Foundations for trauma-informed ministry

“Whether we try to enter into a dislocated world, relate to a convulsive generation, or speak to a dying person, our services will not be perceived as authentic unless it comes from a heart wounded by the suffering about which we speak.” –Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer, adapted[1]

An Introduction to Complex Trauma

When we first started to sense that the COVID-19 pandemic was going to be a long-term reality, we made the decision to very intentionally lean into our existing friendship and professional partnership. We knew that, from an outside perspective, our friendship might seem a bit unconventional: a decidedly not Christian therapist and a Methodist pastor, sharing trade secrets and collaborating on essential work. Still, we had already witnessed the profoundly generative effect this partnership had on us, and we knew such fruit was going to be essential in the coming months—months that would then turn into years.

What we’ve discovered over these last several years is that not only does our work frequently and meaningfully overlap but our conversations and wonderings have also been incredibly synergistic for both of our respective careers. To put it simply, we’ve discovered the wisdom of the great proverb: as iron sharpens iron, so one therapist sharpens a pastor (Prov. 27:17… kind of). Hopefully, the reverse is also true.

What we’ve also found is that therapists, pastors, and really anyone working in any kind of care profession right now have all witnessed a clear trend emerging: namely, that every single person seeking care has endured significant trauma in one form or another over the last two years. 

For some, this trauma is a product of the more tangible impacts of the pandemic: loss of life, health, vitality, income, security, community, connection, purpose, identity. For others, they’ve endured trauma related to what the great prophet Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. identified as the “three major evils—the evil of racism, the evil of poverty, and the evil of war.” [2] Within the church, we often also see evidence of the less measurable and more emotional, mental, or spiritual impacts of trauma. Elizabeth’s field might name those impacts “depression” or “anxiety,” while those of us with a spiritual lens might also add “desolation,” “isolation,” or even “hopelessness.” And these extensive lists don’t even begin to touch the effects that more individual trauma might have on any given person.

How do these widely varying experiences inform a basic definition of trauma? Trauma, at its core, is the result of experiences that cause intense physical, psychological, and—as we will explore—spiritual stress reactions. Trauma “can refer to a single event, multiple events, or a set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically and emotionally harmful or threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well being.” [1] 

Any conversation about trauma and the church must also begin by acknowledging that there is no simple method for understanding the way these trauma realities overlap. The concept of complex trauma expands our basic understanding by exploring how people who have experienced layers of systemic trauma are impacted in every aspect of their life—including their spirituality. 

What all of this means within the context of the church is that pastors and church leaders must take seriously the dire need for trauma-informed approaches to leading a spiritual community. Talking about trauma means engaging with layers upon layers of physical, emotional, and even spiritual realities, each of which could have a profound impact on an individual or on a community. And when we talk about “church,” we are talking about a community of people who can be a space for healing complex trauma and yet who have been deeply traumatized themselves, and therefore desperately need the kind of care that can recognize and address this reality. If we can figure out how to lead with this knowledge, we can embody the kind of holistic care and transformation that we see Jesus offering to every person who encounters him.

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As pastors and church leaders choose to explore trauma in their contexts, they may encounter conversations, terms, or ideas that feel provocative, confusing, or even triggering. Wisdom from both the Christian faith and from trauma-informed therapeutic care reminds us that undertaking this kind of work requires mindful awareness of ourselves and our positioning in the world. Because of this need for awareness, we’ve developed a list of spiritual practices/self-care disciplines to help you as you begin or continue this work:

  • There’s a common phrase in the church world: everybody needs a little Jesus. From our work together, we’ve also come to understand that everybody also needs a little therapy. To be entirely clear, therapy isn’t reserved only for moments of crisis; therapy truly is designed for those who are seeking to navigate life faithfully and responsibly—which certainly includes all of us.

  • For the spiritual seeker, spiritual direction is another practice that invites investment in spiritual, mental, and emotional health. Spiritual direction is an ancient discipline in which a director and a spiritual seeker direct their gaze together toward the Divine. For Christians, spiritual direction often aims at alignment with God via the movement of the Holy Spirit and can yield clearer discernment, greater wisdom, abiding peace, and many other kinds of spiritual fruit. Typically, spiritual direction takes place in regular one-on-one meetings. This is a practice that is most fruitful as a companion to therapy, as well as other mental and physical health care practices. 

  • Healthy boundaries are essential when intentionally directing our attention to trauma—both within ourselves and in others around us. Our best advice is to move slowly, with intention, which sometimes means pausing altogether to care for our minds, bodies, and hearts before continuing on the long path toward healing and wholeness. To draw from another common Christian phrase, you cannot pour into those around you while your cup remains empty. The same is true for engaging with trauma on a communal level.

  • Take a page from our book and begin developing professional relationships with trauma-informed mental health care practitioners. Whether you plan to simply make referrals or build a more robust collaborative relationship, we hope you’ll find the same kind of coalescence, the same kind of beautiful, dynamic connection we have found in bringing our hearts, minds, and spirits together for the sake of this work we have been given.

In our work together, we continue to be convicted of this reality: both inside and out of the church, all of us are carrying trauma in our bodies, minds, and hearts. Our aim here and in the conversations yet to come is to form an understanding of how to do trauma-informed ministry. We have learned that this journey has to start with one another. Embodying healing in community first requires us to turn inward and examine those wounds that we carry within ourselves. It is from this place of inward healing that we can then build these approaches into our communities. If we as leaders can begin this work, we will be well on our way to leading in the way of Jesus, the wounded healer.



[1] Nouwen describes the incarnational approach to healing that Jesus offers to the world. Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society (New York: Doubleday, 2013), xvi.

[2] Martin Luther King Jr., “America’s Chief Moral Dilemma,” transcript of speech delivered at the Hungry Club Forum, Atlanta, GA, May 10, 1967,

[3] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, A Treatment Improvement Protocol: Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services (Rockville, MD: SAMSHA, 2014), 1-1.

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