Here's the church, and here's the steeple
Open the doors and see all the people.
Close the doors and listen to them pray,
Open the doors and they all walk away.
I loved this little action rhyme as a little girl. My grandma would show me how to lace my fingers together inside out, put up my pointer fingers to form a steeple, pull my thumbs back, and wiggle my little fingers to show all the people in a church.
Now, as an adult, when I think of my time spent in the church, some of the stories I hold of people are sad stories of trauma. The young, innocent version of church that I held as a child - everyone happy to be in a beautiful space, singing songs they love, is, for some people, a jarring disconnect from reality. While church may be a beautiful space full of ceremony and tradition and worship that is beloved, it is also a space that may be connected with trauma - whether that be embodied in congregants who themselves bear the scars of trauma or being trauma adjacent, as a space that can trigger trauma, or as a place where trauma has been experienced.
We, as a church community, need to understand how trauma is affecting our church communities so we can be a place of support and healing.
The Little Church on the Hill
While the people mentioned in these vignettes are fictional, they represent the stories of real people in our ministries. As you read through these stories, consider what is needed for the church to be a place of support and healing for them.
Ali walked up the pathway to the church quietly. It had been a very hard night. She had left her mom quietly crying in her room. Her dad had walked out the door after his typical aggressive outbursts - it might be a couple days till he came back. Ali had schoolwork to do this afternoon, but it was going to be hard to focus. Maybe hanging out with her friends at church would help her a bit. Their youth group leader was always super kind and checked in with them. Maybe today she would ask for help. But really, what was he going to do? She should probably just keep her head down and not make eye contact this week. She only had one more year at home before she could go to university. She was almost free.
John was setting up the chairs for coffee time after church. It was so quiet in the church in the early morning. He loved it. He could just breathe deeply and pray while he organized everything. It had been a really hard week. His brother had called him a lot, needing support. How was he supposed to carry his brother’s challenges? His brother lived with mental health issues and had had significant challenges finding a job and housing. He was constantly struggling with poverty, occasionally having to live in shelters until he could find a new job that he could be more successful in. John had tried to help many times, but was limited to the financial support he could offer, and the reality was, his brother’s mental health challenges were too difficult for John to be able to welcome him into his house long term. There had been some challenging incidents that had occurred when his brother had stayed with them before that were traumatic for his family. He could not have that happen again, but he still wanted to find ways to care for his brother.
Adrian was sitting in the car waiting for his parents to drive the family to church. He was being forced to go to a place he didn’t want to be - ever. His family immigrated just a few years ago and Adrian had had to leave his family back home, learn a new language and be in a high school that was so different from his one back home. His parents insisted they go to church, but he hated it. Kids were always teasing him about his accent, about his hair being different, about the way he dressed. He didn’t get it. Back home he had tons of friends. Here, worship, sermon illustrations, discipleship materials, youth activities - reminded him of all that he had to give up and that he didn't belong.
Erin didn’t want to go to the basement of the church building to get her Sunday School room set for the morning. She felt all alone walking down the hall to the room. She wished her friends would show up soon and start prepping for the morning. Funny, up till last month, the quiet of the Sunday morning was always the best part of her week. She could get ready to share God’s love with all the kids, pray for them, think through the lesson, and get prepared for her role as Sunday school teacher. She loved it. She loved that God had called her to share his love with the kids. But now, everything seemed to make her nervous - the hall, the noises in the next room - she couldn't focus. 4 weeks ago Mark knocked on her Sunday school room door. She had met him in church a few months ago. He taught Sunday School as well at church. One day they were talking at the end of church and she had shared about her quiet Sunday morning routine with him. He knew she was alone for at least 30 minutes before others came to the basement. She thought it was sweet he offered to help her set up one day - but then it wasn’t. As he walked by her as they got the space ready together, he leaned close to her and whispered some very provocative words in her ear. Then he leaned in to touch her. Luckily she was by the door. She left the room and ran upstairs to the sanctuary. She had no idea who she should talk to about this .Mark was beloved by everyone. He had grown up in this church. She was pretty new. They would probably believe his word over hers. Maybe she needed to find a new church, or give up on church completely.
Sherri was a bit worried today. Often she could cover up the marks on her body, but the bruising on the side of her face was really bad and make-up wasn’t covering as much as she had hoped. She was so exhausted. She didn’t know how she was supposed to have the energy to bring her kids to church and sit in the pew pretending everything was fine when it wasn’t. She was starting to realize she needed to figure out a game plan to leave Ben. The longer he was at home not able to get work, the worse the evenings were getting. He spent the day drinking and was becoming pretty violent. At least he only hit her when the kids were in bed, but what if it escalated? At least sitting in church gave her time to think through her next steps. Maybe there was someone in the church that could help her. It just seemed a lot to ask of anyone. What if Ben’s anger shifted to the people helping her leave. Nah, she’d figure this out by herself.
What is our role? How do we recognize and support people in our congregation?
In 2022 The American Bible Society conducted a survey in the United States focused on trauma in churches. A significant finding was that 2 in 5 congregants have experienced some form of trauma. Ali, John, Adrian, Erin and Sherri represent typical people who are part of our churches - their stories are sadly not that unique. Therefore, to be effective in our witness to the good news of Jesus Christ, we would do well to learn how to engage in ministry that is trauma-informed and supports the healing of those who have experienced trauma. How do we do this well?
The first step is to grasp what trauma is. Trauma is not the event itself, but the effect of the event on an individual. Here is a short video that summarizes this well: What is Trauma?
To summarize, The Trauma Healing Institute defines trauma as: a wound of the heart and mind that takes a very long time to heal. It is the effect that you feel from the event that occurred.
The next question is - how can we as a church help someone living with trauma? This video sheds light on this: Healing from Trauma. Developed by the Trauma Healing Institute, this video helps us understand that: When we open up to God and others about our trauma, we can begin to heal. But how do we do this well - safely, as a church community, so as not to inflict further harm and trauma on an individual?
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) provides 4 steps to a trauma-informed approach to care for individuals living with trauma.
- REALIZE: Realize the frequency and pervasiveness of trauma
- RECOGNIZE: The signs and symptoms associated with trauma.
- RESPOND: Respond by integrating knowledge into policy, practices, and procedures
- RESIST Re-Traumatization: Do not harm them or their families again.
Dr. Tara Boer, associate professor of social work at Dordt University and safe church coordinator for Classis Iakota and Classis Heartland explains how these 4 r’s can be in be integrated in how we care for our church community:
1. REALIZE: Realize the frequency and pervasiveness of trauma
Consider taking the time to educate congregation members and ministry leaders about the high prevalence of childhood adversity and trauma. Use the ACE study to pull back the curtain of ignorance. Discuss these things in small groups, large groups, and leadership training settings. Preach it from the pulpit, recognize abuse awareness Sunday, and allow your ministry to have meaningful conversations about hard things that happen in families and communities. Having this important dialogue creates awareness and reduces the shame and fear associated with disclosure and subsequent treatment that is often needed after traumatic experiences. By creating cultures of awareness and vulnerability, we bring light into dark places.
2. RECOGNIZE: The signs and symptoms associated with trauma.
Individuals that have experienced trauma often behave in unpredictable, unreliable, and unstable ways as result of the biological and chemical changes in their bodies and brains after a trauma. We may be inclined to feel disgust and frustration when seeing self-destructive behavior (and sometimes illegal behavior). But if we consider asking what happened to you, instead of, what is wrong with you, we may be more efficient in uncovering the real problems and burdens that people in our congregations are carrying. This gives us the opportunity to be more effective disciples, ministry leaders, and friends.
One of my trauma victims once said, “If someone would have just asked me, I would have told them.”
3. RESPOND: Respond by integrating knowledge into policy, practices, and procedures
The Christian Reformed Church has provided a plethora of resources to churches, safe church teams, and congregations to be able to establish and implement a safe church policy in places of worship and ministry. This is the most fundamental way to work towards a physically and emotionally safe environment in our churches. Having a policy in place also communicates to trauma victims that the church is aware of the prevalence and sources of trauma and is willing to respond appropriately. Additionally, the Circle of Grace curriculum is an effective preventative measure that can be utilized by churches to ensure the children and adults have a shared language and understanding around safe relationships, healthy choices, and boundaries.
4. RESIST Re-Traumatization: Do not harm them or their families again.
When we understand the internal experiences of a traumatized mind, we can ensure that we do not do more harm when we are walking alongside them in their suffering. We should consider examining the power structures and leadership dynamics in place where we worship. Who would a victim come forward to and what would their experience be like if they needed to share their entire story? Would they feel safe disclosing? Does the leadership team’s characteristics, qualities, and procedures ensure that victims would be believed and not dismissed? What faith based and evidenced informed services are available to your congregation members to aid in healing and wholeness after a traumatic experience?
If you are interested in developing a trauma-informed team at your own church, the Trauma Healing Institute has developed a discussion guide that will help you navigate initial conversations and awareness around trauma. If you are interested in building this resource within your church, please note that you should also have access to trained mental health professionals at all times. Many CRC churches work with Shalem Mental Health Network through their CAPS program to ensure that congregants have free access (limitations apply) to mental health professionals as needed.
To get your church started on becoming a trauma-informed church, the organization Spiritual First Aid has a downloadable checklist for how you can start becoming a trauma-informed church. They too have programs and guides you can access to develop a trauma-informed lens for your church.
Remember the little nursery rhyme I learned from my grandma? I loved repeating it with her, I loved church, I loved walking hand in hand into the church with my grandma when I was a young child. Now my love for the church has shifted and changed. I don’t walk in excited to see my friends in Sunday school and to have lemonade and Oreo cookies after church. Now I care and love the church in a much deeper way. I want to show up and care well for others. I want to listen and be there for people as they struggle and need support. As I think about my grandma, I realize that she was very aware of the hurt and brokenness in her church and she showed up for many people in her congregation in very tangible ways. She taught me how to love the church at a very early age, in a way I could understand then. But now, loving the church is much more complex and hard and at times, heart breaking. We need to come together to do this well. Trauma-informed care requires a whole congregation to come together to care well for one another.
- Website: https://www.spiritualfirstaid.org/ (offers resources and training)
- Website: Trauma Healing Institute (offers resources and training)
- Article: 9 Ways to Start Your Journey as a Trauma-Informed Church
- Article: Becoming a Trauma-Informed Church (CRCNA Network)
- Article: Concept of Trauma and Guidance for a Trauma-Informed Approach