A professor of mine in seminary once defined spirituality as a way of living out what we believe. I like this definition because it acknowledges the interplay of faith and action and allows for the “messiness” of discovery. Much of this mess shows up as we grow, literally and metaphorically, into the fullness of what it means to be human. Bringing the unconscious to consciousness and challenging formerly adhered to dogmas can be painful, but usually, this hard work results in an understanding and experience of God as greater and more loving than previously imagined or experienced.
The experience of trauma often comes with some new piece of knowledge. Some undeniable sense that the world is not as we thought it was. Once our bodies and congregations are safe, this new knowledge can continue to pierce and disturb our spirits. A traumatic experience can catapult us into a new place of knowledge that forces us to rediscover ourselves and to rediscover God. This spiritual component of trauma often lingers and can be the last place to find resolution. We often need the dust to settle before we have the interior space to rename and redefine what we know about ourselves and God. Before we can enter into our new understanding of Presence.
As leaders and ministers, we must take into consideration the effect trauma has on the spiritual formation of individual congregants and congregational bodies. This may begin with accepting that, without question, members of our faith communities have experienced dark times in their lives that have left them with shattered senses of trust and safety in their relationship to God and others. We need to be modeling and reflecting, “from the front,” a humility and appropriate vulnerability that normalizes doubt, insecurity, and struggle. We must set the tone of honesty in telling our stories. This requires a great deal of courage. We live in a culture that values and praises authoritative leaders. People who are bold and confident. I believe this is often a projection borne of deep insecurity. We demand that our leaders give us an image of what we hope to be true about the world. That there is predictability, someone with confidence and a sure path to follow, someone who knows all the answers and never struggles with doubt or fear.
What might it be like to reflect truth rather than fantasy?
Research has shown over and over that telling the truth in safety, and having the truth of our stories honored is essential for healing from trauma. As leaders we can begin, now, to develop in our congregations habits of telling the truth and listening well. We can begin to train and develop in our congregations the responses that will best foster healing, both for those who have already been wounded, and those who may yet experience deep wounds in their spirits. This posture of openness from leadership will help to weave together the types of communities that are spaces where people thrive. Having the loving expectation that people can participate in, and be responsible for, their own formation in relationship to God, also disperses the burden of responsibility on leaders when crisis happens. If we have been the center around which ministry has grown (intentionally or unintentionally), then we will be the spot on which the congregation lives or dies when disaster strikes. Part of leading people who are in the process of being spiritually formed is acknowledging that we, too, are in process. By joining the congregation on the journey instead of separating ourselves, we contribute to spiritual health and resiliency for all.
We know that when one part of the body suffers, the entire organism feels the shockwaves. What would it be to develop a congregational body that is attuned to those shockwaves and that knows how to respond? This might take the form of:
- Creating listening groups where people gather for the express purpose of learning to listen to and honor the stories of others.
- Beginning a spiritual direction ministry where congregants can begin to have the experience of how meaningful being listened to can be and where the Presence of God can be experienced in all its nuance.
- Using ourselves, our personal stories, as examples and object lessons in responsible and appropriate ways.
There is also a need to listen to the story of the congregation as a whole. The history of the location of this gathering as well as those who have called it home.
-What things have happened in this place?
-What needs to be lamented?
All of these events and stories have shaped and are continuing to play a role in the formation of the spirit of the congregation. Acknowledging them and integrating them into the conscious life of the community creates a sturdy sense of connectedness that can further the process of healing from past traumas, as well as provide resiliency in the event of future difficulty.
* Discover more spiritual formation practices and resources on the ICTG Training page, including the Spiritual Formation Resource Guide and Spiritual Formation Assessment.