The Trauma-Informed Pastor
James Wheeler is the Pastor of Community Impact at Southview Alliance Church in Calgary, Alberta.
For eight years I lived in a beautiful rural town called Morden in Southern Manitoba with my wife and three small children. Our modest-sized home, framed with heavy fir beams, was built in 1945. Because of its old age, it had several quaint quirks. One of those was the antiquated electrical system: a fuse box.
I learned quickly that whenever we turned on the dryer and the oven at the same time we were pushing that ancient electrical system to its capacity. For a typical breaker box, when too much electricity overloads a breaker it automatically “trips” or flips to the off position. However, when a fuse overloads it pops. And you can hear it. Early on I was standing by the fuse box when we were baking and drying at the same time and my wife put something in our microwave. When she pressed the on button I heard a crack and everything went dark. I turned my head to the source of the sound and saw a small puff of smoke rising from the metal-cased fuse box. I was off to the hardware store for a fuse.
Old school fuses are not the only thing that can experience overload and give out. People can too.
In my current church there is a person I got to know who helped in a ministry where food was served. He was part of a two-couple team who would faithfully show up every week. Over three years of hanging around together I came to know his story.
I first found out at that he has a long-term medical condition that kept him from working. Later on, I learned the name of his condition was Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Then one night the rest of the story came out. In his work he managed and investigated severe injuries and fatalities, here in Canada, the US and overseas in Afghanistan and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The work the employees were doing could be dangerous and sometimes there were scary and disturbing outcomes. His role was to take an accounting of how people were doing. Unbeknownst to him, years of hearing, seeing, and investigating traumatic events were taking a mental and emotional toll. His emotions, body, and mind got to a point where they were overwhelmed. He received a PTSD diagnosis.
This came as a big surprise to me. I was not familiar with the PTSD condition except in a caricatured way from war movies. And this gentleman was a sweet, friendly, kind person who loved to serve and help in our church. I would have never guessed he struggled with this mental health challenge.
As I asked more questions, I also learned that his condition would not be solved by a quick trip to the doctor or therapist. Rather, the treatment for PTSD or its other form complex PTSD, requires a combination of therapy, medication and wise self management. Even with all these forces arrayed in his favor, it was a significant challenge to face.
All these sharings, as I said, were surprising to me. It got me thinking, who else in our church is carrying a mental health challenge, like PTSD, that I am blissfully unaware of? And how could our church discipleship process become more sensitive and responsive to mental health challenges?
Here is what I am learning:
1. Adopt a learning posture. Ask questions. Research.
I listened carefully to my friend. Doing so I was surprised to discover that his PTSD, was caused by investigating and discussing traumatizing incidents with others. I would not have learned that without listening. I thought PTSD came only from being the individual who is directly in the high stress or dangerous situation. I started to read about PTSD and discovered that it can be caused by a dizzying array of experiences: surgery, dental appointments, an assault, “strict” discipline in the home, car accidents and long-term neglect. It has been proved that children in an abusive home environment can be equally traumatized by observing violence as they are from receiving it. Two seminal and accessible books on PTSD and trauma therapy that helped me to grow in my understanding are Bessel Van Der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score and Peter Levine’s Waking the Tiger.
2. Recognize the limits of your role.
Pastors. spiritual directors and counsellors are not trauma therapists. They can be an excellent part of a support system by validating someone’s experience, praying with them or doing reflective listening. However, if someone discloses a significant assault or abuse situation, you should refer them to a trauma therapist who is properly trained to deal with that issue. Pastoral soul care is still a critical role in helping the traumatized person but you don’t call pastors to do heart surgeries either.
3. Recognize that recovery is a process.
and unique to each person and that acceptance and friendship, especially in the early stages of recovery, is more important than spiritual exhortation. This can be a challenge for the type A doers or task-oriented people. But it also begs an interrogation of our discipleship strategies. Why do we sometimes devalue friendship as a significant aspect of discipleship? I remember reading an article by physician Paul Tournier and he was asked why he is so successful in his counselling work. His reply? “I simply accept people.” What a ministry description!
4. Pray for them to experience the warm and powerful love of Aslan.
Am I advocating prayer to a giant lion? Yes! Well, sort of. I love the image of Aslan and use it sometimes when I am praying or meditating on who God is. I remember it well from the C.S. Lewis children’s classic, a Horse and his Boy. The lion in this story is not a domesticated circus cat but a being with a grand purpose for the main character: the abused and hurting orphan boy Shasta. In my prayers, I see Aslan is an advocate for those with PTSD, the traumatized, deeply scarred and scared by the things they have seen or experienced. And he stands beside them and nuzzles them with his golden, whiskered face and gives them a big, affectionate cat lick on the side of their face.
I am learning that people are not fuse boxes and you cannot flick a switch or buy a new fuse to repair a traumatized person. Sometimes, in the case of a one-time trauma, it can be a more straightforward process. But as it is with us humans, we are complex, fearfully and wonderfully made, and trauma is often as complex and unique as each individual is. So if traumatized from years of abuse or exposure to painful events, it will take God’s time for that person to heal and feel whole again.
But it is possible, especially in a church that is becoming informed and seeking to walk well with all its people.
What We Are Reading
Online Conversation | Being, Living, and Dying Well
Lydia Dugdale explained that in the 14th Century the Bubonic pandemic moved across Europe and claimed an estimated two-thirds of the population. The Catholic Church “responded with a call for the articulation of an Ars moriendi, or art of dying, that could guide laypersons in their preparation for death” (2015, p. 3). Given the COVID pandemic, the Easter Passion, and the sudden death two weeks ago of one of our family members, I’ve been thinking rather personally and profoundly about the art of dying and the art of living. For a couple of years, I’ve been trying to work through Jeremy Taylor’s companion works on Holy Living and Holy Dying (slow ploughing for me) as I try to better understand the connection between living well and dying well (to better appreciate Philippians 1:21).
Is it possible, I’ve wondered, that Catholic, Mainline and Conservative Protestant congregations have been conformed to the death-denying culture of the 21st Century (as per Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death) and reduce the art to a delegation to funeral professionals. With this, is it possible, in a counter-intuitive fashion, that, when at their best, flourishing congregations help their parishioners in both the arts of living well and dying well; that these two go together and that collective and personal wellbeing is at least partly a matter of living in the present but not denying the finitude of our lives and preparing to die well? Does being an authentic and reality-grounded community mean fully appreciating and developing acumen in ways that foster our living and dying well?
So, what have I been reading? Author, Lydia Dugdale (2020) is an internal medicine primary care physician (now in New York) with a history of academic appointments in medical ethics and a strong interest in the existential and practical dimensions of the art of dying. Her most recent book is The Lost Art of Dying: Reviving Forgotten Wisdom (HarperOne). Each chapter is commendable; but I would say the first three chapters have stirred in me the questions: where are Canadian congregations in terms of their teaching and supporting art of dying, is this an area that has been neglected and what good might attention to this art produce, does discipleship and equipping the saints for the work of ministry include the art of dying well, given its certainty? Perhaps there are congregations in Canada that not only remind congregants of their mortality but help them to prepare for their own deaths and engage them in support of others, together learning the art of dying? I just can’t recall hearing anyone talk about this. This book provokes me to wonder about the connection between congregational flourishing and enabling communities in BOTH the arts of living and dying. I’d encourage congregational leaders to give this some thought and ask if they might begin some recovery of the art of dying if, indeed, it has been lost. A recent conversation with Dr. Dugdale is available at: https://www.ttf.org/portfolios/online-conversation-lydia-dugdale/
Dr. Keith Walker, Professor of Leadership and Educational Administration, University of Saskatchewan
Dugdale, L. (2020). The Lost Art of Dying: Reviving Forgotten Wisdom. HarperOne.
Dugdale, L. (2015). Dying, A Lost Art. In L.S. Dugdale (Ed.). Dying in the Twenty-First Century: Toward a New Ethical Framework for the Art of Dying Well (pp. 3-17). The MIT Press.
Resources for Church Leaders
It's About Time: Managing Time to Prioritize Mission
Tuesday, May 11th, 2021 - 2pm Eastern
Calling all Pastors/Parish priests! What would your parish look like if 80% of your time each week was dedicated to ministry essential to the priesthood? Are you able to put the majority of your time each week into preaching, the sacraments and leading? Join DR coach, Matt Regitz, with other priests around North America to explore practical ways to reprioritize your time towards mission. Register here
Risk Assessment for Churches
Operating your church more safely in a time of respiratory infectious diseases can be a challenge. The ARCC is a set of tools to help church leaders improve their policies, assess their risk, learn more about controlling diseases, and know how to support people's mental health. Instill confidence in yourself, your congregation, the community and those in authority by visiting churcharcc.com
Resources for Safer Church Re-Opening
Want to increase confidence in your congregation and community; to increase your knowledge; and to share what you've learned over the past year?
Join Dr. Bridget Stirling (epidemiologist and former missionary), a team of public health specialists, and church leaders from around the world in the ARCC.
The Application to Reduce Communicable Diseases in Churches (ARCC) is a program that increases safety through Risk self-assessments and guidance, church-specific training and an interactive forum. Visit us at stirlingharmston.com
Researching the Impacts of Covid-19 on Congregations
Several research studies are emerging on the impacts of Covid-19 on congregations. Click Here to learn from these data-driven insights.