What Does a Trauma-Informed Church Look Like? Part 1

A question I received via email in response to 3 Steps Every Church Can Take To Become Trauma-Informed is “What does a trauma-informed church look like?”

That’s a great question with a complex answer. I’m going to tackle it anyway.

First and foremost, trauma-informed churches are more about relationship than they are about proper behavior. As I said in the article linked above, trauma is a buzzword. Churches are hopping on the bandwagon and saying they are sensitive to attenders who have had trauma, all the while, making sure everyone’s behavior measures up. I’m going to focus on kids here because that’s what I’m trained in (mostly through experience).

Trauma-informed churches don’t expect kids to regulate (behave).

Most churches who are trauma-informed say that relationship trumps behavior. Acknowledging the idea is a great start. Do they follow through?

At- risk children can easily feel alienated and cornered, alone against the world. Feeling that way, it almost guaranteed that they will come out fighting, manipulating or fleeing. Then the only adult attention they receive is endless scolding and punishment. Soon this dysfunctional dynamic becomes a habit, and the the children learn to seek familiar and available attention by acting out. What a scary and miserable way to live!

The Connected Child

When a child can’t stay in a seat for worship, is the behavior a detriment to the relationship? In other words, will the child be put in time-out, shamed, sent back to parents, berated, or fill in the blank? Does sitting in a seat, being in an environment that produces sensory overload, or the inability to regulate due to stressors cause a break in the relationship? Is the child put on the chopping block and asked to measure up to a standard before he is accepted? This is not what a trauma-informed church looks like.

The concept of “being good” in church.

I totally understand the concept of “being good” in church. When I my kiddos were younger and I sang in the choir. I had to be at church early for warm-ups. With hubby out of town or at work, all seven of my kiddos had to sit on the front row while I was up on the risers with the choir. I got pretty durn good and shooting looks at my kiddos that meant “behave or else!” I grew up in an era when everyone had to be respectful to adults, especially those in the ministry no matter how we felt about it. If I got in trouble at church or school, I was sure to get double trouble at home. No explaining away my behavior. No excuses. Kids submitted to authority or suffered the consequences. If you grew up like I did, it may be difficult to shift gears to a new way of thinking especially in a spiritual or religious setting.

A new way of thinking about behavior.

Things have changed. Science has discovered many ways that trauma effects kids. I have written many articles about that, for the sake of brevity, let’s say – Kids who have had trauma cannot behave, not – will not behave. When Sunday school teachers, children’s church workers, youth leaders get that scientific fact firmly placed in their belt of truth, we will see more effective ministry for kids who have had trauma. If we want our churches to be trauma-informed, we’ll be the adults that say, “It’s up to us to figure out what works to build relationship with each child.”

Start with talking to the parents (or whomever brings them to church).

Trauma-informed churches ask foster parents, adoptive parents, parents of kids with capital letter syndromes what the kiddo needs to feel safe and what helps the child regulate. Trauma-informed churches put needs of kids who have had trauma on the list right next to severe allergies. If one child cannot have peanuts and another goes into overload if the music is too loud, skip the peanuts and have some noise reducing headphones. It looks like an away room with headphones, adults to help a kiddo regulate, and someone to connect with even if there has to be a correction first. Especially if there has to be a correction first.

If you need help with how to train your staff on correcting, try the “Instead of Tips” here and download a printable resource here. Trauma-informed churches have a system set up that everyone can follow. All of the staff and volunteers use the same approach which give another layer of felt-safety to the kiddos. If you’re interested in an e-course to accompany the graphic, make sure you get on our email list to get the link when it’s live.

A short word on Teens

If a group of teens comes to the after-school program at your church and you know they have had various levels of trauma, make sure you have trauma-trained staff to supervise. This usually means more staff, more supervision, and more structure.

It’s a fallacy to think when teens who have had trauma or a capital letter syndrome will be able to regulate just because they have large bodies. The truth is most of these kiddos are half their physical age emotionally. Teens with large bodies and little ability to self-regulate in response to stressors can quickly spiral out of control.

I’ll continue this line of thought in one of my articles.


A few weeks ago in church, a prophecy was given about an influx of people coming in from “the hollows” (this is WV, people). We were instructed to “get ready” multiple times. When I left the service, the phrase was echoing in my head, get ready, get ready, get ready. Why aren’t we ready? More importantly, why don’t we stay ready? Or why do people come and check out church and promptly turn away?

These are some hefty, thought provoking questions that I don’t know all the answers to. After some thought, prayer and conversations with God and whoever else would listen, I came up with three simple things we regular folk could do.  You can find the first here. Here’s the second:

  1. Become relationally oriented, not rules driven.

Before you think, I don’t have that problem, stop and think for a minute. How do you respond to people behaving in ways you don’t think are appropriate? Do you have an unwritten set of rules in your arsenal that shoot out when people don’t adhere to them? Confession- I do! If you do, you’re not alone.

We all have expectations and perceptions that are based on our nurture and our nature.

In our homes we were nurtured to behave in certain ways: don’t burp at the dinner table, do enter in conversation, brush your teeth before bed, we will have a bedtime story, we don’t scream at one another to get our point across and the list goes on. Our nature puts in its two cents.  Introverts may not appreciate lengthy parties full of noise and surface conversations. The point is, we all have our isms.

The problem is when we extend the expectations of these unwritten rules or isms to new visitors in our home or the church- relationships are risked. This takes some forethought and self examination.

Is this rule fulfilling an eternal objective or just contributing to my comfort right now?

When a newbie comes into our church smelling of weed, speaking loudly with expletives or standing when we sit, what is our response? To build the relationship or the rules? What if a child comes into our kids church who can’t regulate, not won’t but can’t? What sort of accommodations do we make for him? Do we favor sitting in a seat over a child receiving unconditional love and planting the seed of an eternal relationship?

Build relationshipsnot rules.png

We aren’t the first generation to struggle with this issue.The early church had the same struggle. In Acts 15 we find some history of the early church. Some were being recited:

Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.”

The modern version of the directive may be different:

You can only be saved if….

  • You don’t drink
  • Don’t smoke
  • Don’t cuss
  • Don’t follow my rules of behaving in church

The early church struggled with the adoption of a new culture and melding the old converts with the new Gentile converts. What kind of rules must be instituted?  What sort of language should they speak? Should they memorize the Torah? Should they abstain from unclean meats? Be circumcised? How far did grace go and how much of the law should be observed?

It was decided that a letter should be sent with a few instructions. Don’t eat things that have been sacrificed to idols and keep yourself from sexual impurity. Simple and to the point.  

It seemed good to the apostles not to overload the newly adopted Gentile brothers and sisters with too many rules (Acts 15:28-29).

By the same token, church newbies are learning to be part of a family and the instruction has to be limited and meted out with grace.

God sent His Son to die for each of us. God wants us to be in relationship with Him. We can’t behave our way to Christ, it’s because of our sacrifice that we are part of the family of God. If someone crosses the threshold of your home  or home church, welcome them! Work on relationship. Pray. Let the Holy Spirit draw him. Rules won’t. Unrealistic expectations won’t.


Parking Garage Revelations

Amerey and I headed to Black Bear after tackling one grocery store and before another, sandwiching lunch in between the two (Mom joke).

We took our time at lunch, Amerey fed baby Moira, Cecilia and I took a few turns about the room. One of the things I love about Black Bear (besides the local organic food) is the featured local artists. One wall featured logs of various ages and sizes cut precisely in a beautiful pattern, as if a forest had been hacked by one giant saw blade at the same time revealing the pattern of circles in each tree. Another wall featured paintings of fish in vibrant oranges, greens and browns. So gorgeous.

After lunch,we headed out into the cool, fall day and into the parking garage next door.

“And the antithesis to Black Bear and the Mountain People’s Co-op (across the street), serving organic, whole foods is this parking garage,” I said to Amerey as we descended into the cool depths.

I couldn’t stop thinking about the contrast as I drove home later that day. It made an impression on me. I couldn’t think of what to compare it to until I got home and saw a post that put my thoughts on the matter into words. You see, I kept thinking of the church as that giant cement structure in the middle of the creativity, the whole foods, the bright colors, the artistry.

“Our society celebrates the left side of our brain. Oh, I agree it should be celebrated and exercised and developed. All good stuff!
But we have TWO sides of our brain!
The right brain is full of creativity, dance, sport, wonder, music, dreams…
And should be celebrated.
I’m sure it is. But for some reason I just hear so much more about the left side. Science, math, facts, logic.
I think we’ve got a healthy combination of academia AND rock and roll going on in our house! Wild hair colors and creative clothing. Writing, dreaming, drawing, playing, singing LOUD, shooting lax, dribbling down the court, tossing the pigskin (like I can really talk football😁) working hard, loving their friends, planning their future.
Just wanted to say it. That’s all. Here’s to the RIGHT side of the brain!
Go have fun today right side. Be bold. Be creative. Dream a BIG right brained dream!” – Missy Pratt via Facebook

She hit the nail on the head and let me take it one step further. The church (as a whole) sometimes struggles with creative spirits. What we miss as a body is that we are creative, we are made in the image of our creator God who is in the business of Creation.

“…Christian artists often are not understood in their own fellowships. Artists, in some ways, are a peculiar breed, by nature sensitive and driven by their gifts. People who sell insurance or work in a factory or serve hamburgers in a fast-food restaurant find ready acceptance in the church, but when a new member says, “I’m an artist,” people shift uneasily. Vague associations of bizarre behavior, a sense of disapproval (Why don’t you do something practical?), combined with a feeling of cultural inferiority, color many people’s reactions to artists.” State of the Arts by Gene Edward Veith Jr.

Sometimes Christians

Sometimes Christians are afraid of creativity, of art, of words like passion, desire, unless it pertains to a verse in the Bible. We shouldn’t be like that concrete building in the middle of the world of color. We should be boasting of the blues, greens, the paintings, singing at the top of our God-given lungs, sketching, etc..

The truth is, we don’t know what art is. We think the world owns it. That it belongs to them. It doesn’t. Art has it’s origins in God. He created. We simply copy His work.

Artistotle defined art as the capacity to make.

Dante explains that men are to earn their living in two ways, by means of nature and by means of art.

“20 Adah bore Jabal; he was the father of those who dwell in tents and have cattle and purchase possessions.

21 His brother’s name was Jubal; he was the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe.

22 Zillah bore Tubal-cain; he was the forger of all [cutting] instruments of bronze and iron.”- Genesis 4:20-22a

Genesis lists the creative artistic beginnings as well as those who work in the business realm. Cain built a city. Jabal was a business man. Jubal was a musician. Tubal-cain was a craftsman with bronze and iron.

We follow in the footsteps of our forefathers when we do the same. The church has room for both the left and right sides of the brain. We should support and celebrate both. For those of you who are predominantly right brained: write, paint, build, sing draw, design, refinish furniture, compose, the possibilities are endless. God is infinite. He gave us the artistic bent.

Jump out of your car, run out of the parking garage and be the creative, wonderful contributor that He created you to be!

*Note- I am so happy to say the church I attend is rich in the arts. The walls are aesthetically pleasing with rich colors. The Fine Arts department is alive and well! The fine arts department is putting on a full scale production of Scrooge, based on Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol!

Linking up with Kristin Hill Taylor for Three Word Wednesday, join us!