“I was sexually assaulted as a child and I want to work through it with you”. I had been punched in the gut. I knew when I went to grad school to become a counselor that I wanted to be a trauma therapist. Like most trauma therapists, I have a trauma history of my own. For some reason, some survivors are compelled to turn around, walk back into the wound, and help others. Call it part of the healing process.
Still, this was my very first client. Counselors need hundreds of hours of counseling just to graduate so we can take our board exam and be provisionally licensed while we accrue another 3,000. I figured I’d be working with trauma survivors somewhere toward the end of that process, not right out of the gate. Yet, here we were. Six sessions in, the client I was seeing for anxiety decided that I was safe enough to open up to.
It’s been several years and I’ve learned a lot about trauma and about survivors. It’s been in some ways heartening to see so many in the SBC advocate for justice. In other regards, it brings up a lot of frustration and pain. Over the past five years, I’ve been privy to a lot of gut wrenching stories. By God’s grace I’ve also watched a lot of healing and transformation happen. There are a few things that I’ve learned that might help us as we move forward as a convention.
Trauma in the Public Square
It can be easy to see survivors out front like Jules Woodson, Jenny Lyell, or Tiffany Thigpen and view them as unassailable champions of justice. I certainly admire these women and many more who bravely lead the charge. With that said, everyone is at a different place in their healing journey. Believe me when I say that there can be something incredibly healing and reparative in telling one’s story in the presence of an empathic witness. There can also be something incredibly re-traumatizing about revisiting one’s story again and again.
For many of us, especially those who are just waking up to these realities, there can be a drive to continually want to be “educated” by survivors. Learning is good, and you should do it, but please remember that these are finite humans in various places in their healing process. What we may see as earnest desire to further the cause of justice for survivors may be quite taxing for them. We should encourage all survivors, even the ones leading the charge, to honor the finiteness with which God has blessed them, practice good self-care, and set and maintain the boundaries that they each need from one moment to the next.
Trauma in the Pulpit
You know what I love most about the SBC in the last few years when it comes to abuse survivors in our churches? The pastors. Not the ones who are wolves obviously, but the fact that 15,000 messengers sent such a clear directive means that there aren’t just wolves in our pulpits, there are sheepdogs as well. I think that we should all be keeping an eye on our pastors in this season. Pastoring is traumatizing work as well, much like being a first responder or therapist.
The problem is, that since it isn’t a singular large event but rather a cumulative toll, many pastors don’t even think about it until they’re burned out and ready to quit. I’ve put together workshops for churches solely based off the number of pastors I’ve seen who don’t even realize that they have a trauma history. Vicarious trauma is a thing. As we progress, more survivors will feel safe bringing their trauma to church, and that’s going to take a toll on our pastors as well.
Trauma in the Living Room
1 in 4 women and 1 in 5 men in America has been or will be sexually assaulted. That’s just sexual assault, not including other forms of abuse and trauma. That means that if you have more that three women or four men in your church, statistically speaking, the survivors are already there.
As our convention and its churches become safe places, it’s going to seem like are churches are “suddenly” flooded with survivors. They are already here. We just haven’t been so acutely aware of it. When someone opens up to you about abuse of any kind, your first impulse is going to be to “fix it”. Please don’t. I teach undergraduate counseling and I always tell my students that the worst Biblical counselors out there are well-meaning Christians with poor exposition or timing.
When someone opens up to you about abuse, please let the first words out of your mouth be “thank you”. They didn’t have to let you in this far and they took a big risk doing it. Secondly, convey that you believe them. Being seen and heard is remarkably reparative in and of itself. Finally, ask how you can support them. Everybody’s in a different place in their healing journey. You don’t have to fix everything, all you have to do is meet them where they’re at with empathy and genuineness.
You know, I get the apprehension that some have right now about pulling back the curtain and looking this problem in its ugly face. Saying that you want justice for survivors and actually squaring off with the consequences of bringing everything to light are different things. It’s like saying that you want to be a trauma therapist and then sitting with a 19 year old girl and coming to terms with the fact that you are the help.
I have hope though. I see sheepdogs and I see survivors telling their stories. I’m often asked how I can “listen to people’s problems all day”. I don’t. I witness them heal and it’s beautiful. The Southern Baptist Convention is ready to heal, it seems to me. Thank you for doing this work with me.
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.