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Trauma-Informed Youth Ministry


I went to a training on creating trauma-informed systems of care. I was impacted by the implications on schools and youth ministries. People often look to the church for hope in the midst of tragedy. The church can be a place of good news and healing if they take steps to be trauma-informed in what they do.

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Trauma studies report 70% of all adults have experienced some form of trauma. Trauma experiences can range from a simple car accident that results in injury, to gang violence in the city, to physical or sexual assault, to repeated name calling, to being in high stress environments such as jail or prison. 90% of those people suffering from trauma end up in public behavioral health systems seeking support and therapy. 70% of teens who seek treatment for addiction report having traumatic experiences in their young lives, often repeated trauma. New research has revealed trauma can actually derail normal development of the body, brain, and cognition.

SAMHSA (2012) reports “individuals can be retraumatized by those whose intent it is to help”. Trauma clearly interferes with healthy brain development and coping measure become problematic (i.e., substance use, avoidance, aggression, risky behaviors).

As we engage youth in our programs (especially schools and churches) we must understand the principles of trauma informed care.

Understanding attachment theory should be required for all who work with children and adolescents. Attachment theory is best explained as the type of connection (attachment) one has with their primary care givers as a child. When the infant/child is cared for and nurtured the growing infant develops a sense of security that their needs will be taken care of. As a result, the child will likely develop into an adolescent/young adult who is autonomous, self-controlled emotionally and behaviorally, well-formed identity, and can adapt to changing circumstances.

A child who experiences high levels of stress or trauma is more likely to develop insecure or avoidant attachment styles of interacting with the world around them. If they are victimized, they will likely be extra weary of people and see the world as unsafe. Due to this worldview, the child has to develop maladaptive ways to interact with the dangerous world they live in.

When a child experiences trauma the architecture of the brain is changed and emotions and cognition are not integrated. The separate regions of the brain do not communicate effectively with one another so, when something triggers a memory of trauma that fear signal cannot be challenged with rational thought because the pathways have been disrupted. This means everything is a potential trigger for re-activating the trauma.

One example of this is when a young person, that has been sexually abused and threatened or coerced into not reporting the abuse, is told by a well-meaning youth worker that she cannot have her cell phone on the retreat away from home. The reason for this is so the student can focus on God without the distraction of modern mobile technology. Unfortunately, a trauma-impacted student may experience this as a loss of safety that reignites the feeling of being powerless to call for help if needed.

Children and youth are vulnerable populations but there are intersections that increase their vulnerability because we live in a society that marginalizes anyone that is different from the norm (i.e., LGBT, people of color, disables, gender, religion, class, etc.). The greater the number of identity intersections the higher the likelihood of victimization and trauma. Think about the homeless black teenage girl who was kicked out of her house because she identifies as a lesbian. She also recently dropped out of school because she has a learning disability. Now, in order to survive on the streets, she resorts to survival sex with strangers just for a warm bed and a hot meal. This is traumatizing if it happens just once but for many marginalized youth, this becomes a way of life.

If a young person is handled with care, healing can occur. Our school or church can help this precious child begin the healing by creating a trauma informed program or ministry. This starts by educating staff and volunteers. Bring a local therapist, who specializes in trauma, to speak to your team about the impact of trauma and how to be more informed as a team. There are also plenty of resources on the web. Conversations on the Fringe has several blog posts dedicated to trauma.

Another way we can help a hurting student is by creating safe spaces for them to walk with Jesus. Their journey may not be as linear as most of their peers. Cultivating an environment for vulnerability is of the utmost importance but remembering the classroom or youth ministry room is no replacement for a qualified and trained therapist.

Trauma impacts whole family systems. They will need support as they begin the journey to freedom and healing. Trauma alienates and can lead to isolation for families who are ashamed, embarrassed, overwhelmed, and hurting themselves. They need your friendship more than anything. Be present. Sit quietly. Cry with them. Bring meals to families sorting out their trauma stories. Incarnate real love and support. Prayer is good and essential but no replacement for a hug or wiping away tears or a warm dinner.

Lastly, creating a trauma-informed program is a justice issue. If a traumatized young person is to ever recovery a sense of goodness and justice in the world, if they are ever to let go of the natural anxiety of being victimized and move out into the world a whole-hearted person, they need to know and experience goodness that brings balance to their life. Trauma leaves such a powerful and deep impact on the mind and soul that it will take good people doing good to re-establish equilibrium to their mind and soul. The issue of justice cannot be avoided in human service or ministry organization because, it is the heart of why people seek help for trauma in the first place.

What does justice work look like for victims of trauma? What does it look like for perpetrators of trauma?

White Privilege


There’s no denying who I am. I am a white, middle-class, straight, American, Christian male. I, and others like me, and we are legion, we are many, and we are in control of the American culture.

I have more power over my life than most others around the world. I didn’t steal this power from others. It was given to me by a generation of white males that didn’t steal it either. I’m not sure how far back we’d have to go to find the culprits but somewhere along the way (there are definite benchmark though), someone took power that wasn’t theirs to take. Using and benefiting from power that isn’t mine to begin with makes me complicit in the act of theft.

If someone steals a television from their neighbor and sells it to me without telling me it’s stolen, I cannot be held responsible for the theft. I may still have the privilege of using it and watching cable and movies on it but I’m not aware it shouldn’t be mine to begin with.

Once I learn the television is stolen (wake up), I have a moral and social responsibility to address this problem. If, instead, I just keep using the television, knowing it was stolen, I am complicit and an accessory to the act and I am equally responsible for the harm committed against the neighbor from which the television was stolen from.

I order to stay asleep (in denial about my privilege) I have to morally disengage. You can read about that here. Moral disengagement is the cognitive process where we justify our harmful actions towards others. It’s mental gymnastics.

I have come to the conclusion this year that I have not only profited greatly from this privilege but have sought to protect it by personally and systematically oppressing other people groups, other beloved children of God. I have undergone a personal, internal awakening, one in which I have become painfully aware of the origins of my privilege and the toll it has taken on others. Here’s a great post on how white people experience white privilege.

I once heard a talk at a conference in which the speaker talked about three phases of change; orientation, disorientation, and reorientation. 2016 has been a period of disorientation and I’m hoping 2017 will be a reorientation to a new normal. The disorientation started long ago but I became acutely aware of it this year while reading the following:

Peter’s Vision

9 About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. 11 He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. 12 It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds.

13 Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”

14 “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”

15 The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”

16 This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.

17 While Peter was wondering about the meaning of the vision, the men sent by Cornelius found out where Simon’s house was and stopped at the gate. 18 They called out, asking if Simon who was known as Peter was staying there.

19 While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Simon, three[a] men are looking for you. 20 So get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them.”

21 Peter went down and said to the men, “I’m the one you’re looking for. Why have you come?”

22 The men replied, “We have come from Cornelius the centurion. He is a righteous and God-fearing man, who is respected by all the Jewish people. A holy angel told him to ask you to come to his house so that he could hear what you have to say.” 23 Then Peter invited the men into the house to be his guests.

I spent the better part of the past year meeting with, talking to, interviewing and blogging and speaking about marginalized and vulnerable populations of people; LGBTQ youth, heroin users, racial minorities, refugees, people with disabilities, and people in the criminal justice system and the more time I spent listening to them the more ashamed I became of myself. I also became ashamed of my faith, for it was guilty of the same thing.

The focus of what I’ve learned this year is the danger of having too much (personal and corporate) dominance over a culture and how the systems that govern it may be contributing to a larger problem that will impact our personal and corporate faith for a long time to come.

As a white, middle-class, straight, American, Christian male, I am part of the power structure at the top of the ladder. When any group rises to the top it is often accompanied by a sense of privilege. It’s the “Good Ol’ Boys Club” mentality. And, it often happens without its members even knowing it. As a result of one group believing it has privilege, another group consequentially is oppressed. I have and you do not.

In other words, if people from the dominant groups, in this case, me, really saw privilege and oppression as unacceptable – if white people saw race as their issues, if men saw gender as a men’s issue, if heterosexuals saw heterosexism as their problem – privilege and oppression wouldn’t have much of a place in the future of the church. But that isn’t what’s happening. Dominant groups don’t often engage these issues, and when they do, it’s not for long or with much effect, and rarely do they address the systemic causes. I had developed throughout the course of my life; toxic ownership, entitled sense of power and control, unequal distribution of that power and control, a fear of scarcity, and a homogenous community.

When asked “How or Why?” certain responses pour out without hesitation. Because I benefited most in the dominant culture I don’t see privilege as a problem. Why couldn’t I see it?

  • Because I didn’t know in the first place. I was oblivious to it. The reality of privilege doesn’t occur to me because I don’t go out of my way to see it or ask about it and because no one dares bring it up for fear of making things worse. I also have no understanding of how my privilege actually oppresses others.
  • Because I don’t have to. If you point it out to me, I may acknowledge that the trouble exists. Otherwise, I don’t pay attention, because privilege shields me from its consequences. There is nothing to compel my attention except, perhaps, when a school shooting or sexual harassment lawsuit or a race riot or celebrity murder trial disrupts the natural flow of things.
  • Because I think it’s just a personal problem. I thought individuals usually get what they deserve, which makes the problem just a sum of individual troubles. This means that if whites or males get more than others, it’s because we have it coming – we work harder, we’re smarter, more capable. If other people get less, it’s up to them to do something about it.
  • Because I want to protect my privilege. On some level, I think I knew I benefited from the status quo and I just didn’t want to change. I felt a sense of entitlement, that I deserved everything I have and wanted, including whatever advantages I have over others.
  • Because I was prejudiced – racist, sexist, heterosexist, classist. My attitudes use to be consciously hostile towards blacks, women, lesbians, gay men, the poor. I believed in the superiority of my group, and the belief is like a high, thick wall. I developed circular reasoning to protect against myself against cognitive dissonance.
  • Because I was afraid. I may be sympathetic to doing something about the trouble, but I was afraid of being blamed for it if I acknowledge that it exists. I was afraid of being saddled with guilt just for being white or male or middle-class, attacked and no place to hide. I was even more afraid that members of my own group – other whites, other heterosexuals, other men, the ones that affirm my power – will reject me if I break ranks and call attention to issues of privilege, making people feel uncomfortable or threatened.

So there you have it. That’s me, or more accurately, the old me. A work is being done in me, as I look back throughout the last decade, especially as I look back over the last year and what has brought me to the place I am today. In my heart I want to have this vile, evil purged from me. I want to do the right thing.

Although doing the right thing can be morally compelling, it usually rests on a sense of obligation to principle more that to people, which can lead to disconnection (injustice) rather than to restorative justice (reconnection). I take care of my children, for example, not because it’s the right thing to do and the neighbors would disapprove if I didn’t, but because I feel a sense of connection to them that carries with it an automatic sense of responsibility for their well-being. The less connected to them I feel, the less responsibility I feel. It isn’t that I owe them something as a debtor owes a creditor; it’s rather that my life is bound up in their lives and theirs in mine, which means that what happens to them in a sense also happens to me. I don’t experience them as “others” whom I decide to help because it’s the right thing to do and I’m feeling charitable at the moment. The family is something larger than myself that I participate in, and I can’t be a part of that without paying attention to what goes on in it and how everyone is affected.

So, maybe that’s where I start today, maybe that’s where we all start…paying more attention to all the members of the family. Not just the few that look like us. But, it can’t just end there, as it usually does. We must share our lives and resources, breach cross-cultural barriers, take risk, and sacrifice our comfort if the church is to ever be what God intended for it to be.

Where do you see privilege in your heart and your community? Where do you see overt or subtle oppression? What unconscious biases are you becoming more aware of? What conversations do we need to start? How are our youth being shaped by privilege and oppression? Do we have real friendships with people not from our tribe? Do you have ideas and beliefs about people but don’t intimately break bread with them on a regular basis? Maybe that’s where we all start…That’s what Peter did when the Spirit showed him the vision. It took him three viewings, so know that we’ll struggle with this initially. That’s ok, embrace the disorientation and trust that God wants to reorient you to a new way of thinking, living and loving.

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