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When Your Church Experiences Trauma

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In the early 1990s I went with my family to Lesotho for four years on a Mennonite Central Committee assignment. The small church based resource centre where I spent my time worked at issues of political transformation sweeping South Africa, and local community development. One of the many things I was not prepared for was the level of violence pervading the culture in the entire region.
By the time I had been there 2 years I was trying to figure out the reasons the resource centre seemed riven with conflict. Then I toted up the realities my colleagues were living with:
  •  The young adult man who had struck and killed a drunk person who had stepped in front of his car.
  • The middle aged woman whose son had been shot and killed by police during a peaceful protest.
  • The middle age man whose son had died in a random shooting in Johannesburg.
  • The young adult female colleague who had been raped.
That was just the start. In the course of 2 years 8 of my 10 colleagues had been touched by violence somewhere close to them.
Was it any wonder we had deep conflict in the organization?
Fast forward…
I listened to the church board describe painful event after painful event over the last decade and a half. A single word rattled around my mind: Trauma. With a capital “T”.
Nothing the individuals had experienced came close to the stories of my colleagues in Lesotho. Yet it still sounded like trauma. How had the trauma affected the system? If the primary expressions of PTSD manifest as terror and disconnection, how were these present?
What Does Trauma Look Like In A Church?
Terror for the PTSD sufferer looks like constant vigilance for the return of danger, intrusive memories that lead to constant reliving of the event, and emotional constriction that can lead to an inability to act. Disconnection expresses itself as a damaged sense of self, a reopening of old developmental conflicts, a loss of autonomy and a loss of community.
What does PTSD look like in a congregational system?
  • A heightened arousal as people keep watch for fear of another hurtful event.
  • Painful events that cannot be forgotten, that form a subtext for every activity, every conversation.
  • Disconnection from those who have left the congregation, and disconnections within the congregation.
  • Communication patterns that leave many feeling out of the loop.
  • An inability to articulate the congregation’s purpose.
  • Feeling trapped in a cycle of traumatic events, with no ability to control those events.
  • A desire to ignore the past and just get on with life.
  • Reopening old conflicts that everyone thought were dealt with.

The Healing Journey

People experiencing PTSD need first and foremost a sense that they are being cared for in the context of a healing relationship. Out of this grow the possibilities for healing.  The healing journey is three fold: creating a place of safety, engaging practices of remembrance and mourning, creating a new future through reconnection.
What does this look like in a traumatized congregation?
  • New or renewed pastoral leadership that is able to focus on pastoral care for individuals as well as the congregation as a whole in a way that allows reconnection with the presence, love, mercy of God in the midst of the pain.
  • A process that enables the congregation to tell its story to itself, ensuring that the past is remembered and the losses are mourned. Trauma that is forgotten inevitably returns to haunt us. Trauma remembered can be transformed.
  • Careful work at reconnection inside and outside the congregation. Great care is needed as some of those who left may have no desire for reconnection.
  • Building a new future. The trauma has changed the congregation—who is it now? Now that we have come out the other side of the trauma, and in light of our story, what is God calling us to?
This is not an easy journey on which to embark, yet it is one that is crucial for the traumatized congregation. And it is a journey on which God will be with us. While it may have seemed that God was absent in the wilderness of the trauma, we know that in the wilderness God sustains us, for there was no one else there to sustain us. And that sustenance must have been there for we are still standing. If God was with us in the wilderness, so God continues with us on the journey to healing.
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Keith works in the field of conflict resolution and restorative justice. As well as delivering conflict and communication training, Keith leads processes to re-shape congregational identity, mission and direction, and provides congregational assessments and mediation for leaders, leadership teams and congregations.

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