Trauma is universal and trauma, especially unaddressed, can affect how we engage with one another both inside and outside of our church communities. The Rev. Christy Miller White discusses how our behaviors can bring healing and offers practical tips for helping others and ourselves develop resiliency to live with trauma.
Guest: The Rev. Christy Miller White
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This episode posted on August 18, 2023.
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Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a renowned 20th century theologian, has said “We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.” Trauma is universal and trauma, especially unaddressed, can affect how we engage with one another both inside and outside of our church communities. The Rev. Christy Miller White discusses how our behaviors can bring healing and offers practical tips for helping others and ourselves develop resiliency to live with trauma.
Crystal Caviness, host: Christy, welcome to “Get Your Spirit in Shape.”
Christy Miller White, guest: Thank you, Crystal. I'm thrilled to be here.
Crystal: I'm excited that you're here too. And we're going to talk about a topic that I just really think is important that we do discuss in the church, and that's trauma, our own personal trauma. But before we get to today's topic, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and the work you do with The United Methodist Church?
Christy: Sure. I am an ordained deacon in the Michigan Conference, a proud mother of two kiddos. And the work that I do has changed throughout the years. I was the coordinator of youth ministry initiatives for the Michigan Conference for a while, and then like a lot of conferences there were cutbacks and that job was eliminated. So I'm continuing on in my ministry as the Minister of Children and Families at a local church here in Michigan. But I also do trainings a lot of trainings all over the place around trauma-informed ministry and resiliency. So I've really enjoyed doing that was an unexpected turn for me. I was a social worker decades ago, and so I just kept seeing those needs and decided that, well, I maybe not the best person for it, but I'm the one willing to do it. So that's why I'm here.
Crystal: You said yes.
Christy: That's right.
Crystal: I learned about your work last month when we were in Daytona Beach, Florida, together at the youth 2023 events sponsored by Discipleship Ministries was such a really important event. And I think in the life of the church, 2,500 people were there, and so many kids who were excited about God and the United Methodist Church. And it was a really wonderful experience for me. And you were there leading a workshop in one of your capacities. You were leading a workshop on helping youth leaders understand how trauma, especially unaddressed trauma, can affect our church members. But as I read about that topic, it really occurred to me it's just not, this isn't a topic just for youth leaders. I understand you were there for that audience, but that it's something I believe we all can learn about, which is why I invited you to be a guest on Get Your Spirit in shape.
Christy: Well, thank you. Yes. trauma is kind of a hot button topic. Some people are tired of hearing about it. Other people have never heard about it. And so what we're trying to do through these trainings is help churches understand what trauma looks like, how it can demonstrate itself in everyday life, and then also how we can help people feel safe in our churches and our congregations. And also how we can make sure that we're not using our religion to traumatize others. So there's a lot of components in there that the church hasn't really tackled in detail for a while, if ever. And so just helping people understand, because when you say Hey, come learn more about how you deal with trauma, most people are completely overwhelmed and I would be too. And so being able to understand what it is, what the causes are, it can be anything from deep, long toxic trauma that's been happening throughout your life, which is, you know, the things that we usually think of neglect and abuse and other things.
Or it could also be a one-time experience. It can be a collective experience like what we went through in the last few years. But recognizing that this comes out in our behavior, our behavior communicates the hurt that we feel. And this, like you said, is not just for youth or just for children's ministry. These are skills that we can use across the board because our people are hurting. And to be able to address that, we need to understand what the hurt is. And so that's kind of where we start. Most of the work that I'm doing is just a real basic overview of trauma. And then I try to make sure and give some practical applications. What does that look like in our churches? 'cause For me, I'm the kind of person, you can give me information, but if you don't give me the practical application, I'm not able to use that information. And so we try to, I'm trying to make sure that that doesn't happen to our church leaders, that there's some practices to go along with the general knowledge.
Crystal: I appreciate that, and I definitely want us to talk about what that, what some of those practical applications are. But I want to kind of start out a little, maybe a higher level. How can understanding trauma in our churches help us create a more empathetic church?
Christy: So we often see behavior, behavior that is good, or what we call good behavior that is, is appropriate, is what I try to call it. And then behavior that is inappropriate. We see this in the grocery store. We see this when we're driving on the roads. We see this in our churches, unfortunately, and I know both as clergy and members, probably a lot of us have had an unpleasant encounter with someone whose behavior wasn't what we considered the most Christ-like in the moment. So being able to understand that that behavior's not about me, that behavior's about the person, and they're trying to communicate to us in ways that they don't know how, that they're hurting. And so when we can understand that this is not about me, this is not about my ministry, it's not about the board meeting that I was just in, it's really about helping other people.
And so being able to allow that to slide off our backs, being able to move forward and helping people get the assistance that they need. I have some graduate work in psychology, which allows me to know that I don't know enough . Yeah. So, you know, making sure that we're referring our people to people who have the skills and can really help them. But it just allows our communities to be a place of acceptance, to be a place of love and healing. And again, helps us not reinjure the people, because that's rarely our intention. Mm-Hmm. . So just being able to help our church members thrive, but first we have to address what's holding them back. And yes, in the church, that's probably, we're not going to be giving a sermon for specific people like a counseling session, but we can assist them just in our everyday conversations.
Crystal: Well, yes, that, I want to talk to you about that because as a lay person, as a church member, I don't have experience, I don't have either education or experience in professionally helping people with their trauma. But as you said, I might, one, I might be reacting out of my own trauma mm-hmm. , or I might be, someone might be communicating with me inappropriately to use your word in out of their own trauma. So how do we navigate that space? Because these are in our churches relationships that we're cultivating and building all the time.
Christy: Absolutely. Well, the first thing we can do is when we learn about some of the signs of trauma. So understanding that people who are hypervigilant, who are always on alert, that's probably a trauma response. Keeping in mind, we joke in my family that all of us are neuros spicy, which basically just means none of us have neurotypical brains. So we have ADHD and autism spectrum disorder, and a lot of other things going on in my family, which has helped me understand a lot more about both trauma and both how brain connections can affect behavior. So, you know, we need to know enough about both of those areas to be able to identify what we're really dealing with here. And so moving forward though, that that means that we look at people and understand that behavior is communication, that there's not good behavior and there's not bad behavior.
Behavior is neutral because it's a communication. And so being able to understand that, helping people decipher that and reflecting their feelings back to them, oh, wow, I see you're upset. Okay, maybe we need to take five minutes. Can you take a walk, do some deep breathing and come back? We can talk about this again. Or reschedule our time together. Because I understand when someone is very upset, we're going to have a logical, rational conversation. Right. But I can still make that connection of relationship by ident, helping them identify those feelings, acknowledging and validating those feelings, and then allowing them to have the space that they need to process them and come back to the conversation. So that's one key point that we can do that works for children, youth, and adults. Right? Because all of us get in that place where we, our feelings are overwhelming our logic.
And that doesn't mean feelings are bad, it just means we need to understand how we act in those feelings can be appropriate or inappropriate. You know, anger's not bad, it's just what we do when we are angry that can cause harm or can cannot cause harm. So just helping people understand emotions aren't bad. And when you encounter someone with big emotions, it's not a time to react back with big emotions. It's a time to stay calm and, and allow that and reflect and validate. Also, you know, our churches, our church, people want to have autonomy. They want to be understood for who they are and their importance in the church. And sometimes we step on people's toes when there's a ministry that needs to change or progress. And there's a lot of in depth work that's been going on behind the scenes, especially if you're talking about clergy or people who move a lot.
You know, you don't know when you come into a new situation, all, all the history. So being able to acknowledge all the hard work that they've done on things and be able to communicate and help them move forward as well, so that they feel like they're seen, they're heard, their ministry not being taken advantage of. And so we build those relationships through the communication, remembering that our behavior is also communication . And so we can communicate that we want a relationship with them by communicating and validating their work. So just making sure that we're careful in those engagements, that when we recognize and see some big emotions or some trauma responses coming at us, that we can help the people work through that in a way that makes them still feel like they're connected and valued.
Crystal: You know, you used the word careful and, you know, we know people who the more, I guess the more expected examples of trauma, you know, the big grief, the grief inducers and just tragedies. And sometimes I think we tend to shy away from people who have experienced those kinds of traumas. Can you talk about that a little bit? How do we be brave and not isolate those people or those relationships?
Christy: In the church, we have gotten really good at using catchphrases when we're uncomfortable. And so when sometimes when we're faced with someone who's experiencing deep grief or loss, or trying to recover from some trauma, we tend to say, well just pray about it. Or Jesus has got this . And while those are very important things for all of us, it doesn't actually address the issue and it invalidates their feelings in that moment. And I don't think most people realize that's what's happening there. And so when we are able to again, validate those feelings, help them express it, and give them a moment, we can just sit with them in that sometimes when we don't know what to say, the best thing is to not say anything at all. Or even just acknowledge, Hey, that is, that is really rough. Can I just sit here with you for a minute? I'm willing to be here and be uncomfortable in this moment with you. And that's the biggest gift we can give to those who are experiencing and recovering from trauma and grief.
Crystal: :I have often thought when I don't know what to say, perhaps I should not speak . You know, that's a signal to myself, then maybe I shouldn't. And you're right. Just being willing to sit with someone in their grief, in their healing. I mean, that's again, part of relationship building, you know? Mm-Hmm. is being willing to journey with that person in a really tough spot. You know, we talk about the, the big grief, the big traumas, but there's a lot of microtrauma, and maybe that's not the correct word, or even appropriate to use it that way because trauma is trauma. Mm-Hmm. . But, you know, I think we all kind of bring that, we all have experienced that with, we've lived, we've had trauma and, but I think that perhaps our church in the last year or so, we've experienced some unique traumas in the season of disaffiliation where churches have been affected. Are there any unique ways that we can maybe navigate that or just be aware that perhaps in the churches where people are coming in who have, they're coming in new to churches that have, where their previous church disaffiliated, they're carrying some grief with them.
Christy: Mm-Hmm. I think the best thing we can do is kind of address it on a case by case basis. Unfortunately, there's not a general prescription for trauma. Right. so just being able to be there with the people and understand what they might need or might not need, don't force anything. So for instance, if you have a group of people that are kind of, you're sensing that they need a place to grieve, approach them and say, Hey, do we need to have some space to talk about this to, you know, work through this grief to help you feel like you're more integrated and part of this congregation? Or some people just want to move on . Right. And so being able to be flexible and in what we do with others, and the biggest thing we can do is just listen. Again, we're validating people's feelings in those moments and helping them feel seen and heard.
Because sometimes that's all any of us need. I just need to know that I'm going to be okay and that I'm seen. And, and sometimes I can get that from others when they listen to my feelings and what I'm, I'm dealing with in the moment. And allow me to have those feelings and don't say, oh, it's going to be okay. You're going to be fine. Just smile. No. If I'm in a period of grief, I need to actually experience that to move through it. Well, this is getting us off into a different topic, but otherwise we're looking at burnout, right? If, if we don't process what we're dealing with in those moments, then we end up internalizing it, and then it just becomes part of that burnout cycle. So anyway, I just just to be available to our people and help them know that it's that we are there for them and that church may look different moving forward.
And also just allowing people to be angry or have grief in both those churches that are disaffiliating and those that are staying. It's a, it's a troubling process. And when we try to paint too pretty of a picture, like, oh, we're fine. We're, everything's fine. That's not accurate and truthful and not authentic and what people need. But at the same time, when we're constantly talking about it, then that's not helpful either. So being able to have space for it, but also recognizing that this is a change and it's part of a process. And as a denomination, we've done this how many times before . So like, this is part of change and growing. Right. And it's a painful part of that process similar to what a divorce might be in a person's life or the death of a loved one. Those are painful processes and we need to be able to acknowledge that. Yeah, this one, although it may not affect me directly or it may affect me directly, but it's a painful process. Change can be both good and bad. And we can experience trauma from both the good and the bad change . So it's just a matter of being flexible and not really expecting everyone to react the same.
Crystal: How can we, as someone who might have trauma in our lives, how can we effectively communicate that just to share with others or to help people better understand us?
Christy: So being authentic is key. Being able to share without necessarily sharing everything. You know, all you have to say is, I've experienced a divorce. People will understand that if you need to share all the nitty gritty you know, that's something that maybe you can talk to your pastor about or you can talk to your therapist about. But keeping the sharing on a level that's not going to traumatize others, is, is a key component as well. But, but yeah, the authenticity of saying, you know, I'm human and I have hard times too because of X, Y, or Z, that's out of my control. And so, you know, you know, I'm very open and honest about the fact that I have ADHD again with the neuro spicy family. And so the things that I have to do to be able to function as a clergy person, as a person who works with children, as a person who does trainings that are sometimes emotionally difficult is going to be different than maybe someone else.
Crystal: I think sometimes in the church we think not being okay or admitting we're not okay signifies a lack of faith.
Christy: Oh, absolutely. And we've been taught that in the past. You know, I was raised in the church back in the nineties and the eighties. Satanic panic was a big thing. And so if you had any questions about God, that was a lack of faith. And that's how often our churches and our religious institutions end up traumatizing others. Because the fact that you have cancer is not from a lack of faith. It's scientific process that happened in your body. Right. And so when we put that on people, it's, it's an unnecessary burden. It's not truthful. And it's, it's not helpful in the process of healing. And so, again, being careful with our language and not just saying things 'cause we feel compelled to speak, but understanding that words matter. And so when we say some kind of, oh, well, you just need to pray about it to someone who's experiencing a crisis, we're basically, our behavior is communicating to them, I can't be with you in this moment for whatever reason. And so if we're really wanting to make those connections, we've gotta figure out how to help our behavior communicate to others that we will be them with them in that moment, even though it may be uncomfortable for us. So just being aware of the things that we say and what they communicate or what they have the potential to communicate is vital for us as church members to not harm one another, especially in the name of God.
You know, one of the most painful things I experienced as a young adult was watching my grandfather suffer with C O P D. And he always thought it was a lack of faith for why he didn't get healed from it. And this is one of those faithful people, you know, he is so strong in his faith and such a foundation for me as I grew my faith. And to watch him, you know the torment honestly, that he had from that. And that was something that he obviously he had been told that, taught that. And yeah, I never thought about that as a way that we really, I mean, how he had been harmed and how others have the same, I'm sure, have those same experience experiences mm-hmm. or same stories and how that is harmful as we just continue almost in a, a glib way. Mm-Hmm. , we'll pray about it, you know, we're just going to pray about it.
Well, and that's why I had a similar experience, and that's what actually got me kind of moving in this direction of helping people understand how we traumatize each other in the name of God. When my father passed away many, many years ago a lot of well-meaning loving, well-intentioned people who I know loved me deeply kept saying things that made me really not want to have anything to do with God. Like, oh, God just needed another accountant in this guy. And I'm like, no, God, the creator of math does not need my father to translate for him. . So it got to the point where I was like, really considering leaving the church, and instead I went the ordination route and ended up deciding that I was going to help others understand that just because we're uncomfortable or we don't know what to say, doesn't mean that we can harm others with our words. So again, it, I don't really believe that our church members are intentionally trying to wak havoc. I just think that we're uncomfortable and we don't know what to do until someone teaches us. Then, you know, we're just going to keep accidentally harming one another.
Crystal: You know, Christy, when I am with a friend and they're telling me about something really hard that they've gone through or they're going through, and, and I, I say, you know, I'm going to pray for you, I'm sincere about that. It's, it isn't just, you know, maybe it is just a phrase, but there is some sincerity in that, because as a person of faith, I do want to support my friends with my prayers. Where is that intersection of how we can be a person of faith in this space, in a sincere and helpful way when someone we care about is experiencing trauma?
Christy: Sure. Well, we've talked many times now about just not saying inappropriate things in that moment, and so that, that can look like, you know, just give it to God and it'll all go away. Those kinds of statements, being able to just say, oh man, that really stinks. And acknowledging, you know, I don't know what you need. Can you tell me what you're needing in this moment? Because it may just be a cup of coffee with you. It could be something that you could very easily do. You know, often we think, oh, no, I, I can't put on a funeral dinner, or I can't do this, or I can't do that for them. But we can do some little things. I think one of the other big things is if you know someone's going through a hard time, follow up with them. Because so often, especially with people who have lost a loved one by the three month mark, they're still grieving, but everyone has, has forgotten.
And then you get to the six month mark, the pain is still there, but nobody wants to talk about it anymore. And you start getting the pushback of, why aren't you just over this yet? So being able to send cards, check up on our, on the people that we love at the three month mark, the six month mark, the nine month mark, sometimes that's just as simple as writing that on your calendar so you don't have to try to remember. So just those little things. Even just dropping off some toilet paper, paper towels and paper plates. If someone's going through a hard time and say, here, you don't have to go to the store for these things. It's the little things that are helpful. So I like to call that prayer in action when we are following through by caring with our prayer.
So yes, it's great to bring people's names to God and to say, Hey, God, we're lifting this person up because I love them, and I know you love them too, but it's also important for us to put action behind those prayers. You know, as James says, faith without deeds is dead. So like, what do we do with our faith? What do we do with our prayers? And again, it can be as simple as sending a card at the three month mark after someone's experienced a major loss or a trauma, or even just following up and inviting them to your house for a cup of coffee.
Crystal: Thank you for those practical ways. And you said early on in the podcast that that's one of the things that you do is share practical ways. Are there some other things that we haven't yet talked about that you want to make sure you, you know, share with our listeners on how to help other people when they're going through a time of trauma.
Christy: Sure. One of the most important things, especially dealing with kids and youth, is helping them understand that they have choices. And there are situations that we don't have choices for, right? Like, there's a fire in the building, we all need to get out of the building. It's not an option of whether or not you want to go. But even just giving someone a simple choice, like, do you want to be at the front of the line or the back of the line? Do you want to do this in five minutes or 10 minutes? Sometimes we can make those kinds of choices available to them, and it gives them the autonomy to realize that they're in control of their lives and they can make choices. And that just empowers people to feel like, one, you actually care about them as a person, but it also empowers them to recognize that, that, that their choices can have an effect.
Like, I can be a helper by being in the front or the back of the line, or I am allowed to be who I am, but I still have parameters and boundaries. So that's, that's kind of a helpful practice when you're dealing with people who may be experiencing trauma or just even a personality that's a little bit prickly. Being able to kind of give them options in that moment when you can is very helpful to move that relationship building forward and helping them feel like you care about them as an individual. So I think just little things like that in our churches can be really helpful to allow our people again, to feel heard. 'cause A lot of times when these big changes are happening, we feel like we're losing our power. We feel like we're losing a part of us. And so that's often why we push back or we react, is because I am losing something here.
And so when we have choices or when we have feel like we're being heard and that our concerns are being taken seriously, then we are able to feel like, oh yeah, I am an important part of this congregation. And I think our youth really sense that when we like put them on a committee just because we need a youth member on the committee and then we don't listen to what they have to say because they don't know how to run a church, is what we think that means they're not going to be interested in helping run the church later. 'cause If you don't have, if you're not interested in what they have to say now, they're not going to be at the table later. They're going to walk away and find someplace that will listen to them. And so just not doing things for the sake of doing it, yes, we should all have youth on our committees but we need to listen to them and take what they say seriously and understand that they have a different perspective. You know, when I hear a lot about I don't know how to get youth and children into my building, well, the first thing is we need to listen to see what the youth and children want and no, we can't always do exactly what is wanted, but at least we need to listen.
Crystal: I hear you. I mean, we've talked a lot about is it less about saying the right thing and more about just listening?
Christy: Correct, yes. And also then following through. So yes, I can listen but then I need to be able to communicate what, how we're moving forward and the thought processes that went into that so that people don't feel like their ideas were invalidated. Mm-Hmm. .
Crystal: So what is something that you wanted to be able to share today that we maybe haven't talked about yet as we kind of wind up the episode?
Christy: Again, I think trauma is a buzzword that either turns people off or scares people. And understanding that really we're not talking necessarily about trauma, although we are addressing it. We're talking about the resiliency that is required to live with trauma. And so being able to create resilient programming and for our churches just means that we're able to put people in places where they can be successful. We create, in the trauma world, we call them islands of competence. We create islands of competence for our people to allow them to do ministry in the church in the way that they are best do ministry. So that could look like somebody doing art for the bulletins, or it can go way beyond just putting people up in a praise band, right? It, it's, it's much bigger. Like what, what do you have as a gift? And then how do you feel like you can use that to enhance the kingdom of God, whether it's in the church or in the community, in the world. So helping people develop those islands of competence is really a key part. And I think the church has tried to do that for a long time, and we can be pretty good about that, but just moving that forward and understanding that it's not just going to look like people who can preach or who can sing or play instruments, it can look like a lot of different things.
Crystal: I think at the end of the day, we all want to feel important and we all want to feel like what we do matters.
Christy: Absolutely. And when we create places in our churches for them to do that, then they're going to want to stay because they're connected to the relationships that we're building there.
Crystal: Yeah, a great point. Well Christy, as we finish up today, I'm going to ask you the question that we ask all of our guests on "Get Your Spirit in Shape." How do you keep your own spirit in shape?
Well, as I mentioned earlier, I my quote unquote superpower is ADHD, which means I have difficulty sometimes focusing on one particular thing. So I noticed recently, within the last couple of years, I was having trouble finishing a book and I love reading. I am a voracious reader, but I was just struggling. May have been a part of the pandemic stuff, but I was just having a hard time. So now one of my practices is I spend 45 minutes in the morning usually with my cat cuddled up with me, but I read five different books. I read like a chapter from each book, and so I make sure that I have a book for me that's just fun, a book that's enhancing to my life that will help me move forward in areas, a book that's enhancing to my ministry that will help me tackle something in. And then just some devotional guides and some journal prompt books. And so just giving myself permission to not finish one book at a time and be able to enjoy the knowledge from these multiple tombs you know, that's very important to me.
Crystal: Yes, I love that. As someone who struggles to finish books, I really appreciate how you've affirmed that . So thank you. And thank you for your ministry. Thank you for saying yes to this call and for all that you're offering to The United Methodist Church. And thank you for being a guest on "Get Your Spirit in Shape."
Christy: Well, thank you for having me. It's been my honor and privilege, so I, I always love talking about ways to make life easier for all of us.
Crystal: Thank you.
That was the Rev. Christy Miller White discussing how trauma impacts our relationships and offering practical tips for navigating trauma with others and ourselves. To learn more about this topic and Christy’s ministry, go to umc.org/podcast and look for this episode where you will find helpful links and a transcript of our conversationIf you have questions or comments, feel free to email me at a special email address just for “Get Your Spirit in Shape” , [email protected].
If you enjoyed today’s episode, we invite you to leave a review on the podcast platform where you listen.
Thank you so much for joining us for “Get Your Spirit in Shape.” I’m Crystal Caviness and I look forward to the next time that we are together.