4 Focus-Areas for Creating a Trauma-Informed Ministry
Published: August 10, 2022
Mental health principles from the trauma-informed care movement can make your ministry a healing, healthy space for all families.
Making Time to Understand Trauma
Right now, you’re no more than six days away from Sunday at any given moment. Your teams need to mobilize, plan lessons, and purchase supplies. So why take the time to understand trauma and what it takes to create a “sanctuary” ministry?
The answer lies within the Bible.
Most researchers describe trauma as an overwhelming event or series of events that exhausts an individual’s internal and external resources. Trauma is an acute form of suffering—and the issue of suffering is at the very heart of Christianity. Suffering enters the Bible a scant three chapters in; its central message depicts God’s actions to remove the source and effects of suffering from his creation.
Understanding trauma matters because God uses our pain to make us more like Jesus. Several years ago, thousands of participants were surveyed on spiritual formation. They were asked to disclose what major influences accelerated their spiritual growth. Their overwhelming answer—more than preaching or Bible study—was “experiencing suffering.”
The survey results may not be that surprising. The apostles Peter and Paul both offered descriptions of how Christ-like character forms in a follower of Jesus. In each description, we find the word perseverance. That word describes how an individual can respond to trauma in light of his or her hope in Jesus. It suggests the path to spiritual maturity runs through exposure to suffering. This truth insists that part of our very ministry to children must be trauma-informed. When we better understand trauma and how to make our ministries a sanctuary for those who experience it, we help children and families navigate life’s challenges in a way that accelerates their spiritual growth.
Trauma in Many Forms
Research shows a direct link between the amount of trauma a child is exposed to before age 18 and long-term difficulties such as early death, substance abuse, stunted brain development, and poor job performance. Trauma exposure can come in many forms:
- Constant state of stress
- Loss of a loved one
- Lack of healthy social interaction
- Severe physical or emotional abuse
- Contact sexual abuse
- Severe emotional or physical neglect
- Living with a household member who was mentally ill, imprisoned, or a substance abuser
- Living in a home impacted by domestic violence
- Parental separation/divorce
- Witnessing violence
- Being threatened with violence
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
There’s a strong probability that families you’re ministering to today have experienced trauma in some form. This is where the mental health movement known as trauma-informed care can intersect with children’s ministry.
“Trauma-informed care [in mental health circles] means treating a whole person, taking into account past trauma and the resulting coping mechanisms when attempting to understand behaviors and treat the patient,” writes Mellissa Withers, Ph.D., in “Trauma-Informed Care and Why It Matters” (Psychology Today, posted July 6, 2017).
We may never know what people have experienced before they arrived on our ministry doorstep. We’re not always privy to their past hurts and trauma. We may not see their scars. But we can create an atmosphere that communicates “sanctuary” for everyone. We can create an environment that feels safe, welcoming, accepting, and secure. A place where the many who have experienced trauma can find respite and solely focus on their relationship with God.
So here are areas of the trauma-informed care movement that can shape your ministry into a sanctuary for families.
We want our ministry to appear attractive and inviting. We can also work to develop a setting that creates a sense of safety.
For instance, a hospital sets up the waiting room with separate seats rather than seating linked together, allowing every individual to maintain a sense of personal safety by being more in control of personal space. Additionally, parking lots are well lit for safety. Security cameras, safety doors, and protocol such as ID bracelets are in prevalent use.
In Your Church
Most children’s ministries already place a premium on safety with our check-in systems and screening policies. We do these things to prevent abuse and keep kids safe. These systems also have the added benefit of creating a sense of safety for parents and children—if they know about the measures in place.
Do a walk-through of your children’s ministry area. Do you promote the fact that you take safety seriously? Note anything that might make a parent or child question the safety of your ministry—from broken toys to doors without observation windows to an unsupervised door leading to the street. Make certain your physical facility is safe, and you’ll communicate a sense of security to families.
Churches need to be able to talk about struggle, suffering, and transformation in ways that communicate acceptance and healing. The Apostle Peter knew this. In his first letter to his congregation, he reminded his church that trauma was a normal experience for people and that they shouldn’t be surprised by it (1 Peter 4:12).
The Sanctuary Institute, founded by Dr. Sandra Bloom, teaches organizations to adopt shared language that allows staff and families to discuss trauma, its effects, and the recovery process. This language is used in trainings, meetings, therapeutic groups, and individual therapy. For instance, those working with children are “caregivers” and “supporters.” Additionally, the approach to understanding children’s behavior through a trauma-informed care lens has moved from asking, “What’s wrong with you?” (“Why are you being so bad?”) to “What happened to you?” (“What has caused you to cope with your current situation in this manner?”)
In Your Church
With your team, spot-check lessons for the language used to describe suffering, trauma, and behavior. How do the lessons explore the way God transforms us? Does the language reflect acceptance and grace (“God loves us even when we make wrong choices”), or does it communicate shaming and judgment (“You should know better than to….”)?
Additionally, brainstorm how your team can approach families, understanding that many have experienced traumas you may never know about. How can you weave the concepts of acceptance, healing, safety, and love into every interaction? Which ways can you adapt curriculum to teach God’s unfailing love and grace in the lessons? How can you work in conversation about the suffering we experience and how God knows our hurts? Teach volunteers to give children opportunities to talk about their challenges.
Ask kids how God might be working through those challenges. Lastly, look at your ministry terminology. Is it impersonal or familiar? Do you have “nursery workers” or “caregivers”? Do you “do” ministry to families? Or do you have a “partnership” with them? Consider what your language communicates.
One of the common effects of trauma is for people to lose any sense of control over the outcome of their life. A child who’s been subjected to abuse for as long as she can remember develops the assumption that his situation is normal and unchangeable. A child who is relentlessly bullied in school year after year sees that experience as the way life is—and always will be. This despair often bleeds into other areas of life.
Trauma-informed care providers are careful to communicate empowerment to the people they serve. They refer to clients as “survivors” and not “victims.” They help people learn new and healthier coping skills when facing negative situations. They often give children a voice in what their treatment looks like.
In Your Church
Give children goals to aim for—and show them how to achieve those goals. Putting an ethical standard in front of children without teaching them how to achieve it creates frustration and reinforces a sense of being powerless. In children who’ve experienced trauma, misbehaviors are often unhealthy coping mechanisms to a situation they don’t like or that makes them uneasy. Train your team to intentionally empower kids by showing them how to be successful and by having a voice in what’s happening. Use discipline situations to teach kids new and healthier ways to express their feelings. Use storytelling, role play, or discussion to illustrate how Bible people experienced hardship—and how God worked through the situation. Give children and parents the tools, examples, and support they need to succeed.
Trauma-informed care places a high premium on the emotional health of its practitioners. This is because the staff’s emotional health impacts the emotional health of the clients. The opposite is true, too. Mental health professionals are constantly encouraged to monitor themselves for burnout and fatigue.
In Your Church
The account of Jesus visiting Mary and Martha’s home reminds us of the tension between serving and knowing Jesus. It’s a mistake to read the story and conclude that we have the choice of being a “Mary” or a “Martha.” Ministry demands we imitate both women, with a bias toward Mary. So ask yourself: In what practical ways do I prompt my teams (and myself) to invest in their relationship with God? How do I ensure my team members have scheduled respite from serving? When do they have time to worship? When was the last time I personally took a break or sat through worship?
Larry Shallenberger is associate vice president of compliance at Sarah A. Reed Children’s Center. He’s a former pastor working with children and families and is the author of Lead the Way God Made You (Group).
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