We find ourselves in a fascinating place right now. We’ve been through a pandemic, although we do not yet know whether it is over or not. We have experienced a strange mixture of faith and fear. We’ve led with courage, and we’ve shaken in our boots.
We are not alone. Leaders across sectors, including non-profits, churches, and corporate, are grappling with questions related to what happened and what it means for our future.
Many of us wish to leave the pandemic behind and forge forward with plans we missed out on over the past years. But wisdom encourages us to evaluate the past in order to understand our present. Only then can we move toward the future with integrity and
This article deals with collective and individual traumas. Therefore, it may trigger upsetting feelings within you. If this happens, please take a deep breath and ground yourself in God’s presence. You may find that speaking with a professional counsellor can help you unpack the subject more deeply. This is a challenging topic but one worth exploring for the health of ourselves and those we lead.
This article does not debate the validity of claims or theories whatsoever. Instead, it simply names what we’ve encountered.
We have witnessed our communities, loved ones, and perhaps even ourselves acting in strange and unhealthy ways. We have experienced the stress of watching COVID numbers escalate and then deescalate in ways that, lacking a degree in virology, seem random.
Within the North American context, we’ve experienced unparalleled stress levels within our generation. As a result, we’ve held tightly to various theories and views. We’ve questioned what is true and our communal discernment of truth.
What just happened?
How do we unpack what we experienced in terms of conflict, emphatic opinions and extreme behaviours? How do we understand what happened when loving people became angry and treated one another and leadership poorly? How do we reconcile what it means to be a church when many of our values have been tested?
Throughout the pandemic, we experienced trauma on several levels.
1. Collective Trauma
The pandemic affected everyone in some way. The very nature of a pandemic means that we experienced it globally and in our country, province, community, and family context. Together we were afraid. Together, we watched the news, heard difficult stories, and were immersed in the unknown. Together, we felt unsafe and lost a sense of control.
2. Personal Trauma
Many of us experienced fear, stress and anxiety. Some of us became sick. Some of us had opinions forced upon us. Some of us were treated poorly by those we trusted. Some of us were given ultimatums. Some of us felt our sense of control, community, and values threatened.
3. Vicarious Traums
Also known as secondary trauma, or more colloquially as compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma occurs when we witness other people’s trauma. For example, we watched as hospitals filled up. Some of us watched as friends and family came home exhausted from working in healthcare or emergency response. We witnessed fear related to the virus, vaccines, and mandates. Some of us lost loved ones, congregants and friends to sickness.
Traumas and Triggers
When working with first responders, we often talk about past traumas and triggers that cause undue stress, extreme reactions, burnout, and worse. What we’ve experienced in the past creates a grid of reality in which we perceive the world. Our experiences dictate how we understand the present.
Let me share an example. A few years ago, a pastor shared an explanation to help people understand the concept of non-violence. He said we often fear things that have a minuscule chance of happening. Fair enough. To illustrate, he used the example of household break-ins, saying that people often fear someone breaking into their home. But in reality, the chances of ever experiencing a break-in are pretty tiny.
At that moment, I had a knee-jerk reaction. You see, I have experienced a break-in. I have woke up in the middle of the night with a strange man standing beside me. I know that terror. No matter how many statistics you throw at me, my past experience provides me with a perception that a break-in can readily happen. And when I hear a bump in the night, my automatic triggers put me into survival mode, believing I am unsafe, when in reality, a branch fell off a tree outside and landed on my roof.
Only through recognizing the triggers that result from my trauma can I put strategies in place to deescalate my fear and come to a place of calm and renewed perspective.
What does this mean for leaders?
Pastors are wrestling with how to unpack the challenges, conflicts and reintegration of community within their congregations. Depending on where you live in Canada, you may have experienced little to complete and utter change over the past two years. At the time of this writing, many churches are within their first month of re-opening to full capacity. And, of course, we do not know the future.
We are trying to understand why people acted as they did. Why were people mean to one another? Why did they speak poorly of others? Why did some hold to beliefs that challenged our own? Why were our churches divided when unity was of the utmost importance?
Could it be at least partly due to past traumas and triggers? And if so, how do we extend grace to one another while calling one another to collective values?
How do we lead now?
There are two main areas to consider when moving forward: discipleship and healing. Healing looks back while discipleship looks forward. We must deal with the past to move toward a healthy future.
Over the next few months, we will unpack practical ways to heal ourselves and those we lead. Once we can identify and name our traumas and triggers, we can implement strategies to heal. This will serve to make us stronger in the future.