6 Ways Clergy and Church Leaders Can Build Trauma-Sensitive Parishes

This week we revisit a post we originally published in August 2020, which describes ways parishes can better serve wounded people by incorporating an understanding of trauma into parish work.

By Erin O’Donnell
Editor, Awake Blog

Psychologists and others who work with victim-survivors of sexual abuse say that this type of abuse is so pervasive that many people sitting in church on any given Sunday have experienced some form of it—perpetrated by family members or friends, clergy or coaches, scout leaders or babysitters. Add in the people who have suffered intimate partner violence or verbal abuse, and a surprising number of people in a congregation are carrying traumatic wounds.

Given that reality, some trauma experts now suggest that every parish needs clergy and church staff who are trained to recognize trauma in the people they serve, to acknowledge their wounds, and to support them in getting help.

What do church leaders need to know about trauma? We spoke to two experts: Stephen Saunders, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and professor and chair of the psychology department at Marquette University in Milwaukee, and author of A Christian Guide to Mental Illness; and Hilary Jerome Scarsella, Ph.D., assistant professor of ethics and director of women’s and gender studies at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School in New York. Scarsella is also director of theological integrity at Into Account, an organization that supports victim-survivors of sexual violence in faith-based settings.

Saunders and Scarsella offer these reflections on how church leaders can better serve people with traumatic wounds.

1. Be Alert to Trauma Symptoms, and Honor Them.

People who have been abused in some way do not necessarily carry wounds on their body, Saunders says, nor will they easily share that they are being abused or have been at some point in their past. But if clergy encounter people who are anxious or depressed or using substances such as alcohol or drugs, they should consider that there may be “some sort of traumatic experience that is going on in the present or in their past,” Saunders explains, adding that victim-survivors often exhibit excessively low self-esteem.

Scarsella, who has worked with ministers from a variety of Christian denominations, says that because some church leaders are only beginning to understand trauma, many respond to survivors by dismissing them as overly emotional, purposefully difficult, or attention-seeking. “I would want them to understand that trauma is real and that the ways it shapes survivors’ emotions and modes of communication demand respect rather than dismissal,” she says.

2. Know That Their Faith is on the Line.

When trauma survivors reach out to the Church for support but are not met with compassion, “people leave the Church,” Saunders says. “We can’t go back in time and change their traumatic experiences, but we can give them understanding. We can give them the message: ‘You are lovable, and you are loved by God.’ If the Church doesn’t offer this, then people will leave the Church under the assumption that God is cruel, God doesn’t care, and somehow they don’t deserve God’s love.”

Traumatic experiences shape how survivors look at the world, Scarsella says. When clergy don’t consider how victim-survivors might experience aspects of a liturgy, such as a homily or certain songs, “you’re just about guaranteed to re-traumatize people who are already struggling to survive deep injustices,” she says. “Survivors tend to say that the trauma of betrayal and abandonment by their communities of faith is more severe and longer lasting than the initial trauma of the assault itself.”

3. Signal Your Support.

You may never know whom in your parish is a survivor. But clergy and parish staff can find ways to begin to signal to survivors that the parish supports them. For example, add prayers for people who are suffering emotionally and spiritually to the General Intercessions. Place a weekly announcement in the parish bulletin or on the website, explaining that Catholic Social Services offers psychotherapy for a range of problems. Mention trauma and abuse while preaching. Make parish donations to women’s shelters. Put information about support for sexual abuse and domestic violence in parish restrooms. “If I hear a prayer and see a paragraph in the bulletin every week, I realize, ‘Oh, this church knows,’” Saunders says.

4. Refer Victims for Mental Health Help.

When people come to clergy seeking help for their suffering, priests and deacons often feel driven to serve all their needs, Saunders says. “Clergy sometimes make the mistake of thinking, ‘Well, this is an emotional hurt, which is not really that far from spiritual hurt,’” he says. But Saunders says trauma survivors are better served by a psychologist trained to address trauma. He recommends that priests create a “clear referral system,” such as a list of five therapists, with contact info, that the priest knows and trusts. Saunders says that in an ideal world the priest would also say, “I want to see you again. I’m not qualified to help you with this mental illness, but your spiritual hurt is my job, and I want to see you again.”

5. Read To Develop Trauma Literacy.

“It’s my opinion that trauma should be thoroughly covered in seminary training,” Scarsella says, and she encourages Catholics to “push hard for this as a basic competency for pastoral care.” If clergy and other leaders do not have such educational resources available to them, she suggests two books as starting points: Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman, which she describes as an introductory primer, and The Abuse of Power: A Theological Problem by James Polling.

Scarsella and Saunders both consult with individual church communities; Saunders runs seminars teaching clergy and church leaders about mental health and trauma. In Scarsella’s work with Into Account, she often works with churches that “are trying to figure out how to minister well in the wake of sexual violence. It’s difficult terrain to navigate, and having a guide who already knows the lay of the land can really help.”

6. Listen for the Voice of God in the Traumatized.

Scarsella believes that people on the margins, including those who have been victimized by sexual violence and are living with trauma, “have a special kind of attention from God.”

“I think we should view survivors like prophets,” Scarsella says. “They are speaking a sharp word, showing us an uncomfortable reality, and inviting us to step into God’s desire to address that sharp, difficult reality well.”   

Erin O’Donnell is a freelance journalist and member of Saints Peter and Paul Parish. She lives on Milwaukee’s East Side with her husband and two sons.

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