‘Love should be the Guiding Principle’
By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine
First, the bad news: Americans are experiencing more trauma after three years of the pandemic than ever before and that means our communities—and, in particular, our congregations within those communities—are facing challenges that many religious leaders are not equipped to meet.
How do I know that? There’s research about the growing scope of the problem conducted by institutions ranging from Pew to our national health agencies. In addition to that data, like so many of our readers, I hear about this from my own family and friends, as well.
The Rev. Joel Walther, my son in law who serves a mid-sized United Methodist congregation in Michigan, suggested that ReadTheSpirit feature a Cover Story about this new book, Trauma-Informed Evangelism: Cultivating Communities of Wounded Healers, because he felt it was a valuable resource on a subject he’s hearing about frequently.
In our interview by Zoom with authors Charles Kiser and Elaine A. Heath, Joel explained that he’s got some members of his church who “openly talk about trauma, spiritual trauma, religious harm and things like that. I’m trying to figure out how we create a church that begins to deal with this and doesn’t just pretend it isn’t there and doesn’t try to gloss it over and doesn’t try to deny the lament of it. When I saw this book titled Trauma-Informed Evangelism, I thought: That’s something I need to read!”
As a pastor himself, Charles immediately responded, “For my part, all of this work we’ve done came from relationships with friends in my neighborhood and folks who ended up in my church—relationships through which I also found out about the spiritual harms that are just below the surface. That’s why I wanted to get this book out into the world to share these stories that are transformative to me.
“That’s my hope whether the reader is a church leader like you, Joel, who has folks in a church who have experiences of spiritual trauma—or the reader may be a clinical psychologist who works with spiritual survivors. Whoever reads this book will find language and insight and understanding that can help folks who have experienced religious trauma.”
We asked Elaine the same question: Who are the ideal readers for this book?
”In writing this book, I especially had in mind theological education, thinking of people in seminaries who have to take a class in evangelism or they won’t get ordained—or they’re taking classes in practical theology, pastoral theology and pastoral care classes,” Elaine said, drawing affirming nods from both Charles and Joel.
“So, on one level, this book comes out of my decades of working in academic realms,” Elaine said. In those years teaching in seminaries, “I taught a theology of evangelism that is healing and is inclusive and is trauma informed, principles you’ll find in our book. And that approach came out of my own journey growing up in a violent home where our parents were not people of faith and my siblings and I had to fend for ourselves. I wrote a memoir with my sister who is a therapist, called Loving the Hell Out of Ourselves, in which we told our story. As we encountered Christians along the way first as children and then as we grew up, we encountered various kinds of Christians, some of whom were helpful to us and some of whom preyed on us. … So, the passion I feel around the principles you find in this book emerges from my own experience personally and professionally.”
In fact, that’s the personal invitation readers will find in the introduction of their new book. On page 4, they write, “We come to this conversation not only as pastors, evangelists and theologians but also as survivors of spiritual abuse and trauma ourselves.” In the following 200 pages, Charles and Elaine become our companions as much as our teachers.
Herein lies the good news
And now the good news: There’s help out there. And more is coming! Major public institutions are offering resources for coping with trauma, including helpful online information, counseling programs, recommendations for small-group discussions and opportunities for professional training. In addition—and specifically focused on congregational life—most faith-based publishing houses right now are launching new books by experts like Kiser and Heath on a wide array of issues within the broad subjects of trauma, compassion and resiliency. These authors are trying their best to “network” religious readers with books, publications, online links, training opportunities and suggestions for further training.
As a publishing house, we are part of that healing process: Our own publishing house, Front Edge Publishing, already offers Lucille Sider’s Light Shines in the Darkness about the challenges of surviving sexual abuse and mental illness. We publish Howard Brown’s inspiring Shining Brightly, which includes keys to resiliency in overcoming the family-wide trauma of life-threatening cancer. We also publish the Michigan State University School of Journalism Bias Busters series to confront racism and other forms of bigotry. We’ve got more books on related themes in production.
Our online magazine ReadTheSpirit already has published interviews with authors of related books:
- Dawn Eden Goldstein’s ‘Father Ed’ lifts up the saint who befriended Bill W and helped to spread the good news about Alcoholics Anonymous
- AND: Cynthia Vacca Davis’s ‘Intersexion’ explores the traumas and the hopes of Christian community
So, what’s in this new book by Kiser and Heath?
Trauma Informed Evangelism: Cultivating Communities of Wounded Healers captures the main intention of these authors in the title. In our interview and in the book itself, they describe their mission as helping to foster “a form of Christianity that heals the wounds of the world.”
Of course, that idea of a “wounded healer” leaps from the pages of the Christian New Testament. This new book really is aimed at men and women who care about their Christian congregations: pastors, lay leaders, Sunday School teachers, counselors, educators. Although they focus primarily on Protestant congregations, given their professional backgrounds, there is a lot of valuable information in this book that also applies to Catholic, Jewish, Muslim and other congregations—as well as to secular professionals and community leaders.
Charles Kiser is a scholar and pastor of Storyline Christian Community in Dallas, Texas, a network of Christian communities that he helped to form. Elaine A. Heath is a scholar, a former dean of the Divinity School at Duke University and the author of many other books. She also is the leader of The Church at Spring Forest, a unique approach to cooperatively developing a farm-based intentional community.
In our interview, I asked them: “Are you comfortable with my describing your new book as both a resource-filled toolbox, packed with ideas for congregational leaders—as well as a Christian manifesto for faithfully following Jesus’s teachings today? Specifically, what do you think about that word ‘manifesto’?”
“I like that word choice a lot—manifesto,” said Elaine. “I think that’s true especially of the sections of the book I wrote.”
“I agree,” Charles said. “That’s what we are trying to say from the start.”
In the opening pages of their book, Charles writes about this hopeful vision of compassionate change sweeping through many grassroots congregations across the country:
We seek to join in what God is doing in and through the church in our time … framing a larger vision to which we hope to contribute through this project.
Then, Elaine adds the next paragraph on that introductory page:
We are at the forefront of a new reformation, one that is freeing the Christian faith from the sinful structures of patriarchy, racism, classism, many phobias, and exploitive forms of mission and evangelism. The new reformation is all about the emergence of a generous, hospitable, equitable form of Christianity that heals the wounds of the world. I believe much of the work of the church in the years ahead must focus on healing the wounds inflicted by Christendom so that the beauty and inclusive goodness of the gospel can be heard, seen, and experienced.
Those ambitious and hopeful visions they describe on page 6 of their book explain the book’s structure. They designed this 224-page book as it were a basic training program for concisely addressing many forms of trauma. And “concise” is a key term. To give readers a sense of the breadth of this challenge, they sketch many ways individuals and families may be coping with forms of trauma from generational wounds—such as slavery and Native American boarding schools—to fresh wounds from psychological, physical and even spiritual attacks.
One of the most thought-provoking sections of their book argues against some evangelical ways of preaching about Jesus’s crucifixion that can, in effect, become traumatizing. They are not asking readers to agree with every argument they pose in these pages—but they do ask readers to think in new ways about how some preaching can become spiritually abusive.
In almost every case, either within the main text of the book or in a very useful 38-page resource section at the end of their book, they do not simply rely on their own scholarship. Page after page, they point readers to additional helpful scholarship, research and professional resources.
On the subject of abusive and manipulative preaching, they introduce readers to the cutting-edge work of Dr. Kathryn Keller, a researcher who has developed useful ways to talk with people about negative experiences they may have encountered in churches or other religious groups. As it turns out, Dr. Keller’s doctoral research, which describes ways to question people about spiritual abuse, is one of many additional resources available online. That’s how the covers of this book open up like a tool chest, pointing toward a wealth of additional reading. If you want to dive much deeper into Dr. Keller’s research, you will find that her online work actually is longer than Charles’ and Elaine’s book.
What else is in this toolbox?
Think of this new book as a condensed manifesto, a well-stocked toolbox and a seminar-series all packed neatly between the covers of a book. Among the other notable insights you’ll find here:
DIFFERENTIATION in LEADERSHIP: The authors write about the challenges community leaders face if they do want to provide compassionate care. How do leaders both assist and remain a proper distance to safeguard against becoming overwhelmed? They don’t attempt to provide pat answers, but they do identify these complex issues that readers may want to explore further.
12-STEP CONNECTIONS: Charles and Elaine don’t delve into the 12-step movement, but readers who are involved in that realm will find sections in their book that parallel the hard-earned wisdom gleaned in the 12-step history. Readers interested in 12-step movements are likely to find this book fascinating.
FLIPPED HOSPITALITY: Even secular community leaders will find their section on “flipping hospitality” quite thought provoking. How often do we confuse “hospitality” with what amount to predatory practices? How can we open up our communities to welcoming people on their own terms? This is one of the authors’ most intriguing passages. They even touch on ethnography as a model for leadership, a professional discipline that points readers toward becoming a part of a community without a manipulative agenda.
How could this book change readers?
At the end of our time together on Zoom, we asked Charles and Elaine how they hope their book could affect readers?
Charles said he hopes readers will find helpful answers to the question he was asking, when he began work on this book with Elaine: “How can I engage and relate to my non-religious friends, many of whom have experienced religious harm? In those situations, I hope we can learn to listen first, to listen almost entirely as we hear their stories, as we receive their stories. One expression of love is listening to each other’s stories. Part of the pathway toward healing from trauma is that acknowledgement and then making space for these experiences, perspectives and stories that are painful. So, I hope readers of this book will begin to ask themselves: Can we listen ourselves into a new kind of connection?”
Elaine said, “I hope we can learn and practice a hermeneutic of love, asking ourselves: How do we read other people’s writing? How do we read other people? How do we approach conversations as a result? In that process, love really should be our guiding principle. Loving our neighbors and knowing that God is love should be our guiding principles. More than all the other rules and regulations and moral imperatives, we need to love our neighbors in a way that feels loving to them—and that’s important: what feels loving to them, not what I think feels loving to me. If we’re not doing that, then we’re missing the mark.”
She paused a moment, then said, “I know some people will respond to my saying that with: ‘Oh, that’s too mushy. It’s not an ethically clear enough way of expressing this.’
“But to that, I just say, ‘Baloney! Jesus said this is the heart of everything: Loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and loving our neighbors as ourselves.'”
Care to learn more?
GET THE BOOK: Trauma-Informed Evangelism: Cultivating Communities of Wounded Healers is available from Amazon and other booksellers.
RELATED TRAINING: Brenda Rosenberg’s international efforts to promote healing from religious, racial and ethnic trauma follow very similar principles to those outlined in Charles’s and Elaine’s new book. Brenda is Jewish and works with Muslim and Christian partners, often young people. Her work can be found in Harnessing the Power of Tension and Reuniting the Children of Abraham. The latter book focuses on her work with teens.
CDC RESOURCES: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is the national public health agency of the United States and has brought together a wide range of helpful resources related to abuse, racism and trauma. Among the CDC gateway pages are:
- CDC: Preventing Sexual Violence
- CDC: Preventing Elder Abuse
- CDC: Ending Gender-based Violence Globally
- CDC: Racism and Health
NATIONAL SUICIDE HOTLINE: In addition, caring community leaders should keep the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services National Suicide Hotline handy: 988. That’s a program of the department’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). In addition, SAMHSA maintains its own online gateway to resources related to trauma and violence.
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