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Seven Self-Care Tips for Clergy Who Engage Trauma

Clergy and other church leaders called to engage trauma must also practice self-care, or they will burn out and be less effective in helping those who need to address and heal from trauma. These tips help congregants as well, relieving pressure on clergy and church leaders.

In his book The Wounded Healer, Catholic theologian Henri J. M. Nouwen famously asked, “Who can take away suffering without entering it?” He expressed what congregations, clergy, and church leaders inevitably discover when they decide to become trauma informed and help people address and heal from trauma.

The following seven tips for self-care come from pastors and leaders who have completed trauma-related Vital Worship Grants or have spoken at an annual Calvin Symposium on Worship. The Calvin Institute of Christian Worship in Grand Rapids, Michigan, offers these grants and events.

Accept that, as a healer, you need to take care of yourself

Anthony L. Bennett“There’ve been moments where I’ve preached in tears because of pain, trauma, and depression,” says Anthony L. Bennett, lead pastor at Mount Aery Baptist Church in Bridgeport, Connecticut. As co-chair of CONECT (Congregations Organized for a New Connecticut), he’s often the first person called when yet another person gets shot or a public crisis arises.

Bennett says that after twenty years at Mount Aery, “A dear friend who’s a preacher and therapist told me, ‘Your congregation loves you. But they are tired of seeing you. Breaks are good.’ Now I get three months off with pay after four years of service, so I’ve had two sabbaticals since then. I’m profoundly grateful to my congregation for seeing a sabbatical as a beneficial investment. It’s even more rare in black churches than white churches for pastors to get a sabbatical.”

Besides sabbaticals, Bennett says, “It’s so important to establish a rhythm and balance between work and rest, engagement and retreat. Take time for talk therapy, meditation, exercise, and friends. I appreciate books by Kirk Byron Jones about self-care for clergy and caregivers of people in trauma. Jones is a pastoral counselor who brings in his own struggles.”

Bennett also finds communal healing in his congregation’s annual MAAFA Influence experience, a dramatic production about healing from slavery’s effects. Maafa is a Kiswahili or Swahili term for the holocaust of slavery. ”If Jesus could see and talk to Moses on the Mount of Transfiguration, that meant he could commune with their spirits. We can do the same—commune with our ancestors to discover how they found ways to talk about and heal from trauma,” he says.

Even when they try to be understanding, congregations almost always ask more from pastors than they can give. That’s why pastors need to see the big picture for their ability to provide continual care. “Give yourself space, even if the people won't give it to you,” Bennett advises.

“You cannot heal what you do not address”

Nancy KingwoodNancy Kingwood, a Mount Aery associate minister, led a 2017 Vital Worship Grant to edify, equip, and engage a biblical response to trauma, starting with the congregation’s thirteen associate ministers. Kingwood is also a federal trainer on trauma-informed systems approaches.

“Trauma comes up to breathe in the context of worship, but leaders aren’t always prepared,” Kingwood says. “When a church begins to heal itself, it’s important for leaders to acknowledge their own trauma and go through healing. You cannot heal what you do not address.”

During the grant project, preachers talked during monthly meetings about how often they encounter vicarious trauma. “We discovered that creating trauma-informed sermons and worship is not just about crafting a response to trauma,” Kingwood explains. “We also need to process our own trauma to be more effective in our preaching and teaching. Addressing trauma includes recognizing your own trauma triggers and connecting with your inner strength.

“Preachers need space to vent, search the Scriptures, admit when they feel hopeless, and share strategies for dealing with grief, hopelessness, and despair. We grow stronger through worship that includes lament and praise and makes space for healing,” she says.

Kingwood, who refers to herself as “the policy lady,” stresses that trauma-informed churches above all need to write and keep track of plans, policies, schedules, and budgets. This includes plans to educate people about trauma, provide sabbaticals, and develop a counseling referral process.

Create a referral plan

Sherrye WillisCongregants often turn first to their pastors when they decide to talk about trauma and mental health challenges. Pastors can offer encouraging Scripture passages, prayer, and a listening ear. Sometimes the best thing they can do, however, is to refer congregants to professionals who can provide psychotherapy and medication.

Developing good referral systems protects clergy and church leaders from burnout and helps congregants overcome the idea that they should be able to pray away their trauma. In many African American congregations, people grow up “equating mental health challenges with something demonic or ‘bad wrong,’” says Sherrye Willis, founder and president of Alliance for Greater Works (AGW) in Grand Prairie, Texas. AGW used its 2018 Vital Worship Grant to help ten congregations promote healing through trauma-informed worship.

“We’ve seen that many African Americans rely on faith, family, and social communities when faced with trauma or emotional distress. Others simply isolate themselves. AGW works to create faith-based resources that empower and encourage people to seek medical or therapeutic treatment when necessary,” Willis says.

To connect with local mental health resources and professionals, Anthony Bennett advises talking with social workers in your church; pastors who run social service ministries; your local council of churches; and therapists at community centers. Nancy Kingwood recommends developing relationships with “mental health professionals who understand your lens of faith.”

Even smaller trauma-informed congregations often budget funds to help pay for therapy for leaders and members.

This Christianity Today article by clinical psychologist Sara Rainer can help pastors decide when to refer someone who comes to them for help dealing with trauma.

Promote and model healthy habits

Dawn Baldwin GibsonLike her congregants, Dawn Baldwin Gibson has experienced traumas such as adverse childhood experiences, racism, and natural disasters. With her husband, Anthony Gibson, she pastors Peletah Ministries in New Bern, North Carolina. The church used its 2017 Vital Worship Grant to develop a trauma-informed worship framework.

“Helping a church become trauma informed in worship takes an emotional and physical toll. It is critical to have solid supports in place to deal with the trauma and secondary trauma effects,” she says. Two healthy habits are for clergy to take time for themselves and to model the same physical health choices that they recommend to congregants.

“Our nondenominational church is part of the international Tribe Network. Our apostle, Ryan LeStrange, encouraged pastors to come early to a Myrtle Beach retreat. He said, ‘Just swim. Rest up and have fun. It’s important to have complete down time.’ And others we've met through Tribe encourage us to go get ice cream or play cards or do a family fun staycation.

“After Frank Reid, an African Methodist Episcopal Zion bishop, read about us in The Atlantic, he tracked us down. He and his wife have been mentors to me and my husband. Bishop will call for our anniversary and ask, ‘How are you guarding your marriage? Have you had a date night lately?’ He and Mrs. Reid have helped us understand how important it is to set boundaries with congregants and make time for our family and especially our marriage.”

Trauma is stored in the brain, mind, and body and often expresses itself in chronic health conditions. Gibson notes that Vincent Feletti, one of the doctors who originated the adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) concept, was originally focused on weight loss. “He noticed that women often manifest trauma through weight,” Gibson says.

That’s why Peletah Ministries has a walking club and wellness coordinator. Gibson explains: “So many of us have experienced hypertension or high blood pressure. Eating more fruits and vegetables costs money, so we make sure our church food bank gives out fresh fruit. We’ve made a church policy that we drink water first at church events, no sweetened drinks. We also did a Summer Slim Down project at church. Our theme was from Hebrews 12:1, ‘let us lay aside every weight.’”

Acknowledge collective trauma in worship

Nikki LernerNikki Lerner will never forget welcoming people to worship the day after George Zimmerman was acquitted of killing Trayvon Martin. At the time she was a worship leader at Bridgeway Community Church in Columbia, Maryland.

“Bridgeway is a diverse, multicultural church with people from fifty-two nations. As an African American, I had my own grief and sadness to deal with after the verdict. Many of us worship leaders think, ‘I have to stuff my emotions and lead the people.’ But when you ignore your own trauma, you model that you aren’t human and you don’t matter,” Lerner says.

She also knew that not everyone at Bridgeway felt the same way about the verdict. Rather than saying nothing or saying too much, she chose to simply acknowledge that something awful had happened. As the first voice in that worship service, she said, “It’s been a weekend, hasn’t it?” Then she paused and let the thought sit there so people could silently offer their conflicted emotions to God.

Lerner continued, “How about if we decide for the next thirty minutes to be glad that we can all be together in the same room, worshiping Jesus, praising him for who he is, while outside these walls, people are so divided.” She explains that naming the struggle without taking sides is a hospitable way to say “I see you” while inviting people to worship God together even while holding different opinions.

Use your body to experience being part of Christ’s body

Lerner is now a core team member of Multicultural Worship Leaders Network and also teaches courses on responding to racially fueled events. She explains that the physical act of singing together helps people experience being brothers and sisters in Christ. She calls it “God’s provision for healing. Singing reminds your body what’s true about God. When you all sing together, you sound like one, and you can’t tell who’s from which culture or political persuasion.”

Because people carry trauma in their bodies, Lerner often asks worshipers or conference attendees to put their hands on their hearts, take deep breaths, and follow her lead in singing “ah-ah-ah-ah” in a simple musical sequence.

“When trauma happens,” she explains, “sometimes the people we are called to shepherd have trouble finding their voice or even their breath. So maybe our job is to lead them to the physical sense of healing, starting with a deep breath. Sharing those deep breaths and ‘ah-ah-ah’s may be just enough to get you or your people through the day.”

This four-minute video summarizes a scientific study on the calming nature of collective singing.

Use trauma as a theological lens to prepare worshipers for collective trauma

Bo H. LimBo H. Lim is associate professor of Old Testament and faculty advisor of the Asian American Ministry Program at Seattle Pacific University (SPU). He served as university chaplain (2014–2018) and pastored the campus through the aftermath of the June 2014 campus shooting.

Lim says it’s crucial for worshiping communities to practice including lament, grief, and trauma in regular worship liturgies so that when trauma happens they have the tools to respond.

“God’s people have always experienced trauma. They know terror, exile, being a refugee. The bulk of the Old Testament was written in catastrophic times that included sexual violence and forced migration. Having trauma as a theological lens should be part of how we study Scripture,” he says.

Lim notes that the psalms are a rich source of tools for preparing worship leaders and worshipers to deal with trauma. “You need some Scriptures you’re familiar with, like Psalm 22, which a mature SPU prof used in a short homily when our campus gathered immediately after the shooting. You need someone to acknowledge what you’re feeling and that it happened and that someone did something horrible. Psalm 22 validated that.”

SPU had a set of services when students returned in the fall after the June 2014 shooting. It held anniversary services for four years, until those who were freshmen in 2014 had graduated. Lim used Psalm 30 at the first anniversary service.

“Psalm 30 thanks God for deliverance. But I also said in my homily that some of us had lingering questions about why we survived, but Paul Lee did not. People sometimes worry that if you acknowledge or mention trauma in worship, it might retrigger people. I can’t control that. I just trust that God will work and heal. If you don’t mention it for fear of retriggering, you’re actually just shoving it back down,” Lim says.