The (church) body keeps the score

I recently referred to the book “The body keeps the score” which talks about how mental health issues and in particular trauma related health is not just in the mind. The physical brain, nervous system and the body are affected by trauma, respond to it and keep score of the damage inflicted.

So, I’ve begun thinking a little about what implications this might have for church life, particularly as we think about church culture and seeking to encourage a culture of grace. We also need to consider the impact of recent abuse cases on the church (both in terms of local congregations and wider). In effect The Church and specific local churches have experienced serious trauma. The same will also be true for local churches when

  • There is a scandal, public sin leading to the need for church discipline
  • When a member of the church has been subjected to abuse (particularly when that member is significantly connected in with the other members)
  • When brothers and sisters are suffering persecution
  • When there is a falling out/split/division
  • When a church loses a pastor/leading in painful circumstances
  • When the church suffers a bereavement
  • When (and this is particularly relevant to the pandemic period) the church together go through a traumatic experience.

The relevant Scripture is 1 Corinthians 12 where in verse 12,Paul says:

12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.

Paul will go on from there to say that this means we are interconnected sharing both in the joy and pains of each other. This means that when I see someone going through pain, I may well carry their pain with them. It is possible to experience a kind of vicarious or second hand trauma. I think this has particularly been true for believers seeking to walk alongside abuse sufferers and asylum seekers, witnessing the pain they are suffering, hearing of the horrors they have experienced. Indeed, if we are walking with someone then we may well begin to experience the same fight or flight physical responses.

It means that as we seek to come out of the lockdown, then we need to remember that churches are going to need to consider that the body has been subjected to a massive trauma and this may well lead to both individual and corporate PTSD. We will need to go carefully and gently. We will need to recognise that there is a need for healing. How will we create space in our programmes for that healing and recovery to happen?

It means that we need to look carefully at some of the follow on responses to the recent abuse cases.  If I may touch on the response we’ve seen to the Fletcher reports. Those reports recommended that senior Christian leaders needed to take time to consider their own responsibilities particularly where there was a failure to confront or report and also in terms of allowing a culture to develop in local churches and in networks and organisations that allowed abuse to go unchallenged. It is right for such serious soul searching to happen.

However, what happened next was in my opinion, not so brilliant. The focus was placed on specific church leaders via social media. They were named and complaints and rumours aired about their various failings. It is important to note at this point that they were not and have not been accused of participating in Fletcher’s abuse. This does not mean that there aren’t serious questions to answer but take time to consider how all of this will have been experienced by those people and by their church families. It will have been experienced as further trauma and pain, inflicted from the outside. We should not be surprised to see flight or fight responses and nor should we be surprised to hear members of those congregations (including those who themselves had been victims of abuse) expressing further pain. 

Another aspect of this is that we may begin to realise that if the body keeps the score, then the experience of trauma in the church may get itself deeply embedded into the life of the body so that the church instinctively, subconsciously reacts and responds to situations based on that trauma, years and even decades later. That may help new leaders understand why things they consider non-controversial meet with what appears to be disproportionate opposition.

Finally, I think it reminds those of us called to pastoral ministry what one of our first responsibilities is. I recently spoke to someone where their church had been through a difficult patch.  They commented that they felt that the church needed to relearn how to love and particularly how to love their new pastor coming in. My response was that the responsibility lay first of all with the new pastor. He was going to have to love them, to help them know that they were safe, that he was committed to them and cared for them, that he was not just there to use them. This was what was most likely to both draw back the congregation’s love for him and to encourage them to love one another, their community and the Lord.

One of my first priorities as a pastor must be to love the church. It is the body of Christ. I need to be alert to where the body has experienced harm and danger and I should seek to love and care for that body. 

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