This post is Part 2 of a 4 part series examining the promise of faith communities as sources of healing and connection and GIFT coaches’, Sally Ankerfelt and Susan David’s recent presentation at the 2015 ATTACh Conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
If faith communities are sources of healing and connection, why don’t I feel that way?
Sometimes faith communities struggle with difficult behaviors with children. Mine is no exception. One Sunday morning, some teenagers who had been attending a weeknight youth program for neighborhood kids starting coming to our worship services. As a pastor, I was so pleased to see them there, getting connected to the faith community because I knew that many of them had little support in their lives and were challenged socially.
But, during worship, these young people did things to disrupt our carefully-planned and proper service. During the “amens” we would hear the Homer Simpson, “Dup!” During the prayers, we would hear several youthful voices praying just a beat behind the rest of us. And there was laughing and fidgeting going on, as well.
Finally, those in attendance had had enough and asked the youth to leave. They did not leave quietly with their heads bowed down in shame. They left with their middle finger flying high and with a confident, chorus of “F-You!”
The congregation was astounded and afraid. Emails followed the next day. I wondered, as a leader of the congregation, what to do. So, we called a special meeting following worship the next Sunday.
This incident in our congregation set something in motion within me. Something is going on that cannot be ignored by faith communities. In fact, I became more and more convinced, through my studies, that not only can this trauma not be ignored, it is actually at the heart of what we believe faith communities are called to be: sources of healing and connection for those affected by trauma.
There are profound ways that faith communities support connection and healing, ways that faith communities can embody much of what we heard at the ATTACh conference.
Neurobiologist Dan Siegel asserts that there is a foundational interplay between the mind, the brain and our relationships with ourselves and others. When this interplay is flowing properly, without threats or interruption or neglect, trauma or any other unhealthy environmental factors, then we have emotional well-being and the relationships between the parts of ourselves and the relationships with each other are communicating, flowing and alive – there is integration.
Emotional well-being and promoting better attachment– the focus of the ATTACh conference – emerges from integration. There are areas of our lives where integration can be promoted and our emotional well-being enhanced. When Susan and I studied these areas of integration, we thought, “Wow, almost all of these areas are supported by faith communities at their best.”
Think for a moment of your own faith community and you’ll come up with many of your own examples where the faith community embodies unconditional love whether in its holy teachings, rituals, worship itself, its community activities, or the secular outreach programs it’s involved in. Even the physical church building is important – it is always present. So, as we see it, faith communities can be way more than what we think they are – they are even more relevant than before for healing and creating connection.
Further, Dr. Siegel gives an excellent acronym to describe an integrated, healthy system, one that is supported by the domains of integration we just mentioned: COHERENCE. It’s a great way to remember what integration looks like and an excellent way to notice integration in our faith communities.
It was interesting what occurred when we held our congregational meeting. One woman said, “I’m afraid, afraid they’re going to hurt someone, but I cannot support closing the doors on these kids. If we do that, we are not demonstrating the love we claim to profess.” Another woman said, “I was one of those kids about 40 years ago, lost, needing a place to belong, but not knowing what to do. This church embraced me and here I stand, an active person in this congregation.” This faith community decided not to expel the young people. Instead, they decided they would get to know them, invite them to sit with them during worship, ask those questions. In other words, they decided to establish relationships with them.
Now here is the thing: what we noticed in our own places of worship, not only as a pastor and member, but also as parents whose children have experienced the effects of trauma, challenged with attachment disturbances such as dysregulated behavior and maybe our own possible secondary trauma or caregiver fatigue – what we noticed was that there was a tension. There is something going on between what is happening in our faith communities and this ideal coherent integrated faith community that offers unconditional love and acceptance.
Next week Susan and I will discuss this ongoing tension between influence and acceptance and the paradigm shift that is required to heal and connect our congregations so that they can truly be faith communities built on unconditional love and belonging.
Susan combines experiences as certified coach, lawyer, and adoptive mom of three in a multicultural/minority family with extensive involvement in her Jewish community. She believes by incorporating adoption-attunement and trauma-aware practices, faith communities can enhance their support of members touched by adoption. Working through her family’s trauma and attachment experiences deepens her understanding of issues facing adoptive families. Susan’s emphasizes adoption-attuned parenting strategies using solid coaching principles.
As an ordained pastor, certified coach and parent of three children with various attachment adaptations, Sally holds a unique perspective of the role a faith community and its practices can play in supporting healthy attachment between members, families, and children.