Jordan loved her church community and looked forward to coming to church each Sunday. One Sunday, she arrived a little early and joined a group that had gathered in the foyer to chat before the service. She was quietly listening to another woman tell about her recent vacation when someone innocently came up behind her and reached over to give her a hug. Jordan didn’t see who it was and as the arm of the unidentified hugger wrapped around her, Jordan’s heart began to beat rapidly, her body tensed up, and she involuntarily screamed. When she came to her senses again, she saw everyone’s eyes on her, looking at her strangely. Jordan quickly excused herself from the group and went to the restroom where she sank to the ground and let the tears stream down her face. Once she had calmed down, Jordan slipped out of the church and drove home. She knew it would be a while before she felt put together enough to return again.
This is the catch-22 faced by many trauma survivors. What Jordan needed most to mitigate the harm and contribute to the healing of the violent assault she experienced several months prior was a loving and supportive community. Without family close by and only a few friends, Jordan’s only real community was the church. But going to church held the risk of being retraumatized in ways that complicated her healing.
For some time now, I’ve been wondering what it would look like for the church to be intentional about being a safe place for survivors of trauma, a community that can accompany those who have experienced trauma in their journey toward healing and wholeness. Recent studies show that 70% of the world’s population has been exposed to a traumatic life event and 30% of adults have been exposed to four or more. What this suggests is that a significant percentage of the people attending our congregations may be working through serious trauma.
The word trauma comes from the Greek word for “wound,” and it signifies both a specific event and the ongoing effects of that event. Common sources of trauma include domestic violence, abuse, bullying, harassment, discrimination, community violence, racism, death, long-term or serious illness, natural disaster, conflict, displacement, and war. In other words, trauma is the impact of sin and brokenness in the world on human lives.
People respond to trauma in a variety of ways and with different levels of resilience. Thus, while one person will recover quickly from a traumatic event, others will struggle with the impact for months, even years. To some extent, how a person reacts to traumatic events depends on the level of harm done and the number and nature of previous traumatic events. Studies also show, however, that a significant factor in a person’s ability to heal and recover from trauma, regardless of the level of harm, is the quality of their support systems and resources available for healing. And this is why being a trauma-informed congregation is so important. The church community has a key role to play in the healing of those struggling with trauma.
Trauma-informed ministry starts with being trauma-informed: that is, understanding how trauma impacts people physically, emotionally, cognitively, and spiritually. There is a growing body of literature that shows, for instance, that trauma changes something in our brains, increasing our bodies’ state of readiness to respond to danger. Those who are traumatized get stuck in this fear/stress response so that they are always in flight, fight, or freeze mode.
You might well imagine the physical and emotional impact of being in such a heightened state of fear and stress. Stress increases the potential for hypertension, heart conditions, inflammatory digestive disorders, and other physical ailments. Additionally, people struggling through trauma often experience trouble sleeping, difficulty with concentration, as well as intrusive memories and flashbacks. Emotionally, trauma can leave its survivors struggling with self-worth, shame, depression, grief, and loss. Because social situations may feel overwhelming, trauma survivors may seek to be alone and isolate themselves from others. And finally spiritually, trauma survivors may struggle with issues of faith, wondering where God is in their suffering, their moment of need.
So what do those who are struggling with the effects of trauma need from the church?
First, trauma survivors need safety. Without safety, a person cannot heal. One of the most important ways that a church communicates that it is a safe place is by taking abuse prevention and response seriously - implementing an abuse prevention policy, doing the appropriate background checks, training volunteers in abuse prevention, awareness, and response, and responding to allegations of abuse in ways that bring healing and justice. All of this communicates to the people in the pew that the church is committed to their physical and emotional safety.
Second, trauma survivors need trustworthiness and transparency, especially from those in leadership. When the behaviors of another human being are the cause of the harm, it can be extremely difficult for a survivor to trust others and allow others to get close to them. While it will take time for a survivor to feel safe again, church leaders can help by promoting a culture of respect, by communicating openly with the congregation about the decisions they make and why, and by conducting themselves with truthfulness, humility, and transparency.
Third, trauma survivors need empowerment and voice. Those who have experienced trauma have been robbed of their agency. Something was done to them that they did not ask for or choose. In order to heal, a survivor needs their sense of agency and choice restored. There will be an inclination to do things for trauma survivors as an expression of help. Trauma-informed care, however, means taking one’s cues from survivors themselves, attending to what they say they need and want, and doing things with rather than for them.
Fourth, trauma survivors need peer support, people who know what they are going through and with whom they can share in the journey to healing. Support from those who are also recovering from trauma can help survivors feel not so alone. Churches can achieve this both through informal means, connecting those who have experienced trauma, grief, and loss, to each other; or through more formal avenues, starting a trauma support group.
Foundational to each of these postures and commitments is the act of listening. More than anything else, survivors need to feel heard, taken seriously, believed, and affirmed. The reality is that processing trauma is not for the faint of heart. Trauma survivors need people in their lives to remind them again and again that God sees them, God loves them, God grieves what happened to them, and in time, God will bring healing.
One helpful way to remember these principles of care for trauma survivors, adapted from the Institute on Trauma and Trauma-Informed Care, is the acronym STEP:
S - Safety
T - Trustworthiness and transparency
E- Empowerment and voice
P - Peer support
Through these principles, the church can come alongside survivors as they take a step toward healing.
Going back to Jordan, while the hug was well-meant, it was a trigger for Jordan that ignited fear rather than affection. In hindsight, we can see that the hug was problematic because it violated her sense of physical safety (she did not know the identity and the intentions of the person who touched her) but also her agency - crossing her physical boundaries without consent.
Sometimes, people dealing with trauma react to things in ways that seem odd or hard to understand. There is no doubt that some in the circle didn’t understand Jordan’s rejection of a simple hug. Maybe they even thought to themselves, “what’s wrong with her?” But how we react to things is shaped by our story and our experience of the world. The prevalence of trauma in our world invites us, then, to a posture of curiosity and wonder about others. Instead of thinking “what’s wrong with them,” a trauma-informed response leads us to wonder “what happened to them” and “what’s strong with them,” that is, what physical and emotional challenges did they have to overcome just to be present today. For Jordan, just showing up to church was a risk and an act of courage.
Reflecting on the role of the church in supporting the healing journey of those who have experienced trauma, I keep coming back to Paul’s call to the church in Galatia “to carry one another’s burdens for in this way, you fulfill the law of Christ (Gal. 6:2-3).” How can we carry the burdens of those who have experienced in such crushing ways the world’s sin and brokenness? Can we find ways as the church to be a supportive community that helps mitigate the effects of trauma and contributes to bringing healing and wholeness to those who have suffered tragedy and loss? By learning about the impact of trauma and the principles of trauma-informed care, I believe we can. By God’s grace, the church can be a force for good and a place of healing - one STEP at a time.
For more information about being a trauma-informed congregation, see Trauma Informed Ministry: a six-video series by Dr. Cynthia Eriksson of Fuller Theological Seminary. Dr. Eriksson offers wonderful nuggets of wisdom for churches to consider in their efforts to engage in trauma-informed ministry.
To share ideas and best practices about how to be a trauma-informed congregation, join the CRC Thrive Safe Churches Facebook discussion group.