What makes a PTSD friendly church?

In a few months I will be speaking to church leaders as to how to improve the capacity of the church to be a safe place for victims of abuse. I have a number of suggestions for them but I am interested in hearing from readers things that churches (leaders) do that make the church a safer place for those who have been abused by those in positions of power. What have you actually seen done that helped you (or someone you cared about) feel at home and increasingly safer in the church community? Of course, consider the flip side as well: what has been done that made you feel less safe.


Filed under Abuse, Christianity

18 responses to “What makes a PTSD friendly church?

  1. Rachel

    One thing that I found tremendously helpful as a PTSD survivor was offering the choice of a name badge with first name only. This made me feel safer, knowing it would be harder (though certainly not impossible) for me to be stalked. As a side benefit, friends who were recently divorced indicated this was helpful for them too as they struggle with the name change/issue.

    My congregation has offered studies on “emotions anonymous,” groups for recently widowed, etc, often partnering with other churches to provide support and community.

    Structurally, it helped too to have multiple exits in the sanctuary. If I felt I needed to leave to collect myself, there were several choices so I didn’t feel as many people would stare.

    Avoiding pronouns for God and using God, Godself, the Divine, etc. also helped. I know images as “God the father” can be helpful for some and are inevitable, but can also be triggering; it helps to have variety and other ways of talking about God too.

    I hope you post your presentation or a summary; I’m very interested in what you have to say.

  2. beckycastlemiller

    One thing that makes me feel less safe is a church that doesn’t take my concerns seriously. In a previous church, I brought up to the leaders my concerns about someone involved in children’s ministry. He was exhibiting classic symptoms of grooming victims for sexual abuse. He had a consistent type, and they were precisely the age he had in his Sunday school class. I witnessed inappropriate physical and verbal interactions on multiple occasions with multiple girls. Other mothers also brought similar concerns about the same person to the leaders. More than one told leaders that she would be taking her children out of Sunday school before they got old enough to be in this person’s class. I also collected testimony from young women who had experienced way out-of-line conversations and physical encounters with this person, going back years. But because “nothing had happened,” and they didn’t have any “evidence,” leaders refused to take any action. They would not temporarily remove this person from direct contact with children while investigating. As far as I know, they never did any investigating. They would not even sit down with this person and bring up the concerns and ask about what was going on. That terrified me as a mother. If we hadn’t moved, I would have taken my children out of the children’s ministry as well.

    • D. Stevenson

      Wow! I shared similar concerns with a high school principal about one of the teachers. I don’t know if it was because of what I shared, or maybe what I shared was part of a mix. This teacher was up for tenure. I observed he was not there the following year.

      Perhaps these leaders didn’t take your concerns seriously because they don’t understand the problem.

      Where I attend now, I don’t know or sense anything bad going on, yet I am uneasy because I don’t see safety structures. (Knowledge, training, awareness, rules on who helps and how). It think that makes it easier for an abuser to infiltrate and also easier for them to go unrecognized.

  3. I am eager to hear what comes out of this!

  4. D. Stevenson

    I see how some abuse fits PTSD criteria…,

    “The person was exposed to: death, threatened death, actual or threatened serious injury, or actual or threatened sexual violence”

    …but it seems…, do you think, PTSD can come from lesser abuse, even emotional, spiritual? Also, it’s possible isn’t it, for a person to have a lot of symptoms that someone with PTSD has, but not enough to give them the actual diagnosis, right? Are you also including those people when you say PTSD?

    • I do think people can have the symptoms of PTSD from “lesser” abuses. Any abuse that removes voice, agency, power can do this. I have seen the symptoms in a person who found out that his parents weren’t biological parents (at about age 19 due to a drunk relative). The parents had lied to their child and afterwards he had all the symptoms for at least a year. There are some who would fight against the diagnosis being made due to “watering down” the diagnosis. But just as 2 people can go through a brush with death and have different reactions, I think 2 people can have very different reactions to spiritual abuse.

  5. chewing taffy

    No “forced” hugging. At greeting time, at one church, it was “turn and hug your neighbor.” ACK! Also, scripturally sound sermons that don’t turn suffering into a sin problem. Or, worse, promise God’s protection for Christians.

    • D. Stevenson

      I don’t like having a mandatory greeting time, period. Sometimes a person just needs to hide but still wants to come to the church service.

      Besides, I want to be real with people. It seems to me that “greet your neighbor” reinforces shallow relationships.

  6. Lynn

    I was part of a small group once at church that was only hurting people – we shared teaching responsibilities and the group was by invitation only – pastors, their wives, or by someone in the group. It was really helpful to then worship with people who knew my struggles.

    I had a pastor once who preached a couple verses at a time through different books of the Bible. This was helpful because I could anticipate the next topic – and I often wrote letters to him about why certain passages bothered me – he always responded in his sermon to my queries with great compassion. It’s hard to go and talk to men when you’ve been abused by men.

    I find all male leadership incredibly uncomfortable to deal with. And when a denomination can’t pass a resolution regarding child protection it’s even harder to trust the leadership.

  7. Andrea Madden

    Listening and believing what I have to say about my experience especially from leadership. As Phil replied to D. Stevenson, each person responds differently to similar experiences. Just because the hearer might not respond to my experiences as I have, does not give them the right to judge. I know some might take advantage of those who consistently believe the best of another, but discounting is harmful. Long term exposure to “low level” abuse can grow to PTSD.
    Boundaries. Al-anon helped me tremendously. I felt much safer and better understood in that environment of non-believers than in the church. Some of that is the confidentiality. Some is the listening without responding and some is the private, empathetic conversations that follow a willingness to share. Gossip is a huge problem in the church. “Sharing prayer requests” can be dangerous.
    Humility. Please do not rush to “fix” me. It takes grace, truth and time as Henry Cloud as so aptly teaches. I would as genuine, God breathed love to that formula, making it the primary ingredient.
    I guess I would sum it up by asking the church to fulfill the first two commandments….

  8. For me, I prefer a more “cafe” type of atmosphere. No or few religious icons, no expectation to dress a certain way, maybe a coffee bar or machine. Things that make me feel like I’m just going to be with friends rather than to perform a spiritual exercise.

    I know a big thing for me at my church is that everyone addressed the pastor by his first name rather than a title.

    I also can’t stand pews and pulpits. And religious memes on church signs are the worst! 🙂

  9. jenny

    Know what the Bible really teaches about forgiving others. Keep trauma victims in mind when doing sermons on forgiving others. Don’t run around telling people to forgive and forget carelessly when you have no clue what they are trying to forgive or reconcile. Educate other Christians to be aware of how many around silently suffer and cannot handle clichés like this one.

  10. I still wonder (like Andrea above suggests) if I have PTSD from long-term “low-level” abuse. I know I trigger off of certain personalities, and my “rational” mind wrestles with my intuitive “read” of an individual.

    That is, if a leader makes the “right decisions” or speaks “correctly” I feel obligated to “give the benefit or the doubt” and “assume the best.” But once I’m in that mode, it pretty much means You’ve lost me, or I’ve lost me.

    In some cases– like long-term relationships– I’m getting strong enough to say when a line has been crossed, but in a new/public setting like the church, I either feel trapped in my old (obligatory) patterns, or I want to run away.

    A pastor recently did just the right thing, listening, affirming my pain, seeing my leaving a bad situation not as a warning to him or a liability on the church, but as a point of need (something that should be acknowledged) and connection. That was the right thing.

    I come into a church asking for information, because my smallness and brokenness doesn’t know what else I’m “allowed” to ask for yet. One place responded exactly to what I asked for, the other created space and spoke to what I needed.

  11. Ei

    I attended a church once that was very friendly and positive, but during the worship service they kept the sanctuary completely dark, like a movie theatre, with just enough light to see the seats. Being in a dark room full of people I didn’t know and could not really see was incredibly uncomfortable. I am not afraid of the dark, but not really being able to see who was where– well no amount of positive interactions could compensate for how uncomfortable that made me.

  12. As a counselor, I have seen where these situations often come too late to the attention of church leaders; and then are mishandled for the following reasons. 1) Male church leaders need to seriously listen to a wife when she voices such concerns; and do more than an in house investigation of the she-said, he-said variety. 2) A discerning application of biblical forgiveness needs to be applied. The tearful confession of a man who has been abusing his wife for years needs a fuller demonstration of a truly repentant heart than just his tears and the testimony of others (including his wife) that his confession was sincere. 3) He should be required to “walk his talk,” to demonstrate the good fruit of repentance in all areas of his marriage. Loving your wife like Christ loved the church covers more than just the physical or sexual abuse of a spouse. True repentance from abuse would show a husband progressively laying down his life in all areas of his marriage. 4) There should also be ongoing, long term accountability for the couple as well.

  13. Hp

    I think one of the most important things I’ve found lacking in churches when it comes to “dealing with” people who suffer from PTSD is the lack of empathy. Try not to treat us like we are a potential problem that needs to be monitored.
    There is a huge difference between being aware of someone’s issues in order to understand them and support them and being suspicious of someone’s potential riskfactor.

    I’ve seen many people be judged harshly for struggling with the on going affects of PTSD. Condemnation isn’t something that’s going to help anyone.
    Be mindful of the time it can take for someone to piece their life back together after trauma is so important and you may not always understand why people do it like they do. Don’t have any expectations. That’s not to say people with PTSD should never be challenged or encouraged to grow beyond their current situations, but just be sure not to apply pressure that will increase anxiety. Tread carefully.
    That’s not to assume that everyone facing it is fragile and overly sensitive, but don’t assume just because you’re aware that someone has been through trauma that they’re looking to be patched together by sister super Christian (well meaning though she may be!).

    One more thing I’ve seen a lot is people getting caught up in wanting to sooth people’s pain, which is obviously not coming from a place of bad intent – but it can be so damaging.
    Don’t promise you’ll always be there for someone or that you will walk with them every step of the way because reality is, you don’t know their level of need or what the future hold.
    I was told (particularly when I was younger) so many times that people believed god had placed them in my life to help show me real love/to walk me through the healing process, only to retract that statement a few months later.

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