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Language Matters to Adolescents


How we think and what we say has the power to give life or take life. As a counselor, I spend all day helping people explore the connection between their thoughts, beliefs, and actions. This model of therapy is called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is best explained in the image below:

It is important to note that everyone does this. This is the normal flow of thoughts -> emotions -> behavior. The problem occurs when the thought process is distorted. This can happen because of bias, lack of information, or the language we use to describe a situation or individual/group of people. When we do any of the above, we engage in distorted thinking and this leads to behaviors that are based on those distortions, increasing the likelihood we will harm ourselves or others. (see cognitive distortions)

When I think about marginalized or vulnerable youth, language matters. The language a society uses to refer to a person’s distinctiveness shapes that society’s beliefs and ideas about that person or group of people. Words are powerful; Old, inaccurate, and inappropriate descriptors perpetuate negative stereotypes and attitudinal barriers. When we describe people by their labels of medical diagnoses, mental health conditions, skin color, or sexual orientation, we devalue and disrespect them as individuals. In contrast, using thoughtful terminology can foster positive attitudes about persons with distinctives that are different than the “norm”.

Fag. Sissy. Spaz. Retard. Nigger. Bitch. Cripple. Slut.

Now, imagine this scenario…

Imagine you’re a gay teenager who has been struggling with substance abuse for a number of years. You have tried to stop many times but failed. You are likely to begin thinking of yourself as a failure as you heap on the shame and regret. You’ve done some pretty awful things to the people you love in the process of supporting your addiction and have also done some things you’re too ashamed to talk about, like selling your family’s stuff or sleeping with a drug dealer for drugs. You find the withdrawals are so overwhelming that you can’t just stop and you resort to doing whatever you need to do, no matter how bad the behavior, to avoid being sick again. You now stay high most days just to avoid being sick and because it gives you a break from the self-loathing. Two thoughts run through your head on a regular basis, “What the heck is wrong with me” and “I am a piece of crap because I continue doing ____”. When you have these thoughts, and they are now frequent, you use drugs, or other unhealthy behaviors, just to push them out of your mind because if you keep thinking about those thoughts you tell yourself you might as well kill yourself.

Our words and the meanings we attach to them create attitudes, drive social policies and laws, influence our feelings and decisions, impact our culture, and affect people’s daily lives and more. How we use them makes a difference. People first language puts the person before distinctives, and describes what a person has, not who a person is. Using a diagnosis or condition as a defining characteristic reflects prejudice, and also robs the person of the opportunity to define him/herself as a child of God. (i.e., person with substance abuse difficulties, student who self injures, the individual that suffers from depression vs. addict, cutter, depressed.)

The Sapir–Whorf hypothesis is the basis for ideologically motivated linguistic prescriptivism. The Sapir–Whorf hypothesis states that language use significantly shapes perceptions of the world and forms ideological preconceptions.

Another consequence of using labeling language is that it paves the way for moral disengagement. Anytime an individual or a group of similar individuals are marginalized, moral disengagement has occurred. Moral disengagement is the cognitive process by which one clears away any mental obstacles to treat the individual or group poorly. As social beings, we cannot intentionally bring harm to one another without shutting off our empathy. Moral disengagement makes that happen. If you are going to “other” or “vilify” a group of people, for instance LGBTQ youth, you first have to change the way you see them. It would be nearly impossible to marginalize an entire group of beloved children of God but it is way easier to marginalize a group of fags, queers, and dykes.

A theology of the Imago Dei is one that placed our belovedness as a child of God, made in God’s very own image, before any other identifiers. It doesn’t mean we don’t have those distinctives that make us unique but it does take away the ability to separate people into value-based groups based on those distinctives.

So, what is your theological starting point? Is it Genesis 1 (original blessing/Imago Dei) or Genesis 3 (the fall of man/sin)? It really does matter. It shapes the story we tell ourselves about the youth we serve. Do we approach them through the lens of the Imago Dei, believing the truest thing about them is they are the embodied image of the living God? Or, do we immediately see them as broken and in need of fixing? What we believe will ultimately impact HOW we do ministry and how we think and talk about them, as well as the words we choose to use, shapes the narrative about God, the world, and their place in it.

Reimagining Adolescence: A Workshop for People Who Love Adolescents (June 17th, 2017)


Reimagining Adolescence: Kids growing up today are living in a world that is fundamentally different from the one their parents grew up in. This poses challenges to even the most adept adult. In this workshop you will discover the systemic cultural changes that are creating a whole new developmental experience for our kids as they attempt to find out their true identity and place of belonging.

This 1 day workshop is for all of us who struggle to understand the challenges adolescents face in today’s world. Join us as we explore the developmental, physiological, social, cultural, and spiritual complexities of guiding adolescents through contemporary society. This event is perfect for parents, grandparents, teachers, social workers, coaches, youth workers, or anyone else that love kids and desire to walk alongside them as they navigate an increasingly difficult world.

Here’s a sample of what you will cover in this workshop:

Adolescent Development

  • Primary tasks of adolescence
  • What drives adolescent behavior
  • Brain development
  • Sexual development
  • The Imaginary Audience (social)
  • The Invisible World
  • The Impact of marginalization

Mental Health Considerations

  • Systemic Abandonment
  • Identity Incongruence
  • Mental Health
  • Developmental Assets/Relationships
  • Discovering mission and purpose

LUNCH ON YOUR OWN

Surveying the Landscape

  • Pop culture influences
  • Toxic gender training
  • Shame and image
  • Culture and diversity
  • Technology

Praxis

  • Understanding power and agency in adolescents
  • Universal considerations
  • Listening better
  • Revisiting Developmental Assets/Relationships/Communities/Organizations
  • Empowering and letting go
  • Becoming friends with kids (mentoring)
  • Inviting them into adulthood (celebration and ritual)

If you are interested in attending this event, register soon. Space is limited!

There are two ways you can register:

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Creating and Supporting Developmental Communities


Kids are going to need more than just developmentally supportive relationships with adults. They also need developmentally supportive communities. 

The Search Institute has been researching developmental assets for youth for the better part of 50 years. The higher number of assets a young person has the higher the likelihood they will become thriving and contributing adults. The lower the number of assets, the higher the likelihood they will engage in unhealthy behaviors, such as bullying, substance use, or unsafe sexual practices. These behaviors often carry over into adulthood.

Conversations on the Fringe initiatives aims to equip individuals, organizations, and communities with tools to become asset rich and therefore increase the number of assets available to developing youth. We believe this will dramatically impact the outcomes of their journey into adulthood.

In 2017, we are highlighting three community-based asset developing programs. Each program exists to equip adults, organizations, and communities with real skills, tools, knowledge, and experiences to make a greater impact in the lives of the young they love and serve. You can choose and customize the program that best fits the needs of your youth and community.

RealTalkRealTalk Drug Prevention Program

RealTalk Drug Prevention programs are geared towards those who wish to have honest conversations about drugs and alcohol, providing science-based research drugs of abuse and adolescent brain development science.

bullyinglogoNOT IN MY SCHOOL: Anti-Bullying Program

This program helps to nurture safe school and social environments through empathy and character development by equipping students with skills to increase emotional and social intelligence.

No automatic alt text available.True North Student Leadership Intensives

Every student has leadership potential waiting to be nurtured and released. When young people assert their leadership they have the potential to unleash a powerful force for creativity and change.
Contact us today to find out about cost or if you are interested in scheduling one of our community-based program at your school, church, or organization.

Conversations on the Fringe

P.O. Box 74

Delavan, Illinois 61734

Phone: 309.360.6115

Email: cschaffner@fringeconversations.com

Check out our other Fringe Initiatives too!

Conversations on the Fringe: 2016 Year in Review


2016 was our busiest and most fruitful year to date. There’s so much that happened over the year that we’d love to share with you but we’ve condensed it down to the highlights. Thanks for making 2016 an awesome year. We’re looking forward to journeying through 2017 with you.

Grace and peace,

Chris Schaffner

Founder of Conversations on the Fringe

 

Top 10 Blog Posts

  1. Youth Ministry and the Post-modern Learner
  2. Teen Gender Dysphoria and Christmas Shopping
  3. Sex, Aggression, and Adolescents
  4. How to Talk About Intimate Partner Violence with Your Students: A Guide For Youth Workers
  5. Stages of Sexual Identity Development for LGBTQ Youth
  6. Imaginative Hope
  7. Trauma-Informed Youth Ministry
  8. White Privilege
  9. Protecting Against Sexual Abuse In Youth Programs
  10. This is Your Brain On Opiates

 

Highlights

  • Youth Specialties Facebook Live Q&A Series (self-harm, addiction, depression/suicide)
  • Can the Church Be Good News to LGBTQ Youth for the Illinois Mennonite Conference
  • Can the Church Be Good News to LGBTQ Youth at Simply Youth Ministry Conference
  • Conflict Management at Youth Leadership Academy at Elgin Community College
  • Reimagining Adolescence at the Faith Forward Gathering
  • Racial Reconciliation Experience at National Youth Worker Convention
  • Student Retreat at Heights Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Albuquerque, NM
  • Guest Lecturing at Eureka College on Systemic Abandonment and Moral Disengagement for the Juvenile Criminal Justice Program

 

New Initiative in 2016

Innovative Disruption – Helping churches disrupt the status quo and discover innovative ways to reach marginalized and vulnerable youth.

Fringe Life Support Training – Helping churches help hurting youth through pastoral counseling, spiritual direction, and mentoring.

RealTalk Drug Prevention – Working with communities who desire to have honest conversations about effective drugs and alcohol prevention among area youth. We offer a variety of educational opportunities for students, parents, schools, and communities.

Reimagining Adolescence – We explore the developmental, physiological, social, cultural, and spiritual complexities of guiding adolescents through contemporary society. This event is perfect for parents, grandparents, teachers, social workers, coaches, youth workers, or anyone else that love kids and desire to walk with them as they navigate an increasingly difficult world.

AND…CHRIS RAN INTO BILL MURRAY!!! (That was a personal highlight, even though he locked up and could barely talk to him.)

 

Dreams for 2017

True North Youth Leadership Training Online Cohort – This online student leadership cohort is aimed at nurturing and activating your student’s leadership through individual and group projects that will directly impact the community they live in.

Fringe Learning Labs – Learning Labs fill in the gap that traditional youth ministry education doesn’t address. We provide an affordable, customized training experience for volunteer and staff youth workers to explore difficult issues facing yout today; issues such as race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, and mental health.

Prisoners of Love: Teen Dating Violence Education

Dirty Little Secrets: dealing with the Problem of Porn

Digital and printed resources for youth, parents, and youth workers

Incorporation as a 501c3 nonprofit organization

Youth Ministry and the Post-Modern Learner


I facilitate group therapy for beautiful people. We have people of color, various sexual orientations and genders, abled and disabled, employed and unemployed, affluent and poor, mentally ill, substance abusing, and a host of others who don’t fit into a neatly defined category. The thing they all have in common is they have come to me to learn. Some hope to learn the bare minimum they needs to learn to complete the program. Others are looking for a significant life change as a result of their engagement in this learning space.

I use to hold the belief that I had something they needed and my job was to share it with them and their role was to sit passively and consume this information. It was also their job to practice these principles in their affairs when they left, often without direct feedback from others who knew what they were trying to do. I took the same approach for years in youth ministry. These teens were empty vessels that needed me to pour into their lives and fill them with the knowledge of what they needed to follow Jesus (defined by our church community and tradition).

Fortunately, I’m curious and like to ask for feedback from those who are sitting in the learning space. I also love research. I love to read it, break it down, and try to apply it in real time. Here’s a summary of what I’ve learned over the years about how people learn best and why I think we need to reimagined how we pass on our faith to the current and future generations.

  1. Students must be at the center of what happens in the learning spaces – If teenagers are going to manage their emotions and become self-motivated learners they will have to be at the center of the learning experience. Often, in our youth ministry settings, it is the your worker that is at the center of the gathering. We are the ones on the stage, behind the pulpit, in the center of the circle, hoarding the words allowed to be spoken, setting the agenda and goals for the learning. Students rarely have anything to say about what they are being taught, how they are being taught, or the reasons they are being taught. This needs to change is we hope to create self-directed learners instead of mindless consumers.
  2. Students learn better in groups and rarely happens alone – We are social beings and we learn by interacting with each other. We learn when someone takes an idea you shared and extrapolate or pushes back. This pushing and pulling of ideas, in a collaborative setting, is what sharpens our vision and understanding of the subject matter being discussed.
  3. Our most powerful memories are connected to strong emotions – Faith communities have discounted the power of emotions in spiritual formation, citing their instability as a reason they can’t be counted on. As a result, we have stripped down our faith experiences to a simple set of academic memes we cognitively ascend to. The heart and soul is largely missing in the church today. The power of emotions to motivate one to learn cannot be overlooked. Consider this, if a student has high levels of stress at home or school, they won’t learn well. Similarly, keeping a student motivated (hungry) to learn about God, mankind, and their shared story, is the starting point of faith formation. If they understand why it matters, their journey becomes more important to them.
  4. Individual learning styles are a thing – Multiple learning styles have been largely ignored among the evangelical traditions of the Christian faith. We are still perpetuating the idea that people learn best and are spiritually formed best when one person stands before them and speaks words at them about a particular subject. This style of communication only engages one, or at best two, of the senses, decreasing the likelihood of retention and transformation. Post-modern learners almost need IEP (Individualized Educational Plans). Not because there is anything wrong with them as learners but because it is the better way forward. We live in a visual, digital, social world, and they are natives in this land. We cannot afford to try and make the information fit our outdated styles of teaching but must, instead, adapt our style of communication to the mediums that are culturally dominant today. We must strive for practices and processes that help leaders engage each student where they are.                                                                                                            Image result for kolb's learning styles And then there are multiple intelligences…but that’s a post for another time.
  5. Push but don’t break – We don’t want to push beyond a learner’s capacity, where they might just give up because the rules are too hard and instead engage in “shallow compliance” to the Ways of Jesus. We also don’t want to deny accountability to excellence or striving for righteousness. We are called to take up our cross daily. This requires concentrated effort and focus and self-control but, it shouldn’t exasperate the student to the point of giving up. There’s a sweet spot where they can experience a measure of success and still experience the challenge of discovery. We must seek discernment on our facilitation of either.
  6. Learning needs to be connected across intersections – Formation needs to reach out into the real world. Life change cannot be meaningful or lasting if the students don’t know why the knowledge is useful to them, or how it can be applied in life. Understanding the connections between subjects and ideas is essential for the ability to transfer skills and adapt. Often, our faith is taught in a disjointed manner. How does our quest for social justice intersect with our real lives where we come face to face with racism? How does Jesus’ call to be peacemakers intersect with the real life violence on the streets of our cities? How do we, as people formed in the image of God, be the answer to Jesus’ prayer to see the will of His Father lived out on earth, as it is in heaven?

Most of these ideas are like water to a fish to good teachers. They seem like no-brainers. To others though, they can seem impossible to achieve within an archaic faith tradition that is bureaucratic and slow to change. What might be some practical steps you can take towards a more innovative formation culture?

  • Invite dialogue regarding the subject matter. Our church practices large group Lectio Divina at the beginning of every sermon. Often, the pastor will read a significant portion of scripture and illicit immediate feedback, saying “What did you notice?” or “What connected with you?” or “What seemed odd or weird in this story?”. This is driven by the belief the the Holy Spirit speaks in and through the entire community and prevents a single voice saying there is only one way to see or understand a passage.
  • Creating space for silence. It can be very hard to learn when there is so much noise in the learning space. Whether it be audible or visual noise, it can make it difficult to focus, be still, and allow the material being taught/discussed to penetrate at a deeper level.
    Retelling the story in your own words. This is a common practice among teachers in public schools. When information can be consumed, processed, and regurgitated in our own words there is a level of brain connection that occurs that goes beyond simply memorizing content. Try having your students rewrite Jesus’ parable with content from their lives today. This will also help take an abstract idea and make it more concrete.
  • Multi-sensory is the pathway to integrated learning. We learn best when we see, hear, touch, smell, and taste that which we’re working with. You might not be able to accommodate all five senses into every gathering but being mindful of them and intentional will go a long way to creating memorable learning experiences for your students.
  • Service-Learning Projects. Think creatively beyond a short-term mission project or a weekend service project. Have the students identify an issue from scripture (i.e., poverty) and have them research that topic in their own community. Let them discover the scope of the issue for themselves and then walk them through the process of addressing the problem. Imagine this…your students learn about the story of the Good Samaritan. As a result, they were moved and impacted by a story of someone in need of critical medical care. They then research their community and discover that many of the elderly in their town don’t have access to a myriad of medical/health resources. One of your students tells a story about how their grandmother can’t afford her prescription medication and has a hard time driving to the pharmacy. Now, imagine these same students decide to go talk to the pharmacy to see if they would consider starting a medication delivery for the elderly. Imagine they also create an educational program for the community to dispose of unused medications and work with the police department to create a medication drop off center to properly dispose of these medications because this will reduce the potential of teens accessing dangerous drugs of abuse from their grandparents medicine cabinets.

If transformation is the goal of formation we must be intentional about how we cultivate learning and formation experiences. This requires more effort from the one facilitating the learning in preparing. This isn’t just a lazy form of teaching. This will require more focus and thoughtfulness up front but the end result, I believe, will be deeper transformation of our students as they journey with Jesus throughout their lives.

Here’s a link to a free resource on spiritual formation you can use with your students, volunteers, or for yourself.

Fringe Spiritual Formation Guide

The Voices Project – Anonymous Girl part 2


We recently received this email from an anonymous girl who wanted to tell her story. These are her words and we are honored to share it on her behalf. Her story is long so we have decided to post it in two parts. This is the second part of her story. You can find part 1 here. We pray for her continued healing and hope that she is surrounded by love, where ever she may be.

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The holding cell was just a big room with a bench along one side and a toilet in the corner behind a half wall. The last thing in the world I wanted to do was get sick and have to use that toilet. Eventually, I did because when you’re dope sick it comes out of both ends. It’s a horrible feeling but you don’t care because you’re miserable. I seriously wanted to die so bad but there was absolutely no way I could make that happen. Not only did I not have anything to do it with there was also a giant one-way mirrored window through which we would be watched. I just laid in the corner under the bench, as far away from the others as I could get.

After five days a mental health therapist came to talk to me. She evaluated my current drug use; how much, how often, and how long. She asked if I wanted to go to treatment and I said I did. Inside, I knew I didn’t really want treatment but I didn’t want to be homeless or hungry. I had already gotten over the worst of my withdrawals so they would be able to get me in relatively quickly. I still had to wait three more days.

Treatment was not new to me. I had watched my mom go in and out most of my life. He NA sponsor would come over from time to time. I saw all the books and stuff lying around the house too. I even learned the things they say, like “Just take it one day at a time”, and “But for the grace of God, go I”. I could recite them like they were a part of the pledge of allegiance at grade school. But, I had no personal experience with those in recovery.

My counselor was a nice woman and was really good at listening to me but I just didn’t connect with her. She had a good heart and all but I never got the sense that she really knew what I had gone through in my life. Now, the people at Sanity (local NA meeting), that was another story. Those people knew their shit. It’s like they knew my every thought before I thought it.

My first meeting I was welcomed and they read something called step one. I don’t remember much of that meeting or what they talked about but what I do remember was this group told me they wanted me to come back. That’s it. No strings attached. They simply wanted me to come back. I can’t tell you how good it felt to hear those words. It’s like all the things I’ve done and were ashamed of kept me from wanting to be around other people but I had a real sense that these people already knew about the crap that had happened in my life and they still wanted me to come back.

I have relapsed on a few occasions. Heroin imprints in your body and brain and because of that my brain has learned about a level of pleasure it was never intended to know. Each time I dragged my sorry ass back through the doors of that meeting room, I was greeted with, “We’re glad you made it back”. It’s like there was a force field at the front door that keeps shame from entering that space. My relapses got shorter each time and my sobriety got longer between relapses.

I am now clean 9 months and I’m working. I don’t know if I’ll use again. I hope not but it’s always there, in the back of my mind. It’s like a bear that’s hibernating. If I just leave the bear alone it will stay asleep. If I poke the bear, it will wake up and start devouring everything around it and I’m afraid I won’t be able to put it back to sleep. For today, I’m sober. I like who I am. I miss my mom and wish she was able to find a community like I did. I still have nightmares about the sexual abuse I’ve experienced but I’m working that out with my therapist. I’m living with people in recovery and go to meetings nearly every night. Sometimes I go and pick up the girls from the local treatment center. It’s cool to see them at the beginning. It reminds me where I came from and how far I’ve come.

You can post this on your blog if you want. I’m not giving my name because I still have a long way to go but if my story will help someone else then please use it. Thanks for making a place for people to share their stories. This was hard for me to write but it feels important for me to do this.

Thanks.

Youth Ministries That Nurture Resiliency In Vulnerable Youth


Young people are living in a world that seems hell-bent on breaking those who try to navigate it successfully. Likewise, the church in America has a tendency to break people as well, especially its young. If our students, children, and community youth are going to move out of adolescence into functional adulthood they will need to be resilient.

So, what exactly is resilience? Resilience is the ability to ‘bounce back’ after a tough situation or difficult time and then get back to feeling just about as good as you felt before. It’s also the ability to adapt to difficult circumstances that you can’t change, and keep on thriving.

Rick Little and the fine folks over at the Positive Youth Development Movement have identified the 7 Cs: Essential Building Blocks of Resilience. They say “Young people live up or down to expectations we set for them. They need adults who believe in them unconditionally and hold them to the high expectations of being compassionate, generous, and creative.”

Competence: When we notice what young people are doing right and give them opportunities to develop important skills, they feel competent. We undermine competence when we don’t allow young people to recover themselves after a fall.

Confidence: Young people need confidence to be able to navigate the world, think outside the box, and recover from challenges.

Connection: Connections with other people, schools, and communities offer young people the security that allows them to stand on their own and develop creative solutions.

Character: Young people need a clear sense of right and wrong and a commitment to integrity.

Contribution: Young people who contribute to the well-being of others will receive gratitude rather than condemnation. They will learn that contributing feels good and may therefore more easily turn to others, and do so without shame.

Coping: Young people who possess a variety of healthy coping strategies will be less likely to turn to dangerous quick fixes when stressed.

Control: Young people who understand privileges and respect are earned through demonstrated responsibility will learn to make wise choices and feel a sense of control.

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This is a great grid to think through when creating programs, purchasing curriculum, and planning events. Can our efforts increase resilience in the most vulnerable youth? I think they can but it will take thoughtful intentionality.

  • What if our we created more opportunities for students to lead (in big church)? Would that increase their competence to have their leadership validated and nurtured by other leaders?
  • What if we taught a series on confidence (I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me)? Sound familiar? Are we driving this truth deep into the hearts of young people? I’m not talking about the notion that I can achieve but more the notion that I can overcome.
  • What if we continued to beat the drum of integrity and character but laced it with grace so when they fail they are able to get back on track without having to avoid the shame monster?
  • What if we did more than just allow our kids to babysit for the Women’s Fellowship Coffee? What if we actually gave our students meaningful work in the church and community? What if they led teams with adults? What if they helped plan services? What if they researched their community needs and church leaders valued their work so much that it might actually alter the organization’s mission?
  • What if we offered more than shallow platitudes to manage the hurt and pain they experience as they navigate life? What if we deliberately included emotional and social intelligence in all our teaching and small group curriculum? What if we actually modeled self-control and appropriate vulnerability of emotions? What if we taught coping skills to kids in our youth group?
  • What if we allowed teens the power of choice? What if we allowed them to make wrong choices and were there to help them process the consequences of those choices? What if we encouraged rebellion (minor rebellion) and autonomy instead of conformity? What if we didn’t overindulge youth so they develop a sense of entitlement and instead taught them the value of work and earning respect?

I wish I had learned many of these lessons growing up. More than that, I wish I had been surrounded by a great herd of adults that walked alongside me while I learned these lessons, encouraging me, walking beside me, challenging me by raising the bar, modeling resilience, and not giving up on me when I screwed up. I imagine that sounds a little like heaven to a vulnerable teenager and that’s the point, isn’t it?

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 took to the church for hope in the midst of tragedy. The church can be a place of good new 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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