Trauma is all around us. Here are 10 best practices to use as spiritual first aid tools to help your church become more trauma-informed.
By Jamie Aten and Kent Annan
Trauma is all around us. It can be difficult to recognize and even more challenging to know how to help. For all these reasons, we created Spiritual First Aid as a tool churches can use to become more trauma-informed. In this article, you’ll learn the 10 best practices we teach in our Spiritual First Aid certificate course.
1. Review all reports of church leader misconduct immediately
Make a response plan. Then review and act on all reports of church leader misconduct immediately. Being a trauma-informed church begins with those in leadership. One doesn’t have to look far to find examples of actual misconduct among church leaders that had at first been dismissed, denied, or even suppressed. At the same time, you can probably find examples of situations when false allegations have been made against church leaders. One of the reasons it’s difficult for churches to hold church leaders accountable is because most churches don’t have a plan in place for how to deal with allegations of inappropriate, toxic, or abusive leadership.“One of the reasons it’s difficult for churches to hold church leaders accountable is because most churches don’t have a plan in place for how to deal with allegations.” — @drjamieaten and @kentannan of @WheatonHDI Click To Tweet
Here are a few tips to keep in mind as you work on your plan: Treat those raising concerns with care and sensitivity, take all reports seriously, document everything, let other leaders know about allegations, and take action right away. Similarly, proactively take steps to communicate the plan among church leaders, staff, volunteers, and congregants so others know how to address such issues if needed. The best time to create a plan is before something goes wrong. We’d even go as far as to encourage you to start working on this plan before reading the rest of this article. That’s how important we think this step is in becoming a trauma-informed church. (Or keep reading and then add this to the top of your “to-do” list.)
2. Reflect on your church’s strengths and weaknesses regarding providing trauma-informed care
Begin by brainstorming where your church is seemingly doing well as well as areas where you have concerns. Also examine possible gaps across your ministries that make being trauma-informed challenging, from lack of resources to lack of trained volunteers. Then identify small steps your church can take to build upon what you are already doing well. Determine which gap poses the greatest risk to your church.
For example, if you have members in your church with expertise who you could consult with (e.g., professionals in mental health, healthcare, law enforcement) this would be a strength. An example of a weakness might be not having formal check-in or screening procedures in place for your children’s ministry. Then, if you don’t have others in your congregation with related expertise, you could plan for overcoming this gap by reaching out to local professionals or ministry experts for guidance.
3. Realize the widespread impact of trauma and understand potential paths for recovery
Examine what your church is doing to educate congregants about the widespread impact of trauma. Consider how you might integrate raising awareness about trauma in your church and community through existing ministries and communication channels. For example, you could add trauma-related information to a church bulletin, make trauma handouts available at your welcome center, or incorporate truths about trauma into a sermon series.
4. Recognize the signs and symptoms of trauma in individuals, families, staff, and others involved with your church
It’s not enough for your church to be aware of trauma statistics. You also need to take steps to help your congregation learn how to recognize trauma. Accomplishing this won’t happen overnight. So start with a core group of leaders or a group already passionate about or serving those most likely to experience trauma—such veterans, domestic abuse survivors, or people with chronic health conditions. Then work together to identify who is most vulnerable to trauma in your church, as well as in your community.
5. Re-traumatization should be actively prevented
Research shows that those who have experienced trauma in the past are more likely to experience trauma in the future. Reasons range from living in a high-risk environment (e.g., disaster-prone region, dysfunctional family system) to problems coping caused by an earlier traumatic experience. With the new knowledge you’ve gained about trauma’s widespread reach and common signs and symptoms, try to imagine what it would be like for someone who has gone through a significant trauma to attend one of your church services or ministries.“Research shows that those who have experienced trauma in the past are more likely to experience trauma in the future.” — @drjamieaten and @kentannan of @WheatonHDI Click To Tweet
You likely have some outgoing greeters who authentically and lovingly welcome every attendee with a handshake, hug, or pat on the back. These are all acceptable greetings, and there is a place for them. But if we don’t consider context—that is who, when, where, and what is involved—you may be giving more worry than welcome to trauma survivors.
6. Respond by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, and practices
This is where the “rubber meets the road” in a comprehensive way. It’s not enough to just want to do something about trauma. If your church is truly committed to becoming more trauma-informed, action must be taken. Here are a few ideas of where to start:
- Include mental health benefits as part of your staff benefits
- Create screening procedures (e.g., background checks and character references) for staff and volunteers
- Encourage staff to take time away from work (e.g., vacations, sabbaticals)
- Offer care ministry programming (e.g., Spiritual First Aid, GriefShare, Celebrate Recovery)
7. Refer for trauma-specific services and resources
Referring someone for specialized care is not a last resort. And it’s not a sign your church didn’t do enough to help. Connecting trauma survivors to additional support options and services is one of the most valuable actions you can take to help others in times of trouble.
Basic spiritual care and support can go a long way in helping prevent trauma, reduce its severity, and improve adjustment. However, someone’s trauma can negatively impact all aspects of their life, from relationships to physiology.“Connecting trauma survivors to additional support options and services is one of the most valuable actions you can take to help others in times of trouble.” — @drjamieaten and @kentannan of @WheatonHDI Click To Tweet
Part of being a trauma-informed church means knowing your limitations and recognizing the need for professional support from well-equipped trauma professionals, like licensed mental health professionals. Similarly, if there are any concerns that someone might be an immediate danger to themselves or others, call 988 or 911 right away.
8. Report child abuse and neglect
Take all potential safety issues seriously—and take immediate action. Every church should have a clear protocol in place for how staff and volunteers will respond to suspected child abuse or neglect issues. Check state laws to see if you are a mandated reporter. If you suspect abuse or neglect, report it to your local or state child protective services, who will provide guidance on how to proceed. If a child or adolescent is in immediate danger from others, from themselves, or to others, call 911.
9. Remember to promote and model self-care
This is perhaps the most overlooked step in the process of becoming a more trauma-informed church. Most churches excel at caring for others, but too often church leaders and members don’t care enough for themselves.
To become a trauma-informed church, your leaders need to remind others regularly to practice self-care, which includes modeling healthy self-care practices (e.g., rest, setting appropriate boundaries). If your church leaders and members don’t learn resilience strategies, they are more likely to experience burnout, compassion fatigue, or even secondary trauma.
10. Redeem trauma through hope, meaning, and purpose
Though all these steps are important in becoming a trauma-informed church, this final step is key. And it comes with a caveat. We are called to help, but God is the healer (2 Chronicles 30:27). As the church, we are called to be the hands and feet of Christ to a hurting world. But thankfully it’s not all up to us. God promises to redeem all creation, including our traumas, whether in this life or life eternal.“To truly become a trauma-informed church, firmly ground your efforts in the One who suffered trauma on the cross and who also promises to one day ‘wipe away every tear from their eyes.’” — @drjamieaten and @kentannan of @WheatonHDI Click To Tweet
To truly become a trauma-informed church, firmly ground your efforts in the One who suffered trauma on the cross and who also promises to one day “wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; grief, crying, and pain will be no more, because the previous things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4, CSB).
Becoming a trauma-informed church or ministry is a journey. If you try to tackle all these best practices at one time, you and your church will likely feel overwhelmed. So, start small, and commit to growing and improving. Need some extra guidance? Download the free resource Becoming a Trauma-Informed Church, Organization, or Community Action Tool. You can start using it today to make a difference.
Jamie is the founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute and Blanchard Chair of Humanitarian & Disaster Leadership at Wheaton College (@WheatonHDI) and the author and editor of several books. He is a co-host of the award-winning The Better Samaritan blog and podcast.
Kent is director of Humanitarian & Disaster Leadership at Wheaton College (@WheatonHDI). He is author of several books and a co-host of the award-winning The Better Samaritan blog and podcast.