How can church leaders help their congregations heal from collective trauma? Ron Bell outlines four promises for church leaders to help congregations and people heal while still experiencing trauma, whether that trauma is related to race, environment, economic factors, culture, politics, or sex.
The penultimate danger of unaddressed trauma is the ability to distort and dehumanize both its host and their perception of others. Therefore, each of us must embrace our own trauma, be attuned to corporate trauma, and begin to do the work of healing, for all.
If we are to manage our collective complex present trauma experiences, there are four promises church leaders must choose. The four promises are appropriate for systems encountering ongoing, continuous, complex present trauma, whether that trauma is related to race, environment, economic factors, culture, politics, or sex. These promises are designed to reallocate authority of our personhood to ourselves, instead of allowing the trauma we experience to rule our existence.
1. Leaders promise to be fully present in their trauma.
There are six basic and universal emotions: anger, fear, happiness, sadness, disgust, and surprise. Life has instructed us to suppress our core emotions and replace them with responses we deem acceptable to others, though inauthentic to ourselves. As leaders, we are quick to hide our core emotions for the sake of appeasing an assumed norm. The problem, however, is magnified when it involves leaders because not only does the continuation of this act present a personal emotional injury, but, because leaders serve as models, it also signals to others that they, too, should hide their true emotional responses. Leaders perpetuate this cycle by not being true to themselves.
The ability of a leader to express their core emotions is an asset. It promotes confidence in others who were sensing something but were unable or unwilling to lean into it. In response to Mary’s weeping, Jesus wept openly, boldly in the presence of all those who followed him (John 11:35). Consider the freedom in realizing what it means for us collectively if Jesus can weep openly.
In addition to being fully present in their trauma, leaders can create a culture of mental health advocacy through preaching and teaching the importance of receiving counseling and providing resources to local therapists and counselors. Knowing who the counselors and therapists are in a congregation and where/how to access services in a community is critical in forming an atmosphere of openness where being fully present is honored.
2. Leaders create rituals that allow congregations to begin to heal.
When we don’t address trauma or we try to deny its existence, we sculpt for ourselves a dysfunctional and toxic reality because trauma is embodied. How we think about something and what we do with those thoughts regulates how we experience the world both tangibly and intangibly. Healing is also embodied so we must find creative ways to shake off trauma and embody healing. David was so filled with elation over the return of the Ark of the Covenant that he danced so much that his clothes couldn’t restrain him (2 Samuel 6).
It is important to create rituals that honor the embodied resilience and healing we carry while acknowledging the trauma we have experienced. Invite your congregation to participate in healing rituals such as stretching, dancing, exercising, shopping, or walking to enjoy nature. Many people find healing through journaling, so allow time for journaling in small groups, Bible studies, and worship. The goal is to create rituals that help the congregation shake off the embodied trauma and begin to experience embodied healing.
When a congregation I served experienced the sudden death of one of its young adults, they wore yellow and released yellow balloons during a memorial to honor the young adult’s life and the vibrant life they lived. While this act may seem simple, it was an opportunity for the congregation to participate in a ritual of healing through solidarity. Another option for creating rituals is for congregations to sponsor resilience days where masseuses or yoga instructors, healthy food chefs, comedians, musicians, etc. are invited to the church to serve both the congregation and community.
3. Leaders create circles where people can heal while still in their trauma experience.
Trauma can only be fully understood and expressed through community where we give definition to our experiences and align them to the norms around us. Healthy circles are imperative for engaging trauma and finding resilience. In order to heal, we have to do the hard work of allowing ourselves to be present in healthy, life-giving spaces — healthy, life-giving circles that are not toxic from unresolved trauma.
Congregations can create healing circles: communal and healthy practices that foster healing. Healing circles are opportunities for people to gather in a circle and to be present for one another, model empathy and vulnerability while also receiving those same gifts from others in the circle. Some common questions for discussion in healing circles are: What do you need to say? What do you need to hear? What will you leave here? What will take with you?
4. Leaders promote the sharing of trauma stories from positions that promote health.
Telling the story from the perspective of a survivor rather than from the perspective of a victim empowers the person and allows the storyteller to take authority over the story. Ask “Who is the narrator of this story?” and “If there was another voice that could tell this story, what would it sound like, what would it say?”
My wife and I practice what I call “cupcaking.” Every time we overcome, complete, survive and excel in something we intentionally stop and have a cupcake to honor the achievement. Congregations can encourage people to sharing trauma stories from a position that promotes health by structuring an event or series of events where the focus is on celebrating and honoring resilience and survival, not dwelling on the trauma itself. By celebrating and honoring resilience and survival, the stories by those receiving the cupcake (or whatever tangible meaningful object represented) will shift to a position of health.
As we work toward healing, these four promises give us the freedom to weep like Jesus, find space to dance like David, intentionally find healthy life-giving circles or take authority over our stories as we collectively heal together.