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Do Pastors Feel Well-Equipped to Help Congregants Heal from Trauma?


Articles in Leaders & Pastors • August 4, 2020

The data in this article is from Trauma in America, a new Barna report. Order your copy today!

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Trauma affects every part of a person: mind, body and spirit. Trauma in America, a recent Barna report created in partnership with American Bible Society, points to the special opportunity and, at times, the responsibility the Church has to help people heal from the wounds of trauma. But how prepared do pastors feel to help congregants who are coping with or recovering from trauma?

Most pastors agree that trauma is an issue the Church should address, but many church leaders have had little to no training in the way of trauma care. This article explores how prepared U.S. pastors feel when it comes to helping people heal from trauma, looking specifically at how equipped they feel overall, what, if any, training they have received on this issue and what types of trauma they feel most comfortable addressing.

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Few Pastors Feel “Very” Well-Equipped to Help with Trauma
The majority of Protestant pastors (73%) indicates they feel “somewhat” equipped to help someone in their congregation who may be dealing with significant trauma. One in seven (15%) feels “very” well-equipped, while 12 percent do not feel equipped at all.

Using regression analysis, researchers examined what elements make a pastor or priest say they were better prepared. Responses are partially explained by factors like: how long the pastor has been in ministry, the size of their church, their type of training for trauma, how many times they have preached about trauma in the past six months and whether or not they have experienced or witnessed any traumatic events themselves.

When all these factors are taken into account, we see the biggest boost in pastors feeling prepared to handle trauma when they have preached on it in the past six months, when they have received a master’s degree program in therapy or counseling and when they have personally experienced or witnessed a traumatic event. This finding indicates that a good deal of pastors’ preparation to handle trauma in their congregations comes from accumulated personal experience and professional training. It also suggests that pastors who have not thought much about trauma (whether via experience, training or teaching) may be at a disadvantage when a person with trauma comes to their church.

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One in 10 Pastors Has Not Received Any Training to Aid Congregants in Trauma Recovery
The vast majority of Protestant pastors (90%) has received training in counseling. However, this is not always under the direction of a program. Sixty-two percent of Protestant pastors completed counseling coursework as part of another degree, while 7 percent have a master’s degree in the subject. Some (13%) have done supervised clinical work, while just 1 percent have a therapist licensure or counselor’s license. Half (51%) say they have received on-the-job training, though this could be in combination with other forms of preparation. While Protestant pastors experience greater confidence with most kinds of training, on-the-job training on its own does not produce a significant difference in whether pastors feel well, somewhat or unprepared.

Most Protestant pastors (55%) received their training more than 10 years ago. Recency of training, however, does not necessarily produce a positive effect in the way personal experience as a minister does when it comes to a sense of preparation.

Protestant pastors without training make up a much larger proportion of those who feel unprepared (29%) than of those who feel somewhat (8%) or well-prepared (4%). Yet, despite the boost many pastors seem to get from their training in counseling, when specifically asked how well their education or training prepared them to minister to people who have experienced a traumatic event, most choose “somewhat well” (55%). Just 10 percent choose “very well.” A full one-third thinks their training did not leave them better equipped for trauma care (34% “not too well” or “not well at all”).

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Protestant Pastors Feel More Unprepared Than Prepared to Provide Care for Forms of Abuse
Church leaders were asked to select traumatic issues for which they felt well-equipped to provide care, as well as those which they felt poorly equipped to handle. Most Protestant pastors feel equipped to help during grief over a loved one’s death (88%)—the most common form of trauma—as well as divorce (71%), job loss (65%), a serious medical condition (61%), betrayal (57%), destitution (55%) and major financial setbacks (50%). More than half of Protestant pastors feel unprepared for more rare events like homicide (54%) or large-scale conflicts (53%).

For most traumatic events, at least a quarter of the group feels neither prepared nor unprepared to aid congregants. Pastors especially bring this in-between level of preparedness to incidents of trauma exposure through work (51%) or through a burglary or robbery (52%). Few fall into this middle category when it comes to more common events like the death of a loved one (9%) and divorce (21%).

It’s important to note that more Protestant pastors feel more unprepared than prepared for forms of abuse, such as sexual abuse (46% unprepared), physical abuse (31%) and child abuse (45%); many (though not most) feel unprepared for domestic violence (28%). Further research could reveal why Protestant pastors feel less able to help congregants who have experienced abusive traumatic events. But given that these traumatic events often occur in combination, and that there are often legal obligations and protocols for addressing them, it is disturbing that so few pastors feel ready to respond to these issues.

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While this data was collected before the COVID-19 pandemic, reports across the nation indicate that Americans are experiencing increased incidences of trauma in the wake of the crisis, including job loss, death of loved ones and financial setbacks, among others. Additionally, as a wave of demonstrations for racial justice continues, people of color may also be subjected to intensified trauma related to racially motivated violence and discrimination.

Despite the era of social distancing we currently find ourselves in, congregants, and even those outside the Church, continue to look to pastors for help in coping with and healing from trauma. It’s important for pastors to feel prepared to come alongside people to support them in their journey of healing and restoration—and to recognize when they’ve reached the limits of their own training and abilities and help connect trauma survivors with other experts who can partner with them in the healing process.

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About the Research
The data reported in this article are based on 509 interviews that were conducted online with Protestant senior pastors and 60 Catholic priests. Pastors in this database were recruited via probability sampling on annual phone and email surveys, and are representative of U.S. Protestant and Catholic churches by region, denomination and church size. The margin of error for Protestant pastors is plus or minus 4.2 percent at the 95 percent confidence level.

Interviews with adults and senior pastors were conducted from June 6 to June 28, 2019. In the pastors’ study, each pastor represents one church, as they are the senior pastor of the church in question. However, the churchgoing respondents are not spread evenly across churches and pastors, so their responses should not be taken as representative of churches but of churchgoers.

Online interviews were conducted using an online research panel. Upon completion of each survey, minimal statistical weights were applied to the data to allow the results to more closely correspond to known national demographic averages for several variables.

Photo by Christopher Lemercier on Unsplash.

About Barna
Barna research 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, 2020

The data in this article is from Trauma in America, a new Barna report. Order your copy today!

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