Craft of Preaching

Sermon Development

Tips for effective proclamation, from advance prep work to gathering feedback.

Preaching + Trauma

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crazy light. Image by Michael via Flickr, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.


[This article is co-authored by Jessica Davis.]

“They cried to the Lord in their trouble, and Ze delivered them from their distress; Ze brought them out of darkness and the shadow of death, and burst their bonds apart” (Psalm 107:13-14, ESB).1

The pulpit is a place where we are blessed to proclaim to the assembly that the wounds they bear have been carved into God's own flesh. But it is also a place where people who are suffering can be re-traumatized and harmed anew; this time in the name of the gospel.

Definitions of trauma vary, but they all emphasize an event or aspect of one's life that causes deep distress or harm. Nearly every person in our pews has experienced trauma of some sort. For some, these events will be occasional and brief, with resources to help them heal quickly. For others, there will be hurts so deep, so frequent, or with so little access to resources, the healing comes only with difficulty or never at all. Balancing the need to hear that God shares in our most painful experiences with the need to avoid re-traumatizing those who are suffering is a considerable challenge.

We can approach preaching with an eye towards ministering to trauma by preparing, delivering, and following up on our preaching using a “trauma-informed model,” which emphasizes an awareness that 1) anyone in our midst could be suffering from the effects of trauma, even if they don’t look or behave like we might expect, and 2) the traumatized persons themselves are the experts on their experience, not us. Though our area of expertise may offer useful insights, it is up to the traumatized person to decide what is helpful to them.2

What does this mean for our preaching? Consider how our words may affect those living with trauma. Our preaching on divorce, gender, violence, etc., might cause additional suffering if we do not proceed with caution and compassion. Our presence as preachers must also proclaim justice -- especially where justice has previously been denied. Some basic interventions include:

  • Provide warnings when presenting content likely to have a traumatic impact. Consider giving permission to leave the room without judgment and warn individuals in advance if you are aware that they have suffered similar trauma to that in the text(s).
  • Speak aloud the trauma responses depicted in the scripture you are presenting. Let your listeners know that the characters in these stories, even Jesus himself, suffered trauma and its effects, and needed help to heal.
  • Be willing to adjust the lectionary on occasion. Though our lectionaries are a tremendous gift, they tend to tell abusers’ stories far more frequently than the stories of victims. Sometimes, we will simply need to add a few additional verses; in other instances, we may need to provide entirely different readings or fill in the blanks ourselves, and imagine with our congregations what it might have been like to be Tamar, Bathsheba, or Isaac.
  • If you preach on a difficult topic, have a plan in place to provide additional support for your hearers, and offer aftercare for those who feel shaken. Be present; listen; be comfortable with difficult emotions; don’t try to offer easy answers.

Remember to practice self-care as well! Preachers are not immune from experiences of trauma, and we may be unconsciously affected. Make sure you are taking care of your needs (food, water, rest, safety). If you suspect trauma is a significant part of your own experience, receiving therapy will make you a healthier and more effective faith leader.

In the season of Easter, we are given a roadmap for how to care for trauma in ourselves and others. Jesus knows what it is to endure trauma, to suffer physically and emotionally. Dr. Thema Bryant-Davis uses the resurrection narratives to chart a “Christ-Centered Trauma Recovery Model”3:

  • Tomb time. Jesus took the time to be still, to rest. Healing doesn’t have to happen immediately or hurriedly.
  • Social support. After the resurrection, Jesus appeared first to the women -- the ones who didn’t run away from the cross. We all need to seek out support from those who can handle seeing the blood, literal or metaphorical.
  • Self-care. The resurrected Jesus asked his disciples for something to eat. Too often, we neglect the most basic aspects of self-care.
  • In the church, we run the risk of pushing a shallow, harmful perversion of forgiveness. Forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation. On the cross, Jesus said of those who killed him, “Father, forgive them.” But he didn’t spend time with the Roman soldiers who executed him after the resurrection.
  • Trauma often comes with intense feelings of shame. When we are safe, supported, and surrounded by those we trust, we are able to show our wounds, just as Jesus did.
  • The promise of Easter is not that everything will go back to the way it had been. In fact, the promise of the resurrection is that there is something better in store. As we recover from our own trauma, we, like Christ, are offered the possibility of rising to something greater.
  • Return. Jesus promises to return to us. As we experience recovery from trauma, we also open up the ability to give back to the world and our neighbors in need.

Above all, we know that we follow a crucified and risen Savior who willingly entered into the depths of human suffering. Christ did not “come down” from the cross or save himself. The reason for the cross, the point of the story, was for Christ to sit beside us in our pain and trauma, and show us a path forward into new and abundant life.


Notes

1 Gender-inclusive terms for God are used by the authors; translation is adapted from the English Standard Version of the Bible.

2 Basic information on trauma-informed approaches can be found here: https://www.samhsa.gov/nctic/trauma-interventions

3 Bryant-Davis, T. (2018) Christ Centered Trauma Recovery Model. Presented at Payne Theological Seminary. Irvine, CA.

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