Faith

Trauma Informed Priorities for Adult Christian Formation

Predictability, flexibility, connection and empowerment help stabilize adult learners so that they can continue to grow into full disciples, even while experiencing ongoing trauma and grief.

Trauma is a response to an event that threatens a person’s well being and overwhelms their ability to cope. This experience can be understood as physically threatening or psychologically and socially threatening, and trauma shows up differently and is experienced differently among people and communities.

As we continue to navigate ministry during a pandemic, heading into what many consider “the program year,” we minister to communities that are struggling with grief and trauma. We are adapting and shifting many of our typical practices of ministry.

Alex Shevrin Venet, a professional development facilitator and educator who focuses on trauma-informed educational practice, offers great insights for classroom teachers providing trauma-informed distance learning. I’ve adapted Shevrin Venet’s insights with a lens of Christian formation and grief ministry, with particular considerations for those who are conducting this work digitally and with physical distancing restrictions.

Here are four guiding priorities for how to be grief aware and trauma informed as we proclaim the gospel and lead formation this fall.

Predictability

In her book Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief, Pauline Boss writes that “of all the losses experienced in personal relationships, ambiguous loss is the most devastating because it remains unclear, indeterminate… People hunger for certainty.” The pandemic has shaken loose our certainties: of health, routine, work and economy, when to expect “normal” again, and of course, the routines and predictabilities of our church life and community. You might even find that losses and interruptions continue to reveal themselves as we pass our usual markers of time: feasts, celebrations, or milestones.

  • Create a ritual for your online gatherings. This might be an opening collect, a group prayer request check in, or a brief contemplative practice.
  • Practice continuous technology instruction. This should include clear and repeated instruction about technology use (such as where to connect digitally or how to type a question into the Zoom chat) and general digital etiquette to build a sense of trust in participating.
  • Look for sustainable and meaningful ways to translate rhythms of the church year into your teaching. Bring in conversation about liturgical seasons, back to school practices, and other regular life events of the church.
  • Emphasize that God’s promise and presence is certain, even when life is not.

Scripture meditation for predictability: “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.” (Isaiah 40:8)

Flexibility

In this work to create predictability during uncertain times, too much rigidity can actually backfire. Adaptation is the name of the game, and we must remember to adapt our expectations for participation. After all, what happens when the internet servers fail and livestreams sputter? How do we respond when deep conversations are suddenly interrupted by children, pets, or an unfortunate failure to mute? What are we doing to create formation opportunities for folks who are exhausted by screen use?

  • Offer non-anxious reminders to virtual groups that technology may fail occasionally, but the community of the church hasn’t gone anywhere. We are all trying our best and learning as we go.
  • Provide recaps of previous conversations and material at each gathering to create a cohesive learning and community experience for folks who have missed a gathering.
  • Look for simple ways to share paper materials for formation with those who lack technical capacity or are not able or interested in joining another hour of screen time each week.
  • Remind folks that humility, openness, flexibility, and grace are God’s good gifts to us and are key for showing love to ourselves and others.

Scripture meditation for flexibility: “The fear of the Lord is instruction in wisdom, and humility goes before honor.” (Proverbs 15:33)

Connection

Relationships are the fabric of resilience, and support and mutuality are key for developing safe and trauma-informed communities. With the loss of so many informal points of contact during the week, many of us miss the ordinary details of each others lives and are struggling with isolation. Online communications can easily be misinterpreted, and gaps in communication among community members can be understood as lack of care. More than ever we need to be formed in discipleship as an intentional community of believers.

  • Use break out rooms or report backs to create space for informal sharing about the week, or reflection questions that prompt sharing about how formation content relates to daily life.
  • Invite prayer requests and leave plenty of listening time for both concerns and joys.
  • Include continuous reminders of how folks can connect with fellowship, worship, pastoral care, and other opportunities within the formation time.
  • Look for opportunities to affirm the love and connection of God and God’s people. Encourage practice of faith in clear ways that remind folks that they are the church, whether we gather in person or not.

Scripture meditation for connection: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38–39)

Empowerment

A significant indicator of traumatic impact is a sense of powerlessness, and when we navigate a slew of impossible choices, face limited engagement with the world, and are uncertain about our community safety and health, there can be loss of feeling agency over our lives. This can be particularly heightened for community members who are at higher risk of exposure and complication, for those who are struggling with unemployment as a result of the pandemic, and particularly for those in unstable family, household, or intimate relationships.

  • Avoid reproducing feelings of powerlessness by allowing participants to opt-in to spiritual practices or sharing.
  • Invite appropriate feedback about practices, topics, scheduling, and method of formation to better meet needs in the community and build energy around formation offerings.
  • Don’t forget community outreach and the ministry of all baptized Christians as the way we put our Christian Education into practice. Encourage agency in community care ministry through letter writing and calls, arranging meals, celebrating life events, and connecting in person where safe to do so.
  • Remember that God makes a way out of no way, and it is the grace and strength of the Holy Spirit that has sustained in the past and will strengthen us today.

Scripture meditation for empowerment: “The Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him.” (Exodus 15:2)


References:

Pauline Boss.  Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Kara Newhouse. “Four Core Priorities for Trauma-Informed Distance Learning.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. “SAMHSA’s Concept of Trauma and Guidance for a Trauma-Informed Approach.

All scripture is taken from the New Revised Standard Version.

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