Foundations for trauma-informed ministry: Finding stability in unstable times

“I can't reconcile the way that the world is jolted by events that are wonderful and terrible, the gorgeous and the tragic. Except that I am beginning to believe that these opposites do not cancel each other out. I see a middle aged woman in the waiting room of the cancer clinic, her arms wrapped around the frail frame of her son. She squeezes him tightly, oblivious to the way he looks down at her sheepishly. He laughs after a minute, a hostage to her impervious love. Joy persists somehow and I soak it in. The horror of cancer has made everything seem like it is painted in bright colors. I think the same thoughts again and again. Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard.”
Kate Bowler, Everything Happens for a Reason And Other Lies I’ve Loved

If you were to spend a few minutes looking through the headlines of the past few weeks, you would see a snapshot of a world in deep trouble: nineteen children and two adults shot and killed at a Texas school, the ruthless shooting of ten black Americans in a supermarket in Buffalo by a self-avowed white supremacist, the ongoing and incredibly deadly war in Ukraine, the increasingly unstable global economy, and the rapid uptick of new coronavirus cases across the county—not the mention the ongoing count of those who have died as a result of the pandemic. In the United States alone, that number recently surpassed one million.[1]

There is this constant, endless stream of traumatic news, and many of us can hardly stand to engage with it. Some might try to avoid the news altogether, preferring to remain uninformed and therefore un-triggered. Others might limit their news intake to one or two times a week, to stay abreast of news without becoming overwhelmed. Others still might wallow in the headlines, constantly reading the newest war update, the newest report on the deadly shooting of the week, the newest pandemic death toll. Notifications on phones and computers make wallowing all too easy these days.

For many of us, whether we are paying close attention or not, all of this can make us feel increasingly anxious or worried. Studies have been conducted by psychologists investigating the effects that news consumption has on us. These studies show that those who consume news media more regularly tend to report feeling less safe or secure in their everyday lives, while those who are less attentive often do not experience these same concerns.[2] This happens because the events that routinely receive the most attention are the most dramatic or exceptional and by definition are not common or universal. However, we are prone to universalizing these individual experiences or sensational stories. Those of us who read or watch these stories regularly have an almost voyeuristic experience of other people’s trauma. The result of all of this is that many of us are deeply unsettled in a way that does not always correspond to our reality.

In spite of our various approaches, there is something we would be willing to bet we all share: when we do read the headlines, we often fall into what feels like a pit of despairing anger. Right now, it seems like nothing is right, very little is neutral, and nearly everything is wrong. And for those of us who claim a Christian faith, this can feel particularly challenging or destabilizing because we often feel like we should have certainty about the future. We should be comfortable trusting in the promises of God even when we can see no evidence they are being worked out. We should always have the right words to say in the face of so much pain and tragedy and loss.

And yet in moments like the one we are living through, with its potent mixture of climate catastrophes, global health crises, and international conflict, it can be too easy to find ourselves lost for words. Some of us might be stumbling through with little to cling to in the way of faith. Others might be finding our oldest convictions suddenly weak and pliable, at times too weak to even hold us up anymore.

One of these oldest convictions that still stands in many Christian circles today is the belief that God determines the course of our lives. There are numerous ways Christian theologians have talked about this idea historically: they call it the ‘sovereignty of God,’ the ‘omnipotence of God,’ or even ‘theological determinism,’ the idea that God determines everything that happens.

For some people, this doctrine is incredibly important to their faith. They need to know that God is always in control, that God is moving and working in every moment of their lives, that ultimately God is responsible for what happens.

For others, though, the thought of a God who is sovereign, who is totally in control, can be devastating. Those who want to hold onto their faith in spite of this struggle with determinism often find themselves engaging in the work of theodicy, or the problem of pain—the reality that it can be challenging to reconcile a good God with the broken world around us—in order to save their faith.

And there is so much that is broken right now. As we have been discussing in this series, this brokenness is typically referred to by mental health professionals as ‘trauma.’ 

Trauma is typically divided into two broad categories: human-caused trauma (i.e., abuse/neglect, individual and systemic racism, discrimination, genocide, shootings, war, etc.) and naturally-caused trauma (i.e., pandemics/epidemics, tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes, tornados, etc.)[3]. 

While these are distinct categories in the fields of mental health/trauma therapy, the Christian story does not always make that same distinction. For those who claim an understanding of the world as God’s creation, “human” and "natural” can hardly be seen as independent of one another in any meaningful way. Many of the naturally-caused traumas can be tied back to human activity. For example, the marked increase in extreme weather events over the last several years is directly linked to human-driven climate change. These are, in some ways, human-caused events which those with a Christian lens might name as the effects of our collective sin against creation.[4]

Regardless of the cause, when either trauma is experienced, there can often be a significant impact on the ways people interpret, integrate, and react/respond. Both human-caused and naturally-caused traumas can understandably have a substantial impact on us, not only mentally and physically but also spiritually. One of the best examples of the spiritual impact is the reality that natural events can be referred to as “acts of God.” They are often seen as unavoidable, if not also unexplainable. It is striking, if not alarming, that a whole category of trauma could be named with attribution to God.

When traumas of any kind are experienced as intentionally harmful, the event often becomes even more traumatic for people and communities, regardless of whether the intention is attributed to others or to God. The complexity of both of these kinds of traumas results from the reality that they can be met with differing levels of support and resources, or the complete lack thereof. We could examine any number of current events to see how these responses play out: the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ukraine crisis, the death of George Floyd and continually escalating racial violence, endless mass shootings, and numerous other national and global events.

What all of this teaches us is that our experiences of trauma can and often do intersect substantially with our faith and our understanding of God. While many Christians would like to think that we have embraced a complex, nuanced, or nonbinary worldview, we often speak and operate as if we do not. Sometimes without even realizing it, Christian people are incredibly deterministic when it comes to understanding life events—traumatic or otherwise—and this emerges in our language, our songs, our prayers, and our behavior. Consider the number of times you have comforted another or yourself with the phrase, “Everything happens for a reason,” for example.

For those of us who experience significant privilege, it can be easy to say those words. It can be easy to call ourselves “blessed.” But for those of us who have known deep grief, or loss, or struggle, for those of us who are traumatized, those words can feel like a slap in the face. That understanding begs the question: so what, then, is the reason that my parent or partner or sibling or child suffered great illness and died? What is the reason my home was destroyed by a hurricane or a fire or a tornado? What is the reason that a gunman barged into that grocery store, that church, that school? What does our being “blessed” say to the millions of people around the world whose everyday lives are devoted to trying to find enough food to eat and who find themselves coming up short?

In the midst of living through that kind of trauma, even the most well-intentioned determinism, even the most pious devotion to the concept of God’s sovereignty communicates that God made those things happen, that God chose them for us, and we would venture to say there are few ideas that can crush a person’s faith in a good God more effectively than that.

This is where the field of psychology has a lot to say to our unexamined theology. If you’ve ever taken a psychology course, chances are you’ve heard of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which is a foundational theory of human motivation that shifted the entire trajectory of how mental health professionals understand behavior.[5]

At the core of this theory is the concept that before human beings can have space to engage in other forms of higher order thinking, our basic needs must be met. These include: physiological needs like food and shelter, safety and security, love and belonging in relationships, and esteem, both in regards to ourselves and others. Only once these needs have been met can the work of self-actualization begin.

Matters of faith often fall within the range of those top two tiers, at least for American Christians. As we referenced earlier, researchers have found that our perception of our safety and security count far more in our mental math than the reality of it. In fact, those of us with the most security often have the greatest perception of insecurity.[2] 

This plays out in some fascinating ways. Individuals who, for example, actually live in war torn or exploited areas often become desensitized to the near-constant experience of trauma. As they face daily stressors, survivors eventually learn to adapt and potentially thrive in the face of these realities. Human beings are wired to do this on a biological and neurological level, a reality which helps us continue to build our definition of complex trauma.

While many of us do have substantial trauma here in America, many encounters with trauma come from our constant consumption of traumatic content as we experience it in various news outlets. This creates a perception that the world is unsafe and insecure. For those with power and privilege, this perception is often misaligned with our actual experiences of stability: always knowing where our next meal will come from, always having a roof over our heads, being connected with family members, being employed, etc. 

Of course, none of this undermines the traumatic experiences we have been exposed to; however, it pushes us to acknowledge that, alongside these traumatic experiences, many of us have access to resources that are not universally shared. These are the very same resources which allow us to spend time engaging in this kind of self-actualizing work about how to do trauma-informed ministry. 

The fact that we can equip ourselves to do this work means that we have access to power, privilege, and resources. And as numerous Uncle Bens have reminded various Peter Parkers in the Spider-verse, “With great power comes great responsibility.” As we have considered what it means to reckon with this great responsibility, we’ve arrived at the conclusion that we must find ways to acknowledge our own traumatic experiences and seek healing while, at the same time, centering the narratives of those who experience even more than we will ever be able to name or acknowledge. This is at the heart of trauma-informed work. 

And at the heart of trauma-informed ministry is the reality that the God we serve is not ordaining our suffering for some higher purpose. At the heart of trauma-informed ministry is the incarnation, the reality that we serve a God who abdicates sovereignty and omnipotence and determination; who sets it all aside and chooses willingly to become a human being; who chooses willingly to go to the cross so that God might not just offer us radical compassion but also radical empathy; who does all of this so that God might truly understand what it is like to stare into the gaping, hopeless, dark void of death and wallow in it so that divine love might be the kind of love that does not leave us in our graves but that pulls us up into new life again. The good news of the Gospel is that pain, struggling, trauma, and even death are never the end of the story when Jesus is involved.

So if you want our two cents about the sovereignty of God, if you want to know how we, as people who are working to become trauma-informed, respond to this great problem of pain that seems increasingly present in the world, our answer is that nothing is quite so black and white, and that God is not “determining” anything but is inhabiting everything. In inhabiting a world so easily caught up in pain and loss, the Spirit of Truth wraps us in a loving embrace that brings together our suffering with a hope that God is working for the good in all things. It is through this Spirit and through our own will to do good that we will be able to continue on the journey toward healing.

As you continue to navigate the challenges of engaging with the news cycle, our recommendation is to do so with intentional mindfulness. To start, set aside a limited amount of time each day or each week to catch up on the news. Limiting your engagement to a particular time sets a healthy boundary that can keep you from spiraling into a place of despair. During that time as you read or listen to the latest stories and reports, pay attention to your mental, physical, or spiritual responses. If you begin to feel distressed, pause and breathe deeply for a few moments. Then, utilize the following steps to identify your thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations:

  1. Find a place free of noise or distraction.

  2. Sit down on a cushion, the floor, or in a chair. Sit up straight enough to allow easy breathing, but not so straight that you’re uncomfortable.

  3. Turn your focus toward your breathing. Notice the feeling of the breath entering your body and making its way to your lungs. Pay attention to how your body feels, and what it’s like as your breath exits your lungs. Continue to focus on the feeling of breathing.

  4. As you practice, your mind will wander. Try not to judge your thoughts—simply accept that they are happening. Notice, almost as an outside observer: “I’m having a thought.” The same goes for feelings. If you detect sadness, worry, happiness, or excitement, notice how they feel in your body. Acknowledge what you are feeling, even if it is an uncomfortable sensation. Simply notice: “I am feeling this way.”

  5. When the thought or feeling passes, return your focus to your breathing and your body.

  6. Try this meditative practice for at least 10-15 minutes.

To accompany this, a practice of prayer can also offer a calming foundation from which to take in information about traumatic current events. As trite as it may seem, prayerfully attending to the headlines can help ground you in the moment, as well as offer a meaningful way to direct attention and energy. If appropriate/possible, try to find ways to follow up these prayers with action: sign a petition, call a representative, create space for a community to gather and grieve together. As we care for ourselves and those around us in this way, we are creating a system of care and response that empowers us to continue paying holy attention to the pain of this world.

When there are events that continue to deeply disturb your mental or spiritual equilibrium, you may have experienced second-hand trauma. Be sure to meet with a therapist, a pastor, or a spiritual director to begin the healing process with a qualified caregiver.


This article is part of an ongoing series on trauma-informed ministry, church leadership, and congregational care. You can read the first article here and the second article here.


Additionally, NPR recently produced this TED Radio Hour podcast about what it required to feel secure.

[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.


[5] Maslow’s work was informed by Blackfoot wisdom and his observations of their life in community, which he referenced but did not widely credit or publicize.

comments powered by Disqus