Trauma’s shadow

Illustrations by Bill Bragg

Emerging research shows that ministers are no stranger to trauma, which on one hand is no surprise – they respond to it regularly in the lives of their congregations, but they’re also facing their own. The Seminary Formation Assessment Project, funded by the John Templeton Foundation, researches the formation of students in 18 North American seminaries and has collected dramatic statistics on what students are facing, including their own traumas. How they deal with that – and how they’re prepared to deal with it – will have an impact on the church. The leader of the project, David C. Wang, Ph.D., Th.M., understands this well: A professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, he’s a licensed psychologist and pastor, and an expert in trauma and spiritual formation. He recently spoke with In Trust’s Matt Hufman about trauma, formation, and theological education. Here are five takeaways from Dr. Wang in this edited transcript of the conversation.


Trauma is Ubiquitous

According to the Diagnostic Statistical Manual, a trauma is when a person has experienced or witnessed or been confronted with an event or events that involve actual or threatened death or serious injury or a threat to the physical integrity of one’s self or others. There’s a lot to unpack with this definition, the first of which is that someone can experience trauma if they witnessed or experienced a traumatic incident firsthand. And someone can also be traumatized if they weren’t actually experiencing that trauma firsthand but instead are witnessing it secondhand or experiencing it indirectly – or have been confronted with an event or events.

I think that distinction is a really important one, especially for Christian leaders and pastors, because when you think of who is one of the first people called after something horrible happens in a community, it’s usually the pastor. Even if that person doesn’t have their own trauma history, which is actually rare because most of us have some form of trauma history, it won’t take very long once they get into the real world of life and ministry for them to have to confront it.

I think one of the themes that is emerging is that trauma is ubiquitous. It’s the air that we breathe. Even, especially now, since we’re still emerging from several years of COVID, but even before that trauma was always in the air that we breathe. And this also is related to trauma as well where even though it’s present, it also almost feels like it’s the elephant in the room that nobody talks about. It’s there, it’s lurking, it’s present, and it’s impacting and shaping life. And at the same time, many of us can’t talk about it, are reluctant to talk about it, and can’t really pinpoint it even though it’s there.


Trauma’s shadow

Trauma Doesn’t Just Go Away

I think the first place that I would start with is that even if you have the right answer and know exactly what’s going on – you’re diagnosing it, you can pinpoint where it’s coming from historically, and you know exactly how to intervene – trauma’s not going to just go away. Just like many other times in life and in ministry – as a Christian leader, pastor, or seminary student – you can do everything that you’re supposed to do and the outcome may or may not go well. We really have to separate the input and the output.

And part of the reason is because when the output doesn’t go well, chances are it’s this confabulation between the present and the past. Even if the current situation isn’t toxic – in fact, it might be people are trying to help, and people really care – it’s one of those paradoxes that trauma brings to the surface. It’s almost as if you have a person who has lived a life that has been very unsafe. They couldn’t be themselves. They couldn’t just exhale and let themselves loose because they had to find a way to survive and to persevere. And it’s almost as if the moment you give some trauma survivors a chance to heal that means now it’s safe for some of that stuff from history to come out. And that’s really difficult to work through because you don’t know what’s going to come out. Sometimes it will set up a Christian leader for what feels like a betrayal.


There Are Systemic Issues

We see pastors that are burning out from the ministry, and this unfortunately is a trend that has been observed in even empirical research. In addition to all the anecdotal stories and examples that many of us, or all of us, have experienced, there are these larger trends that we’re observing in research as well. And behind every story, I’m sure there are stories of, “Hey, we want to help our pastors care for themselves and help them draw boundaries.” Those kinds of interventions are wonderful and helpful.

And at the same time, we also have to be thinking systemically as well, because it’s not just these pastors that are burning out, but it’s these churches that are burning out pastor after pastor. And at some point, we have to ask, well, perhaps these individual interventions can only go so far when pastors are just regularly placed in these unenviable and impossible situations. It really doesn’t matter how much someone practices self-care if their job description is not sustainable physically and emotionally or when there are systemic dysfunctions in a church system that makes the work and life of a pastor really difficult. And no one’s willing to talk about those things.

That could also be shaped by trauma. I think the more history a church has, oftentimes the more skeletons in the closet the church has and the more things church members know not to talk about. It mirrors family cultures. When you think of a family culture that’s revolved around a grandparent who everyone knows is an alcoholic and everyone knows its impact, but the alcoholic doesn’t want to talk about it and no one else wants to talk, but everyone’s catering to and revolving around that individual and in some ways enabling the dysfunction. It seems like oftentimes, the person who’s at the center of it is in denial, and the people around them are also in a form of denial. And it’s not helpful for anybody.

When we think of interventions, sometimes that analogy of a family with an alcoholic is helpful, that there needs to be an intervention for the alcoholic and there oftentimes needs to be an intervention for the rest of the family system at the same time. And when we look at how some churches might deal with things as they focus on an individual sin and morality on an individual level, and when in fact what’s going on is actually a lot more systemic, a lot more complicated. And then we just focus in on that one individual and think that once that person is disciplined or leaves the system that everything’s going to be OK. But even after that happens, people are still hurt. People struggle with trusting religious authority. And even if you bring in a new pastor who’s a lot healthier and comes from a different emotional space, they’re walking into a minefield. I think this also illustrates that idea of things like trauma and emotional hurt; they persist over time and if we don’t nip it in the bud, sometimes they grow a life of their own and can really wreak even more havoc.


We also have to be thinking systemically as well, because it’s not just these pastors that are burning out, but it’s these churches that are burning out pastor after pastor.


Trauma’s shadow

Seminarians Have Trauma

With this seminary formation research grant that I’ve been overseeing the last six years, funded by the Templeton Foundation, we’ve been collecting a lot of spirituality data, mental health data, and character and virtue data. We collected three years’ worth of longitudinal data from over 1,500 seminary students. It’s ecumenical. We have 18 seminaries involved.

And when we collected data in the fall of 2020, this is right in the middle of COVID, 43.4% of our total sample reported experiencing a traumatic life-threatening event in their lifetime. And usually when you ask a blanket question like that, there are a lot of people who have experienced those things, but they don’t know to call it traumatic. And there are also more people who know to call it traumatic, but they don’t want to say yes to it. It’s likely that this 43% figure is actually a lot higher.

That’s nearly half of the students that enter into seminary with a traumatic, life-threatening event in their lifetime. And then we also found that 33% of our seminary students indicated enough sufficiently significant trauma symptoms to potentially be considered for a full-blown diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The disclaimer is that it’s not a formal evaluation. These are research-grade assessment tools that we’ve used and were we to use it in a clinical environment, it would absolutely warrant a referral to a psychologist or a psychiatrist for a formal evaluation of PTSD. Trauma’s already present. We need to deal with it in the seminary in addition to preparing them for the trauma that they will most likely encounter at the same time.


I think that in a lot of Christian circles, there is sometimes a dark side to it where we endorse this toxic positivity mindset where, as long as we trust in Jesus or trust in Jesus enough, that means that we don’t have to feel sadness or anything negative.


Holistic Spirituality Matters

I would offer two thoughts. The first thought is we need to equip seminary students and future Christian leaders with not just emotional, psychological tools, but also theological resources to help them hold their negative emotions. And speaking as a psychologist now, I think one of the signs of emotional health or emotional resilience is flexibility to feel a whole range of emotions when situations and contexts call for them.

If you’re going through something that is sad, anxiety provoking, unpleasant, distressful, I’m going to need to be able to hold that and not try to stuff it down, over-spiritualize it, or try to be in denial and pretend that I’m not experiencing these things.

I think Scripture models this quite well. The vast majority of the Psalms are psalms of lament. The authors like King David, they don’t hold back. We get a front row seat into all the negative feelings that he’s holding, and he’s bringing it all before God, and God holds it.

I think that in a lot of Christian circles, there is sometimes a dark side to it where we endorse this toxic positivity mindset where, as long as we trust in Jesus or trust in Jesus enough, that means that we don’t have to feel sadness or anything negative. And we can skip all the stages of grief and go straight to going from one victory to another.

I think there’s going to be a time for that after Christ returns, but until then, we’re very much going to be on a rollercoaster. A vibrant spiritual life is one that knows how to walk with Jesus during the light of day and also knows how to walk with Jesus in the night because God is still God in the night; it’s just that the rules of the game are completely different and the experience is very different, but God’s still got it in the night. And frankly, we need more leaders that know how to lead in the night. And in order to do that, they have to go into their own night.

I think we want to prepare them for the trauma that awaits them, and we also want to help them and equip them to address the trauma that not only awaits them but also the trauma that already is there.

And another finding from our research is we found that trauma, understandably, is tied to things like depression and anxiety as well as PTSD. But it’s also tied to things like spiritual struggles. And what do I mean by spiritual struggles? I mean things like feeling angry at God, feeling as though God is punishing me, and feeling as though God has abandoned me.

All of that also ties back to that idea of how do we hold negative emotions and not be afraid of them? And to acknowledge and accept that God also created those negative emotions, and that a life of spiritual flourishing doesn’t mean I’m just going from victory to victory and I’m always happy and joyful and peaceful and content every single moment of my life. That’s actually not what a flourishing Christian life looks like. It’s one that knows how to hold Jesus’ hand and follow him in the light of days as well as in the dark and in the night.

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