Foundations for trauma-informed ministry: It begins with us, Part I

“Nobody escapes being wounded. We are all wounded people, whether physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. The main question is not, 'How can we hide our wounds?' so we don't have to be embarrassed, but 'How can we put our woundedness in the service of others?' When our wounds cease to be a source of shame, and become a source of healing, we have become wounded healers.”
—Henri Nouwen [1]

In our sophomore year of college, we moved into a brand new dormitory. In order to secure this coveted spot, we had applied with a select group of friends. So, starry-eyed and hopeful, we locked in our spot with little thought for the complicated logistics of moving seven women and all of their stuff into a suite with four rooms.

One of us took it upon herself to devise a carefully-crafted plan outlining who would be paired as roommates in this new space, ensuring that everyone had a place to belong in the group. The other, surprised by this sudden turn of events, felt bewildered and even abandoned by the oblivious organizer of the group because the plan did not involve us being roommates as we had discussed.

Without realizing it, both of us were acting from our values, which in this case were deeply conflicting. While the organizer was committed to a naive vision of radical inclusion to prevent the kind of exclusion she had experienced, the other was responding to a history of abandonment and neglect. 

After weeks of building tensions, we eventually stumbled into an uncomfortably honest and emotional conversation. We acknowledged that we had both been operating out of wounded feelings and undisclosed values. In doing so, we were able to take responsibility for ourselves and see to the heart of the other’s intentions. There was healing between us—healing that we then needed as a foundation for the coming year of challenges presented by living in very close quarters with five other women. Anyone who has ever lived in a small dorm suite knows exactly what we mean!

What we learned is that we didn’t know what we didn’t know. To put it another way, we witnessed in real time the way our unexamined convictions, our relational dynamics, and our respective trauma clashed spectacularly—all because of a truly innocent lack of awareness. Our eyes were opened to the complex nature of relationships and the dire need for self-awareness.

Fast forward nearly ten years, and we have both become care-giving professionals, coming into our own just as the world began to shut down in an extended season of what mental health professionals call “long-term collective trauma.” In layman’s terms, we are all suffering—physically, mentally, spiritually—even as we begin to look toward the horizon of what’s next.

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So that begs the question: what’s next? Well, as a pastor and a therapist, we both agree that it is nearly impossible to begin treating others’ wounds without first claiming our own. What must be next is each of us seeking healing and wholeness by turning inward and committing to the work of examining our own trauma.

With that being said, you may have heard this common advice offered to those of us tasked with preaching the gospel: “Never preach from your wounds, only from your scars.” While there is much wisdom there, to be sure, we would argue that there must also be nuance. These days, we are constantly being wounded; it would be impossible to only ever preach (or teach, or lead, or care) from our scars. One thing we can be certain of is that suffering will continue to happen—both to us and around us.

When we take this kind of restrictive approach to leading too far, we can even begin to “shield ourselves from this pain because it scares us” without even realizing it.[2] In an attempt to exert control, in an attempt to manage our image as leaders, we can repress our own suffering. In doing so, we can subconsciously build internal walls that can prevent us from engaging with our own pain or, worse, that can prompt us into creating and curating an image of ourselves that is entirely untethered from our painful reality. The result is this unreasonable phenomenon we as church leaders bump into constantly and, perhaps, even contribute to: a cultural understanding of pastors/other leaders in the church as those who “have it all together.”

What an unrealistic burden to grapple with—a burden that is as harmful to those we serve as it is to us. To resist the temptation to give into this toxic image of performative perfection, we must find ways to soften ourselves, to name our own wounds, to intentionally step into spaces where we embrace rather than dismiss the reality of human suffering—beginning with our suffering.

We believe a more realistic and holistic approach actually does begin with preaching and leading and caring from our wounds, but here’s the catch: we can only do so once we have begun the healing process. This is the more nuanced approach to leading in the midst of such great trauma. We can responsibly do our work from a place of woundedness as long as we are actively seeking healing for those wounds. In preparation for these demands that leadership in ministry will place on us, we must begin to travel down the road toward healing. 

Over time, this journey really will provide us with the tools we need to responsibly engage the wounds we will experience in ourselves and in others—tools we will use before, during, and after each encounter of trauma.

The first step of the journey is to turn inward and, like Job’s friends accompanying him on the ash heap, sit with our inner wounded selves.[3] This is a deeply uncomfortable process that requires us to hit the “pause” button, or to set aside the current moment so that we might look deep within and examine every part of what makes us who we are: the good, the bad, the ugly, the traumatized. In the midst of this process, we must also find ways to do this painful inner work without judging or condemning these parts of ourselves.

We can begin by asking this simple question: what are my unhealed traumas? Identifying these bleeding wounds can be an incredibly slow process that often requires our full emotional and mental capacity. It is important to note that this will always be ongoing work; because we are constantly being wounded, this perpetual need to be able to unearth unprocessed trauma—both from the past and as it happens to us in the moment—will be our constant companion.

The next step, once we are able to begin this lifelong work of examining our wounds, is to proactively identify the negative beliefs that we carry with us in the here and now that are rooted in our unhealed trauma. These beliefs, once identified, can often be expressed in the following ways: I am unlovable/unworthy, I am alone, I am powerless/helpless, or I have to be perfect/please everyone. When those beliefs feel overwhelming, as they would be for anyone but particularly for those of us working in care professions, we can turn to the comforting words of Jesus and the witness of the Holy Spirit, whose voice reminds us of our belovedness.

Once we identify these negative narratives and seek out the comfort we need, we can begin to deconstruct. Try sitting with the following questions:

  • “When is the first time in my life that I remember thinking this about myself?”

  • “How was this negative belief a reflection of an unmet need that my younger/wounded self experienced?”

  • “How can I begin to recognize that, in the here and now, I can show up for myself in the ways I’ve always needed and in that process witness my own capacity to care for myself?”

  • “How can I become softened toward my own wounds as I prepare to turn outward and address the complex trauma and brokenness of the people and the world around me?”

Even as you examine these potential narratives and read these questions, you may discover wounds within yourself that you didn't even know existed. It is vital to remember that these are suggestions/tools best utilized alongside mental health providers who are equipped to engage trauma and point us toward healing.

As we begin to do this self-care (in the truest sense of the word), we will learn the truth: this formative work is just the tip of the iceberg. Becoming trauma-informed will require continuous self-reflection, spiritual care, and/or therapy. However, with patience and discipline, this work will become the necessary foundation from which we can then take the first steps toward preaching, teaching, leading and caring as trauma-informed servant leaders.

The good news is that this isn’t a journey we must walk alone. The good news is that this isn’t guess work; in fact, there is already a map, a trail, a model of discipleship for us to follow. The good news (or the gospel you might say), is that the cornerstone of this kind of life is actually Jesus Christ, whose own traumatized and resurrected body bore witness to his wounds and revealed to us the hope of a life made whole by love.


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


[1] Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society (New York: Doubleday, 2013).

[2] Pema, Chödrön, The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times (Boulder: Shambhala Publications, 2007).

[3] See Job 2:11-13.

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