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  • Janyne McConnaughey, PhD

#1 Trauma-Informed Ministries: Leading Others to Healing Waters (Republished)

Republished as resources to accompany the soon to be published book, Trauma in the Pews: Impact on Faith and Spiritual Practices, August 23, 2023.

During my recent webinar, How to Be a Healing Church, attendees asked great questions. It was impossible to answer all of them. I stated that I would blog and elaborate on the list of practical trauma-informed practices along with the questions. This is the first blog of the series.

The Question: How do you gently encourage someone to not just recognize their need for healing but to move toward it before they reach their breaking point?

This is a question I have grappled with since recognizing the effects of trauma in my life and the lives of others who have begun to share their stories with me. They are often just beginning to recognize the effects of trauma but are hesitant to access professional therapy. I know the profound change professional trauma-informed therapy has brought to my life, but I cannot force anyone else to access those healing waters. The changes in me are profound. I barely recognize myself as the person who walked into therapy—though, for all those who knew me, I seemed to be very balanced and spiritual. In my honest, soul searching moments, I knew that was not true; but the mask I wore was effective and I dared not take it off.

These were the four things I convinced myself were true—they were all wrong, but well-accepted reasons for many within the church to not seek professional help.

  1. This is just who I am—the depression, etc. is probably genetic (or my faith isn’t strong enough for God to remove it.)

  2. Suffering is part of God’s plan for Christians—this is simply what God intended for me and my faith will carry me through.

  3. As a church leader, it is important to demonstrate God’s enabling power to overcome my weaknesses.

  4. Whatever the reason for this weakness (likened to Paul’s thorn), it certainly isn’t something that would require professional assistance or help by accessing it (after all, therapy is for mentally ill people).

These were all my surface reasons. My deep-down reason was a (mostly) subconscious understanding that I was barely holding myself together and any admission of this would create a crack in my defenses. I was sure this would end badly and wasn’t sure who would help me if I collapsed. This seemed a valid reason for not seeking help— because my fear of being shamed for spiritual weakness was palpable.

The answer to the question is systemic in both society and the church. A trauma survivor must feel safe for healing to begin. The following trauma-informed practices within the church would go a long way to helping these individuals take the risks that healing requires:

Develop a church culture where it is OK to be messy.

This was placed first because it requires absolutely nothing except compassion. My fear of having my messy inner world exposed to the possibility of shame was the single-greatest deterrent to seeking help. I had been hiding my messiness since I was three years old. Hiding was essential. Shame is the fear of being seen—as the story of Adam and Eve illustrates. When God said, “Who told you that you were naked?” it was an acknowledgment of their fear of being seen and the next step was to help them cover their nakedness. That is what needs to happen as people begin to tell their stories—vulnerability is the feeling of being completely exposed. The church must begin to be the covering instead of seeing the nakedness and walking away in discomfort. Precious people tell me their stories every week. I consider them sacred and am so grateful to be able to say, “This is not your fault, and you can heal from the trauma.”

Study to learn all we can about trauma.

When my journey of healing began six years ago, the word trauma was not part of my vocabulary. The book I recommended in the webinar, The Body Keeps the Score by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, was my first deep dive in understanding what happened to me. It was like a foreign language, but comprehensible. If you do nothing else, read this book—though it may be a difficult read for those who have experienced trauma. This certainly demonstrates a need for healing.

Work (as a church) to destigmatize mental health.

When speaking, I always mention therapy. My suggestion would be that churches provide funding for staff members to access therapy. This may seem impossible for churches as it often does for individuals, but my own story is one of God’s remarkable provision. Then talk about therapy—not very personal details, but important insights and growth. Make going to therapy as commonplace as going to a medical doctor.

Help survivors access trauma-informed professional care.

The day I arrived in therapy, I had no idea what would happen there, what therapy entailed, nor did I understand God had led me to a trauma-informed therapist and why that mattered. Not all therapy addresses the very physical effects of trauma. Many victims of trauma who have accessed therapy say it didn’t help (and this is discouraging to others who might consider therapy). While there are various reasons for this, if the therapy only involves talking about the trauma it could have retraumatized vs. healed. Trauma-informed therapy is essential. Understanding the effects of trauma will ensure appropriate guidance in helping others seek help.

The Question Again: How do you gently encourage someone to not just recognize their need for healing but to move toward it before they reach their breaking point?

I wish I had a magic wand; I always wish for this. Leading someone to access healing requires patience and compassion--especially if their cultural or church world is as I described above. When I speak, it may appear that I just glibly walked into therapy. Reading my first book, BRAVE: A Personal Story of Healing Childhood Trauma, explains it as anything but glib—in fact, it was terrifying. That is why I work at making that path easier for others. The number who make appointments after reading tells me it worth the effort—as will be our efforts to change cultural views surrounding trauma and mental health. Only when others feel safe enough to do so, will they be willing to choose the path to healing.

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