This post, written by Kate Wiebe, originally was published on January 20, 2016, on our previous website.
Throughout 2015, more often than not it seems congregations gathered for worship in the aftermath of trauma. Whether due to tornado damage, severe flooding, domestic violence, university upheaval, or mass shootings, with glaring headlines we were reminded weekly of the ongoing pain and suffering around our country. And each week, people showed up among congregations seeking hope and renewal. Yet, in some cases, the congregations themselves were traumatized.
Collective trauma threatens core sense of identity and belonging. In his book A New Species of Trouble (1994), sociologist Kai Erikson (son of renowned psychologist Erik Erikson) describes collective trauma as a "blow to the basic tissues of social life that damages the bonds attaching people together and impairs the prevailing sense of community" (p 233).
It's hard to think of a congregation being traumatized – especially when the congregation is the very place you are going to seek healing. How can a congregation meet the harsh demands of today when its own sense of continuity and bonding are impaired?
Incredibly, healing does not only come from strength. Rather, healing emerges when caring people gather together to acknowledge what's happened, observe what is needed now, and begin to meet those needs. There are many ways to accomplish these steps – through words, rituals, body language, and presence. Here's an example of one:
In December 2014, faith leaders around Ferguson, MO, implemented "Lay It on the Table" services. Professor of Religion at Muskingum University, Rick Nutt says: "The ideas was that, in the presence of the Lord's Table and in the wake of the events that followed the announcement that no indictment would be brought against Officer Wilson, members of the churches would have the opportunity to say whatever was on their minds and hearts."
During one of these services, Nutt observed: "People in the congregation . . . spoke honestly about their fears, their frustrations, and their hopes. It was a time of speaking and listening that conveyed that trust that people placed in one another. Once everyone who wished to do so had shared – 'laying down their lives' on the sacrament table – the congregation celebrated the sacrament at this table." Nutt recommends that more communities seeking reconciliation consider crafting services like these ones. "In a time rampant with ubiquitous laments for the loss of civil discourse, worshipping communities encourage honest speaking."
Hosting opportunities for faithful people to lament, mourn, seek forgiveness, share gratitude, and express relief, provides relational catalysts for healing by building practical steps through the chaos of loss and grief. Sadly, we are acutely aware how responding to and leading congregations through the aftermath of local and national tragedies is a vital and inherent part of the minister's vocation today.
Perhaps you practiced, experienced, or observed meaningful ways your own congregation responded to crises in 2015. We invite you to share about these best practices in the comments below.
From 2012-2020, this blog space explored expanding understanding and best practices for leadership and congregational care.