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Something to Consider... for the next time you teach or preach on worry


As I start to talk with pastors about why ACEs matter and why they should inform themselves and their congregations, I regularly hear something like this: "But why does it matter? What difference should it make in ministry? Can't I simply preach and teach the Bible and leave the results up to God?"

By way of answer to these questions, I am starting to put together a training called "10 things that kid with ACEs would like you to know: moving your church toward greater empathy." The following is from my second point in the presentation: "The traumatized are biologically wired to worry." I hope you find it helpful, and if you pass this on to a pastor-type person, please do so in the context of want to raise their awareness to an issue, not in a judgmental way. Having been a parish pastor, I know all the demands on their time. The hurt that a pastor might do to someone with ACEs is unintentional... they just don't know what they don't know! Finally, this was prepared as a spoken presentation rather than written, and rather than have to rewrite the whole thing, I hope you picture the setting and glean the same truths.

         Thanks, Chaplain Chris Haughee

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While we may have all been created equal, that does not make us the same, nor does it change the fact that we have all had different childhoods.

Toxic stress wires a child’s brain to be in constant vigilance against potential threats… Pastor, consider your most stressful situation, perhaps a time you really thought or knew your life was in danger. Remember that adrenaline rush? Now, imagine that in even a heightened, regular rate, let alone anything close to constant. Can you see how this might affect a child’s brain? Can you see why toxic stress--a prolonged heightened sense of fear from a potentially life threatening situation--can be so damaging?

So, because of what we know about ACEs, especially here in Montana—where 17 percent of children have experienced three or more ACEs, and 1 in 10 have four or more (the "tipping point" for all sorts of negative consequences statistically, including a 1200% increase in suicidal behavior) how might that change the way you preach and teach?

Raise your hand if you have ever taught, preached, or heard taught or preached a message on Jesus’ teaching about worry from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:25-34)? How many? Look around.

Okay… next question: How many of you, leave your hands up if this is you… How many of you heard from those messages, or taught from that passage that the main lesson was: “Worry is bad. You should worry less?” Look around… lots of hands.

Telling the survivor of ACEs to worry less, and that’s what Jesus wants you to do, is about as sensitive as telling the child in the wheelchair that they need to stop using their wheelchair and that Jesus wants them to walk. (Unfortunately, having had a brother with Muscular Dystrophy, confined to a wheelchair most of his life until his death at age 20, this message is sometimes taught from 'Christian' pulpits).

Think I am overstating the case? Then ask yourself, "Do I lend more validity to the child in the wheelchair, considering their limitations because I can see them while discrediting the limitations of child with ACEs?" And, if so, ask yourself the follow-up question: "Is this because the effects of their trauma are in their nervous system and endocrine system, remaining unseen and hidden?" Pastor, teacher... if someone's infirmity doesn't scream out to your sense of sight, touch, or hearing you shouldn't assume it is less significant. The child with six or more ACEs dies 20 years early than the rest of the population. That's significant.

As you prepare your sermon, remember this: your worries and anxiety, as someone without a rewired brain or a hyper-vigilant endocrine/nervous system, cannot be compared to those who have experienced toxic stress as a result of ACEs. It just can’t.

Back to Matthew 6: Jesus was teaching less on worry than on recognizing our dependence on God. What did Jesus speak to? Worry about food and drink, about clothes. Does anyone without a traumatic childhood REALLY worry about these things? We worry about our jobs, our mortgages, our children's behavior. There are few in our churches that truly worry about food, clothing, and their thirst (though that may be another issue to address... our missional impact... but that's for another time and place).

Food, drink, and clothes are not pressing issues for us. But, for the child who truly didn’t have enough to eat as a child, who learned to hoard when food was available, just might have food issues in adulthood… and, that’s just one common example I see in my ministry. Try preparing a lesson on this passage for these children rather than the kids that argue about how many stalks of broccoli they might have to eat in order to get dessert. Changes things a bit, yes?

Lastly, the same person that gave this teaching about worry also prayed in Gethsemane, troubled ("depressed and dejected"-ademoneo in Greek) to the point of sweating blood! Dare we say that Jesus was “worried” or anxious about the manner of death that lay before him? This level or worry or anxiety is a better corollary to what children with numerous ACEs might have experienced.

Imagine if those sleepy disciples in the garden had quoted Jesus back to himself: “Jesus, why are you so worried? Can you add a single hour to your life? You said it yourself!” I am not so sure that would have gone over well, and I don’t think our admonishing those with anxiety issues from very troubled childhood experiences goes over any better.

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Excellent points, Sandy... just another affirmation of how valuable this online community can be, as your words challenge and fuel me and encourage me at the same time!

Vulnerability, TRUE vulnerability, is very hard in spiritual leadership... I have had church members get visibly agitated my times I have dipped my toe in these waters (years ago... pre-ACE Study), because their image (read: idol) of a minister was someone that was a spiritual superhero that didn't bleed... especially not relationally or emotionally. This absolutely got in the way of transparent ministry that would have helped them as well as myself.

I also hear what you are saying in regards to traumas not captured by the original ACE Study... speaking to a youth group last week, I covered this point and mentioned bullying and my own experience of growing up with a sibling that had a debilitating and fatal illness... not aspects of the 10 ACEs, but definitely an area of toxic stress!

Here's my own introduction for faith communities to the topic of ACEs, maybe worth passing on??




Perhaps it's time for the faith-based community to step back awhile and *listen to* those who sit in their pews (and those who leave). Start by asking those with lived experiences' of emotional distress to share their stories of the memories and events that served as the kindling for later depression, substance abuse and PTSD.

Just... LISTEN. Take notes because the ten items on that ACEs list do not comprise the totality of adversities that children experience. Children may be bullied extensively yet never share this with family. Children may be born with or experience a disfigurement, disability or chronic condition... and grow up feeling deeply alone and isolated. Children may be 'the only one' (race, language, religion, etc.) and have no one who understands.  Children may ... all alone, without support ... and it hurt, yet no one seemed to ever know or care... 

Theres a 'game' (akin to literally 'building a child'), complete with straws, pipe cleaners and 'connectors' where "players" 'build a brain' with strengths ('your mom had great prenatal care') or vulnerabilities ('your mom used drugs during her pregnancy'). The players don't have the option of 'trading' a bad scenario for a good.... So when a real 'brain inside a body' sitting in a church pew leaves and doesn't return... how does this ACEs knowledge play out in understanding the hidden complexity of our lives? A real person is gone - one with a real ACEs score - so how does the faith-based community address the quandary it already is in?

Perhaps it's time that faith-based communities literally do a SAFE version of the ACEs right there in church one Sunday.  Introduce ACEs (and Urban ACEs). Elicit other potential stressors. Do an ACEs survey with the intent on creating a stained glass window of vulnerabilities from which to envision spiritual support. Add to that stained glass church 'window' the realities of life among the surrounding community. 

MOST IMPORTANTLY, lead by example. Share your own 'lived experiences'... the very real vulnerabilities you experienced (and the ones that endure) become the tender spots from which you lead (and get support). Those broken shards of stained glass are mutually welded together by the actions that come from spirituality. Alone, those broken pieces have no light coming through them. They can't even stand upright, 

But TOGETHER, those broken pieces can be welded together and literally become an object of intense power and beauty BECAUSE the spirituality of Light glows strongly right through them all.

This is 1 Corinthians 13... Jeremiah 29:11... See ACEs as OUR journey. Lead through vulnerability... 


Last edited by Sandy Goodwick

Thanks, Linda.

Blunt? Ha ha... Here at Intermountain we teach the children to "be direct" and we try and do the same. "Tell me what you need so I can do my best to help you," "Use your words..." etc. etc.

So, while I was always a pretty direct person who didn't shy away from confrontation in ministry, I have shed almost all inhibition when it comes to addressing issues head on!

Also, Linda, you know better than I do from your time in ministry, these issues don't go away with niceties. This is serious business. No time to dilly-dally... we need to address these issues as ministers.

God bless you and thank you for the encouragement!

Great analogies. You put it so bluntly. Maybe that's been the missing element in talking to pastors and church leaders about how to minister to those in trauma or those adults have a high ACEs score.

Keep these thoughts coming. Much appreciated

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