The Institute originally published this post on June 10, 2015, on our previous website. Here, we are honored to welcome guest blogger, Rev. Dr. David Holyan, senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Kirkwood, St Louis, MO.
This series of blog postings has dug up a lot of memories and tears. I'm grateful for Kate (Rev. Dr. Wiebe's) continuing prodding to write about 'vocational trauma'. It is not easy to expose the deep soul wounds which I carry within. But I am grateful for a place that honors the reality of trauma and growth and appreciates the humanness of a christian's divine calling to serve others in the name of Jesus the Christ.
There is a wisdom that comes from living through a congregational trauma that destroys the foundations of your sense of call. I have collected bits and fragments of goodness and continue to rebuild my sense of 'call'. I continue to chaff at the idea of being the 'shooting pastor', of having my identity tied to the shooting in Kirkwood and the work I have done because of it. I have learned much and now I want to offer (gently) some of the wisdom I have learned from crawling through the darkness of a vocational trauma.
Thou art with me
There were days when I yelled “BULLSHIT!” to the promise that God was 'with me' as I crawled around in the darkest parts of my soul. But I realize now that God was with me. All of my 'best friends' not just in ministry but in life, entered my life as a direct result of the shooting. My best friend is the pastor from Florida who showed up in my office that day after the shooting in Kirkwood. Another friend is the woman who I met at the discernment class for being a part of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance's National Response Team. She too had experienced a trauma in the congregation she served near Chicago. Two more friends are the people I deployed to Tucson with. All of these people are now my friends and none of them would be in my life if it were not for the shooting in Kirkwood.
Peace be with you
I teach 'Vocational Resilience' to MDiv students at Eden Seminary. One of the assignments is to write out a 'trauma autobiography'. I have read, with horror, about the experiences of others. And, because I have tasted the bitterness of my own tears, I can offer those students 'peace', an invitation to wholeness. Jesus continually offered 'peace' to his disciples. As a result of my sitting with the reality of my own vocational brokenness, I can now sit with the brokenness of others and see 'vocation' emerge from the shards. The students are often worried they are 'too messed up' to go into ministry. Inside I chuckle and thank God because I wouldn't want to be pastored by anyone who hasn't wrestled in the dark.
My cup overflows
I have come to realize that it is the small cup that overflows first. Prior to the shooting my vocation was driven by grand desires to build the church and change the world. Now, my vocational agenda is much smaller: preach a nice sermon, be present to those in front of me, be attentive to the leading of the Spirit, etc. While the congregation I serve has done 'big things' since the shooting (for example, we installed a new pipe organ in 2014), I am learning to be at peace by intentionally diminishing my need to accomplish tremendous vocational goals. While the Spirit may use me to build the church and change the world, I will let that be the Spirit's work and worry. After a much needed sabbatical to Scotland last summer, I came home with two personal invitations: to live closer to the ground and to live a smaller life. While I'm still not sure what either invitation means, I can tell you I no longer feel guilty when I leave Kirkwood to stand in the White River in NW Arkansas and catch a trout on a Japanese fiberglass fly rod I built with a fly I tied. It is standing in the water that my soul is restored and I become aware that goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.
The Institute originally published this post by Executive Director Kate Wiebe on June 30, 2015, on our previous website.
Several years ago, my sister moved to a new city and began seeking out a new Protestant church home. One Sunday morning she visited a church and after the worship service went to the welcome table to find out more information about how young adults could get involved with the congregation. The woman at the desk became flustered said couldn't find the pamphlets for young adults, but if my sister would wait a moment the woman would go look for them. Thinking it would just be a minute or two, my sister agreed. Many minutes went by though, and in the meantime, other visitors approached the desk looking for information. Being the creative, present person that she is, each time my sister would glance around the table and find the pamphlet that fit what the person was looking for. Each time, she and the visitor would chat a bit, and eventually laugh that this was both of their first times visiting, and how no one was really attending the welcome center. After more than twenty minutes, my sister walked out.
There's lots of things we could say about this experience, but the thing I want to focus on – the part that has to do with congregations being healthy and nurturing environments – is the fact that these days, the vast majority of visitors do not need a pamphlet. Maybe a small card with contact information. What people need most today is other caring people to welcome them. Not one person at the church my sister visited ever found out, or ever inquired to find out, that my sister was brand new to the city and looking for a new church home and even was hopeful that this one might be it. No one found out my sister's name, got her contact information, or went about any of the things that caring people often do to welcome a person who has recently moved.
Moving is not traumatic – though, on the other hand, you might have a story of how it was for you! But moving does share some of the qualities of feeling traumatized, including isolation, instability, foreignness, sadness or depression, and loss of normal routines.
As we see in the example above, care is important at any stage of life. And, it is especially important in the aftermath of trauma. Further more, as faithful people, we cannot afford to ignore the current studies about how pervasive experiences of trauma are throughout our country today. How we care for one another in the aftermath of trauma will make all the difference.
About two years ago, we provided a blog post on the Seven Key Traits of Trauma-informed Congregations. There's no time like the present to revisit these all-important practices.
Trauma experts say that three practices make up the essence of how trauma-informed care begins and takes shape among congregations. Congregations who practice those disciplines bring the following traits to bear and, in turn, create environments that heal trauma effectively and consistently are life-giving.
In our Resource Guide, ICTG has come to call these practices "the three C's": community, calming, and communication. If that's helpful to you to remember them – great. However you keep these practices in mind, they will make a tremendous difference for you and your loved ones.
1. Acknowledge the scope of adverse experiences common to persons today. The ACEstudy has helped the medical community, law enforcement, legal institutions, NGOs, and faith communities all begin to see how adverse childhood experiences directly correlate with adult illnesses. Based on their work, we now know that almost 50% of all children in the United States today will experience one, two, or more traumatic events or never know what it is to feel safe as a child before they turn 18 years-old. Trauma-informed congregations recognize these facts and build their mission, vision, and ministry programs in light of this common understanding.
2. Recognize the impact and communicate what happened. Like acknowledging the scope of experiences the congregation has endured, trauma-informed congregations sense how those experiences impact individual and corporate life. They expect that the ripple-effects of emotional and biological reactions are far-reaching, and they make spaces for communicating what happened through liturgy, song, prayer, sacrament, testimonies, theater, addiction and abuse recovery programs, and small groups.
3. Compassionate curiosity within safe boundaries. Trauma-informed congregation continue to build a community resource network and, as staff and lay people, they train to provide safe places for people to share "what happened". They are compassionately curious, and interested to bear witness honestly to adverse experience from the past that may be influencing fear or defense tactics in the present. They view forms of "acting out" as new opportunities for building trustworthy and emotionally safe relationships.
4. Group and self-regulation. Life is emotional. There's many highs and lows in any given day or week, especially with broad access to mass and social media platforms. Trauma-informed congregations create reliable rhythms for calming, centering, breathing deeply and steadily together through song or prayer or times of silence, and for reminding one another of the pathways through the valleys of the shadows of death.
5. Reliably caring relationships. Trauma-informed congregations actively build and sustain trustworthy, hospitable, joyful, loving relationships. They understand that these kinds of relationships are vital to creating resilience.
6. Purpose. Members of trauma-informed congregations show up ready to participate in the corporate meaning-making they share. Their enthusiasm is contagious. Unlike flashy marketing or manipulative pleas for service, they are excited to make space to listen to one another and to grow in renewed understandings of what is truly life-giving to the persons involved in the body of the congregation. Rather than trying to fix persons problems for them, trauma-informed congregations are marked by directing interventions and healing practices that are created by and driven by persons-in-healing being served and growing in their own senses of what truly is resourceful.
7. Ongoing Self-Care. Trauma-informed congregants understand that healing is a high-impact sport. You cannot care for others without being touched by what's happened. That is why they intentionally practice personal care to sustain their abilities to care for others. For example, they allow themselves to be held accountable by trustworthy friends or colleagues. They identify specific personal limits. They maintain current and effective referral practices for when they are hearing about or addressing needs that go beyond their abilities and to encourage safety. They practice life-giving work and life rhythms, including regular exercise, sleep, eating, and leisure.
As congregations cultivate these hallmarks, they express a sense of living in the world today that directly counters the traumatic effects that pervade our society now.
Learn more about developing trauma-informed ministries through our resource guides and services.
Sustain free online education by making a contribution today. Thank you for your generosity!
The Institute originally published this post on May 26, 2015, on our previous website. Here, we are honored to welcome Rev. Dr. David Holyan, senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Kirkwood, St Louis, MO.
On the morning of February 7, 2013 I got a text message on my phone, “Thinking of you all on this important day.”
I can remember thinking how odd it was that the sender would know that I was 5 minutes from beginning a clergy retreat in Newtown, CT. The sender, a responder whom I met in the aftermath of the shooting in Kirkwood, and I had not been in touch in some time.
And then it struck me: February 7, 2013, five years to the day, the shooting in Kirkwood had happened.
I was about to begin an ecumenical all-day clergy retreat in Newtown, CT on the anniversary of the shooting in Kirkwood AND I had FORGOTTEN it was the anniversary date. What joy! And what heartbreak! Standing in front of a group of hurting and exhausted pastors, I had to refrain from jumping up and down and shouting 'alleluia' from the top of my lungs.
It only took 5 years, but for the first time I realized I would be able to live my life and NOT have the Kirkwood shooting be ever present in my psyche. I recognized in that moment that my life had continued to grow and change and good things where springing up all around. The recognition of resurrection and springtime awakening in my soul occurred at the outset of a Newtown clergy retreat held the day before a blizzard in New England.
When I brought this recollection back to my spiritual director, she smiled simply and shook her head 'yes'. Goodness and beauty stuck their heads through the snow and grief and I was able to recognize both for what they were. The miracle of not recognizing the meaning of a text message marked for me a significant transition in my vocational resilience. And with it, I was able to be more fully present to the task at hand – creating and tending sacred space for a group of clergy traumatized by serving a community devastated by heinous gun violence.
The Kirkwood shooting changed the trajectory of my ministry. I would not have been standing in Newtown if it were not for Kirkwood. And my experience of a strange text message taught me that there could be moments of grace irrupting through the ordinary slog of my life. A moment, a light bulb moment of awe and goodness and joy, which comes now because of and in spite of what happened in Kirkwood. Rather than resisting the change to the trajectory of my ministry, I have, to some point, relaxed into being embraced by it. I would not choose this course for any pastor. But to resist the mighty forces of evil and darkness may have destroyed me. Instead, I learned to befriend those forces, to be embraced by the energy, and now, I continue to learn how to be alive again (and again) and notice the small beauties all around.
The Institute originally published this post on May 6, 2015, on our previous website. Here, we are honored to welcome guest blogger Rev. Dr. David Holyan, senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Kirkwood, St Louis, MO.
As I came to realize that the foundation of my call had collapsed beneath me, I'm thankful for the grace-filled work of a wonderful spiritual director and a compassionate therapist, both of whom created space for me to wander around in my brokenness, and for a spouse who loved me in my darkest moments.
While doing graduate work in theology, I stumbled upon the word bricolage. The dictionary defines it as “construction (as of a sculpture or a structure of ideas) achieved by using whatever comes to hand.” The basic idea is you create beauty or meaning out of whatever you can find lying around. As the 'sureness' of my prior convictions lay in waste within me, my spiritual director, my therapist, and the Holy Spirit provided space for me to meander around in the ruins of my soul and pick up some fragments that made sense to me. Three of those fragments continue to nurture my sense of vocational well-being: Psalm 23, serving on Presbyterian Disaster Assistance's National Response Team, and John 10:10-11.
I had always read and understood Psalm 23 as beginning with verse 1 – The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want – and that the stillness and restoration of the soul adequately was prepared prior to entering the valley of the shadow of death. But in the dark shadows of my soul, as I searched for some sense of vocational identity, I realized that for me, Psalm 23 had to start at verse 4, be read to the end, and then finish with verses 1-3. I realized the promise of the psalm was unfolding very slowly for me. Months in the valley unsure of any presence of the Holy and then, small glimpses of God being with me. The table of blessing was set in the midst of my enemies, doubt and fear and anger were not removed prior to experiences of blessing – they were displaced. I have come to realize, appreciate, and love how Psalm 23 needs to be read in the round, again and again, so that no matter what is happening in my life, I can step into the cycle of dark valleys, comfort, blessing in the midst of struggles, an affirmation of goodness and mercy and belonging, and, finally rest and restoration of my sense of call.*
Serving on Presbyterian Disaster Assistance's National Response Team
In the fall of 2009 I was invited, in the midst of my brokenness, to join with volunteers within my denomination and primarily respond to human-caused disasters. The day after the shooting in Kirkwood, two members of PDA's National Response Team were in town to help us out. Now I'm one of those getting on a plane and flying into the chaos of unexpected disasters. My first major assignment was the shooting in Tucson, AZ.
Being deployed in the moments after a human-caused disaster allows me to practice the ministry of attentive presence when the pathway forward for a suffering community is not yet clear. You are never sure what you will be attending to. Will it be the shooting or some prior unresolved trauma community members are now recalling? Learning to stay open, in the midst of so much pain and energy, and discerning what to attend to and what to let go is an art. Serving in Tucson began a process of redeeming the pain I held within. While it was not easy to step from my own experience of gun violence into another community's experience, I believe I was able to provide assistance in ways that encouraged and supported others in their moments of deep need.
“I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd.” These words from Jesus are etched in the dirt of my soul. One of the gifts I received in healing after the Kirkwood shooting is an appreciation for the moment and a diminished concern for tomorrow and the future. With Jesus' affirmation of 'abundant life' without guarantee for how long that life will be, the reverberations of Ps. 23, I continue to ponder: what does it mean to live abundantly and appreciate the goodness of the shepherd in a world that can end (for me) in an instant? For me the answer is to be attentive to 'the now' and thankful for all.
The Institute originally published this post on April 22, 2015, on our previous website. Here, we are honored to welcome Rev. Dr. David Holyan, senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Kirkwood, St Louis, MO.
When I originally outlined this blog series, I thought I'd be writing about how the shooting destroyed my sense of call as a pastor to a growing church. But upon reflection I realize the shooting clarified my sense of call: pastor the church!
My focus became laser-like: pastor the church–preach, attend to staff, listen to stories, share tears, as we enter into the long journey through the valley of the shadow of death. My focus became 'my congregation' and nothing else. I could not attend to the needs of the community. I could not participate in conversations about 'understanding and healing'. I could not become an engaging member of the ministerial association: I could only pastor my church.
And yet, what I realize now did break was the foundation to my vocation: an abiding sense in the goodness of life and faith, the joy of being saved by grace, a belief in the goodness of others, and a sense of personal divine protection – or, in other words, I believe so God will watch over me and everything will work out. All these things where 'shot to hell' on February 7, 2008, and while I continued carrying-on my pastoral duties with a clear-minded determination, I did so with a broken heart. The scars of which are still with me to this day.
an abiding sense in the goodness of life and faith
At the core of my vocational identity as a reformed Christian pastor was 'the good news of Jesus Christ'. I have committed my life to the goodness of what God has done and is doing through Jesus Christ. On February 7, 2008, 'goodness' was attacked and, for me, destroyed. A trust in God's goodness did not answer the questions and it did not stop the hurt, the disbelief, or the bewilderment. God was no longer 'good'.
the joy of being saved by grace
I had always experienced my salvation through grace and my being called as a pastor joy-full-y. My call was clear and profound, life changing in remarkably good ways, and provided a foundation of joy for much of my ministry. And now there was only heartbreak and lament, quiet hugs with lots of tears, and hours upon hours of lonely, private crying and wondering and questioning and asking questions into the wind without one, single answer. The animating energy of my call shifted from a tempered joyfulness to something much darker and colder.
a belief in the goodness of others
Until the shooting, I always trusted in the innate goodness of others: all people are good and willing to help. This was the basis for my sense of the church — good people coming together to share their gifts in order to further the ministry and mission of Jesus Christ. After the shooting, people can be good or a threat. It is weird to sit in the front of a sanctuary, leading worship, watch a stranger walk in late, and think to myself: is he going to shoot me, or, how quickly can I get to the door?
a sense of divine protection
I trust in God; God will take care of me. I have faith in Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ will protect me. I know this sounds naïve but it is what undergirded my sense of vocational stability: those who give their lives to Jesus will be looked after. But I learned faith cannot stop a bullet and God does not protect those who believe from evil.
While the public demands for clergy are often clarified by a traumatic event, the foundations of one's vocation are often destroyed by that same event. I suffered alone, in the quiet of the morning, with a cup of coffee, prayers, tears, and a broken heart. I think I did okay as a pastor in the months and years following the shooting, but for a long time I was faking it – too crushed on the inside to let anyone know the foundation was destroyed and the house was in danger of collapse.
The Institute originally published this post on March 26, 2015, on our previous website. Here, we are honored to welcome guest blogger Rev. Dr. David Holyan, senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Kirkwood, Saint Louis, MO.
What I share in this blog series, I share as a pastor whose whole sense of call and purpose was destroyed on February 7, 2008. The reflections I will share in this second part and in the postings to follow all grow out of living in the valley of the shadow of death long enough to find God's blessings once again. My focus in these posts is on vocational trauma – how a disaster disrupts or destroys a pastor's sense of call and the hard journey of reconstructing a new, wiser sense of call.
The morning after the shooting during an emergency planning meeting with the Associate Pastor and the Director of Music Ministries, as we looked at adding a prayer service, having just one service on Sunday instead of three, scheduling a congregational debriefing, and hosting the first memorial service on Monday, someone uttered the phrase: this changes everything! Six months of planning for worship – gone! Scheduled fellowship events – gone! Regular committee meetings – gone! The ability to talk about what happened among the staff – gone! (Remember, one of the victims was the husband of a staff member.) The ability to sit peacefully and listen deeply – gone! In an instant the three of us realized that everything we had planned, hoped for, and looked forward to in the seasons of Lent and Eastertide were gone! It was as if the shooting and its immediate on-going impact upon ourselves, our staff, our congregation, and our community shredded not just our hearts and souls but also our vocational waypoints. We were navigating uncharted waters without a map, compass, or GPS. What we realized collectively but were not yet able to articulate was that 'normal' was also a casualty of the shooting. Years later, as I write this post, I realize it was the Holy Spirit who whispered “this changes everything” as it was this phrase that allowed me to respond as faithfully as possible to the overwhelming needs I encountered as pastor. What follows is some practical advice clergy can use in the immediate aftermath of a traumatic event.
Shred the Sermon
Whatever you planned to preach, no matter how eloquent or coordinated with the music and/or slide presentation or the fact that it is sermon number 4 in a series of six – no matter what you had prepared to preach – the first piece of practical advice I will give to us is: shred the sermon. Allow yourself to be human, to be devastated by what happened and model, for the congregation, what it might look like for a person of faith to struggle with the realities of a mass shooting event or an arson fire or a rape or the suicide of a staff member: be real! Do not forge ahead, sticking to what you wrote out the day before the horrible event occurred. Shred that sermon! Even if the situation occurred on Saturday night or early Sunday morning and you have to go into the pulpit with nothing but your confusion, anger, outrage, brokenheartedness, and you stumble through 10 to 12 minutes of almost inarticulate rambling about how hope comes in the morning – SHRED THE SERMON! I give you permission to allow the magnitude of the situation to affect your preaching and I emplore you to face the sitaution head on from the pulpit and be real in your response.
Clear the Schedule
On the morning after the event, we cancelled every scheduled event for the next two weeks. We wiped the calendar clean and asked: what do we need to do in order to be faithful to what God is inviting us to be and do given that 'this changes everything'? We knew instinctively that to 'carry on as usual' was not just impossible but unfaithful as well. We could not hide our devastation, our brokenheartedness, our anger at God, our questions, etc. so in order to tend to the emerging needs of everyone, we simply cleared the schedule. By clearing the schedule you create space for you and your leaders to discern how to faithfully respond to the ever changing and overwhelming immediate needs of the congregation and the community.
Focus on the Basics
As the community rallies in response to a traumatic event, the invitations and expectations pour in for you, as a 'leading pastor in our community', to be involved in all the events which immediately spring up – the prayer vigil, the candlelight service, the civic/political gathering, the ministerial meetings, the community gatherings, etc. I encourage you to focus on the basics – yourself, your family, your staff, your church, and then (maybe, if absolutely necessary) things in the community. My encouragement is for you to focus 'from the center out' and to tend to your own well-being before you tend to the well-being of others. If you do nothing in the month following a traumatic event except for worship well on Sundays you have done enough. Focus on the basics of leading worship and caring for one another (yourself first).
Get Out of Town
My final encouragement is that at about 4 to 6 weeks out from a traumatic event, have the church send you and your family on an all expenses paid retreat to someplace beautiful, peaceful, and relaxing. I found it so important to get out of town, to leave the trauma-altered patterns of daily life in ministry, and to simply be with my family. Since the demands of ministry rise exponentially in the aftermath of trauma, having the opportunity to lay aside those demands for a while in order to tend to yourself and be with those who love you and whom you love can be an experience of God's restorative grace.
The Institute originally published this post on March 23, 2015, on our previous website. Here, we are honored to welcome guest blogger, Rev. Dr. David Holyan, senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Kirkwood, Saint Louis, MO.
What I share in this blog series, I share as a pastor whose whole sense of call and purpose was destroyed on February 7, 2008. The reflections I will share in the postings to follow all grow out of living in the valley of the shadow of death long enough to find God's blessings once again. My focus in these posts is on vocational trauma – how a disaster disrupts or destroys a pastor's sense of call and the hard journey of reconstructing a new, wiser sense of call.
On February 7, 2008, having just come home from a family dinner out, my son received a call on his cellphone. “Turn on the news,” was all he said. I turned on the television and saw a picture of City Hall surrounded by police cars with flashing lights and cops walking around with big guns. The ticker on the bottom of the screen said, “Shooting, Kirkwood City Hall,...” My immediate thought was: I need to get to church.
On my way to the church, which stands directly across the street from City Hall, the music director called, “Where are you?”
“I'm on my way. I'll be there in three minutes.”
“I have the choir locked in, there may be a gunman on the loose.”
“Meet me at the front door in three minutes and let me in.”
When I arrived at church, there was an odd number of staff present (all but one) for a Thursday night. In our large urban campus, they were all gathered near the front entry. Walking toward the Welcome Center, I asked if anyone had heard from Cathy, whose husband Ken was the Director of Public Works, always at City Coucil meetings, and the target of one citizen's wrath for a number of years. I had my assistant Jane start calling all the hospitals trying to determine where wounded people were being taken. I called Cathy's cellphone repeatedly. I finally reached her and she said all the survivors were being taken to St. John's Hospital and she was on her way. I told her I'd meet her there. On the way to the hospital, I talked with Karen, the Associate Pastor, and told her about St. John's. She said she would meet me there, too.
When I got to the hospital, I met a nurse at the entrance who said, “You can't come in. We are on lockdown due to a mass-shooting.” I identified myself as a local pastor and the reason I was there; she personally escorted me to the Emergency Room waiting area where I met up with Cathy. Karen arrived shortly thereafter, and having learned the mayor of our community, a member of our church, was in emergency surgery because of the shooting, she went to be with his family. I decided to stay with Cathy. There were also members of a councilman's family milling about the ER waiting room. I noticed all the people sitting, waiting to be seen in the ER, just watching Cathy and the councilman’s family. I went to the desk and asked if there was a room we could all wait in in private. There was.
It seems like we sat in that small room for an eternity. Finally, I decided to go see if I could find out where Ken was or when they expected him to finally show up. I walked out of the room, turned toward the desk, took about three steps and then stopped. It was eerily still. And in that instant I knew: they weren't expecting any more survivors to show up in the ER. I went to the man with the clipboard and said, “You aren't expecting anyone else from the shooting to arrive are you?” He simply said, “No sir.” I felt the color drain out of me. I asked, “Whose going to tell the people waiting in the room?” “The police chaplain is on his way.” I returned to the room just as the other family received a phone call from home stating a police officer had stopped by to give them the gruesome news: their husband, father, friend was dead. Cathy turned to me and said: “Ken is dead. Isn't he?” At that moment, the door opened, the chaplain walked in, and Cathy and I fell apart.
Seven years ago and it still feels like last night.
I realize I did not have a loved one killed that night. I was not in the council chamber while the shooting took place. Yet, as with many bystanders and witnesses that night, I too was traumatized. What I understood my sense of call and purpose to be in the morning of February 7, 2008, radically changed that night as I learned personally and professionally how to pastor a grieving congregation and community, even as I was grieving. I learned that a new and wiser vocational call and purpose can emerge in the aftermath of trauma, and I will share about my discoveries in the following six-post series.
The Institute originally published this post on July 17, 2014, on our previous website. Here, we are honored to welcome guest blogger Ryan S K Timpte, Director of Children's Ministries at Lafayette-Orinda Presbyterian Church.
“Teach a child to choose the right path, and when he is older, he will remain upon it.” - Proverbs 22:6 (TLB)
What is children’s ministry?
When I was growing up in Colorado, my family briefly attended a church that, to me, looked like a spaceship. It was modern, in the way that new buildings in the late 1980s were modern: gleaming white, curved on top, multiple glass walls behind sloping pillars. During service, the kids went to Sunday school while the adults went to worship. We learned about the rainbow and sang songs about colors, and an adult came to summon us toward the end of every class so that we could go stand in the congregation, hold hands, and sing the traditional “Let There Be Peace on Earth” closing.
I remember thinking it was weird. (To be fair, a lot of the things in the 1980s were weird.) Why did we have to leave our room and go see the adults? Why weren’t they ever learning the same things we were learning? Why did we have to sing “Let There Be Peace on Earth” instead of any of the songs we got to learn in our room?
These are the same questions I’m asking now, 25 years later, in my current role as a Director of Children’s Ministry. I enjoy kids, and I enjoy figuring out how kids fit in with the rest of the community. Congregations love children, but often, they don’t know what to do with them. Some congregations prefer kids to be quiet during worship; others privilege the worship of children above all else. Some children’s ministers have more education and experience than anyone else on staff; others are volunteers who were in the right - or wrong - place at the right time. Given the clear mandate Jesus gives us in Mark 10 to let the little children come to him without hindrance, it is fascinating to see the myriad ways in which congregations encounter kids.
So I ask again, what is children’s ministry? Is it an incubator, keeping kids safe until they’re old enough to participate fully in the congregation? Is it a school, instructing kids in how to have faith like adults? Or, as the writer says in Proverbs, is it a path for kids to follow, a starting point on a longer journey of discovery?
The way a congregation answers this question has enormous implications, particularly in a time of trauma. Congregational trauma has a way of blurring lines, obscuring paths that once seemed clear. Old systems are shaken, new needs arise, and often, the picture of the future is changed dramatically. It is during this time that the paths on which we set our children become incredibly important.
Over the next months, I’ll be writing about the role of children’s ministry before, during, and after trauma in a congregation. There’s a lot to think about, like appropriate curricula after a traumatic event, or how to respond to the fears and concerns of parents, or what the place of children within the larger ministry of the church should look like. As children’s ministers, we are advocates, teachers, guides, and students of the kids in our care, and we want only to point them toward Jesus, no matter the surrounding circumstances. I look forward to your comments, your questions, and to the conversation that starts from this simple question:
What is children’s ministry?
The Institute originally published this post on June 7, 2014, on our previous website. Here, we are honored to welcome guest blogger Melissa Marley-Bonnichsen, Director of Social Concerns Seminars at the University of Notre Dame.
The email I was expecting came 9 days after the incident. Due to the recent university campus shooting that occurred only two hours away from my institution, in which one classmate intentionally took the life of another classmate, my institution sent out a reminder email to faculty and staff recalling how to respond if shots are fired on campus.
As I slowly read the email sadness took over my countenance. These were things I never thought I would need to be prepared for. My heart ached for the students, unsuspecting young adults that sought higher education for a number of reasons – experiencing violence or paralyzing fear, not one of them.
Yet, these are some of the stories of our time. In the last 30 days there have been 8 deaths, most of these deaths of college students, and 19 seriously wounded due to university and college campus shootings, including yesterday’s shooting at Seattle Pacific University. How we got here will be determined by our historians, social scientists, ethical theologians, and psychological researchers, however today, in the moments of shock and grief, we are still left to pick up the pieces and come together as shaken communities to grieve, lament, and some how move on.
Working with college and university students who have gone through the experience of a campus shooting can be difficult as there are no easy answers and expected questioning, grief, and loss are a long process. What follows, however, are possible ways we can support our college students and their communities through these moments whether we are on or off campus, near or far from those effected, friend, faculty, staff, parent, pastor or laity.
Grief and Lament:
With any loss grief and lament will be present. These actions are caused not only by the physical loss of loved ones or friends, but by the perceived loss of order, security, peace and the way things once were -the old Camelot, even if it wasn’t your campus. It is the experience of a community that has been violated and questions of ‘what could happen next’ or ‘could this happen at my school’ are still very real -trust has been lost and tensions of suspicion and pain are high.
Help students find space and meaning to their grief and lamentation. This could happen through conversations, prayer meetings, lamenting circles, co-creative spaces where students can lament through varying art mediums and forums, a memorial or remembrance service, or candlelight vigil. Help college students think about these things, their role in understanding both worlds – pre and post event, but also encourage them to think about their role in helping their college or university community move on from this experience. How will they be a part of remembering the loss but also building on the new tomorrow?
Let the Questions Come:
Such traumatic events like campus shootings prompt many questions and discussions. Why X community? Why X students? Why not me? Why not them? How could this even happen? How could a good God allow such evil? There will be no limit to the questions or what types of questions that will arise, our students however, need a space to process their questioning and a safe space where they can ask and or talk about these questions.
While some questions will be theological and ethical, many will be political and sociological. What does it mean for a student to intentionally murder female college students because of his experience with women? What does it mean for campus’ to have their own policies about carrying guns on campus despite state laws and federal laws? What is the role of mental illness in campus shootings?
These questions are so hard and for many of these questions we do not and cannot claim to have the ultimate answer. We can, however, help students have forums for conversation and questioning. We can ask for respected and trusted authorities in our communities to spend time with our students and parents who might have some of these questions or create Skyping opportunities for conversation at the local, state, and national level. By doing this we acknowledge the questioning our students want to bring to the processing of their experience which hopefully will bring us closer to healing as communities.
Be A Part of the Solution:
Finally, by encouraging the conversation, when applicable, to go beyond grief, lament, questioning, and perhaps even beyond healing, we should help students and communities consider how they can participate in pragmatic solutions and viable problem solving when it comes to gun violence on our college campus’. We cannot set up false expectations that our students will change an entire system in one fell swoop, but we can encourage them to think about their role in creating change.
Too often we are hearing the question, “What else will it take until the violence stops?” This is in no way an easy question to answer, but perhaps the desire to bring about change will inspire us to be creative, innovative, and daring enough to create viable solutions and one day end the gun violence we are experiencing on our college and university campus’ and in our communities. Students want to be a part of this work even if they are invited in only to hear the conversation or have their feedback heard. When the moment is right, let’s encourage our students to be a part of the solutions.
These are simple ideas and yet by engaging our students in these ways I believe we will help them make sense of the senseless. May God’s love and deep grace go with us in this work.
Sustain free online education with a financial contribution today. Thank you for your generosity!
The Institute originally published this post on June 19, 2014, on our previous website. Here, we are honored to welcome guest bloggers, Rabbis Arthur Gross-Schaefer and Suzy Stone, addressing the topic of faith-based response to campus violence. Below you will find their voices and perspectives as they sought to lead a local congregation gathering in the immediate aftermath of violence, including preparing for and conducting a service, and what informed their discernment. Following also are two examples of statements each Rabbi made during their service.
As individuals entered the sanctuary, each came with their own private needs, agenda, and a personal sense of G-d’s presence in a seemingly senseless tragedy. After a young student had stabbed his roommates to death followed by a shooting spree on May 23, 2014 we decided to hold a healing service for the Jewish community in Santa Barbra four days after this heartbreaking series of events.
In the planning of the service, several questions were considered: Should this be a healing service, a memorial service or a service at all? Were there existing service models that could be easily adapted? In addition to the service, what other program or activity could be used to help those present express their feelings, perceptions, hopes and fears? And how should those who died, those who were injured, and the perpetrator be remembered?
When we could not find a pre-existing model to copy, we turned to the Psalms and readings each of us had selected to cover a variety of emotions and beliefs. We wanted to create a safe place where everyone would feel comfortable during and after the service. We decided to honor only the victims and not mention the shooter, as it was too early in the grief process to expect those present to deal with the pain and anguish leading him to take the lives of others before taking his own life. Six candles for the six victims were laid out in front of the congregation and lit during the service.
When the service was over, four discussion groups were created and led by a member of the clergy and a facilitator—many of whom were therapists and social workers who had a great deal of experience leading people through difficult conversations. The break-out groups included discussions on grief and loss, gun legislation, concerns over the mental health system, as well as, a conversation about gender norms and the price of privilege. The goal was to encourage and maintain a safe space for participation and a sharing. The facilitators were not asked to control the direction of the conversation; but rather, to help make sure that no one voice or opinion dominated the conversation and that multiple viewpoints could be expressed without fear or intimidation. For the final few minutes, the facilitators asked the group to offer suggestions for follow up actions or conversations that they felt needed to happen in light of the recent events. Following the break-out groups, the community gathered for a final prayer and song.
The service and discussion session were intentionally kept short – the service was forty-five minutes while the individual discussion sessions lasted around thirty minutes.
After the final prayer, the clergy and facilitators met in private to discuss how their groups functioned and what ideas came forward for further. Below are some of the insights shared and follow-up ideas that were suggested:
Grief and Loss
· Rather than giving answers, even religious based concepts, it is often better to just listen carefully in silence and give a caring hug. Often people don’t want or won’t believe in simplistic answers. What they do want are people who are present and deeply care.
· Create workshops for talking to children and adults about death – do’s and don’ts.
· Don’t try to move to healing or foreignness too fast until there has been time for grief, loss and sorrow
· For those directly affected, grief is not a simple progression from one stage to another. Grief and loss is messy, uneven, irrational, and powerful. As stated before, the best we can often do is just to be present.
The Mental Health System
Gender and Privilege
Looking back and forward after our service, it is clear how important religious communities are to create safe places for people to share diverse and even contradictory opinions, beliefs, feelings, emotions and frustrations. People experience a lot of sadness, fear and anger, which needs a safe container that religious leaders can provide. It is also critical for religious professionals to be humble about their skills and the helpfulness of their theological answers. As stated above, not every question or comment needs to require a response. And, professional therapists have training and insightful perspectives.
Moreover, often the best we can do is nurture the community by helping the individual members realize the important role played by concepts of compassion, non-judgmental listening and developing a welcoming environment.
Finally, it may be important to keep in mind that we, the trained clergy, are also feeling sadness, anger, loss and even powerlessness. We may not feel that we have the right words, can create a powerful ritual or even know how to begin to respond when such an overwhelming tragedy occurs. It is at these times that prayer, finding a good partner, and knowing that no one has all the answers becomes very helpful. So, just be you, be present, and be authentic. And that will be enough.
Examples of Service Remarks:
In answer to the questions, what is it that we, as a Jewish community can do to help one another grieve and comprehend what happened in our own backyard, and, what is our responsibility to the larger community when tragedy strikes so close to home, Rabbi Stone shared the following remarks during their service:
Hold them tight. Hold your children, your friends, your parents, your loved ones, your neighbors and even the strangers you encounter on your way—Hold them tight.Hold on tight to the memories of those we mourn. Let not this mass tragedy obscure the fact that these students were individuals who have individual lives and stories to tell. Hold on tight to your dreams and aspirations. Hold on tight to a vision of a world redeemed—a world in which our children no longer live in fear and isolation, anxiety and heartache.
Last but not least, our tradition teaches us to hold on tight to our tzitzit, the fringes of our garments. As it says in Numbers 15:38 and Deuteronomy 22:12, these fringes are to be placed specifically on the k’nafot-- the corner of our garments. In fact, the Shulchan Aruch (Orech Chaim 11) teaches us that a tallit that does not have tzitzit placed exactly in the corner of the garment is not fit for use. While one may argue that this decision was simply a product of legal minutiae, I would suggest that this halakhah is deeply symbolic.
Just as we are commanded to hold on tight to the fringes of our garment, we must hold on tight to the fringes of our society. While we are often quick to run away from that which we don’t understand, or that which appears too sharp or jagged, we are challenged to grab onto those narrow places, to examine the fringes before our eyes, and hold them close to our hearts.
In other words, we are commanded to gaze upon that which lies just out of sight by bringing the fringes of our garment (and society) to the front and center of our lives. As we recite this passage from the Shemah twice a day, we are reminded that what seems peripheral is actually central to our lives and the healing of our society.
With this in mind I will end with two diametrically opposed thoughts. As individual citizens, operating as independent advocates, it will be nearly impossible for us to have an impact on the public sphere. But if we join together in conversations and forums, and through real honest-to-goodness debate, we may have an opportunity to act as a unified Jewish community to influence the public policy in our county. As Rabbi Tarfon once taught: “It is not upon you to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it” (Pirkei Avot 2:16).
On the other hand, it is far easier to make a spiritual impact than a political one in in the immediate days and weeks following such a tragedy. So I urge all of you to hold onto the fringes a bit tighter so that less people in our society fall prey to irreversible grief, isolation or alienation.
With heavy hearts and inconsolable grief, our tradition asks us to err on the side of hope and transformation. We yearn for a day when all of our children will be free from fear, isolation, loss, tragedy, and senseless acts of hatred. In doing so, we recommit ourselves to our ancient people’s call for ever-lasting peace.
Rabbi Gross-Schaefer shared the following remarks during the service:
Ever made a call or received a call beginning with the words, “First, mom or dad, I’m ok.” We hear such a call with both relief mixed with dread. What will the next words entail knowing it can’t be good.
And sometimes, we receive a call from a doctor or a police officer about a loved one, such as the calls the families of the victims of last Friday night’s tragedy received, and lives of those families as well as their friends are altered forever.
We choose from a whole list of possible responses. There is the ‘what if.’ What if my loved one decided to take a different direction or was just one minute earlier or later. What if my son or daughter decided to attend another university or get a different roommate? We may even pray for what happened to be magically undone. Our rabbis teach this is a meaningless prayer. There is the reality of what happened and we must deal with reality, no matter how painful.
Then there is the ‘if only’, often tied to blame. If only we had a better mental health system, if only there was stronger gun control, if only the police had done a better job, if only. There may be some truths in the ‘if only’ focus, however, not now. We don’t really know what could have been done and if it would have made a different. More importantly, the ‘if only’ focus is really about the future and possible future responses we will share after our service.
At this moment though, it is the present demanding our attention. How am I feeling, what am I grieving. While Rabbi Stone drew out attention to the fringes, think now of the tallit itself. When we are wrapped in our tallitot there is often a feeling of safety and connection. It is the very fabric of a sense of security that has been torn and we feel more vulnerable and unable to persist in the belief we can control all events. As we often joke, we plan and G-d laughs.
So what do we do then at this time.... we embrace the sheltering presence of community, we remember to act with kindness and compassion to all those we encounter, and we seek the light of blessings present even in darkness.
There are always blessing of friends and family, the angels that surround us. The angels like Raphael, who simply hug and carry us during these times. There are angels such as Michael whom, in spite of all else, help us move forward one step at a time in this corporeal reality. There are angels like Gabriel, who will sit with us as we risk grappling with the spiritual questions of G-d’s presence or absence. And then there are the angels of Ariel, who remind us we indeed are a unique creation with distinctive gifts to contribute to the healing of others, our community and ourselves.
So again I ask, what do we do at this time? For now we put aside the what if and the if only as we hold on to the angels around us, we act with greater kindness, appreciation and caring towards each other as we pray for healing.
From 2012-2020, this blog space explored expanding understanding and best practices for leadership and congregational care.