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Trauma in the Pews: A Call for Laity Discipleship

Over 42 million adults suffer from anxiety with many more carrying scars from trauma. The church can be instrumental in the discipleship and healing of those who have been wounded.
After living through the aftermath of the nation’s worst-ever drunk driving tragedy evangelist Martha L. Tennison knows the secret of ministering to people experiencing trauma: offering your presence.

“Be available to talk with them and listen,” says Martha, 81, whose husband was pastoring Radcliff First AG in Kentucky when 27 of its members died in a 1988 bus crash. “Be accessible to people and let them know you care. Feeling their pain and giving them encouragement makes the biggest difference in the world.”

Even in the face of staggering loss, the resident of Lake Ozark, Missouri, says congregants can be ready to help. It starts with disciplines like a daily prayer life, Bible reading, and maintaining close fellowship with God and other believers.

That was what helped Don Tennison preach 16 funerals in 48 hours as he consoled 58 families affected by the head-on collision. The wreck was caused by a drunk driver going the wrong way on Interstate 71 about an hour north of Louisville.

Among the survivors was their son, D. Allen Tennison, who today is theological counsel for AG. Allen says that instead of dwindling as many predicted, the church grew from 800 to 1,000 in the two years after the crash.

“When a community is healthy, you feel safe with each other,” says the former university professor. “And when you feel safe with each other, you run to each other for help. When you don’t feel safe and trauma happens, you pull apart because you’re trying to protect yourself.”

The care Allen saw after the accident included members praying with victims’ families, reading Scripture with them, delivering food, and providing transportation or other assistance. The AG helped too, with Emerge Counseling Ministries sending counselors to Radcliff for no charge. Numerous congregations nationwide also reached out with offers of help.

While the odds of another church facing this kind of devastation are small, Allen says preparation for trauma starts with sound theological teaching, especially that we aren’t guaranteed a pain-free life. For example, he mentioned someone close to him who had a sister struggling with cancer. Her church stood with the family during the illness, but she heard only about the promise of miraculous healing. She was not prepared for when her sister died, and it was devastating.

“In Pentecostalism we have emphasized—and appropriately so—the miracle working power of God,” says Tennison, 51. “But people can be left with the impression that bad things aren’t going to happen to them. That no matter what occurs, God’s going to fix it in that moment. It can be devastating when something occurs and they’ve had no preparation for this pain and the reality that we live in a fallen world.”

Whether the trauma stems from an accident, divorce, abuse, or other causes, there is an increasing chance that congregants will see people coming into church carrying scars. According to Mental Health America, some 42.5 million adults suffer from an anxiety disorder. And one Christian counselor in central Arkansas sees such problems increasing because of the pandemic.

Heather A. Bixler, 48, says trauma from that event created a “goulash” that accentuated anxiety levels. Instead of feeling like they can cope, many people are now unable to handle even minor disagreements, she said.

Bixler, who recently completed her master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling at Regent University, said the pandemic caused many negative responses to the slightest provocation.

“It’s more or less dealing with the reactions and they kind of compound,” says Bixler. “I hear that from a lot of ministers. I pastored through the pandemic and have sat with many pastors and colleagues and seen them walk away from ministry because of the pain of that.”

Bixler says no matter what the trauma, any member or pastor can talk with sufferers to express empathy and, in serious cases, refer them to professional counselors.

While she was completing her master’s studies and helping her husband pastor a church in South Dakota, Bixler offered help to several people with personal struggles.

“One of the greatest things is we could talk with people so they knew we cared and could join with them,” Bixler says. “We could say, ‘Can we connect you with several licensed professionals whose fees will be covered by your insurance?’ We got to hand them over to those counselors and have them be part of the body of Christ.”

Whatever the circumstances, Christians should make sure to partner with the Holy Spirit because ultimately He is the one who will bring healing, says AG Director of Discipleship Elly C. Marroquin.

“We shouldn’t position ourselves in a way that’s greater than Him,” says Marroquin, 51. “Sometimes we want to help people and have this sort of messiah/savior/saint thing that we’re going to do. We can bring fatigue to ourselves. I always say to point them to Jesus and allow the Spirit to work.”

Regardless of the problem, though, she says discipling people coming out of trauma calls for pointing them to Christ. Since the church is a body, discipleship should happen in the context of community, Marroquin says.

“We need to provide a support group for them,” the discipleship director says. “No one person has all the answers. It’s a collective effort of pouring in to them and bringing in our experiences—our gold nuggets from God’s Word that are pointing someone towards God.”

Regardless of the situation, Martha Tennison says Christians should never pretend to have all the answers. When some grieving parents in Radcliff asked why her child survived the crash and theirs didn’t, she told them God’s ways are higher than ours and there are no answers for some things.

“We have to understand that God didn’t save us from trouble, He saved us from sin,” she says. “But when trouble comes, there’s Someone who can go through that trouble with us.”

Kenneth C. Walker

Kenneth C. Walker is a freelance writer, co-author, and book editor from Huntington, West Virginia. He has more than 4,500 article bylines and has written, edited, or contributed to more than 90 books.