By Sinclair C.P. Ender
As the COVID pandemic’s end draws ever closer, the more it seems our cultural lens is shifting toward retrospection. We are beginning to think of ourselves as survivors. Lately I have heard it expressed that the pandemic, as a collective traumatic experience, demands that clergy reorient toward a trauma-informed ministry, one that responds to parishioners as if to those suffering post-traumatic stress disorder.
The pandemic has certainly affected everyone’s lives, but it has not caused traumatic stress in everyone’s lives. We know the trauma of the pandemic has been unequally distributed, often according to existing inequality, and that it has exacerbated existing trauma for some, while others have weathered this period relatively unscathed.
Further, not all clergy are called to minister to people’s trauma. Among other things, it may even be that some clergy will need a companion in their journey toward healing from the past year’s events. As a mentor once told me, “We must always do our best to minister from our scars and not our wounds.”
Before the pandemic started, and with proper reflection and training, I was already ministering out of my own scarred-over traumas, and it was my trauma-informed experiences that brought a gentle zeal to my ordained ministry in general, and my discernment of military chaplaincy specifically. At the beginning of 2020, I was ministering to persons experiencing homelessness, as well as the worshiping congregation of Trinity Cathedral in Davenport, Iowa, when I was selected for active duty Naval chaplaincy that summer. Then, everything changed.
It was neither the pandemic nor active duty that brought fresh wounds to my ministry, though. In September of 2020, my wife and I received the phone call that our best friend had died by suicide. That call and the coming months were traumatic. As I write, nine months later, that traumatic grief is a fresh scar on my soul that is ever healing.
Scarred, but even so, still very painful, and pulling at the non-scarred soul around it. I am trained to deal with death, trauma, and grief, and yet I could not address my own. I was wounded. It took others — mentors, friends, and an amazing group of instructors and fellow chaplains at the Naval Chaplaincy School and Center — to walk with me to a new normal.
It was Carl Jung who coined the term “wounded healer” as an archetype to describe those in the medical profession who have suffered from an illness and then develop the tenacity — for good or for ill — to use their suffering to form a relationship with their client. Jung stated, “a good half of every treatment that probes at all deeply consists in the doctor’s examining himself … it is his own hurt that gives a measure of his power to heal.” See On Jung by Anthony Stevens, (Oxford, 1994), p. 110.
My education and experience with trauma are not something I would readily wish on anyone. In my current billet, in the last six months I’ve seen dozens of our fellow humans on the brink, expressing suicidal ideations, or confiding their halted attempts. The way I care for and minister to people experiencing that type of trauma has very much changed for me as a survivor of suicide loss. My newest soul scar is my place of being able to meet those experiencing suicidal ideation.
Yet one does not need to experience the same trauma as someone else to minister to them. Trauma is complex and often ambiguous. What looks like one thing often later is revealed to be rooted in something else. For me, and for anyone ministering to people in extreme stress, critical incident response, or post-traumatic stress (please note the difference between PTS and PTSD), the goal is really not to do anything. Rather the goal is to be — to be a companion.
A wounded healer has to have done the work of self-examination before they can rightly companion someone else’s examinations. That is, to minister from one’s scars and not one’s wounds, one must first learn the difference between the two. A task of any wounded healer is not to fall into your own wound. And it is certainly okay not to be wounded or scarred in the first place.
A note should be made too that acting as a professional chaplain without proper training and support risks ministry malpractice, burnout, and secondary traumatic stress. The work of trauma-informed ministry is not for everyone, and is not done in isolation. In my ministry, I work with some amazing professionals: counselors, therapists, and doctors. We work together to minister to the persons who come to us for care.
For many clergy, the pandemic has created unheard-of pressures while ripping out the foundations of self-care necessary to continue ministry. For many parishioners, the last year-plus may have been their first brush with real, prolonged hardship, or it may have been another in a long list of systemic failures and stress beyond their control. The pandemic has certainly reshaped our notions of who is in need, who is our neighbor, and what sorts of spaces we may be inviting them into (or excluding them from). Our congregations, our clergy, and the Church are due for some serious discernment about where to go from here, but there is good news.
The pandemic may have altered our perspective, but the ministry of the Church remains ever the same, and its ministers and their gifts are as diverse as the world’s needs: In the months and years to come, to some will be given the work of justice — social, economic, or environmental; to some, proclaiming liberty to captives and welcome to strangers; to some, preaching the gospel in this unbelieving age; and to some, being a companion to those on the journey toward healing.
The Rev. Sinclair C.P. Ender is a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy Chaplain Corps and Command Chaplain at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Maine.