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.
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From 2012-2020, this blog space explored expanding understanding and best practices for leadership and congregational care.