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.