Foundations for Trauma-Informed Ministry: It Begins with Us, Part 2

This article is a part of a series about trauma-informed approaches to ministry. It is the second installment following another article called "It Begins with Us, Part 1," found here. If you have been with us through the first 3 articles, you may have begun to notice that we are building momentum to tackle more challenging topics. Our hope is to help you develop a more nuanced understanding of trauma. Previously, we highlighted the differences between human- and natural-caused trauma. We now want to move more deeply into the realm of human-caused trauma in order to begin learning about complex trauma and intersectionality. 

“Unity, in fact, is the reconciliation of differences, not the denial of them. Our differences must first be maintained—and then overcome by the power of love (exactly as in the three persons of the Trinity).”
Fr. Richard Rohr, “Protecting and Also Bridging Differences”

There’s this bit of conventional wisdom that floats around among pastors, chaplains, and church leaders that goes something like this: “You’ll never really know the whole story.” This advice is often offered consolingly among colleagues after a congregation member, a patient, or even another colleague has been overly critical, harsh, or downright insulting. If you’ve ever led in a ministry setting, chances are it won’t take you long to think of at least one person who behaved this way—someone you cared for or pastored, perhaps even someone who left your church or ministry. 

This wisdom addresses the reality that we can never truly know the full extent of someone else’s motivations… or what is causing them to behave the way that they are. While this was generally helpful encouragement for ministry leaders prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, it became an essential and near-daily reminder of reality for many of us in the midst of it. The barrage of nasty emails, attacks on social media, or cutting remarks that many clergy and leaders received seemed neverending at times. In some cases, the relentless criticism continues. In many ways, this hyper-critical atmosphere feels like a part of the “new normal” we’ve all been looking toward these past several years.

The parallel wisdom that the fields of mental health and therapy would offer in these situations paints a more comprehensive picture of what is really going on. Alongside this collective trauma of the pandemic that we were ill-equipped to address as pastors and leaders, we are also bumping into the reality that the shared trauma of the pandemic was compounding with the individual trauma many of the people we encounter are also experiencing.

This traumatic overlap is the basis of complex trauma, which “can arise from experiencing repeated or multiple traumatic events from which there is no possibility of escape. The sense of being trapped is a feature of the experience. Like other types of trauma, it can undermine a sense of safety in the world and beget hypervigilance, constant (and exhausting!) monitoring of the environment for the possibility of threat.” [1] For many of the folks in our ministry contexts, the COVID-19 pandemic created the perfect storm of complex trauma. 

What does this reality of complex trauma mean for us as ministry leaders (and as human beings)? Well, if you are living in the U.S.—whether you are aware of it or not—you are present to a near-daily series of traumatic events that are played out in the social sphere, many of which are perpetrated against individuals and communities because of their race, ethnicity, culture, religion (particularly those of historically repressed and excluded spiritual communities, including indigenous communities), gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, language, education, etc. What is particularly important to understand about complex trauma is that there can be many overlapping contributors for any given person, so any number of these factors may be at play in the people we encounter—whether we can observe them ourselves or not. For example, Black women in America cannot escape the racist, patriarchal systems that are woven through the fabric of our society. As a result, they can experience complex trauma because of the constant and overlapping threats of harm.

So what can we, as leaders of churches and ministries, do to begin addressing this alarming reality? How can we approach ministry in a way that not only acknowledges complex trauma but also offers space to heal from it?

One of the most important tools we can engage, especially as we begin with the work of confronting our own complex trauma, is the concept of intersectionality. Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term and defines it as “a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it locks and intersects. It is the acknowledgement that everyone has their own unique experiences of discrimination and privilege.”[2] Intersectionality calls us to intentionally recognize and “center” each individual’s multiple and overlapping identities as we engage with them—and with ourselves.



The first step in actively applying an intersectionality framework to trauma-informed ministry is working to situate ourselves. As authors, it feels important to model this: one of us identifies as a white, heterosexual, cisgender woman and one of us identifies as a white, bisexual, agender individual. Candidly naming our identities is the first step in highlighting the fact that we have both had substantial access to power and privilege, and that we have also faced different forms of sexism, patriarchy, and homophobia as a result of our intersecting identities. Armed with this information, we can begin the work of divesting ourselves of power while seeking healing for trauma before we engage with the complex trauma of another.

Here’s the challenging part of engaging with an intersectional approach to ministry: oftentimes when individuals (especially those of us with more privileged identities) are invited to consider how our access to power exists alongside our experiences of trauma, we can become defensive or even stuck in our own fragility. This can happen when we recognize that we do not want to be problematic but we are unsure what steps to take in order to move forward. It is important to recognize that “getting stuck” in our own fragility is, in and of itself, a byproduct of privilege because confronting our own power is a choice that we can opt out of when it gets too uncomfortable. Those who live in a constant state of complex trauma are not able to exercise that same privilege.

We want to acknowledge how uncomfortable you may be feeling as we discuss concepts of power and privilege. This discomfort is real; our best advice is to make space for it. While you do so, remember that this discomfort is the tip of the iceberg of what those whose intersections include multiple oppressed identities face every day. 

At the same time, it is important for those of us with systemic privilege to remember that our experiences of trauma are still completely valid. Acknowledging personal access to ample resources and/or power should not belittle the very real pain and suffering we have experienced. As an example of this acknowledgment, Reni Eddo-Lodge writes in her book entitled Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race, “When I talk about white privilege, I don’t mean that white people have it easy, that they’ve never struggled, or that they’ve never lived in poverty. But white privilege is the fact that if you’re white, your race will almost certainly positively impact your life’s trajectory in some way. And you probably won’t even notice it.” [3] Although this specifically addresses racial privilege, the concept applies across the board: gender, ability, etc.

So, step one in this trauma-informed approach is to acknowledge all of who we are as individuals. Once we acknowledge our own power, privilege, and trauma, then we can begin to actively deconstruct and more responsibly and faithfully reconstruct these core pieces of ourselves. This work will prepare us to engage with the complex trauma of others we encounter in our ministry in ways that are healthy and holy.

One of the most fitting case studies of an intersectional approach for those of us who are pastors, church leaders, or chaplains is, of course, Jesus Christ. With careful attention to context, history, and culture, Jesus can be a biblical example of intersectionality for us. His life can also show us how to embrace the fullness of our own identities as we prepare to engage with and care for others. 

Jesus is a son of the line of David, born in Bethlehem, raised in Nazareth. He is Jewish, living in a time when Jews were often subjugated to the power of the Roman Empire. He is male (although born only from the flesh of a woman, as scripture says), brown-skinned, and poor. Although these various identities do not encapsulate the whole of who Jesus is, they overlap and intersect. When we consider all of this, in addition to the traumatic death Jesus endures, we can understand how his human life is full of complex trauma—both his own and that of the people around him.

However, Jesus embraces his complex identity and seeks healing from trauma in every moment. He meets a variety of individuals whose intersectional identities are quite different from his own and, in each interaction, is able to tend to their wounds from his own place of healed wholeness.

Consider his interaction with the unnamed woman at the well in John's Gospel:

A Samaritan woman came to the well to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me some water to drink.” His disciples had gone into the city to buy him some food.

The Samaritan woman asked, “Why do you, a Jewish man, ask for something to drink from me, a Samaritan woman?” (Jews and Samaritans didn’t associate with each other.)

Jesus responded, “If you recognized God’s gift and who is saying to you, ‘Give me some water to drink,’ you would be asking him and he would give you living water.”

The woman said to him, “Sir, you don’t have a bucket and the well is deep. Where would you get this living water? You aren’t greater than our father Jacob, are you? He gave this well to us, and he drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.”

Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks from the water that I will give will never be thirsty again. The water that I give will become in those who drink it a spring of water that bubbles up into eternal life.” [4]

This narrative offers us insight into the intersecting identities of both Jesus and the woman he engages in conversation. He speaks to her, even though as the text says “Jews and Samaritans didn’t associate with each other.” He recognizes that her experiences are different from his and that, although they come from different places and represent different identities, she is in need of living water, too.

After a conversation in which he learns more about the woman, Jesus reveals his true identity to her: “I Am—the one who speaks with you.” [5] In sharing this with her, he empowers her to do the vitally important work of preaching his good news to the Samaritans. Knowing that as a woman with multiple husbands in her lifetime she would not be listened to by her own people, Jesus travels with her so that they might believe what she says. Jesus ministers from an understanding of intersectionality, and the good news is proclaimed through her because of it.

If we can learn how to do ministry in the same way, we too can empower others in the preaching of good news to this world that so desperately needs it. The key will be learning how to embrace and ultimately heal our complex identities, privileges, and traumas because trauma-informed ministry truly does begin with us.

Here are some recommendations for further engaging the work of intersectionality:

  • Intersectional Theology: An Introductory Guide by Grace Ji-Sun Kim, Susan M. Shaw

  • Critical Race Theory: The Cutting Edge by Jean Stefancic and Richard Delgado

  • The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race by Willie James Jennings

  • How to Be an Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi

  • White Tears/Brown Scars: How White Feminism Betrays Women of Color by Ruby Hamad

  • I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown

  • Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge

  • On the Side of the Poor: The Theology of Liberation by Gustavo Gutierrez

  • Jesus Feminist: An Invitation to Revisit the Bible’s View of Women by Sarah Bessey

  • Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories from the Twenty-First Century by Alice Wong

  • Solus Jesus: A Theology of Resistance by Emily Swan and Ken Wilson



[1] 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.

[2] Columbia Law School (Interview, 2017). Kimberlé Crenshaw on Intersectionality, More than Two Decades Later. 

[3] Reddo-Lodge, R. (2020). Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race. Bloomsbury Publishing.

[4] John 4:7-14, CEB

[5] John 4:26, CEB

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