I’m a pastor, clinical psychologist, and seminary professor. And I think it’s fair to say that I’m a clinical psychologist today because of what I observed and experienced when I first started pastoring several decades ago (way before the internet exploded like it has today). I didn’t know how to articulate what I was experiencing at that time. But as I trained to become a psychologist half a decade later, I began to find the language to do so: trauma.
Today, when I speak with congregations and congregation leaders about trauma, it’s a common sentiment that trauma is somewhere ‘out there’—out in the neighborhoods and communities that we are seeking to reach, or even out in faraway lands in which cross-cultural missionaries serve.
But I’m here today to suggest trauma is much closer to home than we think. It’s present in our everyday interactions with the people around us—and it even permeates our culture online.
1 – Name the issue of trauma
According to the DSM-V, a traumatic event is defined as, “an event in which a person has experienced, witnessed, or been confronted with an event or events that involve actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of oneself or others.”
The World Health Organization estimates that 70% of the population worldwide have been (or will be) exposed to some type of traumatic event within their lifetime and that such individuals on average experience 4.5 traumatic events. And the data suggest that for those of us living in North America, the figures are comparable here compared to those living in other parts of the world.
The prevalence of trauma applies not only to the communities that we serve, but also to faith leaders as well. Often, what draws my fellow pastors to training events on trauma is the prospect of becoming better equipped to support and accompany the many trauma survivors in their congregations.
But when we start talking about trauma and traumatic stress in earnest, I can see in their eyes the realization that this is a conversation about themselves as well.
2 – Look at the impact of trauma
Given that trauma is everywhere (and now even more so, given that we are still emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic), what are the implications of this reality on churches and ministries and their work and interactions with people? What are the implications for us in our relationships both on- and offline?
A trauma-informed approach to spiritual care and leadership would ask the following question: what would it look like for communities of faith if they were to take into account the reality that everyone in their organization (from the leaders to the communities served) may have trauma histories of their own? What, then, might be the implications on formal activities and programs, on formal and unspoken policies, on the culture of the community/organization, on even the ways the gospel is preached and embodied?
There is so much to consider when it comes to trauma and faith. Let’s start small.
3 – Lead with vulnerability
One of the most important implications of this conversation on trauma is on the health and emotional well-being of Christian leaders.
Revisiting the DSM-V definition of a traumatic event, it’s important to point out that trauma exposure can come from either directly experiencing a traumatic event in your own life (e.g., driving the car that was involved in a severe car accident) or through indirect exposure to the trauma of others (e.g., witnessing or walking with someone else as they go through trauma). And the key takeaway is this: When a crisis happens to a member of a congregation, who is typically the first person that is called?
As a faith leader, it’s important to know that your day-to-day work and ministry responsibilities often bring you into direct (and indirect) contact with trauma. It’s a privilege and honor. And it also can have dire consequences on the well-being and longevity of the leader, especially if the impact of trauma is left unaddressed.
This conversation about trauma also has to include a conversation about how Christian leaders themselves can better understand their own life journey and receive support to tend to their own wounds. We need to take seriously the emotional health and well-being of our leaders and make sure that this priority is reflected in the formal policies (e.g., vacation and paid time off) and culture of our churches and ministry contexts.
There are too many ministry contexts that take their leaders for granted and assume that they are there just to sacrifice for the community, for the good of the ministry. Over the long haul, what is actually best for the ministry and for the Kingdom of God is if we have emotionally and spiritually healthy leaders who give and receive care in their ministry contexts.
4 – Share the load
When leaders do not tend to their own trauma wounds, one of the most common symptoms that I’ve observed is taking too much upon ourselves. This is something I struggle with myself as a spiritual leader.
While the original intent was to help, oftentimes, these overburdened leaders end up doing more harm than good. So (and I know this might feel like a great leap), I want to encourage you to accept your humanity. You can’t save anyone (we can’t even save ourselves). And that’s OK. Because that’s what Jesus is here for.
We need to grieve and learn to accept our own limitations. And that can be one of the most difficult truths to receive as Christian leaders because we want to be there for everyone. But it can be so liberating at the same time—it can free us to fully be ourselves and enable us to more fully give the gift of ourselves, the gift of our genuine presence to others.
I’ve found that in my work with trauma survivors, people don’t need others to save them. People need others to walk with them, to accompany them, to lend them some support when they need it. People are resilient and can work towards healing with a little guidance and support. This is true for faith leaders too.
5 – Avoid toxic positivity
When I think about trauma and trauma-informed care from a theological perspective, I think about the unfortunate reality that so many of our Christian communities have lost touch with the biblical language of grief and lament.
We focus so much on celebration, praise, and triumph—living from victory to victory. And to be fair, these are certainly an important part of our faith. But today (and especially here in America), I feel like it’s easy to equate being positive or being encouraging or being successful as being Christian. Glen Pemberton conducted research on lament in the Psalms of the Bible, and he found that 40% of all Psalms are songs of lament (others have suggested figures as high as 70%). Interestingly, only five of the top 100 most popular contemporary Christian worship songs sung in America would qualify as a lament.
What I have been observing for quite some time as a pastor and psychologist are Christians who confide in me privately to share how they are really doing. They do this in shame because they feel like because their lives don’t conform to this narrative of constant celebration, praise, victory, and triumph, somehow their story no longer belongs to the Christian narrative… that their life story is no longer ‘Christian.’
Because the impact and/or consequences of trauma are often long-term, this would imply that the stories and experiences of trauma survivors are similarly unchristian unless they immediately can give testimony to a perfectly happy ending.
Friends, this is not what our faith teaches.
6 – Remember God suffers with us
The Christian faith presumes that pain, loss, and struggle are a normal and regular part of life on this side of heaven. And because of this, we need a mindset of long-term accompaniment when we foster people into a deeper relationship with Christ. Even a quick comment left on someone else’s post can reflect the love of God toward others.
There are a lot of Christians who know how to step in and help people in the short term with their physical needs (and this is still important), but there are far fewer who are ready and equipped to accompany someone in their struggles over the long run. The value of suffering well with people, of being present to another’s pain, is grounded in the doctrine of the Incarnation.
Through the life and death of Jesus, God suffers with us.
Hebrews 4:15 explains, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we were, yet without sin.”
Ultimately, Christ models for us the foundational principle of how we are to be trauma-informed—by being connected to God and being relationally present to the joys and the pain of one another—and to do so in community.
When we see others struggling with betrayal, loss, or trauma in-person or online, our job isn’t to resolve their pain. Instead, we can suffer alongside them, just as Jesus suffers alongside us as the Wounded Healer, with scars still on His hands (John 20:24-29).