In recent years, PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) has become a highly visible part of our culture, and generalized trauma has emerged as a consistent issue for clergy and churches. The majority of Americans have experienced a significant trauma in their life and are  dealing with the impact of that trauma in various ways.

The effects of trauma, whether resulting from combat, abuse, disasters, violence, or accidents, have significantly influenced the pastoral care and ministry of every congregation.

The sad truth is that our culture and our world are constantly wounding men and women, boys and girls in a wide variety of ways. Some have suggested that trauma, and its effects, are the new normal for 21st Century American culture. Traumatic events that shock us, endanger us, frighten us, wound us, or disorient us are becoming normative. Sometimes they are events that happen to us as an individual, but many times they are events that happen to large groups of people.

A divorce can impact an extended family, a hurricane can traumatize an entire region, a church’s conflict can traumatize dozens and even hundreds of people. Can an entire nation be traumatized?

Without in any way diminishing the profound impact PTSD has made upon many people (many are friends and/or church members), I believe the current political climate in American is becoming a traumatic event for many Americans.

The impact of this season of vindictiveness, divisiveness, and cultural fragmentation will be felt by us for weeks, months and even years to come. Add to the political toxicity the ongoing trauma of Covid-19, the economic hardships for so many individuals and families, the implications of our racial crisis, and you have all the ingredients of a traumatic season for the majority of Americans. Those effects will not be limited to the broad culture, but will surely impact regions, states, cities, neighborhoods, clubs, non-profits, families, and are certain to find their way into congregations and parishes.

You certainly know that there will be no quick healing or resolution to our divisions and wounds as a result of the presidential election, regardless the outcome. We will not wake up on November 4th to a unified national spirit. Instead, the chaos, division and discord of 2020 may well accelerate and deepen in the days and weeks of November and beyond.

Here’s a suggestion: prepare now for a season of Post Traumatic Election Disorder (PTED) beginning the first week of November and continuing for weeks and months in your congregation. PTED will be a very real and consequential factor in everything from how you plan worship, what you preach about, how small groups are organized and function, any church business meetings, when and where you gather, and how you strategically plan for the near and mid future.

Traumatized individuals and groups require special and focused care. Please bear this in mind as you plan your congregational life from November forward.

In recent years, a new phrase has been introduced to medical and mental health care providers. Trauma-Informed Care invites those working with the public to not simply ask “what is wrong with you?” but to ask “what has happened to you?” I believe a similar shift in thinking will be essential to churches that want to be relevant and helpful to their congregant in the days ahead.

The literature on treatment for PTSD is robust and extremely helpful as we think about PTED and our congregations. Some of the symptoms of PTSD resonate with how our churches are experiencing this season of social trauma: Isolation, withdrawal, disruption in relationships, persistent distrust, preoccupation with perpetrator(s), outbursts of anger, etc.

Similarly, some of the traits of Trauma-Informed Care could be very helpful as we seek to be Trauma-Informed Ministers and Trauma-Informed Congregations.

See if you don’t agree that these 6 principles of Trauma-Informed Care are appropriate for churches to adopt in this season of ministry:

  1. Safety: people feel physically and psychologically safe
  2. Trustworthiness and Transparency mark decision-making and leadership
  3. Peer Support: individuals are connected with others in supportive ways
  4. Collaboration: shared decision-making becomes the norm
  5. Empowerment: healing, recovery and resilience are validated and valued
  6. Humility and Responsiveness: biases are recognized and addressed

However you choose to live out your faith and congregational life this fall and winter, rest assured that you will be dealing with some form of recovery from a traumatic season of life for many of your congregants. Some will be celebrating the results of the election, the economic realities, and the medical challenges, while others will be in deep despair about some or all of these.

Being a Trauma-Informed Church will mean shifting your thinking about people from “what is wrong with you?” to “what has happened to you?” It will mean providing a safe place for conversation, introducing stories of healing and recovery from scripture and history, creating a non-judgmental culture that rises above political divides, and insisting that vindictive, malicious and condescending language not be tolerated. Expect to spend more time than normal establishing, cultivating and shoring up a culture of trust, transparency and acceptance among those you lead. Being an authentic Christian community that practices unity amidst diversity will be essential to your survival.

Be careful about pushing major projects forward without first addressing these underlying stressors. If you fail to acknowledge this PTED, you may find people withdrawing, or you may see over-reaction and hostility bubbling up in response to issues that would normally be easily embraced.

We are entering a season that finds us far off the familiar maps we have grown to trust. Thankfully, we know that salvation history is filled with stories of God’s people navigating such traumatic challenges with courage, insight and compassion. I hope and pray that will be your experience as well.

 

 

Bill Wilson
Dr. William “Bill” Wilson founded The Center for Healthy Churches in January of 2014. This followed his service as President of the Center for Congregational Health at Wake Forest Baptist Health since 2009. Previously he was Pastor of First Baptist Church of Dalton, Georgia, where he served since 2003. He brings over 33 years of local church ministry experience to CHC, having served as pastor in two churches in Virginia (Farmville BC and FBC Waynesboro) and on a church staff in South Carolina. Bill has led each of the churches he has served into a time of significant growth and expansion of ministry. He is the director of CHC.