The Southern Baptist Convention is in, as my pastor described it, a season of sifting. After the Houston Chronicle broke the news of hundreds of sex abuse cases involving clergy and ministry workers of various kinds, the messengers of the SBC sent a clear message: we want truth. Soon sex abuse cover-up (and abuse in general) was a key battleground in the social conflict engulfing evangelicalism and the SBC. After several skirmishes and the SBC skipping a year due to the pandemic, the messengers once again sent a clear message in 2021 with the establishment of the Sex Abuse Task Force. We want truth, however hard, painful, and ugly it may be. To quote Gen. Colin Powell “Bad news isn’t wine, it doesn’t improve with age”.
Their report was released a few weeks ago and you can read it here. While heart-wrenching, it’s not terribly surprising for survivors or those who work in trauma care. Next week, we gather once again to make the collective voice of the Southern Baptist Convention heard. We’re going to do business with the truth that’s been brought to light and pave a way forward hopefully towards growth, healing, and a safer convention for victims of abuse.
At the ground level though, I know that a lot of questions haven’t been answered and there are a lot of pastors and ministry leaders who genuinely want to do something; to lead their churches in the right direction, but how? What I’m going to propose is not a quick fix or easy solution. It would be more appropriate to think of it as a direction than a destination. I’d like to invite us to look at what moving toward more trauma-informed ministry might look like.
What does “trauma-informed” even mean?
The term “trauma-informed care” arose in the medical field in the late 20th century and became the rallying cry of the medical and mental healthcare fields in the early 21st century after a series of studies established the link between Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and long term physical and mental health outcomes across the lifespan in the late 90s. Trauma-informed simply means accounting for the existence and impact of trauma in caring for others. This is why I say it’s better thought of as a direction than a destination. It isn’t a matter of simply knowing enough things or even having the right procedures in place, although those are both part of trauma-informed care of any kind.
A more trauma-informed ministry means letting our care of embodied and socially embedded souls be informed by a few realities:
- We need a better grasp on trauma itself, what causes it, and how to respond.
- Even more than that, we have to expand our thinking in this area beyond “what do I need to do?” in some sort of checklist sense
- We need to be asking: “who do we become now?”
Rethinking what trauma is
When we consider how to make our churches and ministries more trauma-informed, it can help to establish a few definitions and parameters. First: what even is trauma?
Trauma results from exposure to an incident or series of events that are emotionally disturbing or life-threatening with lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, and/or spiritual well-being.
One of the more recent developments in the world of trauma care, is the realization of just how physical, and specifically neurological, it is. When I was in graduate school, I was introduced to and began training in a specific method of working with trauma in the body. One of the things I learned over three years (and in the years since) is that for most of us, we tend to situate trauma between the ears more than in the nervous system. What I mean is that we expect that trauma will come up as memories or big emotions when more often, it comes up as reactions. We therefore also expect that healing from trauma takes place between the ears. If I can just “fix” my thoughts and emotions, I’ll be healed. Right?
The truth is that God created us as integrated beings. We don’t experience our problems as either cognitive or spiritual, either relational or emotional. We are socially embedded and embodied souls who experience ourselves and our world holistically. Healing is going to have to happen that way too. This means that when someone opens up about abuse or some other form of trauma, the question to ask isn’t “who’s jurisdiction is this?” but rather “who do we need to bring on to the team?”
The trauma isn’t in the event
A common response to traumatization that I hear, especially among military and la enforcement, is that their trauma responses seem inappropriate because the incident “wasn’t that bad” or they’ve been through “way worse” so why would this event have such an impact? It’s very common because the way our culture portrays trauma, is as a result of a really big event like combat, sexual assault, or some sort of violence. Don’t misunderstand me, these things are traumatizing; that just isn’t where the trauma happens.
The part of your nervous system responsible for keeping you alive, called your Autonomic Nervous System, has the capacity to mobilize huge amounts of energy quickly in order to respond to emergencies (think a mother lifting a car off of her baby). This is pretty handy as long as there’s a car to lift or a bear to fight or run away from. But what if there’s not? What if you can’t run away from the “bear” or fighting back might provoke it further and be dangerous? Your nervous system doesn’t get to complete its God-designed response and that’s where things go haywire. That heightened sympathetic nervous system response (all the energy) plus fear and mobility (literal or perceived), researchers have discovered is the recipe for traumatization.
The truth is that the trauma is what happens in the person, not the event. It’s important to understand this because when survivors begin to open up, our first instinct can be to start evaluating the event to see the trauma rather than the person. If their story doesn’t on its face seem “that traumatic” we can further traumatize them by dismissing an event that did take place. It took place inside them.
Becoming more trauma-informed
I imagine that probably felt like a lot and not enough all at the same time. I’ve given classes in the Army, taught first responders and ministry leaders, and teach prison field ministers. Getting a real sense of what trauma is, what resilience is, and how we move through one, toward the other is not something that you can get in a blog post or an article. If you’re intrigued by what you’ve read though, I hope you’ll consider becoming part of the change that needs to happen. Organizations like the Christian Trauma Healing Network (of which I’m a part) provide regular trainings in this area. There’s also going to be a Trauma-Informed Ministry breakout session Tuesday night for those who will be in Anaheim for SBC 2022 and I’d encourage you to attend.
Our convention and country are going through a lot right now. It’s at times like this I have to remind myself that there are no emergencies in the throne room of Heaven. Jesus is building His church, and we get to be part of the healing that takes place in the world as the gates of Hell keep trying and failing.
David Hughes is a licensed counselor and Army veteran. He teaches and specializes in trauma and resilience. He is the owner of Resilient Faith Counseling in Cary, NC. He and his wife are members of Fairview Baptist Church and he is currently studying at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. You can find David on Twitter at @daveevanhughes.