“Our church is a place where no questions are asked and we follow the pastor with our whole heart.”
“Our morning service is typically around an hour and a half and is filled with exuberant worship. We clap and lift our hands, sing aloud and offer sincere expressions of worship, including laying hands on you to pray over you.”
“We fill up quickly, so get here early! We keep the sanctuary lights dimmed, so it’s hard to see where the open seats are.”
Proverbs 15:3, “The eyes of the LORD are everywhere, keeping watch on the wicked and the good.”
Did any of these statements make your heart race a little faster, make your stomach a little queasy or just make you a little uncomfortable?
“Traumatic events can range from one-time physical traumas, such as a car wreck or an assault, to long-term poverty or abuse.”
These are examples of statements, situations and scripture verses printed in church bulletins, preached from the pulpit or published on a church website. While most likely well intended, these and similar sentiments have something in common that may surprise many Christians and congregational leaders: they can be triggering and re-traumatizing, causing harm to persons who have experienced trauma.
The clinical definition of trauma is “any event in which someone has exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury or sexual violence by directly experiencing the event, witnessing, in person, the event as it occurred to others, learning that the event occurred to a close family member or friends, experiencing repeated or extreme exposure to aversive details of the traumatic events (e.g., first responders, social workers).” This broad definition indicates that numerous people have experienced trauma in some way. One study found that 90 percent of American adults have experienced at least one traumatic event in their lifetime.
Although these definitions, studies and statistics are clinically based, recent discoveries about trauma and its affects are relevant for congregations and their ministers.
Traumatic events can range from one-time physical trauma, such as a car wreck or an assault, to long-term poverty or abuse. As we have seen in the #churchtoo movement, this also includes trauma that has been experienced at the hands of the church. Since church is one of the primary places to which people will turn for support, ministers must know how trauma impacts individuals, how they can best assist their congregants in healing from that trauma, and how to keep from causing trauma to those in their congregation.
A church can easily trigger trauma in persons through well-intended church programming or worship. We hear the word “trigger” flippantly tossed around, but it simply means a stimulus such as a smell, sound or sight that brings about feelings of trauma which can cause a person to feel overwhelming sadness, anxiety or panic, or experience realistic flashbacks.
Congregations have a unique opportunity to serve others through trauma-informed care or trauma ministry. This sounds intimidating, but a big part of this ministry is simply recognizing that people have experienced trauma, which in turn makes them experience the world differently than someone who hasn’t experienced trauma. Trauma ministry also focuses on physical, psychological and emotional safety while helping individuals rebuild a sense of control and empowerment. It is imperative for those who have experienced trauma to feel safe and in control of their environment. The first step in creating an effective trauma ministry is to become aware of how your worship, Bible studies and other ministries may be experienced by someone who has been traumatized in some way.
“Every person who walks into your church has a story, a story that likely includes both joy and pain.”
Consider the four statements at the beginning of this article. In the first example, a church environment that discourages asking questions and encourages blindly following a leader is a breeding ground for spiritual trauma. This can also be triggering for anyone who has been in an abusive relationship because it puts all the power in the hands of one person.
The message in the second example, while well intended, emphasizes a physical touch, often among people you don’t know. This can be triggering for anyone who has experienced physical trauma or assault. Simply adding an “if desired” after mentioning the spiritual practice would help put these persons at ease.
In the third example, it seems like the church is just trying to let visitors know to get there early because it is a well-attended service. However, to persons who have experienced trauma, all they may think about is coming to a new place that is dark and filled with people they don’t know and don’t trust. For these individuals, such statements can eliminate the important feelings of safety and control. Looking at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, those individuals will have a much harder time engaging in worship, prayer or any other spiritual practice until they feel safe.
In the last example, a disclaimer is in order. I believe scripture is sacred and God-ordained and is not innately triggering and traumatizing to someone. However, if presented without also discussing the context of the passage and the overall character of God, some biblical texts have the potential to cause harm to an individual. In this particular verse, Proverbs 15:3 (NIV) says, “The eyes of the LORD are everywhere, keeping watch on the wicked and the good.” Without knowing and experiencing God as a loving, caring and just God, this verse could be intimidating or threatening to a person who has experienced trauma. If someone is only used to relationships that are abusive, manipulative and hostile, this verse could suggest that God is a spiteful God who is just waiting for you to mess up.
“As all of us navigate this messy yet sacred life, Christians are called to make our congregational spaces and relationships safe for every person.”
Once individuals are triggered in some way, there are a number of responses they might experience. These responses are their brains telling them that they are in an unsafe situation and they have to react immediately in order to survive. Some of these trauma responses include concentration problems, feeling on edge, being easily startled, inability to feel positive emotions, feeling distant from others and negative beliefs about self, others and the world.
Imagine feeling any one of these emotions, let alone multiple reactions at one time. Would you be able to focus in a worship service? Would you be able to close your eyes and say a prayer? I definitely don’t think I could.
We should approach each person who steps into our church buildings as if they have experienced trauma. More often than not, that’s probably the reality. Our experiences make us who we are. Congregations should interact with persons in a trauma sensitive manner by being aware of our words and our touch and by maintaining a safe environment in the church’s facilities.
Most churches emphasize that visitors and members alike are welcome and loved, and hopefully that’s true. But truly loving someone means we accept and care for that person exactly as that person may be. For some individuals, that means being greeted with a fist bump rather than a hug because physical touch is not safe for them. For others, loving them may look like the ministry of presence as they weep but can’t communicate why they are crying. It means loving people as they are and truly valuing who God made them to be including the experiences that they have lived through and the emotions that they bring to the table.
In her book, Searching for Sunday, the late Rachel Held Evans notes that “there is a difference between curing and healing, and I believe the Church is called to the slow and difficult work of healing. We are called to enter into one another’s pain, anoint it as holy, and stick around no matter the outcome.” Every person who walks into your church has a story, a story that likely includes both joy and pain. We are neither called to nor capable of “fixing” this pain. But we are called to say that their pain is valid. We are called to show up and walk alongside them as they gradually heal from that pain. We are called to create an environment of empowerment to help them heal.
As all of us navigate this messy yet sacred life, Christians are called to make our congregational spaces and relationships safe for every person.