When Trauma Comes to Church

May 15, 2017

Judy Dabler

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Judy Dabler

After writing a lengthy letter, filled with theological and practical instruction, the Apostle Paul makes an eyebrow-raising claim: “I myself am convinced, my brothers and sisters, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with knowledge and competent to instruct one another” (Rom. 15:14).

Interesting. How can Paul make such a confident claim after writing of so many important areas that the church didn’t seem to have figured out?

Believers have the Spirit of God, the Word of God, and the people of God to rely on.  These three resources make the body of Christ competent to handle even the toughest matters that come its way. Paul thought so, anyway.

Yet many church leaders don’t share Paul’s confidence when it comes to the real-life issues encountered by churches every day, in churches all around the world. One area church leaders often feel incompetent to address is the reality of trauma. Trauma is defined as “a deeply distressing or disturbing experience” by the Oxford Dictionary. When people (or groups of people) have been impacted by trauma, the concerns they bring to church are significant.

Caring for the Traumatized

Almost everyone will experience trauma at some point in their life, and some have lives filled with trauma. Sexual abuse, parental abandonment, sexual assault, divorce, domestic violence, job loss, death, out-of-wedlock pregnancy, and health problems are but a few of the distressing realities of life. Each of these tough challenges inevitably produce conflicts that profoundly aggravate the original trauma. Many people who are traumatized and suffering find themselves feeling betrayed, let down, disappointed, and hurt by the church. Church leaders who try to help can end up entangled in conflict and met with complaints from the person they are trying to serve.

One truth rarely discussed openly within the church is that traumatized people, as they struggle with their own pain and suffering, can actually traumatize others. Many in the church report being traumatized by trying to help these hurting individuals.

How Do We Deal with This?

Pastors and other ministry leaders fortunate enough to receive a seminary education frequently arrive at full-time ministry having taken only one basic course in counseling. Few seminary-trained church leaders receive equipping for the one issue they will face weekly within their ministries—conflict. Of those who enter ministry without a seminary degree, most come from backgrounds absent of counseling and training in conflict resolution.

Over the years, I have heard stories from people who were hurt by church leaders who did not respond to serious life issues in a helpful manner.

One client recently shared, “How can this elder’s wife reduce my life into a simple ‘trust God’ pep talk when my world is collapsing?” Another person recently explained “He just never got it. No matter how many times I tried to explain to my pastor that I needed help, he never took any real steps to help me. No one rescued me when I was being raped, and no one is rescuing me now.”

Life is Traumatic

Watching the news as a spectator to immense suffering leaves the human heart sore and wounded. When those we love are damaged, we suffer alongside them.

Church leaders are puzzled. Some are afraid. Many are discouraged. Some are traumatized. The question of how best to help, especially given limited time, energy, and resources, can be a lingering source of guilt and stress. Pastors who truly care, elders who want to serve, and small group leaders who feel called to care for others in their community all eventually share a common question—what do we do?

If the church is going to improve its efforts to do the transformative work of strengthening, encouraging, and comforting one another (1 Cor. 14:3) and the healing work of engaging deeply with others to allow for heartfelt confessions of sin (Jas. 5:16), it is time to become better equipped. Further, it is time to see the leadership of our churches encouraged and empowered to do the sacred work of soul care.

Helpful Tips for Dealing with Trauma

  1. Expect it. Trauma is everywhere. It is only a matter of time before people in the church experience it. Traumatized people sometimes don’t appear traumatized, but come across as competent and capable—until they are triggered. Once triggered, conflict is sure to come.
  2. Prepare for it. Wisdom tells us that preparing to care for deeply hurting people is best done before trauma comes to church. Education and training goes a long way in being prepared for the challenges that trauma brings. Online courses and books are readily available. Experienced caregivers can be enlisted to help train church leaders.
  3. Look for it. People who require a lot of pastoral time and care, including those who seem to have conflict follow them in their wake, often have unresolved trauma in their lives. Don’t dismiss the “difficult people” as troublemakers.
  4. Press in. When asked, most people will share their stories of trauma if they feel cared for and valued. Learn to ask questions that draw out their stories to gain relevant information to plan the best care possible.
  5. Develop a collaborative plan. It is rare when a church leader has the necessary time available to invest in people with unhealed traumas. A collaborative plan involves building a committed, experienced, and knowledgeable team of biblical counselors, mentors, and pastors or elders who are working together to help the traumatized person. Since conflict is inevitable when working with traumatized people, training in biblical peacemaking is essential.
  6. Don’t refer out! This only adds to the traumatized person’s feelings of isolation and rejection and sends the message “you are too much for us.” Instead, when outside resources are needed, draw the professional helpers in to be part of the team so that care can be coordinated and monitored.
  7. Follow up. Healing from trauma is possible. It often takes a long time. When a trauma care team in the church is established, be prepared to follow up regularly for as much as two to three years, and even longer.

A Ministry of Love

Working with traumatized people is a ministry of love. As the Apostle Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, “You yourselves have been taught by God to love one another, for that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more” (1 Thess. 4:9-10).

Loving well, especially loving those impacted by trauma, requires commitment that increases “more and more” as the years pass by. Changing our attitude from “haven’t I done enough for them all these years?” to “how can I love them more and more?” will help those in the church honor God when dealing with the challenging realities of trauma.

Questions for Reflection

What do you need to learn to better understand how to help people suffering from trauma? What needs to change in your life so that you have the space and time to care for those in the church who need extra care?