APCE workshops address trauma and faith

Fostering resilience was an important theme during last week’s annual event

by Beth Waltemath | Presbyterian News Service

A Spirituality Center was part of last week’s Association of Partners in Christian Education annual event. (Photo by Beth Waltemath)

DECATUR, Georgia — “We never outgrow fear,” John Pavlovitz said in his second plenary at last week’s annual event of the Association of Partners in Christian Education. “As we get older, we just trade in our terror for more age-appropriate models.” Pavlovitz, a pastor, writer and activist from North Carolina, then described the two responses we have at any age to the storms that scare us: “We become frozen or frantic.”

The theme of trauma and fostering resilience in ourselves and others ran throughout this year’s APCE gathering, held online and in person in Birmingham, Alabama. In addition to the insights of keynote speaker Pavlovitz, the event featured several workshops on trauma and taking a trauma-informed approach to grief work, faith formation at any age, and the healing and empowering ministries of mission.

Teresa Mader of the PC(USA)’s Administrative Services Group and Eileen Schuhmann and Margaret Mwale from the Presbyterian Mission Agency responded to concerns about the impact of violence on women with a workshop on how to integrate stories of women’s empowerment into church programming. The 90-minute workshop called “Pathways to Healing Trauma and Empowering Women” focused on how to help communities move to a place where women can become agents of their own self-development.

One workshop leader, the Rev. Christy Miller White, has a background in social work and children and family ministry. (Photo by Beth Waltemath)

In a workshop titled “Trauma-Informed Faith Formation,” the Rev. Christy Miller White, who has a background in social work as well as children and family ministry, referenced a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study about the correlation between adverse childhood experiences and future health. Miller White discussed how repeated trauma or chronic adversity affects the developing brain. She offered educators various ways to pay attention when a person shows signs of hypervigilance and mistrust and how to respond in the context of faith formation. The line between “tolerable and toxic stress depends on the individual,” said Miller White, “because we’re all so different in our brain chemistry.” Miller White stressed the importance of building trust through check-ins, relationship building, card writing, calm responses to behavior and the importance of safe ways for individuals to engage in ways that are secure for them. “Behavior is communication,” Miller White said as she encouraged educators to consider, “What are they communicating to us? Don’t withhold your time and attention due to behavior,” but rather look for ways to read the communication and build trust. Miller White, who also serves as coordinator for age group ministries in the United Methodist Church, then shared a webpage she maintains on trauma resources for ministries with families.

One topic of shared trauma discussed in the workshop was the shadow of gun violence experienced by children when they enter public spaces like schools and churches. Miller White advised educators working in churches whose leadership would not ban guns or make an official policy or safety plan to make their own safe exit plan and communicate that one is in place to children and parents who’ve come to expect these measures. Rebecca Guzman, the director for spiritual formation at South Mecklenburg Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, pointed participants to the PC(USA)’s Gun Violence Prevention Congregational Toolkit.

The Rev. James Potts leads a church in rural Illinois. (Photo by Beth Waltemath)

The Rev. James Potts, who serves as a solo pastor in rural Illinois, said, “As an openly gay man, there are times at least once a month that I think, ‘Is today the day someone will walk into my church and open fire on me and my congregation?’” Potts shared his experience of being silenced on the issue of gun reform and active shooter drills in his previous church near Parkland, Florida, where 17 students were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018. Potts led a session for children and their families on their feelings around the reality of guns in their lives and initiated a card ministry in his presbytery to send caring contacts to people affected by the Parkland shooting, but due to the influence of a church member who served on the board of the National Rifle Association, the conversation remained within the family ministry of the church and not the session.

Brian Kuhn’s workshop focused on adolescent mental health and youth ministry. (Photo by Beth Waltemath)

Prevention was also a topic of Brian Kuhn’s extended workshop called “Adolescent Mental Health and Youth Ministry,” but his focus was on the crisis of teenage mental health and the inability of the health care and school systems to meet the needs. Drawing on his background in youth ministry and as a professional counselor, Kuhn led a three-hour discussion on how churches can become part of a preventive care approach with families and not just wait to respond to the trauma of the next suicide or addiction.

Woven throughout the conference were visual and historical reminders of the legacy of trauma and human courage, from a prayer arch for people to add the names of those they grieve, to the stations of the cross collages that depicted contemporary scenes of oppression, to the testimonies of the Freedom Riders of the 1960s, a staged reading about the legacy of lynching in the surrounding county, and the table toppers sewn in the style of the quilters of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, a community that traces its roots to formerly enslaved artisans.

The Rev. Mary Button’s visual focus was on the Stations of the Cross. (Photo by Beth Waltemath)

In the main ballroom after the second keynote, Potts sat at a table decorated with one of the quilted squares. Someone commented on the lanyard he brought from home to hold his nametag. It read “Quilting is my therapy.” Potts said, “I got into quilting because of depression when I lived in Florida. A lot happened and it was hard to find a supportive community. I needed some kind of outlet that would prevent me from hurting myself.” When Potts makes a quilt as a gift or as a donation to a domestic violence shelter, the process allows him to pray a blessing into what he makes. “It’s a time when I can clear my mind, when I talk to God.”

Pavlovitz ended his talk with an insight about how the common human experience of fear is reflected a number of times in the Scriptures: “‘Do not fear’ is the most common command in the Bible and the one we follow the least.” By the end of the week, thanks to honest testimonies of survivors of race and gender violence, spaces to pray with their hands and workshops by experts in grief, trauma and mental health counseling, APCE participants had unpacked a myriad of reasons why that is the case.

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