The language of trauma has become a part of our general consciousness, but the church has been slower to engage in the questions and challenges that are raised by our increasing awareness of how trauma shapes and misshapes both people and communities. As a theologian who works centers around these questions these are ten (though there are more!) things every church leader of any kind needs to know about trauma:
(1) Trauma is the rule, not the exception. Nearly everyone in a religious community by the time they reach full adulthood has some degree of trauma that shapes their life in a variety of ways.
(2) Trauma in religious communities is often more prevalent than in the larger community. This can be true for a number of reasons including the ways in which religious communities can be sources of trauma, and the general presumption that religious communities are places of care and nurture which is especially valuable to people who have experienced trauma.
(3) Trauma is not actually about the event itself, but the way that it (mis)shapes us. Trauma is not an event; it is our response to an event. But this also means that there are things that we can do in the midst and aftermath of trauma.
(4) Trauma is incredibly complex. In the same way that human beings are complicated and dynamic, so too are experiences of trauma. They impact us physically, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, and in some cases even generationally.
(5) Trauma directly impacts faith. There is extensive research about the ways in which traumatic experience impacts faith, and that work consistently describes how its results are often devastating.
(6) Trauma can and must be addressed from the pulpit. Once we recognize that trauma is one of the few nearly universal experiences it becomes unimaginable that we would not begin to develop language and practices to name these realities in our gatherings.
(7) Trauma has had a direct impact on the development of theology and practice in the Christian faith throughout history. This is true of all Christian traditions and recognizing this helps us to more carefully examine and articulate not only what we believe, but also how we got there and why.
(8) The Church has an opportunity to provide forms of care and nurture that cannot be mediated by other parts of society. There are things that the church can and must do that cannot occur in a doctor’s office, a therapist’s couch, or even within families. We must take this transformative capacity seriously and intentionally.
(9) Most people have never had this element of their lives acknowledged within their faith community. Church leaders must begin to wrestle with the ways that this posture towards trauma (where we don’t talk about it) has not only left people in terrible positions but has actually provided cover for some forms of trauma to occur.
(10) We are entering the most generative time in all of Christian history to examine and engage the intersection of trauma and Christian faith. The amount of wisdom, nurture, and care that are emerging from scholars, ministers, activists, and others is unprecedented. There has never been a better time for this conversation.
One of the best ways to begin to engage these realities is to participate in communities where your questions, concerns, and experiences can intersect with other people in the same pursuit as well as having access to the leading edge of writing, research, and wisdom about navigating life as the people of God in the midst and aftermath of trauma.
If this is something you want to be a part of I want to invite you to join our Trauma and the Church learning community. This space brings people together from all over the world to engage the theological, pastoral, and moral questions and possibilities for participating in communities that are inescapably impacted by trauma both within others and within ourselves.
Trauma is one of the most powerful and overwhelming forces shaping our shared life as churches, communities, and as the human family. Understanding and enacting ways to better nurture and care for one another are not only central to the life we have been called to, but to the world that we hope to enjoy.
Michael Hanegan is a theologian and consultant. He is a Senior Fellow at the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute and believes that the interruption of trauma and suffering can change the world.