Jul 19

IM Moment: How understanding toxic stress may change your ministry, with Todd Garrison

Most churches and fellowships look for opportunities to impact their communities and the world for the better. They do this through any number of ways: social justice initiatives, mission work at home and overseas, prison ministry, youth outreach, parenting classes, recovery ministries… the list goes on and on.

One of the questions I am regularly asked as I speak in faith-based settings about trauma, toxic stress and the role of adversity in the lives of children is: “Does acknowledging someone comes from a trauma background mean that we need to excuse certain behaviors? What if what they are doing makes others in our worshipping community feel unsafe?”

These are excellent questions. As a partial answer, I would encourage you to view the video below, featuring Todd Garrison, ACE Study Certified Master Trainer. Then, after you have watched the video, keep reading below for a few more thoughts and ideas.


“It’s not a free pass… but the consequences may look different.”

I really appreciate the way Todd phrases his response to these difficult questions.

If your ministry engages those with significant trauma, there will be moments when the behavior of those you are working with doesn’t match the situation. Perhaps they are triggered by a certain event that happens within your ministry context. Maybe that little boy or girl comes into your Sunday School already disregulated and “out of sorts” because their little brains have been swimming in a sea of stress hormones the night before? If there is a significant mental health issue, that may be another “filter” through which we need to run our response, reaction, or subsequent consequence through!

This is where one of our trauma-informed mantras come in handy: “Ask not, ‘What is wrong with that person?’ but rather, ‘What must have happened to that person?’ in order for them to act as they are right now?” Then, after taking a deep breath, do what you can to ensure as safe an environment as possible. For an agitated adult, that may be asking them to step outside to carry on a conversation (making sure you don’t go outside with them alone, but with at least one other person), and for a child it could mean transitioning the rest of the class out in the hall or to another room temporarily (again, making sure you call in another adult so you are not alone in the room with the retraumatized child).

Once a somewhat safe environment has been reestablished, give clear and repeated instructions as to what behavior you need to see in order to move the conversation forward. The individual’s ability to follow a simple instruction (“I’ll need you to lower your voice and have a seat over here on the chair beside me before we can continue this discussion”) is an indication that they are coming out of a hyper-aroused state (fight-flight-freeze) and can begin to have a rational discussion.

Then, and only then, do you have a hope of addressing what the real need is being expressed by the behavior. Then, compassionately, you may work on a consequence that balances the needs of the trauma-affected individual or child with the expectations you have for participants in your ministry setting. It is always appropriate for you to expect that a child or individual be safe in their words and actions around others!

For more insights into trauma-informed ministry and applications within the church, contact Intermountain to request a training for your ministry, or order the “Bruised Reeds and Smoldering Wicks” curriculum, available on the resource page: http://www.intermountainministry.org/resources/