Core Elements for Congregational Healing after Trauma

By Rev. Dr. Kate Wiebe

Elements - January 2015

Gathering for worship in the aftermath of crises, sadly, appears more normative today than not. Following tragedies, faith communities hold prominent roles as they commit to hosting gatherings and attending to brokenness. Whether following a local shooting, riots and protests, the sudden death of a church leader, revelations about rampant sexual crimes among the congregation, arson or wild fires, or because half the facilities have been destroyed during a natural disaster, we hope for congregations to exhibit safety and characterize sanctuary in times of response and rebuilding.

What happens when the entire congregation becomes traumatized?

Collective trauma threatens our core senses of identity and belonging. In his book A New Species of Trouble (1994), sociologist Kai Erikson (son of psychologist Erik Erikson) describes collective trauma as a “blow to the basic tissues of social life that damages the bonds attaching people together and impairs the prevailing sense of community” (p. 233).

When considering this definition – and how it involves a breakdown of the very relational tools we rely upon for resiliency – we might think all is lost when it comes to congregational trauma. Isn’t a congregation supposed to supply tools for healing, wholeness, and missional agency in the world today? How can it accomplish these goals when its overall sense of community and bonding is damaged and impaired?

A mistaken assumption presumes that only strong and healthy people provide the best means of support for neighbors who are traumatized. In actuality, healing is birthed out of much more humble means and, as Christians, we witness the Holy Spirit making use of much more fragile encounters.

As with individual traumas, gathering together in the aftermath of collective trauma begins to supply essential senses of calming and trust for beginning collective healing. Worship in the aftermath of trauma, in particular, provides solace and critical frameworks for beginning to make sense of what is senseless. As people of faith bring their wounds to light among one another and before God, they discover senses of renewal and the building blocks for healing together.

"Lay It on the Table" services conducted in early December in the aftermath of riots and unrest in Ferguson illustrate well one positive example of how congregations uniquely attend to local crises and craft helpful gatherings. Describing these services, Professor of Religion at Muskingum University Rick Nutt explains: “The idea was that, in the presence of the Lord’s Table and in the wake of the events that followed the announcement that no indictment would be brought against Officer Wilson, members of the churches would have the opportunity to say whatever was on their minds and hearts.”

Nutt, who attended one of these services, observed, “People in the congregation . . . spoke honestly about their fears, their frustrations, and their hopes. It was a time of speaking and listening that conveyed that trust that people placed in one another. Once everyone who wished to do so had shared – ‘laying down their lives’ on the sacrament table – the congregation celebrated the sacrament at this table.” Nutt commends "Lay It on the Table" services to communities seeking reconciliation. “In a time rampant with ubiquitous laments for the loss of civil discourse, worshipping communities encourage honest speaking.”

Even when congregations themselves are traumatized, creating opportunities for faithful people effectively to lament, mourn, seek forgiveness, share gratitude, and praise, provides relational catalysts for healing. Interestingly, though, little scholarly attention has been given to understanding the scope of trauma impacts on congregations in the United States today, or their capacities for generating resiliency. Just in the last fifteen years, despite 9/11, Hurricanes Katrina and Ike, unprecedented rashes of tornadoes in the Midwest, Super Storm Sandy, increasing mass violence events, high rates of pastor suicide and sexual crimes at the hands of church leaders, and, most recently, riots throughout the country – and with stellar scholarly and ministerial capacities at our fingertips – still we struggle to know beyond anecdotes and sparse surveys how congregational traumas and post-trauma growth influences faith development in our country.

It is curiosities like these – and strong conviction that ministers on the ground ought to be able to easily access reliable practical tools for collective healing – that led colleagues and I in early 2012 to found the Institute for Congregational Trauma and Growth (www.ictg.org). At ICTG we want to fully understand the impacts of congregational trauma and ministry in the aftermath of crises in order to prepare leaders well for what’s to come. We host space online to network expertise, facilitate in-person forums and provide coaching, and we advocate for expanding fields of study related to congregational trauma.

Responding to and leading congregations in the aftermath of local and national tragedies represents an inherent part of the minister’s vocation today. I am grateful to the Alumni and Church Relations Office of Fuller Seminary for dedicating a portion of their “tough conversations” series in Elements to this important topic. I look forward to continuing the conversation with you here, over the next two months, as we consider together the topic of congregational trauma and the character of ministry in light of tragedy.

Rev. Dr. Kate Wiebe is the Executive Director of the Institute for Congregational Trauma and Growth (ICTG, www.ictg.org). With over 15 years experience in pastoral care and trauma treatment, she seeks solutions for ministers and congregations to thrive after trauma. For the last five years, she has volunteered as a National Responder for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PCUSA), including responding to events in Tucson, Tuscaloosa, Aurora, Newtown, Murrysville, and UCSB. She also teaches disaster preparedness and response to ministerial groups around the country. In her free time, she enjoys celebrating holidays and traveling to new places with her family, and savoring slow-cooked meals with good friends.

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