert’s case, seems to work as a way of remembering. I am curious how pastors and religious leaders can create spaces for gratitude-oriented remembering or storytelling.
Since social complexity predicts post-traumatic growth, how can pastors and religious leaders foster and nurture social complexity in their congregations? Curiosity, reaching out, creating groups, encouragement, relationships, and creating spaces for remembering could be potential resources. Remember, you are the resident expert and a role can be like a resident scientist. Learning through trial-and-error, or what practical theologian Don Browning, calls “practice-theory-practice”. Begin with practice. Think about what worked, what did not work, and what could be changed. Trust yourself, try again, and keep moving forward.
Bidwell, D. R. (2004). Short-term spiritual guidance. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
Bidwell, D. R. (2013). Empowering couples: a narrative approach to spiritual care. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
Bushman, B. J. (2002). Does venting anger feed or extinguish the flame? Catharsis, rumination, distraction, anger, and aggressive responding. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28(6), 724–731.
Browning, D. S. (2010). A fundamental practical theology: descriptive and strategic proposals. Minnesota: Fortress Press.