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How Does a Church Become Trauma-Informed?

by Reverend Amy Shoemaker


During Phillip's latest teaching, we talked about patterns of shame and blame. Inevitably, the theme of trauma came up in our discussion and I committed to writing a Newsletter about how to be a trauma-informed church. There is a ton of information, so I'm including the basics here with links to additional information at the end.

It is important to understand that trauma comes in many forms. As a church, to be trauma-informed goes beyond sensitivity to religious or spiritual trauma. People of all ages, who attend our congregation's classes and events, could bring any type of trauma with them. The Substances Abuse and Mental Health Services Association (SAMHSA) says this about trauma-informed approaches: "A program, organization, or system that is trauma-informed realizes the widespread impact of trauma and understands potential paths for recovery; recognizes the signs and symptoms of trauma in clients, families, staff, and others involved with the system; and responds by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, and practices, and seeks to actively resist re-traumatization."

There are four key assumptions at the center of being trauma-informed:


  • Realize: People in all levels of the organization realize the ways traumatic experiences impact others. People’s experience and behavior are understood in the context of coping strategies designed to survive adversity and overwhelming circumstances.

  • Recognize: People in the organization or system are also able to recognize the signs of trauma. Trauma screening and assessment assist in the recognition of trauma, as do workforce development, employee assistance, and supervision practices.

  • Respond: The program, organization, or system integrates an understanding that the experience of traumatic events impacts all people involved, whether directly or indirectly. Staff in every part of the organization, from the person who greets people at the door to the leadership and the governance board, have changed their language, behaviors and policies to take into consideration the experiences of trauma among children and adult users of the services and among staff providing the services.

  • Resist Re-traumatization: Organizations often inadvertently create stressful or toxic environments that interfere with the recovery of individuals, the well-being of staff and the fulfillment of the organizational mission. Staff who work within a trauma-informed environment are taught to recognize how organizational practices may trigger painful memories and re-traumatize people.

There are six key principles of a trauma-informed approach:


  • Safety: Throughout the organization, the staff, leaders and members, whether children or adults, feel physically and psychologically safe; the physical setting is safe and interpersonal interactions promote a sense of safety. Understanding safety as defined by the members is a high priority.

  • Trustworthiness and Transparency: Organizational operations and decisions are conducted with transparency with the goal of building and maintaining trust with members, among staff, and others involved in the organization.

  • Peer Support: Peer support and mutual self-help are key vehicles for establishing safety and hope, building trust, enhancing collaboration, and utilizing their stories and lived experience to promote recovery and healing.

  • Collaboration and Mutuality: Importance is placed on partnering and the leveling of power differences between staff and clients and among organizational staff from clerical and housekeeping personnel, to professional staff to administrators, demonstrating that healing happens in relationships and in the meaningful sharing of power and decision-making.

  • Empowerment, Voice and Choice: Throughout the organization, individuals’ strengths and experiences are recognized and built upon. The organization understands that the experience of trauma may be a unifying aspect in the lives of those who run the organization, who provide the services, and/or who come to the organization for assistance and support. All are supported in developing self-advocacy skills and shared decision-making.

  • Cultural, Historical, and Gender Issues: The organization actively moves past cultural stereotypes and biases (e.g. based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, religion, gender identity, geography, etc.); offers access to gender responsive services; leverages the healing value of traditional cultural connections; incorporates policies, protocols, and processes that are individuals served; and recognizes and addresses responsive to the racial, ethnic and cultural needs of historical trauma.

There are some who will claim that churches are fundamentally incapable of being trauma-informed organizations. I have hope that as more congregations move toward trauma-informed structures and practices, that we can find the way forward together. In the meantime, here are links to additional resources for your consideration:

National Benevolent Association

Trauma Informed MD

NC Council of Churches

SAMHSA’s Trauma and Justice Strategic Initiative