Formation / Liturgy

Contemplative Spirituality Provides a Trauma-Informed Approach to Growing Healthier Churches

Many of the members of my own congregation carry deep wounds that have been inflicted upon them by the church. Perhaps you have noticed the same thing in your own church community? Some wounds come from coercive, hierarchical, or abusive leadership. Others from the church’s centeredness on Whiteness at the exclusion and subjection of people of color. And some are the result of experiencing second-class citizenship or outright rejection because of their gender.

Because of the prevalence of church-inflicted trauma, I have sought to be more trauma-informed in the ways I pastor and the kind of culture and practices we are building into our congregation. Like many of you, I am asking :

  • As church leaders, how do we not repeat the same trauma upon members of our congregations?
  • How do we not only seek justice for the world “out there,” but become ourselves a just community; one that can then witness and point to a greater justice for the world through Jesus Christ?

For us, we have found communal contemplative practices to be key. Contemplative Christian practices, at their core, are methods for turning our attention to the God who is already present with us. As we have practiced these contemplative forms of spirituality over two decades together, we recognize the work they are doing in us. And we see how they provide a trauma-informed and justice-shaped approach to life together in the church.

Contemplative Christian practices, at their core, are methods for turning our attention to the God who is already present with us. Click To Tweet

Contemplative Spirituality Reconnects Us with Our Bodies

Unhealed trauma is carried in our bodies, sometimes presenting itself as depression, chronic pain, anxiety, hypervigilance, poor sleep quality, and aggression, among many other things. These often arise from the hyperarousal of the nervous system.

Additionally, as a result of trauma, many survivors carry painful messages about their bodies, such as “I cannot trust my body,” or “my body is not worthy of being honored and heard.” Whether we can recognize it in our bodies or not, the wounds of trauma take their toll on us.

Resmaa Menakem writes, “Contrary to what many people believe, trauma is not primarily an emotional response. Trauma always happens in the body. It is a spontaneous protective mechanism used by the body to stop or thwart further (or future) potential damage.”[1]

Trauma always happens in the body. Healing, therefore, must also happen within our bodies! Contemplative practices grow within us a recognition and honoring of our bodies as the place where God meets us and where the Spirit dwells.

Contemplative practices grow within us a recognition and honoring of our bodies as the place where God meets us and where the Spirit dwells. Click To Tweet

Deep breathing and forms of breath prayer develop a gentle attentiveness to the movement and tension of our bodies. Practices of spiritual discernment encourage us to cultivate an awareness of our emotions and of where those emotions register in our bodies. They teach us what it feels like in our bodies when we sense the Spirit’s voice of joy or challenge or solace.

When healing happens in our bodies, it then has the potential to flow into others’ lives as well, creating a stream of healing within our churches.

Communal Contemplative Practices Subvert Hierarchical, Coercive Forms of Leadership

While no church model guarantees absolute protection from leaders choosing to use power in abusive ways, hierarchical structures are easily exploited when trust and submission are encouraged toward those placed “above” others. In these structures, top-level leaders have the loudest voices in the community, while those “below” are granted little voice.

While no church model guarantees absolute protection from leaders choosing to use power in abusive ways, hierarchical structures are easily exploited when trust and submission are encouraged toward those placed above others. Click To Tweet

Contemplative Christian spirituality, on the other hand, operates on the assumption that every person can hear the Holy Spirit. We all have access to the divine voice of love. To be clear, discerning God’s voice is something that grows with practice, maturity, and wisdom. Yet rather than assuming God speaks only to those with positional authority or titles, contemplative spirituality points to the presence of the abiding Spirit in all of us.

When we face decisions at our church that impact the entire community, the pastors do not dictate what the decision will be. Instead, our job is to shape spaces where the community can listen together to the Spirit. We offer observations about how we see the risen Christ at work among us. We engage in slow dialogue, in careful listening, in offering prophetic challenge. We acknowledge that one person does not have the full picture of what God wants to speak to us, but we all have a part of it.

With contemplative Christian practices, we acknowledge that one person does not have the full picture of what God wants to speak to us, but we all have a part of it. Click To Tweet

We equip the members of our congregation to practice this in smaller groups amongst themselves as well. Small groups of us gather each week to discern together how Jesus is moving in each of our lives. Much of the time, this looks like asking good questions, trusting the Spirit in each person’s life to speak, convict, move, and change as needed.

The Contemplative Practice of Lament Teaches Us Solidarity with the Hurting

Much has already been written on the necessity of contemplative practices of lament. Lament makes room for the pain, grief, and anger of trauma survivors. The kind of Christianity I grew up in was very uncomfortable with publicly expressed emotions like sadness, grief, and especially anger. But sharing space for lament gives survivors a way to voice their intense pain and big emotions in a world that is full of violence, abuse, and loss.

When communities find the courage to name together the pains and evils we seek healing from, another thing happens: victims of trauma become less invisible. This is crucial for the church to understand right now because survivors of abuse within the church have often been traumatized by the abuse itself and then again by the silence, coverup, and invisibility of their pain.

When communities find the courage to name together the pains and evils we seek healing from, another thing happens: victims of trauma become less invisible. Click To Tweet

And finally, lament is a powerful contemplative practice when it is shared communally because it offers a pathway for those who have not been traumatized to enter into the pain with their siblings.

In our church community, it is common for us to lament racial injustice. About a quarter of our church is Asian American and biracial individuals and families; the rest of the congregation is predominantly White. Since 2016, this nation, and the members within our community in particular, has experienced a spike in instances of anti-Asian hostility and violence.

As we have chosen to lament this spike in racial hostility together, I’ve observed how the communal practice of lament provides a pathway for the more privileged in our church to join in solidarity with those whose pain they themselves have never had to feel. Corporate lament provides a pathway that doesn’t allow people of privilege to circumvent the pain by launching into action to “fix” the problem. Instead, it invites them to go through the pain, to share in the pain of their siblings.

Corporate lament provides a pathway that doesn’t allow people of privilege to circumvent the pain by launching into action to “fix” the problem. Instead, it invites them to go through the pain, to share in the pain of their siblings. Click To Tweet

As a community where we carry both privilege and trauma, the communal practice of lament makes us more whole. It lifts up those in pain and allows them to be at the center. At the same time, it invites those with privilege to enter in as well, through the doorway of pain.

Restoring Hope

For our church, contemplative spirituality and its practices have been foundational in restoring our hope for the church. Many are discouraged at stories of abuse and the ensuing coverup that continue to come out of the church. Is it any surprise our pews are emptier? We must repent of the ways power has been abused among us and the trauma we have inflicted on our own people.

The contemplative traditions offer us a different way of embodying power and authority through practices that empower people to listen to the voice of the divine within themselves and make space to grieve and lament the very real injustices within the church walls.


Suggested Reading


[1]My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies, Resmaa Menakem, Central Recovery Press, Kindle edition, p. 7.