The Institute originally published this post on April 24, 2013, on the ICTG blog. Here, we are honored to welcome guest blogger, Rev. Dr. Storm Swain, Associate Professor at Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, to address the topic of how congregational leaders or chaplains lead and build organizational or community resilience.
Yesterday, I sat down to eat at our Community lunch with a colleague and we were soon joined by the President of our Seminary, the Dean, and the program director of Arab and Middle Eastern Ministries from the ELCA . Kholoud Khoury is from Palestine., and had been speaking to a class of students that morning. Within minutes our Professor of Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim Relations joined us with two former colleagues of his from Cairo, the President and the Professor of Theology from the Evangelical Theological Seminary there. As we were speaking about our seminary communities, Dr. Darren Kennedy said, “What they didn’t prepare me for in seminary was how to supervise field education students that have their field ed. churches burn down.” I went on to comment about how we teach a course on ‘Disaster Spiritual Care’ at our seminary which goes against the popular theories about preparation for such a ministry.
When I became a disaster spiritual care chaplain as part of the 9/11 response, we were asked whether we had a seminary degree, at least one unit of Clinical Pastoral Education, and had been in ministry for over five years. Such a preparation seems like a good foundation for such an intense ministry. I believed that then and still do today. However, there is one problem with that theory. Disasters do not wait until we are fully prepared. A disaster may happen five days, not five years, after a new pastor begins in a congregation. Or, as my colleague from Egypt reminded me, five days after a field education student begins in a parish. Seminarians in the United States may feel a long way away from the violence faced by congregations in Egypt, however, it was only twenty years ago that African American churches were facing that threat at numbers that far outweighed either the usual number of church burnings and those arsons in largely Anglo- or Euro-American congregations. I wonder how long the pastors had been incumbent, whether there were any field education students there, and whether they felt anything in their seminary training had prepared them.
Disasters do not wait until we are fully prepared. A disaster may happen five days, not five years, after a new pastor begins in a congregation.
More and more seminaries are adding training around disaster and trauma to their curriculums. More and more seminarians are asking for such. Whether it is a weekend workshop or a full semester course, for a start the consciousness raising about the complexities of such a ministry is a gift to a seminary student. Our course explores disasters that range from virus pandemics, to school shootings, to church burnings, to natural disasters, and terrorism. Nothing can prepare a student for the kind of disaster they will face, however learning about other disasters, how a disaster affects that brain which may lead to trauma, and what some useful strategies are to maintain a sense of agency and activity to mitigate against the sense of helplessness a disaster can create, goes a long way to the kind of resilience in the face of disaster that our clergy need.
Yet, we need to go beyond that, as we know disasters do not simply happen to congregants and those in the wider community. A question that has continued to play in my mind since 9/11 is: how to we minister to the traumatized when we are somewhat traumatized ourselves. One of the things that mitigates against trauma is community. It is not just a clergy person that will care for a community (a sure recipe for burnout) but a community of care that will face into a disaster together. Preparing clergy is only one component, preparing congregations is another. As part of their work for the course on Disaster Spiritual Care, our students compile a Congregational disaster plan which goes from practical issues like mapping the exits and fire extinguishers in the church and parish hall, to assessing the likely disasters, such as flooding, that a congregation might face. Such an exercise takes both agency and imagination, and it takes a congregation to buy into the possibility that the best might not always happen.
It is not just a clergy person that will care for a community (a sure recipe for burnout) but a community of care that will face into a disaster together.
For those of us who are Christian, we are moving through the Easter season. In many ways this is a post-disaster story for a community. In this story, things don’t go back to normal but the community learns to live with a ‘new normal.’ In this new normal we need to take account of the scars of the trauma, the patterns that change, the absences of those who are or will be ‘lost,’ and the need for the community to gather in a new way. The story of the trauma gets woven into the new narrative, not in a ‘everything’s alright now way,’ but a reframing that includes both Good Friday and Easter Sunday. This indeed would be a good time for a community to turn, as our students do, to the fabric, both personal and practical of our congregations: to map resources, to assess risks, and to build resilience. Engaging in a congregational disaster plan is indeed preparing for the unpreparable, but to do so, is to be an Easter people, knowing that even in the face of disaster, we can rise again.
For customizable emergency disaster recovery plans for religious communities, visit safechurch.com.
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The Institute originally published this post on April 23, 2014, on our previous website. Here, we are honored to welcome guest blogger Dr. Jaco Hamman, Associate Professor at Vanderbilt University, to address the critical topic of discerning congregational vision and mission in the months and years that follow after collective loss.
When a traumatic event occurs in the life in a congregation, the impact of the event also touches the community’s vision and mission statements. Whether a leader leaves under a cloud of conflict, whether a natural disaster hits the church, whether a beloved member unexpectedly dies, or whether a congregation struggles to survive financially—all possible traumatic events—the end result is often that existing statements are discarded and new ones are drafted.
A mission statement usually identifies a congregation’s primary purpose and the objectives guiding especially the leadership (“This is what we’re all about” or “This is why we are here”). In turn, a vision statement typically describes the guiding values of a congregation or the human value that is within the mission statement (“This is who we want to become” or “This is how we want to be the Body of Christ.”). For some congregations the terms vision and mission statement are used interchangeably and refers to one statement, naming both the purpose and the values of the community. Mission statements hold accountability and often ties one to the Triune God’s call on a community of believers, whereas vision statements encourage hopeful living into the future and often shows ways the reign of God manifests in a community.
Mission and vision statements, one can argue, offer different views on a congregations’ identity. It is this very relationship to identity that helps us understand why mission and vision statements often change after traumatic events. Trauma implies loss and mourning, human experiences that change a community’s identity. In When Steeples Cry: Leading Congregations Through Loss and Change (The Pilgrim Press, 2005), I argued that mourning is the intentional process of letting go of relationships, dreams, and visions as your congregation lives into a new identity after the experience of loss and change. Mourning implies living through grief; to live with loss and change. As a congregation engages the work of mourning after a traumatic even, they discover a new identity. This new identity, in part, shows the inadequate nature of existing mission and vision statements and fuels the drafting of new ones. If your congregation has experienced a trauma, keep the following in mind:
· A community cannot be the same community after trauma. All congregational (and personal) trauma implies loss, which implies a loss of identity.
· Loss is best understood in a variety of ways, each requiring its own work of mourning: loss of material belongings/buildings/money, loss of lives and relationships, loss of dreams and visions, loss of roles and functions, the loss of no longer being part of a wider society.
· Loss can only be grieved and mourned. Philosopher Jacques Derrida reminds us in his The Work of Mourning that to mourn is “to reckon, to recount, relate, or narrate, to consider, judge, or evaluate, even to estimate, enumerate, and calculate [the loss that occurred].” When we resist mourning, we remain stuck “in grief.”
· Conflict and nostalgia are often unwanted responses to trauma, so too the desire for a quick fix.
· The work of personal and communal mourning lead to the formation of a new identity.
· A congregation’s new identity will seek new vision and mission statements. Sometimes the new identity seeks new leadership.
· Drafting a new vision and mission statement requires much conversation by the whole community. Also, converse with God in prayer, meditation and in worship, and through studying Scripture together.
· Drafting a vision or mission statement without clearly naming the shifts in identity that occurred through the traumatic event will lead to new statements with little or no transformative and guiding power.
May the God of Grace be with you as you engage your congregation’s work of mourning.
The Institute originally published this post on November 14, 2013, on our previous website.
Traumatologists regularly study vagus nerve phenomena to discern its role in countering "fight or flight" responses to trauma. Many researchers argue that there are three keys to healing after trauma: relaxation, relationships, and having personal trauma perspectives acknowledged either verbally or in other forms of relationship. You can learn more about how to incorporate these three keys to healing in congregational ministries through our resource guides. When persons practice these skills they avoid PTSD and other forms of dis-ease after trauma.
Recently, scholars studied vagus nerve behavior during choral singing. "Choir singing is known to promote well-being," the study conducted by a Swedish research team from the University of Gothenburg led by Bjorn Vickhoff begins. This study sought to flesh out what many congregational leaders have come to take for granted, or, in other cases, perhaps could use some reminding especially after incidents of trauma. You can view a film of the researchers discussing the implications of their study here.
The study explores why singing appears to be a universal phenomenon. "Unlike most other universal human behaviors there is no self-evident Darwinian explanation." Instead, the universal nature of singing may be due to its group bonding results and its inherent collective calming abilities. Singing achieves relaxed and corporate communicative states, partly because "external and visible joint action corresponds to an internal and biological joint action."
The study acknowledges that the vagal effect of breathing is a calming reaction. They explain "how the length of the song phrases guides respiration, resulting in compliances of frequency and phrases of respiration cycles and [heart rate variability] HRV cycles between singers." In other words, when a congregation sings together, their heart rates and breathing come in sync, and, collectively, they relax. The study concludes, singing "produces slow, regular and deep respiration . . . [that] causes a pulsating vagal activity," which is collectively calming.
This is good news for congregational leaders seeking to lead congregations after trauma. Gathering, for worship, after incidents of trauma – especially when worship involves singing – can produce all three of the keys to healing from trauma.
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The Institute originally published this post by guest blogger, Br. Luke Ditewig, SSJE, on July 26, 2013, on our previous website. Br. Ditewig is a member of the Institute's Board of Advisors. In this post he describes the gift and discipline of silence, a practice that ministers may consider to be restorative following incidents of tragedy.
“People were very surprised to hear I was going on a silent retreat at a monastery,” said Carol, a leader in her congregation. “They wondered if I could be quiet, but I felt strongly drawn to it.” At first, she found it hard to not say hello in the hallways, to eat without talking, and to wait in silence for several minutes for worship to begin. Yet through the weekend, Carol experienced a peace in being without talking. She paid more attention to and savored food. She gazed at trees and watched birds. Her inner chatter calmed. Silence in chapel became comforting. God’s loving touch kept surprising her. She met with one of my brothers who listened gently as she shared her burdens and grief. Silence is a powerful healing gift which undergirds our life and ministry. All kinds of people, including many clergy and professional caregivers, come to us to taste or feast on silence and return home to keep nurturing it in their everyday lives.
With life at full throttle, always squeezing in one more thing, many of us live at a frenetic pace. Constant sound, 24/7 contact and instant information at our fingertips breeds a body-numbing buzz. Many instinctively turn on an electronic device when entering a room or car or even going on a walk. Our bodies and souls long for breaks. Silence punctuates. Noise is an unending or multi-layered stream of sound, activity and emotion. Music is both notes and rests. Life without rests, without silence is noisy, suffocating and undefined. Silence is stopping to make space in between, to define what just happened, to breathe deeply.
When there’s five minutes before the next meeting or thing I have to do, I sometimes stop for a cup of tea or go outside or gaze out the window. Other times I dash to do one more thing. Then I usually realize I am—if not literally—at least figuratively out of breath. It takes me longer to “get there” and focus on the next thing. What do you do in between? How do you breathe?
We brothers cherish and offer silence not because there aren’t many good things to say and do. Rather there is so much to hear that we otherwise usually miss. Putting distractions aside, or doing just one thing at a time, one can better pay attention to the present moment. What do you hear? Perhaps birds singing, rain falling, a clock ticking, your breathing. Ordinary, beautiful things you might otherwise miss. Stand in awe of breath, of beauty, of yourself and give thanks.
Silence is a doorway to listening. It creates space to be attentive to what is happening inside. It invites listening deep within, to one’s heart with all its desires and longing, its pain and wounds, fears and hopes. As with Carol, we brothers listen to and companion many souls. Silence enables both listening and speaking. Especially on retreat, silence is part of the safe space which invites sharing when one is ready.
God often comes, chooses to be known, companions us in silence, including when we are most troubled. Remember Elijah fleeing into the desert because Jezebel was trying to kill him. God came not in a mighty wind, earthquake or fire but in the sound of sheer silence. How long did that silence last before Elijah realized God was in it? It might have been a while. Especially when blowing, quaking and burning inside, it takes time for us to settle down, to become still enough to hear beyond the blowing. A pastor on retreat recently said that after 24 hours, it felt like he could hear four times as well as when he arrived. Retreat is a special time set apart, and it’s very helpful to have a few days because often it takes one just to settle down.
Breathing deeply helps all the time. Silence can be a part of every day and not in a monastery. It can be unplugging from electronic devices for certain hours or activities. It could be listening or gazing during a commute or meal. Perhaps it is doing one thing at a time, having tea and truly savoring that cup. Maybe it’s a bedtime ritual not just for kids but for adults; a pause to reflect on the day, to give thanks, and to soothe yourself as with a lullaby before going to sleep. It may be moments without music or conversation before or amid worship or a meeting, time to be together listening. Whether in ordinary life or intensive on a retreat, silence is a powerful healing gift.
 The Rule of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, Chapter 27: Silence
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The Institute originally published this post on July 12, 2013, on a previous website.
"Trauma-informed care" quickly is becoming the it phrase among non-sectarian care agencies. Yet congregations, on the whole, have been slow to utilize the tools associated with the ground-breaking research and irrefutable data associated with trauma-informed studies provided by leading traumatologists like Bessel van der Kolk, Babette Rothschild, Robert Macy, Charles Figley, Don Catherall, Robert Anda, and Vincent Felitti.
What are the key traits of a trauma-informed congregation?
1. Trauma-informed congregations acknowledge the vast scope of adverse experiences common to persons today. Exposure to and difficulty adjusting to adverse experiences simply is more common than previously understood. Appreciating the scope of events that can occur and to which persons have been exposed – including and not limited to natural storms, earthquakes, fires, loss of quality of life through unemployment, moving, loss of housing, domestic violence, substance abuse, divorce, mental health concerns, physical or emotional abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, mass violence, gun or knife violence, hate crimes, terrorism, and industrial accidents – is key to understanding the common needs of congregants and their surrounding communities.
2. Trauma-informed congregations recognize the impact that adverse experiences have on persons and groups. Trauma occurs when persons perceive themselves or their senses of well-being (including family, income, housing, and community) is threatened, and their ability to cope is overwhelmed. The ripple effects of emotional affect and biological reactions can be far reaching, having serious effect on a person's or group's health and relational functioning, impacting life expectancy, and even passing through generations.
3. Trauma-informed congregations practice a key perspective shift from previously not being trauma-informed. This shift creates new senses of reality, or new senses of normal. It is practiced by caregivers and faithful neighbors who change their operating questions of those they are serving from "what is wrong with you" and "why are you doing that" to "what happened?" They are compassionately curious, and interested to honestly bear witness to adverse experience from the past that may be influencing fear or defense tactics in the present. They view forms of "acting out" as opportunities for building trustworthy and emotionally safe relationships.
4. Trauma-informed congregations practice self-regulation. Trauma-informed interventions and care practices focus on the more primitive or "lower" parts of the brain, where "fight or flight" chemical reactions are rooted. They understand that trauma induces time-disorientation, when fight or flight tactics from the past are operational in the present when they are no longer necessary. Trauma-informed persons understand that those resources are necessary at times of real threat, and can practice resolving hyper-vigilance and overactive defensive stances through various sensory strategies. Trauma-informed congregations incorporate these strategies into liturgy, fellowship and mission events, including drumming, chimes, singing, dancing, yoga, playful sports, poems, prayer, lectio divina, theater, sacraments, labyrinths, and rituals using water, cloth, oil, or ash. They also incorporate simple practices for acknowledging that emotions exist and can be managed, including patterns for beginning or ending meetings or gatherings. These patterns may include questions such as: going around the room with each person naming in a word or phrase one need they have presently and one hope they have for the remainder of the day; OR in a word naming how they are feeling presently, in a phrase naming a goal they have, and naming a resource they have; OR going around the room and each person in a phrase sharing one need they have presently, one blessing they have received today, and one way they will be helpful today.
5. Trauma-informed congregations actively build and sustain relationships. Relationships are key to healing from trauma. Trauma-informed congregations practice being trustworthy, reliable people for one another, and being hospitable to guests seeking temporary refuge or ongoing membership. Strong relationships help create and maintain resilience.
6. Trauma-informed congregations have senses of purpose. Members of trauma-informed congregations wake up in the morning interested to participate in the corporate meaning-making they share among each other, and this interest and engagement is contagious. They make space to listen to one another and to grow in renewed understandings of what is 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. Trauma-informed congregations recognize that practicing care means being personally impacted by other persons' traumatic experiences. They consistently practice ongoing self-care. They allow themselves to be held accountable by trustworthy friends or colleagues beyond the congregation, they identify specific limits, maintain current and effective referral practices, and they practice life-giving work/life rhythms.
As congregations seek to cultivate these hallmarks of trauma-informed practice, they express a sense of living in the world that directly counter traumatic incident by acknowledging the truth of what has happened and creating safe space to heal actively.
*These traits are adapted for faith-based congregation settings from a template provided by St. Aemilian-Lakeside, Inc., for providing trauma-informed care in non-sectarian settings, and based on the works of Bessel van der Kolk, Babette Rothschild, Robert Macy, Charles Figley, Don Catherall, Robert Anda, and Vincett Felitti.
* Interested in learning more trauma-informed best practices? Visit the ICTG training menu to purchase the Institute’s most popular resource guides, and more.
What Every Congregational Leaders Should Know to Prepare for Long Term Congregational Care after Disaster
The Institute originally published this post on June 25, 2013 one of our previous websites.
Preparing for long-term mental, emotional, and spiritual care is vital for building health after crises. It consists of trauma-informed approaches to organization-wide or community-wide care, a kind of companionship ministry where congregational leaders and therapists are on the front lines.
To prepare for mental, emotional, and spiritual care best practice in post-disaster settings, here is what every congregational leader should know before disaster strikes:
WHO YOU NEED TO KNOW:
Your top five therapy referrals -- these are PhDs/ PsyDs / MFTs / LCSWs / Spiritual Directors that you are in relationship with, whom you trust, and, ideally, who you would go to yourself for in-depth healing.
Your top three group care referrals -- Youth and family services? YMCA? Community center? What is working really well in your local area or region, and how can you be in working or neighborly relationship with them prior to whenever the next disaster may strike?
Your local First Responders -- Who is your sheriff? Fire chief? Chief of police? Emergency manager? It is good to know their name, be aware of who they are, and be on the look out for information from them in times of crises. If they are members of your congregation, it is important to be getting to know how first responders receive effective care (it is different than care of general citizens), so that you are prepared to provide care that works in times of crises.
* the three categories above are not only professionals you will refer to, receive information from, or provide specialized care for, but they are also the cadre you may draw from if your congregation hosts congregational education meetings following an incident*
Your fellow clergy -- Who are your neighbor leaders? In times of community-wide crises, it is likely that clergy will face common personal experiences. Being able to connect with one another and recognize what aspects of crisis-response you have in common can create a reliable support colleagueship that can sustain you both throughout the long-term restoration processes.
Your town or city officials -- Who is mayor or city-select-person? Who are your judges? Who is on your city, town, or regional council? It is helpful, at least, to have a working knowledge of their names and roles, if not have shaking their hand before. As with first-responders, be on the look out for information they provide following crises, and be considerate about specialized care they may require if they are members of your congregation.
Your education leaders -- Who is the superintendent and the principles? Who is on the school board? Again, have a working knowledge of names and roles. Be on the look out for information they may provide after crises, and be considerate about specialized care they may require if they are members of your congregation.
This information is key not only for congregational leaders but for administrative staff persons and volunteer leaders as well. The more fluid communication and contacts can be made in post-disaster situations, the more easily unique structures for effective long-term care can be utilized when they are needed most.
HOW TO GET INVOLVED:
Before disaster strikes, participate in professional group gatherings. These may include:
Showing up to these events prior to disaster can help "put names with faces" and make for swifter connections in times of crises and post-disaster care.
WHAT TO MAKE:
Following a disaster, three things are most helpful for community-wide healing: Education, Information, and Relationships
To help provide for these practices, congregations can:
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Expanding understanding and best practices for leadership and congregational care.