May 4, 2022

ChurchPulse Weekly Conversations: Dr. Thema Bryant on Trauma & Healing

In a recent ChurchPulse Weekly episode, Dr. Thema Bryant (president-elect of the American Psychological Association) talks with Carey Nieuwhof about trauma and healing within the Church. She shares practical ways pastors can recognize the signs of trauma in their congregants as well as advice for leaders as they walk on their own journey towards healing.

On Collective Trauma & the Church
Recent Barna data show that over one in four U.S. adults (28%) has personally experienced a trauma, which Barna defines as an act of extreme violence, abuse or a near-death experience that produces a response of intense fear, helplessness or horror. 

Rather than focusing on individual traumas congregants might have experienced in the past, during her conversation with Nieuwhof, Bryant specifically speaks about the collective trauma individuals have experienced in the last few years. She notes “It is important for us [as leaders] to know we have all been affected, but that people show the effects in different ways. Bryant continues, “We [as leaders] want to wade in those waters and not operate in denial… we want to be very careful that our sanctuary is welcoming for those who are grieving, frustrated, angry, depressed and anxious. That is real sanctuary… When ministry is operating in denial, it’s not speaking to the reality of people’s lives, so it feels untrustworthy and fake.”

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On Reasons to Begin the Process of Healing
Giving advice to pastors who are fearful about unpacking the trauma of their own past, Bryant states, “When we are suppressing [trauma] or when we are running from it, it still bleeds out in ways that you may not even recognize. Sometimes it shows up in harshness to the congregation, sometimes it shows up in our parenting and sometimes it shows up in engaging in unhealthy and toxic behaviors.”  

Bryant gives encouragement to pastors who are worried that their lives will fall apart if they talk about their trauma, stating, “When you’re working with a trained professional, there is a pacing involved. It’s not like, ‘Come on Tuesday and tell me every terrible thing that’s ever happened to you.’ It’s about developing the skills, and you’re co-creating the therapeutic experience. There are times when clients will say, ‘This week, I don’t want to go there. I want to talk about something that happened yesterday.’ Bryant continues, “When I have clients who have a lot going on in the present, sometimes it’s about trying to manage and cope with the present before we make those connections with the past.”

Bryant discusses that healing can also benefit others, explaining, “I believe people should heal for themselves, but for those whom that is not enough of a motivation, our leadership and our healing can be a wonderful model to set congregants free.

“When I was attending a church and the pastor shared about going to therapy, that liberated so many people,” she continues. “‘The pastor can pray, knows God and goes [to therapy], so maybe it’s okay for me to go, too.’ As opposed to thinking like [therapy] is something shameful or something that would make them less of a leader or pastor, a pastor’s healing would give people permission to get the support they deserve.”

On Self-Care, Community Care & Liturgy
Bryant discusses the importance of self-care, community care and liturgy, saying, “In terms of self-care, [it’s important] for us to be very intentional about promoting the importance of  rest to our congregants. I’ll say that for ministers too. … Self-care involves our rest, our diet, exercise, going to doctor’s appointments and considering making a therapy appointment. Self-care is not just for ladies, [and doesn’t only involve] manicures and pedicures and massages, although all those things are great. [Self-care also involves] setting boundaries and learning how to say ‘no.’” 

Bryant continues, “Community care means that everyone in ministry and in leadership needs to have a circle or at least one or two other people with whom they can be transparent and receive support. If you’re perpetually pouring—you’re just the strong one and you have no one to lean on—it’s not sustainable.”

Bryant concludes with an encouragement to pastors, saying, “Think about ways to insert a trauma-informed perspective in your service. That [perspective] can be [found] in the scriptures you read by including passages about healing or grief. When you’re doing altar call or special prayers, say, “God, we are praying for those who are depressed. We are praying for those with anxiety.” To name that is so freeing. If you have a bulletin or program, when you list things happening in the community, include resources for mental health. Every pastor or every church leader should find out the counseling options in their area and not be afraid to refer [people there].”

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About the Research
The data shown above is based on a representative sample of 2,007 interviews with U.S. adults, ages 18 or older. The interviews were conducted online from April 23 to May 5, 2021. The margin of error is +/- 2 percentage points at a 95 percent confidence interval.

Featured image by Ante Gudelj on Unsplash.

About Barna
Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.

© Barna Group, 2022

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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