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Introduction: Trauma in the Pews

Growing older creates a longing to go back to the beginning with the wisdom that I now have—back to when I was just starting to serve in churches and church-related ministries. Back to my teaching days with children and adults. Back to my parenting days. Back to the days when I longed to grow in faith while following the spiritual instruction of the churches I attended.


As did many in the church, I viewed life through a “spiritual” lens. I believed that my struggles could ultimately be traced back to a lack of discipline on my part in following the traditional spiritual practices. I was taught that engaging in spiritual practices would bring me closer to God. These practices included daily scripture reading, a more consistent prayer life, serving within the church, exhibiting self-control by following the prescribed rules, participating in worship, and regular church attendance.


I did my best to pursue all of these avenues, finding most to be challenging for reasons I could not understand. It was discouraging to come away feeling more like a spiritual failure than an effective believer. After publishing my first book, many others began to share similar feelings of spiritual failure while talking with me about their childhood trauma. It was then that I began to wonder if the impact of trauma and feelings of spiritual failure were connected.


Once I understood the prevalence and impact of trauma—in my life and in those around me—my paradigm was completely altered. I suddenly viewed myself and others through a different lens, a broader lens, that had more nuance and compassion. Revisiting conversations I’d had with friends, students, family and ministry leaders, I realized that many of their stories included elements of suffering from the impact of trauma.

Without understanding the effects of trauma, I am certain that I had blind spots to the pain and suffering of some of the people who came across my path. Once I saw the effects of trauma, I couldn’t unsee the impact it made. I realized that many of the issues were not spiritual, but the result of traumatic events so many have suffered.


This new awareness of the impact of trauma doesn’t cause me to regret the ways I interacted with those who suffered. I did the best I could. I cannot hold myself responsible for something that wasn’t understood. During forty years as an educator, thirty-three as a teacher educator, I never mentioned trauma; no one did. It simply was not on anyone’s radar. The lens we shared focused on behavior and couldn’t bring trauma into focus.

But that has changed. As a society, our understanding of the effects of trauma has advanced exponentially in the past ten years. The increasing availability of resources since I began my healing journey in the fall of 2014 is astounding—and growing so fast that keeping up is difficult, if not impossible.


My current work with educators as a Distinguished Visiting Professor for Tabor College’s Master of Education in neuroscience and trauma, as well as my work as President of the Board for the Attachment & Trauma Network is redefining how I view and respond to others. This is true for all those who have become a part of the movement to bring the understanding of the impact of trauma to all sectors of society.

While the network is expanding and the conversations among disciplines are increasing, what we understand about trauma is not adequately informing the church’s faith practices. I am one of many who are making this connection. But we need to engage more intentionally. Bringing together these two perspectives opens up a new potential for fulfilling the mission of the church. With an understanding of trauma, laypeople and ordained ministers can be catalysts for tremendous healing. Without it, the church risks becoming irrelevant to a world that is searching for answers.


There are three questions I seek to answer in this book. How can ministry leadership and laypeople recognize and better understand the impact of widespread trauma that is present among its members? How can leadership develop resources and instruction that acknowledge the impact of trauma and facilitate healing within the framework of spiritual practices? And how must the past behavior-based paradigm be revised to provide clearer vision and more effectively serve the needs of so many impacted by trauma?


We couldn’t know what we didn’t know in the past. But the information is available to us now. Today, we can do better by becoming 1) trauma informed – acquiring knowledge and understanding about trauma, 2) trauma sensitive – recognizing how trauma impacts our lives and faith, and 3) trauma responsive – ministering to people who have experienced trauma in effective and compassionate ways. There are still many in our churches whose suffering has been overlooked, and perhaps they aren’t fully aware themselves how they’ve been affected. But with a different lens, our faith communities will become safer places for everyone; those who have experienced trauma and those who walk beside them in families, faith communities, schools, and businesses alike.


How to Get the Most Out of This Book


Section One will answer the question, “How can becoming trauma informed provide better knowledge and understanding of the effects of trauma in the lives of those who sit in the pews?” This will include information about how trauma affects the brain and the prevalence of trauma in the lives of church members, both collective and individual.


Section Two answers the question, “How can we view the struggles of those who suffer from the effects of trauma more compassionately?” This is the question that being trauma sensitive (recognizing the many ways trauma impacts our lives and faith) answers. This challenge will be explored through an in-depth look at how trauma affects an individual’s efforts to access spiritual practices.


Many of the spiritual practices of the church find their origins in Jewish tradition. But over the past two- thousand-plus years, believers from various Christian traditions have modified and added practices that were viewed as helpful, if not essential, to living out our faith. Rather than attempt an overview of these varied practices, I have chosen to utilize the Spiritual Disciplines proposed by Richard Foster in his book Celebration of Discipline, published in 1978.


Foster’s presentation of spiritual practices initiated a spiritual formation movement that has impacted generations of Christians. Entire programs, degrees, many a sermon, and an untold number of personal spiritual plans have been based on his Spiritual Discipline framework (throughout this book, when capitalized, Spiritual or Discipline will indicate that the term refers to Foster’s work). The stories of those who have been positively impacted by this book leave no question as to its validity and value. The importance of spiritual practices over the centuries is an undisputed fact— something well documented in Celebration of Discipline.


Organizing my thoughts around Foster’s framework enabled me to utilize a common language to describe how so many struggle with implementing traditional spiritual practices—both because the impact of trauma decreases our ability to access these practices, but also because it has been incorrectly assumed that these practices are sufficient to bring about a full healing from trauma. The positive impact that Richard Foster’s work has had on faith practices cannot be over-stated. But many individuals were negatively impacted by how some misapplied these spiritual practices as rules to live by and then over-promised the possible benefits.


Seeing my difficulty with certain spiritual practices allowed me to hear the same concerns in the emails and conversations I had with others who had been impacted by trauma. The stories included in Section Two are created from elements of personal stories shared with me—always written to protect confidences. A trauma-sensitive reflection on the stories can help us understand why so many struggle with spiritual practices. (Reflection questions are included in Appendix 7)


Section Three answers the question, “How can we better serve those who suffer from the effects of trauma?” This is the question that being trauma responsive— responding in informed and compassionate ways—answers. Faith communities in general, and Christians in particular, have the potential to help those impacted by trauma turn their struggles into joy. Without understanding trauma and its effects, our efforts are often misguided and have the opposite effect.


We are at the beginning of a significant and necessary change in our perceptions of those who suffer silently in the pews. We still have far to go, but with an understanding of the impact of trauma guiding our efforts, we can more effectively minister to those who are impacted. It is possible for our compassionate efforts to reap much greater dividends in the lives of those who sincerely desire a closer walk with God.

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