As I begin to share with faith communities throughout Montana why adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) matter and how they can help build more resilient children and healthier communities, I sometimes hear something like this: "But why does it matter? What difference should it make in ministry?” The ACE survey measured the prevalence of ten stress-inducing factors in childhood including abuse, neglect, and substance abuse in the home, and these factors definitely influence ministries throughout Montana. The issues children and teens face growing up in Montana can be daunting, but the faith-based community can help hurting children by building safe, welcoming communities for all children to thrive.
In an effort to pull together the tremendous resources our faith communities possess, I’ll be facilitating a conversation at ChildWise’s Fall Conference in Helena on Resilience, September 29th and 30th. My hope is that dozens of congregations from across Montana could be represented, and their involvement would start a much-needed conversation in their churches, synagogues, and fellowships.
Here in Montana—where 17% of children have experienced three or more ACEs, and 1 in 10 have four or more—faith communities should be especially aware of how their ministries can make a difference. Is your youth ministry concerned about teen suicide? Consider that the 10% of children with four or more ACEs have a 1200% greater chance of attempting suicide than their peers, and I think you’ll see why learning about ACEs is a good idea!
More than that, if our faith communities understood how adversity in childhood effects the way a person perceives the world, it might change the way we messaged our sermons and Sunday school lessons. I am a Christian, as I am sure many who are reading this are, so I will take Jesus’ teaching on worry from the Sermon on the Mount as my example (Matthew 6:25-34). In this teaching, Jesus says, “Do not worry about your life and what you will eat or drink… and what you will wear… Can you add even one hour to your life by worrying?”
How many of you heard from messages on this teaching? After hearing a sermon on the subject of worry, how many of us have walked away thinking, “I should worry less! Jesus just wants me to trust God, so my anxiety means I am not being faithful.” Ironically, we might end up worrying about how much we worry!
Now here’s where knowing about the challenges facing those with ACEs should be reflected in our interpretation of this teaching: telling the survivor of ACEs to worry less, and that’s what Jesus wants you to do, is about as sensitive as telling a disabled child that they need to stop using their wheelchair and that Jesus wants them to walk. Many with ACEs wish they could be less anxious, but their brains adjusted to an elevated level of stress hormones early in their development.
Physically, their nervous and endocrine systems are not the same as someone who didn’t have that adversity in childhood. Friends, if someone's infirmity doesn't scream out to our sense of sight, touch, or hearing we shouldn't assume it is less significant. The ACE Study found that the child with six or more ACEs will likely die 20 years earlier than the child with no ACEs. That's significant.
Are we missing the point of the passage by shaming others and ourselves about our anxiety? I contend that Jesus was less concerned about worry than our inability to recognizing our dependence on God. What did Jesus speak to? Worry about food, drink, and clothes. For most, provision of these basic needs in childhood was not an issue. But, for the child who truly didn’t have enough to eat as a child, who learned to hoard when food was available, THAT child just might have food issues—that’s just one common example I see in my ministry. Consider how you would tell these children about Jesus’ message on worry instead of the kids that argue about how many stalks of broccoli they might have to eat in order to get dessert.
If our faith communities want to make a difference in the lives of the 17% of Montana’s children with three or more ACEs, we need to think through matters such as these. If you think this is a conversation worth having, I encourage you to contact me, join Elevate Montana (elevatemontana.org), and look for ways you can engage your faith community with these issues.
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The Reverend Chris Haughee is a licensed minister of the Evangelical Covenant Church and has served as chaplain of Intermountain’s residential services since 2012. An adoptive father to two, Chaplain Chris Haughee is an advocate for greater inclusion of foster and adoptive families in the life and ministry of local congregations. A member of Helena’s Elevate Montana group (www.elevatemontana.org), you can follow his ministry at www.intermountainministry.org or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org