Making the Church a Safe Place for Victims of Trauma


This afternoon I will be speaking at Chelten Church on the topic of “Making the Church A Safe Place for Victims of Trauma.” This 3 hour continuing education seminar (co-sponsored by Biblical Seminary who provides the NBCC approved CEs) will focus primarily on trauma resulting from child sexual abuse. However, other forms of sexual violence and traumas (domestic violence, military trauma) will get a bit of attention as well. If you can’t make it or wish to see what I am talking about, you can download and see the slides: Making the Church A Safe Place For Victims.

Tomorrow, Mary DeMuth will speak on a topic similar to her book. Her talk is entitled, “Unmarked Marriage.”  I suspect the conference organizers will take walk-ins!

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Filed under continuing education, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Cameo in “Hope Rising” on ABC on November 16


Hope Rising, a documentary about The American Bible Society’s efforts to bring trauma healing to the Congo is going to be played on some local ABC stations November 16. I make a brief cameo in the documentary. Plus many of my friends doing the work are featured quite a bit. I have no idea if it will be aired in Philadelphia or what time it may be aired. But, as they say, check your local listings or follow the instructions on this page to ask your local affiliate to air the program. In the meantime, check out this trailer,

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You are what you tell yourself


That little narrative in your head, the one that thinks about self in the world, has more power over your perception of reality than you might care to admit. Some of us repeat shame stories, some repeat failure stories, some repeat fantasies, and still others repeat memories of being misunderstood or not treated as special. But whatever the narrative, it influences how you see yourself and how you choose to relate to the world–even when you are not aware of its presence.

Let me illustrate this point with two recent pieces run on National Public Radio

1. The Science of Self-Talk.  What you repeat to yourself about yourself can influence how you see yourself. This item explored how slight changes in talking about body image (from “My stomach is fat and disgusting” to “My stomach is round and bigger than I would like”) change the way individuals feel about themselves.

2. The voice in your head.  Radiolab has a couple of stories about voices in our head. The first was the voices heard in those who have Schizophrenia. While that story is very interesting, about 11 minutes in there is a second story that is more interesting to this topic: The second story is about minorities and females who do less well on standardized math testing than Caucasian males. It appears that accepting stories (e.g., girls or African Americans won’t do as well in academic settings) influence both populations to do less well on tests. When calling an IQ test a set of puzzles, African Americans will perform as well as others. Given the same set of puzzles an IQ test, they do less well. While there are many factors involved in the production and maintenance of these stereotypes, it appears that if we accept these stories, they will work on us and we will become them. What is interesting in this piece is that you don’t have to cognitively believe the story to be knocked off your game.

Preach what you want to practice

So, what stories do you repeat in your head? What stories come whether you want them to or not? What new narrative would you like to practice as a better sense of the truth. Choose a narrative that avoids all/nothing since you won’t find it believable. Ask the Lord what narrative he would like you to have for this issue. Consider these two.

1. Body image. What part of your body bothers you? Work out a more reasonable, less pejorative view of that part. Practice saying it.

2. Hurt feelings. Is there someone whose neglect has hurt you? Someone who hasn’t given you the attention you would like? Try softening the narrative in your head.

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Join me in Brazil, March 23-27, 2015!


UPDATE: Conference registration cut in half! Now only costs $250 instead of $500.

I will be attending and speaking at the 2015 General Assembly of the World Reformed Fellowship in Sao Paulo, Brazil (March 23-27, 2015) on the topic of recovery from child sexual abuse. Boz Tchividjian, Diane Langberg, Jim Gamble (N. Ireland) and Beatri Kruger (S. Africa) will also be covering topics such as preventing child abuse, sex trafficking and counseling.

These conversations are important everywhere, but this audience will be representing Reformed church communities worldwide, and that makes it very important conversation since churches worldwide need to keep talking about abuse that takes place within Christian environments. ! If trauma and abuse aren’t your cup of tea, there are parallel tracks covering everything from transdenominational ministry, Islam, church ministry and sexuality, church planting, and prosperity gospel.

See WRF GA Assembly for more information about the conference program and how to register for the conference.

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Filed under Abuse, conferences, trauma

Why are we surprised when we hear of systemic abuses?


Today on my ride home I heard a sports commentator discussing a recent abuse scandal on a high school football team. While the commentator did not dispute the evidence of abuse, he asked another whether he had ever heard of such behavior before by a football team. It seemed he was a bit surprised a team or a coach would tolerate systemic abuses of other teammates.

Why are we surprised when an organization tolerates harm done by one set of members to another set of members?

Whenever an organization (football, school, fraternity, or religious community) seeks to best the competition, limits membership, rejects all who would support other groups, maintains secrecy a strong hierarchy, you have a recipe for systemic abuse. Look closer at this recipe:

  • A population of individuals who deeply desire inclusion, who want to be in the inner circle
  • A population of individuals already in the inner circle and feeling mighty proud of it
  • Everyone feeling the need to protect the organization over individual needs/concerns
  • Secrecy about decision-making processes
  • Leadership who will maintain the hierarchy and encourage fears over what might happen if the system breaks down.

We know hazing and abuse happens on sports teams, fraternities, military units, and any other organization with these above-named features. It is more natural than we would like to admit.

This does not mean that all popular organizations, all private clubs are abusive. Rather, only without significant effort, individual abusive acts will morph into systemic abuse through complicity.

What significant efforts reduce the possibility of systemic abuse? Here are a few for starters:

  • Transparency of leadership and decision-making processes
  • A culture of protecting the weak over the strong
  • A culture of inclusion and collaboration with outsiders
  • A culture of servant-leadership and true mutual submission
  • A willingness to listen to inside and outside critique

He who wants to be first, must be the least of all.

Do we believe this? Or do we believe that associating with bigger, more prestigious groups will bring us value?

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Filed under Abuse, Christianity: Leaders and Leadership, church and culture

Conference Opportunity: Redeeming the Impact of Sexual Abuse (10/31-11/1)


the%20change%20seminar%20flyer-001[1]I have the privilege of participating in the Change Seminar at the end of this month. Designed for survivors, family members, church leaders, friends, and clinicians, this Friday afternoon/Saturday seminar will Feature myself and Mary DeMuth and her husband, Patrick. Mary, author of Not Marked: Finding Hope and Healing After Sexual Abuse, will be speaking on church communities and their role in helping victims and their families recover. She will be speaking Saturday, November 1 from 9-2. I will be speaking on Friday afternoon, October 31, on the topic of making the church a safe place for trauma survivors (those who have been trafficked, sexually abused, or have PTSD from other causes.

To register: www.chelten.org/changeseminar or call to 21.5.646.5588.

For those of you in the Philadelphia area, you can’t get continuing education for much cheaper than this: 6 CEs for $100 (NBCC approved). If you don’t need CEs then the price is even lower, $45 for couples, $35 for couples if one is a ministry leader, $25 for individuals.

Isn’t it time the church became know for the leading edge of caring for (and preventing!) sexual violence?

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Thoughts on Gary Haugen’s “The Locust Effect”


Over 2 billion people live on less than 2 dollars a day. If you doubled the population of the United States you would have the number of people who live on less than a dollar a day. As Gary Haugen points out, if you are reading The Locust Effect: Why the End of Poverty Requires the End of Violence (Oxford, 2013) or are reading this blog, you are not likely to be a member of the extreme poor. And if you aren’t a member of the extreme poor you probably wish you could do something to improve the lives of the most impoverished. The poor need clean water, food, housing, jobs, affordable healthcare, and education among other things.

But Haugen says all of those needs pale to a greater need: the need to stop the plague of “lawless violence.”

Opportunities for education, jobs, healthcare, quality food and water will evaporate or will not be accessed if poor do not have protection from violent forces–security, law enforcement, and a just judiciary.

The book challenges the reader to stay with the problem of poverty and violence as it travels across the globe to recount story after story of vulnerable men, women, and children whose governments fail to (a) protect them from sexual violence, bonded labor, property theft, and (b) defend them or seek justice after becoming prey. Frankly, it would be easy to either turn away from this problem since it is too large for anyone to solve or to just keep offering some form of help (food, water, job creation–all of which are needed and good!) without confronting the epidemic of violence.

Sexual Violence

There are many forms of violence a poor person can face. Their livelihood, home, and communities can be destroyed. But sexual violence doesn’t just take those things but also eviscerates the soul. Haugen recounts that in some locations as many as 68 percent of girls report experiences of sexual abuse. Some 6 to 11 million individuals are trapped in the sex trafficking industry. Some 1 billion women are known victims of sexual abuse. For most readers, this is not new news.

But consider for a minute that somewhere’s between 6 and 50 million people (Haugen tells us to read that as MEN) pay for sex each day. Remember that buying sex is likely supporting violence (pimps, prior sexual abuse, etc.). Look at the problem of sexual violence a different way–the percentage of men who have EVER paid for sex ranges from 15 percent to 85 percent (depending upon the country).

Sit with that number for a bit. You want to stop sexual violence? Yes, we need law enforcement willing to investigate and charge sex offenders. Yes, we need a judiciary system willing to provide justice through convictions and sentencing. But, if we really want to stop sexual violence, we have to deal with demand side of the equation.

Trauma the Multiplier of Violence and Poverty

Gary’s book addresses some of the colonial roots of violence in the developing world (i.e., government and law enforcement built for the ruling/colonial class, not for the local population). While I have not finished the book, I’m wondering about how he sees the impact of trauma on this whole problem. As most recognize, traumatized people tend towards learned helplessness and thus are much more vulnerable to future violent acts against them. And Haugen acknowledges this problem, if briefly (pp 105-106). He identifies the fact that “unrestrained violence” leads to traumatic reactions that will hinder the capacities to take advantage of available resources.

While all true, the problem of trauma is likely causing problems not just for the vulnerable poor but also effecting the entire system (police, judiciary, and government). Trauma often causes individuals to stop thinking of the future. Instead, individuals make impulsive, self-protective decisions that may hinder future opportunities (e.g., drug use stops triggers but harms future health). The same can be true of systems (bribery to survive now, but destructive to safety and stability.

The book ends with a number of ways to address the problem of global violence so make sure you read to the end. But I encourage you to think about ways to respond to BOTH trauma and faith deficits. Check out the work the Trauma Healing Institute as an example of grassroots, lay level response to these two problems.

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Roger Goodell wants to “get it right”: What has to change in the NFL to stop domestic violence


In a press conference today  Roger Goodell apologized for mishandling recent domestic violence scandals and provided specific ways he and the NFL planned to rectify the situation (e.g., education, training, funding national domestic violence and child abuse prevention organizations).

“I got it wrong in the handling of the Ray Rice matter. I’m sorry for that. Now I will get it right.”

Some of the intended efforts should have a positive effect, both for the NFL and for the larger society. However, if Goodell is serious about changing the culture of the NFL and society, he needs to take a step back from these good ideas and start by identifying the roots of the problem. Without getting the root, this problem will not be solved.

What is the root that has to change? Let me list two that must be addressed:

  1. We have to stop treating women as objects to be sought after and conquered. An object has no feelings and can be used however I wish. It has no rights, no value…unless I give it value. When we treat women as objects, then we only give them value when we chase them. And when they displease us, what is the big deal if we attack and treat without regard to their personhood? Last summer I heard an African man say that his wife was property because he had paid a dowry for her. Sure, she was special property and he took great care of her. But still, she was property and he could do with her as he wished. We in the West may think we are enlightened, but when we engage in domestic violence (and DV is more than physical!) we agree with this man–that our wives and girlfriends are property, something to be controlled.
  2. We have to stop treating top athletes as having special privileges, as individuals who do not need to conform to social rules. When you believe the rules do not apply to you, then why not get revenge when someone irritates you? You won’t be held accountable. When you see an attractive woman, why not do everything you can to get her into bed? Faithfulness, self-control, respect for others…those don’t apply. I have been told that women working for the NFL are nearly tortured by efforts to get them into bed; that it is nearly impossible to do their job due to the sexual harassment. Some may suggest that any woman working for the NFL ought to know what she is getting into and so has no right to complain. Others might acknowledge the problem with a sigh but point out that the warfare culture of football, the lure of fame, youthful temptations brought on by sudden riches, and the insatiable competitive spirit are to blame for these misdeeds. Baloney. Youth, money, fame, and testosterone may make it more difficult to do the right thing but the problem started long before these young men got their first football check. They were treated as gods and allowed to keep playing their sport when they acted out. Winning and being associated with winners tempted us to look the other way. How do I know this happens? Because I’ve been in a locker room before. Inappropriate speech was ignored, even laughed at. If you learn that rules don’t apply as a child, why will you behave when you are older?

How about a new institutional organizing principle? Out with self-promotion (and self-protection) and in with… 

In the past, organizations, including religious ones, often made decisions about mis-deeds of members by delivering consequences when it hurt their image (or more accurately, hurt their bank accounts). If we want to put a dent in the number of cases of violence (that is all we can do, keep offenders from re-offending under our own watch), we will have to stop being so concerned about image and start putting the care of the most vulnerable as job one.

Want to change the NFL and the world about domestic violence. Let us each start with ourselves and let us adopt this often repeated line of Jesus

“Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”

That is all there is. Die to self, love others more than yourself. Thank goodness Jesus didn’t merely give us sage advice but led as an example thereby giving us his power to love beyond measure.

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Filed under Abuse, Christianity, Christianity: Leaders and Leadership

Institutional betrayal: Secret ingredient to PTSD


We live in the world where human frailty and pathology is viewed in individual terms. When we see sickness we imagine that the person must have some weakness in biology, faith, or behavior. Rarely do we think about the role the system or community has played in the development of that person’s pathology. This is true when we think about a person diagnosed with PTSD. We therapists hypothesize about individual factors (personality factors, early childhood experiences (a slight nod to external causes) and neurobiological risk factors) and situation factors (the frequency, duration, and intensity of overwhelming trauma events) when we try to answer the “why” of the development of PTSD in a person.

The problem with this kind of thinking is that it fails to take into consideration of known research that suggests that environmental response to an individual’s trauma experiences may be a determining factor in whether PTSD or chronic traumatic reactions form.

In the most recent American Psychologist (2014, 69:6, 575-587), Carly Parnitzke Smith and Jennifer Freyd write about the concept of institutional betrayal. Traumatologists recognize Freyd’s name as the researcher who developed “betrayal trauma theory”, pointing to the especially toxic form of PTSD caused by those who were supposed to be safe and protective. These begin to examine “institutional action and inaction that exacerbate the impact of traumatic experiences…”

How can an institution betray a victim?

When a person trusts that a system designed to defend, respond, protect, or seek justice will do its job after an interpersonal trauma, and when that system either chooses not to respond (omission) or worse, chooses to lay blame at the feet of the victim (commission), institutional betrayal occurs. Examples include law enforcement accusing rape victims of “asking for it” with their clothing, church leaders allowing offender clergy to “leave with their reputations” or refusal to investigate a case of date rape when the reported offender is an important leader in the community.

In summarizing a couple of studies, Smith and Freyd point out that institutional betrayal after a trauma experience leads to higher rates of dissociation, sexual problems, and health difficulties. This is even more likely when the trauma takes place in an environment where protection of the members is trumpeted (i.e., church or military).

What are the common characteristics of betraying institutions?

Smith and Freyd note several characteristics found in institutions at greater risk for betraying members.

  • membership requirements to define in group identity. This produces a need for members to act in ways to maintain such an identity
  • Prestige (both leaders and institutions). Prestige produces both trust and fear, dependency and power
  • Priorities. “Institutional betrayal may remain unchecked when performance or reputation is valued over, or divorced from the well-being of members.” As the authors note, maintaining reputation as a priority will lead to neglect or attack of those who challenge reputation
  • Institutional denial. Blame a few bad apples, avoid institutional blame or responsibility

Those institutions that do make efforts to prevent abuse within its community may still yet fail to respond well. They may fail to use adequate screening procedures, normalize abuse, fail to utilize or follow appropriate response procedures, punish whistleblowers, and aid cover-ups.

What to do?

Smith and Freyd argue that transparency (about past actions/failures to act as well as power structures) and priority to protect the well-being of all members will move institutions away from the risk of betraying individual members. I would argue that the shift to protect moves from the institution as a whole to protection of the most vulnerable.

Let me recommend a few resources that have appeared here in the past:

  1. Diane Langberg’s 5 part video about narcissistic leaders and the institutions they lead. She too describes systemic narcissism.
  2. Why some spiritual leaders abuse (and systems allow it)
  3. Narcissistic systems
  4. Resources to combat narcissism one person at a time

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Filed under Abuse, personality, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Psychology

Criticism of Biblical Counseling: Are Joyce’s Concerns Valid?


Katheryn Joyce has recently published a long post about the rise of Biblical counseling and the concerns some have about the movement [read it here].

Most people who have thoughts about counseling and Christianity tend to fall into one of to categories: Those who oppose biblical counseling as dangerous and those who oppose the various versions of Christian psychology as shallow and full of humanistic ideology. Very few people try to maintain identity in both worlds. If you have read my “about me” you will find I’m one of those who does accept the label of biblical counseling and Christian psychology (more on this below)

I encourage both proponents and opponents of Biblical Counseling to read her essay. Let me even take the liberty to suggest some starting questions to keep in mind as you read. While the essay may not answer the questions, having them in mind will keep you from solidifying stereotypes of either sides.§ If you are inclined to reject biblical counseling, consider these questions:

  1. Where might I find a more thorough history of biblical counseling and its various permutations?
  2. What main biblical counseling author voices are missing in this piece? [Note that the mentioned ACBC was, until recently, known as NANC (National Association of Nouthetic Counselors)]
  3. What failures in Christian psychology movement(s) led to the need for a biblical counseling movement?

If you are inclined to defend biblical counseling, consider these questions

  1. Even if some of the bad examples of biblical counseling do not represent you or the heart of the movement, what aspects of the movement may support or encourage some of these distortions?
  2. How might you better communicate “sufficiency of Scripture” to outsiders?
  3. Does biblical counseling seek to eliminate symptoms or improve spiritual responses to symptoms? How might it better acknowledge the body when talking about the causes of mental health problems?
  4. Where does fear of “integration” hinder the maturation of biblical counseling as a movement?

Indeed, these questions have already been asked and answers given in a variety of locations. Readers unfamiliar with biblical counseling should start with websites such as this one, CCEF, ACBC, BCC, and the Society of Christian Psychology to find further and deeper readings on related topics.

Where the Concerns are Valid

Not acknowledging benefits from psychological research. Joyce notes that a good biblical counseling session looks a lot like a good professional counseling session. Why? Well, it is obvious that change happens best in the context of kind, compassionate relationships. Why the similarity? While it is true that psychotherapists didn’t discover empathy, it is true that psychotherapy research has expanded our understanding of the best way to encourage trust relationships in therapy. In addition, some of the cognitive, affective, and dynamic interventions developed from these models are used within biblical counseling. I have absolutely no problem from biblical counseling deriving benefit from interventions developed in other models of therapy. I only desire biblical counselors or acknowledge that benefit. It is clear Jay Adams benefited from Mowrer (and said so to boot). We can do the same. We can admit that Marsha Linehan has revolutionized our understanding of how we work with people exhibiting symptoms of borderline personality disorder.

Emphasizing false dichotomies. Joyce quotes Heath Lambert in this piece (near the end),

“I’m concerned [that] if we say, ‘Oh my goodness, people with hard problems need physicians and need a drug,’ we’re going to lose much of what the Bible has to say about hard problems.”

The quote above is in the context of dealing with difficult or serious mental illness. He worries that if the church creates two categories of problems (normal and special), those with serious problems will no believe that the bible has things to say about those suffering with suicidal ideation or schizophrenia. It seems that some biblical counselors take a negative stance on psychiatry and medical intervention because they fear doing so will hinder the work of the Spirit through the bible. I would argue that this dichotomy does not need to exist. I agree that the bible speaks to everyone, whether they are having difficulty or easy problems. I don’t think that use of medications or medical practitioners has to hinder pastoral care. The message that others get when we suggest that medical intervention need to be avoided is that somehow it is less spiritual to seek a medical intervention. This is patently false. Now, not every medicine is worth taking. Some may create more problems then they solve. But that fact should not cause us to lump all professional/medical care into the same category.

Where the Concerns are Overplayed

Heath Lambert gets it right when he claims that all counseling models will fail, due primarily to the quality of the practitioner. Biblical Counselors do much work that is commendable and successful. Joyce’s piece may suggest that most biblical counselors are ineffective and incompetent. This is not true. Matthew Stanford suggest he has never seen a biblical counselor do well with difficult cases. That may be the experience of my friend, but I can attest to seeing biblical counselors working well with people with serious personality disorders, delusions and other difficult mental illnesses. Now, the truth is, these counselors have succeeded because they did not follow the stereotype and reject learning from professional psychology. Further, these same counselors did not take “sufficiency” to mean that they could only use the bible in considering how to respond to their clients.

Take a moment and read her piece. Review the questions above and keep an open mind to both sides of this story.

[§ I have written on the relationship between Christian psychology and biblical counseling in the Journal of Psychology and Theology, volume 25, 1997. You can buy that essay here.]

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Filed under CCEF, christian counseling, christian psychology, Christianity, counseling skills, Psychiatric Medications, Psychology, Uncategorized