I recently had two events that caused me to think purposefully about what a responsible approach to the upcoming holidays of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day may be for a church that is seeking to be sensitive to the trauma histories that their worshipping community may have. The first was an invitation to preach at a church in my community that has done a great deal to advance the faith communities awareness to the effects of ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) and mental health needs within the community. I was invited to preach on Father’s Day, and I asked if the church had any traditions around the holiday. It sparked a wonderful cascade of insightful emails back and forth as to what kind of message would be best received by that worshipping congregation. The second was an instant message I received from a local children’s minister asking about how she out to approach Mother’s Day with the large group of children she serves, knowing many of them have high ACE scores and may be coming from families of divorce, separation, loss, or incarceration.
So, what would a trauma-informed approach to ministry on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day be? I am not sure I can offer a definitive answer, but I will hope to provide some insight, guidance, and a few leading questions that will hopefully help your church or faith community honor the mothers and fathers in your midst without also unintentionally doing harm to those that may struggle with these holidays for a myriad of reasons.
Building on the framework of SAMSHA’s definition of a trauma-informed organization, I have previously written about my working definition for a trauma-informed ministry. A Trauma-Informed Ministry intentionally shapes a culture within their worshipping community that:
- Realizes the widespread impact of trauma–those deeply distressing and emotional experiences that leave lasting effects–and provides practical ministry interventions as well as support for ongoing mental health interventions.
- Recognizes the signs and symptoms of trauma in the children, youth, men and women it ministers to as well as the effects that living with a traumatized individual has on all relationships–marriage, family, work, and social.
- Responds to the need within its worshipping community and the needs of its neighbors by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into church and ministry policies, procedures, and ministry practices. And,
- Seeks to actively resist re-traumatization that can occur when appropriate recognition and intervention is not wed with compassion and a commitment to stabilizing relationships and supportive structures that destigmatize mental health issues.
Furthermore, it is characterized by the six key principles of a trauma-informed approach to service. They are:
- Trustworthiness and Transparency
- Peer support
- Collaboration and mutuality
- Empowerment, voice and choice
- Cultural, Historical, and Gender Issues
So, let’s review the subject of observing or recognizing Mother’s Day and Father’s Day in the church using the “Four R’s” of the definition while “sprinkling in” the six principles above. For the sake of clarity and segmenting this into points of discussion that might be helpful for a church to explore, I’ll use a bulleted list to accomplish this.
- First, the trauma-informed community of faith is intentional about shaping its culture in a way that recognizes the effects of trauma and adversity in childhood within its community. Everything that the church does is examined in light of wanting the “Good News” of Jesus to be accessible to the one-fifth to one-fourth of individuals that have experienced significant trauma or adversity in their communities. How will you honor the exceptional mothers and fathers in your community, while including grandparents that are parenting, foster parents, and adoptive parents? Will you keep in mind that some will have had very difficult relationships with their parents, and the lifting up of the “ideal parent” within the congregation just may cause them enough pain to choose to stay home those Sundays? You increase a sense of trust and transparency every time the church displays sensitivity around these issues, because people can be real and authentic instead of having to pretend to be something while in a faith-based setting.
- Second, in recognizing the signs of trauma in individuals—the anxiety that can result from simply being around larger groups of people, for instance—does the church have a clearly articulated plan for ministering to those that may be overwhelmed at some point in the worship service or surrounding fellowship times? Are there entrances and exits where a person can discreetly come in or out without having to pass a line of “greeters” or those for whom the traumatized individual may feel they need to explain themselves? Is there a quiet room if an adult or child is needing a sensory break? It helps communicate physical and emotional safety to have thought through these questions and make accommodations. If you know that there are children in your Sunday school class or Children’s church program that have a complicated relationship with a birth mother, will this change the way you message your lesson or design a craft project? Having a conversation with the class around the special women in their lives and discuss who might be deserving of a special gift you are making together would be less likely to cause strong emotional reaction than just assuming everyone in the class has a parent they can give their gift to.
- Third, take a look at the church’s policies, procedures and practices. Do sign in forms for the nursery only list a place for the “mother” or “father?” Could you add or replace those designations with the term “guardian” and avoid unintentionally harm? Do the mothers get carnations on Mother’s and are their special treats for the dads on Father’s Day? Do you ask them to stand during the worship service? Consider the role of cultural, historical, or gender issues that may be unintentionally causing decisions to be made in your fellowship that are hurting those that need your support. I have sat by my wife in the pew as she cried in service when the mothers were asked to stand, because having just lost an adoptive placement to the “system,” she felt she didn’t qualify as a mother and shouldn’t stand. Choose to empower those often overlooked and be sensitive to the pain that is often ignored or minimized for those with such experiences.
- Fourth, the church can do a lot to help prepare a church for a different way of observing Mother’s and Father’s day by talking about issues of adversity in childhood, trauma-informed ministry practices, mental health issues, adoption/foster care, infertility, miscarriage, and many other very real and tangible issues for your congregations. In doing so, you help to normalize these discussion in a faith setting and reduce stigma. Most importantly, it can help your church from re-traumatizing an individual in a worship or church education setting! Give a sense of choice, power, and voice to those in your faith community to those from a variety of backgrounds so you can increase your awareness and compassion towards all children, individuals, and families.
Mother’s Day and Father’s Day can be special observances within a church setting, and by intentionally working through some of the questions and issues raised within this article, I hope that many more children, men and women will feel included and embraced within those observances.
Even if you and your congregation should choose to change nothing about how you observe (or don’t observe!) these holidays, perhaps the conversation started about a “trauma-sensitive” approach will make you and your church more compassionate and aware of those that come to worship with you on these Sundays.
© 2019, Chaplain Chris Haughee