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  • Janyne McConnaughey, PhD

Stepping Into Deep Waters

God is so unexpected. I could have easily missed the Wesley Center Conference (A Body of Belonging: Disability & the Church ) As I said to someone at the conference, “This was an odd gig for me.” It was—but then again, it wasn’t. I lived my life as an educator amid pastors and theologians—but that didn’t mean I ever felt comfortable.

The description of the conference invited all to come, but I understood it was a conference focused on theology.

  • “Northwest Nazarene University's 2020 Wesley Center Conference theme is ‘Disability and the Church.’ Join us as we explore what it means for us to welcome all people to Christ's table, including those with physical, cognitive, and emotional disabilities. Pastors, educators, family members, and laypersons are welcome as we consider the implications of how the body of Christ is incomplete without everyone present.”

My son suggested that the topic seemed to fit what I do. Since my next book, A BRAVE Life: Survival, Resilience, Hope, and Faith after Childhood Trauma (target launch date, June 16, 2020) will focus on my spiritual journey in the church, it did make sense. Yet, the word disability threw me. Emotional disability? I can only see strength in my journey but must admit to the many ways that trauma caused me to struggle.

Setting aside my misgivings, I wrote this description and sent it on its way. (The slideshow/manuscript can be found at this link.)

Trauma-Informed Church Ministries

Understanding the effects of childhood abuse is essential in ministering to both churches and communities. This session will address the following questions:

  • How do we reconcile the research on the physical and behavioral effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) with a Wesleyan understanding of Hamartiology?

  • How can we encourage spiritual growth without creating additional shame and feelings of worthlessness?

  • How can survival coping mechanisms be distinguished from conscious choices?

  • How can understanding the neurobiology of trauma and trauma-informed care lead to the abundant life Jesus intended for every person?

  • How can the spiritual strength of survivors enrich churches and communities?

In a symbolic sense, my attendance and presentation at this conference helped me return to the church on my own terms. Not as a victim hiding in fear that anyone might learn of the unexplainable darkness deep inside of me, but as a healed survivor on a mission to help those like myself who are suffering in silence. Healing required leaving everything behind, including the church. It was a necessary deconstruction and subsequent reconstruction of my faith and being. If I was ever to return, it would have to be as the person God created me to be—a leader who would never back away from speaking truth and asking difficult and sometimes uncomfortable questions. Would I ever find the church to be a place which would embrace this “me” who cannot be silent in a suffering world?

My work with the Attachment and Trauma Network (ATN) has provided an avenue of service that is comfortable. I feel accepted and valued for both who I am and my story. This has never been true in the church where it was never OK to not be OK. Yet, I had come to stand before attendees and tell them I had certainly not been OK. Before my first session, I found a secluded spot and listened to a song which provided hope in the weeks after beginning therapy and realizing the magnitude of my mental health challenges.

At that time, this section of the song gave me hope:

Your grace abounds in deepest waters Your sovereign hand Will be my guide Where feet may fail and fear surrounds me You've never failed and You won't start now

But eventually, my plea became:

Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders Let me walk upon the waters Wherever You would call me Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander And my faith will be made stronger In the presence of my Savior

For all that I accomplished during the past two years since publishing BRAVE, this was decidedly a “walking on the waters” kind of moment. This presentation was certainly going to take me deeper than I would ever choose for my feet to wander. Speaking to church leaders about the need to reframe the interpretation of “sin” with a trauma-informed lens was unquestionably stepping out of the proverbial boat.

But as I spoke, my faith was made stronger—my faith in God knowing what I needed, the goodness of God’s people, and the growing desire within the church to love those who suffer deeply. Who I found at the conference were fellow searchers who were also not satisfied with pat answers and platitudes. People who accepted that while we might not always agree, we would gather to grow in our understanding and love for other humans.

My time at the conference changed me. With every session and conversation, I realized I had added another tribe to my quickly enlarging world. The church no longer needed to be the place where I hid; it could become a place where I belong and have a voice—something that I could not have imagined while healing.

I am proud of the church of my heritage for stepping into the arena of disabilities in an incredibly compassionate and professional way at this conference. I was moved from being uncomfortable with the word disability to instead being honored by it (and was not the only one who expressed this.) My heart overflowed with gratitude when speakers (in several ways) expressed the need to reframe our thinking surrounding human choice within the context of mental illness. Truly, the Wesleyan perspective of “sin” provides a welcoming space to reconsider how the faith vocabulary we use can either bring healing or shame. We must begin to choose more carefully in the light of all we now understand about the effects of trauma.

Thank you to the leaders of the conference for providing a paradigm-shifting experience and demonstrating all that the church must be and do in order to stay relevant in our world. Job well done!

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