ChurchPulse Weekly Conversations: Dr. Anita Phillips on Processing Trauma 


ArticlesState of the Church 2020in Leaders & Pastorsin State of the Church 2020•May 7, 2021

In light of May being Mental Health Awareness Month, the ChurchPulse Weekly podcast will feature various guests to shed light on the ways mental health affects both leaders and those they’re leading. 

For the first episode of this month, podcast host Carey Nieuwhof and Barna’s SVP of Research Brooke Hempell are joined by Dr. Anita Phillips, a trauma therapist, pastor, speaker and host of the In The Light podcast. Dr. Phillips sheds light on collective trauma caused by the pandemic, the influence one’s worldview has on discipleship models and practical ways leaders can walk with people through trauma and grief. 

On Collective Trauma
At the start of the episode, Hempell shares that a recent Barna survey from February 2021 found roughly over half of U.S. adults (56%) feel pretty good about their mental health, noting an eight, nine, or 10 (out of a 10-point scale) at present. However, that leaves the remainder of U.S adults (44%) claiming a lower ranking for their mental health currently. 

Dr. Phillips begins by defining a traumatic event: “an event that has the capacity to overwhelm people’s ability to cope, to disrupt the systems upon which people depend and to make groups of people in mass, less safe.” She also emphasizes that just because a traumatic event is collective does not mean it’s equally felt by all members of a group. 

While many people have referenced 2020 as the worst of the pandemic, Dr. Phillips believes we are still being “actively traumatized” and won’t see the full impact until much later. “You’re not able to assess the damage while the tornado is still raging,” she says. “That would be like standing outside while the tornado is still tearing up houses, trying to assess the damage and trying to figure out what caused the tornado. You don’t do that, you take shelter and you study it later.”

Even once the damage is assessed, Dr. Phillips doesn’t see there being many quick fixes to the growing mental health crisis. She adds, “I have a lot of concerns because mental health issues are sure to be the enduring legacy of COVID long after we’ve defeated this physically. People are breaking in ways that are not quick fixes.”

On Worldviews Shaping Discipleship
During the episode, Dr. Phillips shares how she’s seen discipleship take on various forms based on differing worldviews and cultural perspectives. As discipleship practices touch so many facets of our lives—including our views of God, the environment, government, authority and more)—it is particularly important to recognize the ways that these can be deeply rooted in a worldview. 

“Our country is still so largely segregated—in terms of where people live and socially—that the belief systems and worldviews that different groups hold have been maintained in these communities, even though we’re living ‘side-by-side,’” Dr. Phillips explains. “We have to pay attention to how the worldview that we bring with us to Christ shapes the way we interact with Christ as well as how we believe we’re being affected, and what we need to do as a result.”

Dr. Phillips has seen this play out for white Christians who have embodied the belief that they are under attack and therefore in constant conflict with the world. She notes, “The problem is that white evangelical America in particular has a difficult time, in my opinion, grasping the impact [their worldview has] on how they interact with scripture and how they interpret faith.” 

“That’s not racial in terms of melanin in skin,” Dr. Phillips adds, “It’s a belief difference. It’s a worldview distinction. And we need to make sure that we’re paying attention, not only to what’s happening to people because they’re visibly different looking, but also how we interpret our experiences based on our community of belief.”

She closes, “We bring [our worldview] to the word of God, and until we recognize that, we’re going to continue to be a body that’s divided […] because we’re making our cultural doctrine the whole thing, and it’s not.”

On Leading While Traumatized
Dr. Phillips points out that models of leadership have changed amidst a year full of uncertainty and continued trauma. When people experience trauma, their views of themselves, God and the world around them will also shift. 

Leaders are now leading in the moment, rather than planning for the future, a jarring experience for many. “We’re used to having the opportunity to study, figure things out, get answers,” Dr. Phillips says, “but pastors have been [placed] in a Moses position. Moses had no instructions.”

To leaders navigating trauma and difficulty, Dr. Phillips advises, “The first thing with a trauma is to always be honest about how you’re being affected. So often we haven’t slowed down to actually admit it and ask, ‘What kind of pain am I in? What questions did this bring? What are the specific issues that are overwhelming me?’”

As leaders seek to continue guiding their congregations while they are personally processing grief and trauma, Dr. Phillips sees this as a great opportunity for a new form of vulnerability in leadership. She concludes, “[Saying] ‘This is how I’m feeling today. I’m standing here in front of you with this feeling. I want you to know that’s human. I’m going to be honest.’ […] That kind of vulnerable leadership will be transformative in this era, and I encourage leaders to do it, even if they’ve never done it before.”

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About the Research
The statistics and data-based analyses in this study are derived from a national public opinion survey conducted by Barna among 2,007 GenPop adults. Responses were collected online from Jan 28 to Feb 10, 2021 using a nationally representative panel. The rate of error for this data is +/- 2.2% at the 95% confidence level.

Featured image by Aaron Burden 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, 2021

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