By Susan Clabaugh
Recently I ventured out of my comfort zone to try and join a group at my church. As Christians, we need community. Trauma survivors, who have tendencies toward loneliness, have an added layer of that need.
It was a hard step because people who haven’t endured any form of trauma don’t always understood my added struggles. Places and people don’t always feel safe to me and other survivors.
Because of COVID we had to meet for what they call “Group Connect” via Zoom and then separate into breakout groups. We had a leader assigned to us each for the three-weeks duration of Group Connect.
I asked many questions of the leadership about the entire process: Would this be our leader or someone else? Would this be our final group? Do we have to commit to a year upfront when we don’t yet know these people?
I’ll admit: With a trauma history, sometimes communication can be difficult to navigate. Sometimes, my questions can come across as attacks or insults. But most of the time, they’re simply honest questions.
After I submitted my questions, I received an email from a pastor on staff who was involved in the groups ministry—someone I had never met nor communicated with.
His response was a page long, explaining to me that they had successfully placed many people in groups and that no one has questioned the process like I had.
This minister couldn’t have known about my trauma history. Like this person, there’s a high probability most church leaders don’t know about all the trauma survivors in their congregations.
I write for two reasons. The first is to explain to church leaders they should extend grace when there are excessive questions about a ministry; you don’t know what they’ve endured, whether inside or outside the church.
The second reason is provide some suggestions for ministering to someone you learn is a trauma survivor.
It would be easy for me to internalize the minister’s sharp response to me as an accusation. But upon further processing of this communication I realized this is likely a common occurrence for not just me, but all trauma survivors.
We have unique needs in the context of the local church. Here are some ideas of how we view things as trauma survivors and how you can help us as you minister.
1. We don’t feel safe just because we’re in church.
Just because you’re a minister or affiliate with a church doesn’t mean you’re a safe person to a trauma survivor.
Many people don’t question their safety, but those who endured trauma need many assurances before they feel safe. This means they may not meet with you in person if they haven’t had the chance to get to know you.
2. We see the world through a unique lens.
Because they’ve endured evil, trauma survivors are aware that things are not always what they always appear to be.
Therefore, they don’t take things at face value, but read into the situation what the intent truly is. This can cause miscommunication because you don’t always understand that a trauma survivor’s goal is safety.
I can confidently say most church leaders’ intentions are good. So, how can we not understand that? Those of us who have endured evil know it can come from anyone at any time. No one is exempt.
It takes longer for our trust to grow until we see someone being consistent in their treatment of us and in their displays of character.
3. We crave clarity more than the average person.
Anxiety is very common to our everyday lives. We need understand the who, what, why, and when of what is going on to feel safe and reduce anxiety.
This means we’ll ask more questions than most. The best approach to fielding the questions of a trauma survivor is to be as open as you can, listen closely, and give answers.
Another tip for communicating with a trauma survivor in your church is to extend grace when a question seems more like an attack; anxiety can show up as anger to many others.
The question is not if—but when—you’ll encounter trauma survivors in your church. Overall, showing kindness and compassion will go a long way with trauma survivors.
The next time you’re communicating with someone in your church who seems a bit on edge, consider what you may not know about them.
When we feel heard and respected, trauma survivors are far more likely to feel welcome and accepted by you and your church. And the church should be a soft place to land for trauma survivors.