Tag Archives: trauma

Healing Church: Master class 5.13.2021


This Thursday, May 13, 2021, 1-3pm EDT. $15 for registration but you will receive a copy of JR Brigg’s book mailed to you. To register, click here.

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Speaking of tragedy can be the start of hope


Just finished listening to Krista Tippett interview Bryan Doerries in her latest On Being episode. Well worth your time if you have the chance to hear it. The discussion centers on the need to speak and name suffering, especially that suffering which leads to moral distress and feelings of shame. To tell without “whitewashing” requires both teller and listener to talk about things they would rather not discuss. Honest telling and honest listening are necessary. Blinders and self-deception of both teller and listener must fall to the ground without defensive response. The telling that leads to healing is not merely voicing pain–though that can be helpful–but having the audience be impacted and to acknowledge their own action, inaction, blindness in situations that led them to feel similar feelings as the one who was narrating the story.

We begin to hope when we see we are not alone. We begin to hope when we do not need to shrink back from the ongoing pain in our lives.

Bryan is the creator of Theater of War, a production company and public health initiative that brings together Greek tragedies and town hall discussions exploring social challenges of today. He reveals how he ended up working with Greek tragedies to create space for people to talk about things they normally hide. He spoke of the death of his girlfriend,

…when she died, the thing that actually hurt the most wasn’t her loss, it was the fact that nobody wanted to talk about it. And the more I tried to talk about all these things I had observed and experienced, not just in her dying but in the months leading up to it, the more people seemed to recoil. And it took me about a hundred performances of Theater of War and some of our other projects to realize that, at a very core level, the work that I’ve been doing for the last 12 years has been about creating the conditions where people will talk about it.

Quotation from On Being interview, published April 2021

One of they key learnings from my work with the trauma healing program is that when communities lament together, when they allow for specific naming of pain suffered by part or the whole of a community, something changes in that community. Bryan articulates the same in his understanding of the purpose of Greek plays,

[The purpose of Greek tragedy is] to communalize trauma, to create the conditions where — the word “amphitheater” in Greek means “the place where we go to see in both directions.” “Amphi-” — I see you, you see me; both directions. “Theatron” — the seeing place. So we go to the amphitheater in the fifth century, B.C., to see each other, to see ourselves; to see that we are not the only people to have felt this isolated or this ashamed or this betrayed — not just because it’s being enacted onstage, but because people around us in this semicircular structure are all validating and acknowledging the truth of what we’re watching.

What is it that is unnamed that needs naming? Doerries identifies the trauma of betrayal as most salient,

...betrayal is the wound that cuts the deepest. You can call it whatever you want, moral distress, moral injury, but really, it’s betrayal — feeling abandoned or betrayed, or betraying oneself and one’s sense of what’s right. 

There are many kinds of betrayals. I’ve written on this site about betrayal trauma that comes with spiritual and sexual abuse and so will not discuss those now. But, one other way we betray each other is to attempt to over-simplify complex and painful experiences of others. Bryan and Krista talk about allowing frontline workers in the pandemic to name their moral distress without responding with a whitewash of hero talk. In recent months I’ve talked with individuals who have expressed guilt/shame over their treatment of sexual minorities in their religious communities. It would be easy for us to offer quick responses depending on our own belief systems. “You were doing the best you knew how, but now you know better.” Or, “You are only feeling this way because a vocal minority is shaming you.” Neither response allows the person to name their pain. And neither response acknowledges that every listener has had similar experiences that they too have not wanted to name.

Creating spaces for tragedies to be told

What can we each do to support the telling of tragedies? We may not be able to put on theater productions or start town-meetings but we can be better friends.

  1. We can ask questions that invite someone who seems to want to tell their tragic tale to continue speaking
    • What did you feel when that happened? How did what happen change you and your perspective?
    • What did you wish your friends knew or would say/do when you were going through that suffering? is there any part of the story you have always wanted to tell but were afraid to do so?
    • When have you felt understood, less alone, even if only for a second?
  2. Without being superficial and without interrupting with your own story, notice where you have felt similar feelings. Where have you felt shame? Betrayed? Isolated? Conflicted? In moral distress? Guilty? Don’t try to erase their feelings but sit with the reality that you too know of what they speak. Don’t rush to change the feelings?
  3. Before your conversation is over (or in another future conversation if more appropriate), ask a couple more questions
    • How have you survived? What is one trait of yours you wish others could see more clearly?
    • How would you like our community/church/setting to respond to you? (Don’t look for solutions and don’t press for action)
    • What if anything gives you encouragement today?

Look for signs of life. Remember that communal healing happens when those who were wounded experience healing and then begin to bring healing to broken systems. The healing of a community does not happen because the healthy do the work. It is because the sick become the healers. Isaiah 61:3b-4 reminds us that when the God heals the broken and the blind,

They will be called oaks of righteousness,
    a planting of the Lord
    for the display of his splendor.

They will rebuild the ancient ruins
    and restore the places long devastated;
they will renew the ruined cities
    that have been devastated for generations.

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Free online master class with Diane Langberg on redeeming power


Forum of Christian Leaders will be hosting Dr. Langberg for a 3 hour master class on March 20, 2021. The forum is entitled, Redeeming Power: Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church. For more information on how to register for this session, please check out this flyer.

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Join me at this virtual conference this week: Grace for the Broken: Preventing Ministry Burnout


I’m participating in a free virtual conference for church leaders entitled: Grace for the Broken: Preventing Ministry Burnout. Conference sessions are free when shown live. For those who want an all access pass for viewing later, they offer the entire conference for $47 until March 11. Here are the links:

Conference information and free registration

All access pass for purchase.

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Welcoming faith-sensitive mental health care: An op ed


In June, one national study indicated that 40% of Americans admitted to currently struggling with a mental health condition or addiction. Where will people turn? Many people of faith turn to their church leaders. Others turn to mental health care providers.

In either case, people of faith would like help. They want their clergy to be competent to understand the complex experiences they are having. They want their therapists to respect and even engage their faith questions. While we are doing better training both clergy and therapists, we still have a ways to go.

Here’s an op-ed I wrote and published today discussing our need to improve faith-sensitive mental health care. Take a look. How can we take the next step in improving the care that people of faith are seeking?

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Trauma in America, unveiling a Barna study in a webinar


in 2019, American Bible Society sponsored a study comparing chronic trauma in both churched and unchurched populations. It is out now and you can learn about it on a free webinar on August 6 at 2 pm EDT. I will be one of the guests talking about the implications of the research findings and how pastors and church leaders can be part of the healing path.

Sign up here. If you attend, Barna will give you a discount code if you want to purchase a print or digital copy of the monograph.

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Looking for online trauma related resources related to COVID-19?


If you are looking for learning opportunities or materials to use with your friends or church community, check out some of these links:

Learning opportunities:

Beyond Disaster and COVID related materials for use in small groups

The Trauma Healing Institute has a number of resources you may find helpful. Each one below is found here.

  • Beyond Disaster. A small booklet that can be read alone or shared in F2F or online settings.
  • Using Beyond Disaster in Small Groups. A guide to use the BD booklet.
  • 2 lessons related to the distress of COVID-19, one for adults and one for familys with young school-aged children.

For more materials as well as these materials in other languages, check out http://www.disasterrelief.bible

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When don’t we support victims of abuse?


At the American Bible Society, where I work, those of us involved in trauma healing often say that what gets us up in the morning is our mission to equip the church to be a safe place, a place of hope and healing, for traumatized individuals. I think most Christians want to believe that the church is a safe place for the most vulnerable among us.

But this has not been the case for far to many who report child or adult abuse and harassment.

Now, as a son of a pastor, I am well aware of the challenges pastors and church leaders have in leading their congregations. Frequently, the leaders need the wisdom of Solomon, especially in cases of life and death conflict. The work of pastoring through abuse allegations is never easy. Don’t let your love of the church stop you from reading the rest!

I imagine we all believe that the Church can do so much better. And we ought to be asking ourselves, why have we failed as much as we have? In theory, we are always against abuse and always for protecting the vulnerable. But it does not always play out this way.

Consider what responses might be given to these three “first meeting” vignettes:

  1. A woman comes to church leadership to seek pastoral support in light of her husband’s abusive behavior. This man is well-known to be antagonistic to church and to the Christian faith.
  2. A woman comes seeking pastoral support in light of her husband’s abusive behavior. This man is well-respected in the community and has been a Sunday School teacher for the past decade. She is also known to be a wise and careful woman.
  3. A woman comes seeking pastoral support in light of her husband’s abusive behavior. The man is involved in the church and the woman has been known to be a bit of a church hopper.

Whether or not there is objective evidence supporting her allegations what response should these women receive? Will it be the same? Will the compassion and support offered be the same for each woman? Who will be treated with more compassion, who will be treated with more suspicion (or even just neutrality)? Will the amount of circumstantial evidence influence our response?

Minto, Hornsey, Gillespie, Healy, & Jetten (2016) have attempted to research (a) whether we are more likely to fail to support abuse victims when the abuser is one of our own and (b) whether circumstantial evidence will change our position. [You can download their full-text research essay here.] Their interest was exploring how social identity (what group you are a part of and have pride in) influences how we handle allegations of abuse by fell0w group members.

Study 1. 601 individuals read a vignette of an adult male alleging that a priest sexually abused him as a ten year old. The vignette included details of the alleged abuse and the rebuttal made by the defense attorney for the priest. Catholics, Prostestants, and non-believers all rated the assumed credibility of the victim and the perpetrator. Results indicate both Catholic and Protestant individuals with high church identity were significantly more likely to defend the accused and doubt the accuser. This was especially true if their faith was central to their core identity.

Study 2. 404 individuals also read the same vignette however the level of circumstantial evidence against the priest was manipulated. For some, the survey participants learned that church authorities were not defending the priest and that there had been a previous suspension for similar behavior (i.e., higher certainty of truth). The remaining participants learned that there had been no other cases and that this case was thrown out for insufficient evidence. The results for this study indicate,

ingroup participants were more likely to defend the integrity of the accused (and to cast doubt on the accuser) than were other participants, an effect that was exclusively driven by high identifiers. Interestingly–and somewhat surprisingly–this effect was not moderated by the subjective level of certainty surrounding the guilt of the accused.

In other words, those who highly identify with the Catholic church are more likely to defend the accused even when there is considerable circumstantial evidence against that person.

While this research was carried out examining responses to Catholic priest allegations, it appears that the problem does not lie only within the Church. Consider the obstructing responses of Michigan State to allegations of Dr. Nasser’s abuse of young female athletes over the years. The authors conclude,

Our data confirm that such highly identified ingroup members are the least willing to believe that the accusations are based on fact. This helps to provide psychological explanations for qualitative and anecdotal accounts of senior group members failing to adequately follow up allegations of child sexual abuse within their institution.

But why? The authors ask, wouldn’t the ingroup members be more motivated to purify their ranks by rejecting those who are accused of bad behavior? What is gained (or lost) by standing by accusers when the there is circumstantial evidence of abuse and no evidence of circumstantial evidence of lying on the side of the accuser? This is the challenge for those of use who listen to stories of abuse that happen in our own cherished communities.

Until we solve this problem, we will stand with the young women who accused Dr. Nasser of sexual abuse because he was not one of us but refuse to do the same when the accused is one of our own.


For further reading on reasons why we fail to act well in light of abuse allegations or reports of failures to act:

  1. Why we fail to act: Sins of complicity
  2. Failures to act: Why we don’t always blow the whistle on abuse
  3. After failures: What is more important? Gospel behaviors or reduction of liability?

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Trauma-informed Churches: Clinical, Pastoral, and Theological Support for Victims of Trauma


Today I will be presenting a one hour breakout at the 2017 AACC World Conference in Nashville, TN. If you are interested in seeing the slides, down them here.

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Belief that a rape victim is responsible for the assault misunderstands what rape is all about


This morning I was reading a journal article in the latest issue of Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice & Policy (vol 9:3, special issue on South Africa). In discussing rape of women in the context of South Africa, the authors report

In a recent study, 17% of the South African women agreed that rape usually results from what a woman says or does. (p. 310)

Does this number seem high or low to you? 

While 17% do not make up the majority of women, it is not a small number either. Without being able to see the original study, I had the following questions:

  • 17% of South African women agree that rape usually is the result of female behavior. How many more believe that it is sometimes true?
  • What are the numbers for what men believe about the problem of rape?

Lest we think that this is just a problem in less evolved countries (note: that perception is offensive and false), we have the same conversation debate here in the US about whether a woman is responsible for what happens to her if she drinks too much at a party or wears the wrong sort of clothing.

What is behind rape?¹

Rape by men requires two factors: aggression and arousal. First, the rapist is aggressive and uncaring about the experience of the other, willing to take what they want by physical, verbal, or psychological force. Often (though not always) the rapist experiences anger, both during and after the rape. And second, the male must be sexually aroused in order to rape. Normally, one would think that aggression and anger would extinguish arousal but this is not the case for those who engage in rape.

What enables this pairing? Several factors are clearly involved:

  1. Obsession. When someone is obsessed with sex or power or anything at all it has a tendency to shape a person and to increase self-focus and shape beliefs about what others think and want. Wants become needs become demands. “I want” becomes “I’m deserve.” This is even true for those rapes that appear un-premeditated.
  2. Fantasy. Coupled with obsession, a person must then begin to fantasize about getting the obsession. They may find ways to normalize what they want (e.g., the other person wants it in their fantasy). No one rapes without having practiced in their mind.
  3. Objectification. Others only exist as opportunities to solve the obsession. They don’t have feelings. They don’t have needs. They don’t matter. The best example of this in Scripture is Amnon’s rape of Tamar (2 Samuel 13).
  4. Blame-shifting. The victim wanted it, asked for it, deserved it. Alcohol was the cause. They didn’t know it was wrong. They couldn’t help it. Any number of excuses may be at work to shift blame. In order to avoid the crushing weight of a stricken conscience, one would have to find a means to shift blame or deny reality.

Is there a culture of rape?

If a significant portion of a population believes either that victims of rape are responsible for the crime or that perpetrators are unable to stop themselves, then where do those beliefs come from? Culture can support these beliefs, either in an active or passive manner. Mostly commonly we see passive means at work. For example,

  • Failing to investigate he said/she said crimes and thereby failing to bring justice supports rape
  • Responding first to victims about their culpability
  • Promoting violence in media towards victims as normal and acceptable

Who is responsible for rape?

While we can say that sexual violence is multi-factorial (learning, culture, history, habits, opportunity, etc.) it is wrong to say that the victim has brought it on. In fact, a naked individual actually asking to be violated cannot succeed unless there is someone willing to respond. Drunken, flirty, scantily dressed women cannot cause rape (once again, a terrible perception that most victims fit these descriptors). Thus, the only one responsible for a rape is the one doing that act.

For Christians, this should be a no-brainer:

Luke 6:45. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.

2 Cor 5:10. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.

What can we do?

Simple acts are best.

  1. Notice and correct all “explanations” about causes of rape that do not put the blame solely on the perpetrator.²
  2. Notice and speak up about messages from the larger culture that make light of violence, especially sexual violence. In fact one special area is the sexual abuse of teen boys by female teachers. This is all to commonly treated as a win for the boy. It is not.
  3. Engage in community discussion about the shame tactics used to blame victims for their situation.

¹Rape is not only committed by males against females. And there are many reasons why men rape and many contexts in which it happens. This post is not trying to speak to all the types of rapists nor all of the contexts where it happens. It is only focusing on the rape of women by men as that was the context of the initial article.
²There is a time to discuss with both perpetrators and victims about aspect of the situation that may have contributed. A rapist may need to explore how family history or personal abuse history contributed to their acting out. A victim may also need to explore some of their own choices that may have increased their vulnerability to being victimized. The challenge is knowing when. While avoiding these conversations can be unhelpful, having them too early can be deadly to the soul.

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