Communication is one of the three keys to healing after trauma.
Communicating well with a congregation especially is critical to healing after collective trauma. You can learn more about communication and guides for communication with congregations and staffs in our Resource Guides, available on the ICTG Training page.
As ICTG directors and advisors – in our experience as leaders who have deployed to post-disaster sites, as leading scholars in the fields of pastoral theology, congregational care, spiritual formation, and youth ministry, and as professionals certified in critical incident debriefing – we have found the following practices most helpful following collective trauma:
- As soon as possible, once it is clear everyone is out of harm's way, gather to mourn collective losses. Often this is accomplished through vigils and prayer services. These gatherings may occur on the first night or second evening following the incident. Here's one pastor's experience of planning and participating in prayer vigils following significant community unrest. They should be focused on naming what occurred, including basic facts (and avoiding any exaggerations or assumptions), and providing various ways to express loss including time for both spoken and silent prayers, songs, and lighting candles (or some another form of non-verbal expression that is meaningful to the congregation).
- At the first worship service following the first gathering to mourn, the congregation is looking to hear from the main or senior minister and they are looking to hear a sermon focused on what just happened and how to mourn together. Here's one pastor's experience of how trauma changed everything in the days and weeks that followed. The incident should be referred to directly, prayed about, and any new information or guides for finding out information should be made clear.
- Plan and publicize 2-4 congregational meetings. They need to occur at times convenient for congregants to attend. If your congregation includes families with young children, it is especially helpful if you provide free and reliable child care for these meetings. Also, invite junior high and high schoolers to attend these meetings, if they are interested. Depending on the type of incident that occurred, invite 1-2 professionals to attend with training specific to the type of incident that occurred. Have them provide general information about these types of incidents. Also, make sure to have a youth leader on hand for youth who show up. The youth should not be segregated in the aftermath of crises. They need to hear from the main or senior minister as well as any professionals who are invited to participate. After the congregational meeting, youth leaders may find it helpful to gather their youth for a few minutes to answer any further questions or provide information about how youth group meetings will occur in the following days and weeks. For all attending the congregational meetings, in most cases of human-caused disaster (i.e., shootings, stabbings, sexual abuse, etc.), few facts will be readily available while an investigation is going on. However, a police officer or social worker will be able to inform the congregation about how investigations tend to go and what cases like these tend to involve. Often that general information is very helpful and calms some anxiety. Hosting multiple meetings over 2-4 weeks, allows congregants to attend at least one or two if they are not able to attend them all and they allow the opportunity for sharing updates as new information becomes available.
- Somewhere near the 3-month, 6-month and 9-month timelines, publicize and host a small gathering for prayer and healing for anyone who would self-select to attend. These should not be forced events, and numbers of attendees are not important. Even if no one attends, in our experience we still see hosting them as important. Many times, congregants report feeling comforted knowing a meeting was occurring even when they did not have the strength or courage to attend personally at that time. At each of these gatherings, and in publications about them, include information for how congregants and visitors can seek out sources for healing on their own, as well as through these gatherings, including local listings for reputable counselors, spiritual directors, prayer groups, and clinical agencies.
- Healing from trauma, and from collective trauma, takes time. Generally, leaders in the field have found that groups or communities take about 18 - 24 months to begin to feel some semblance of new normals. Be patient and kind with yourself as a minister and with your congregants. Throughout this time, and as the congregation learns to focus on other aspects of purpose and mission alongside their healing, continue to encourage safety and honesty, making space for the spectrum of people who include everyone from those who are able to experience healing sooner to those who experience it later.
- Mark the anniversary with a service of prayer and healing. Remind congregants that likely, as in most cases, they are still on the road to healing. But this marker often also provides some senses of hope and encouragement because it serves as a point for congregants to see how far they have come.
- Some congregations find they are ready to mark a positive mission initiative around the second anniversary. At this point, they recognize together that though they have not forgotten their loss, their loss also does not solely define who they are as a community and they are ready also to focus on areas of new growth and expansion.
These are some of the tips we've gathered over the years and shared with one another. You may have found other points helpful too. Or, perhaps you experienced times or circumstances where these points needed correction for your community. We'd love to hear from you! Feel free to share your experience, wisdom, and questions in the comments below.