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Editor's Note: This article is the third post in a four-part series on responding to abuse in the church. Check out part one, "In The Wake of Ravi Zacharias: When Spiritual Leaders Do Harm" part two, "Lessons to Be Learned" and part four, "Starting Small and Being With in Small Oases of Restorative Resiliency."

“But I don’t feel safe.”

That is what she said to me. She had just left her abusive husband and was sitting in a domestic violence shelter. She was equipped with a restraining order and the shelter was armored with bullet proof glass, alarms on the doors, and consistent surveillance from staff and the local police department. These measures of safety did not matter to her. She was physically safe as far as we were concerned, but her body did not allow her to feel that.

That is what trauma does. 

When one experiences an intrusive traumatic event, his/her brain and sympathetic nervous system (fight, flight, or freeze), is fully charged and firing. The body responds this way because it needs to survive and will continue utilizing this system because it does not want to be harmed again. One’s sense of safety and trust are hi-jacked by the need to survive . . . and survival always wins.

According to national estimates, roughly 90% of adults have experienced some type of traumatic event with multiple traumatic events being the most common. Although not all people develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after their exposure to traumatic experiences, roughly 8% do.  (Kilpatrick et al., 2013).

Additionally, the National Adverse Child Experiences (ACE) study has informed federal, state, and local public health entities in important ways. The ACE Study more fully discloses how frequently children experience physical and sexual abuse, neglect, violence, and other adversities in their home. This study also reveals how childhood adversity has a dose-response relationship with physical, psychological, and relational adversities later in life.

We want our churches and ministry places to be physically, emotionally, and spiritually safe places because feeling safe and being safe is imperative for those that have experienced trauma.

And we can no longer say “these things don’t happen here.”

They do.

In response to the cumulative knowledge on the prevalence and impact of trauma, many medical providers, educational systems, and government structures that benefits directly or indirectly from individual and community flourishing are concerned about becoming “trauma informed.” Being trauma informed means utilizing a framework to support policies, practices, and procedures that adequately meet the needs for the vast amount of people that have experienced trauma.  

The church can do this too.

SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration) has identified four “R’s of what it means to be trauma informed. Here is what being trauma informed might look like in our churches and places of ministry:

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?  

Many, many people are carrying burdens they no longer want to carry and frankly, do not deserve to carry. In Galatians 6:2, Jesus calls us to “carry each other's burdens, and in this way, you will fulfill the law of Christ.” Through the carrying of others’ burdens, we not only help them move towards wholeness, but we ourselves learn more about the depth and breadth of God’s love and grace for us and our neighbors. We are better for it and they are too. The church has the capacity to provide safety, stability, and connection through trusting and meaningful relationships.

And these are all the things needed to heal and move forward after trauma.

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