CLERGY who are struggling with trauma caused by the coronavirus have access to new training on self-care, informed by lessons learned in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017. The resources have been developed as part of a University of Exeter research project examining trauma in church congregations.
Ministers were experiencing profound challenges in having to cope with their own and other people’s anxiety and distress, the project leader, Dr Christopher Southgate, Professor of Christian Theodicy at Exeter, said on Tuesday. Funerals had to be conducted in unusual and difficult circumstances, and communities helped through periods of loss, illness, and financial crises. Streaming services and reopening buildings were ongoing challenges.
The Revd Dr Alan Everett, then Vicar of St Clement’s, Notting Dale, who made his church a place of sanctuary during and after the Grenfell Tower disaster, has written extensively about the impact on all involved. “The first-hand trauma was extensive, and there was also the second-hand trauma experienced by those trying to help them, for whom the experience of listening and trying to provide some kind of support was exhausting,” he wrote in his book, After the Fire, published in 2018 (Feature, 8 June 2018).
Professor Southgate said that, unlike an incident such as a fire of this kind, the danger from coronavirus had not gone away. “It’s not that the community can gradually, from a place of safety, process what has happened: it is that the danger is very present even while people are trying to recover. This is going to be very bumpy. There has been so much loss attached to the coronavirus that it is like a multiple bereavement superimposed on sudden traumatic loss and shattering assumptions.”
Funerals had been particularly hard for clergy, he said. “It must lead to a profound sense of unfulfilment that funeral ministry is not being able to be all the things that ministers are trained and accustomed to trying to make it be. And there must also be the apprehension that, come the autumn, you could have wall-to-wall memorial services, and it is going to be very difficult to make those special when so many people want them.”
The training, which is online, is designed to help clergy to understand the physical effects of trauma on the body’s nervous system, and so be better able to understand their own and others’ reaction to it. “What we will be offering is, first of all, space to articulate these concerns. We will be trying to meet these groups of clergy where they are, which will be different for every person: to equip them with some of the insights into the theory of trauma and help them understand it as a grief reaction.
“We’re possibly also keen to explore this with some theological tools in terms of understanding the story of lockdown communities, and how it might relate to parallels in the Bible.”
For the present, Professor Southgate said, it was still the case that clergy were “rallying round and putting out lots of energy to meet the need”. The deeper questions might come later, particularly as churches reopened and faced additional crises in terms of financing and possible further numerical decline.
He was also concerned that, however creative, judicious, and wise the reopening of church community activity might be, it was being called for at a time when many clerics were very tired. “There has been no break, and so much to negotiate. There is a kind of double demand: still to be the wise focus of pastoral care, but also to be the snazzy designer of streamed worship. Some clergy are better at one than the other, but to have both expected at the same time is really tough.”
Further advice for clergy and ministers is available on the website. Training materials produced as part of the project have been sent to parishes around the country and taken up by many dioceses. “When you think about it, ministerial formation should always have contained this element of what happens when the roof falls,” Professor Southgate said. “By and large, that has been lacking until now, and, of course, we understand a lot more about trauma than we used to do.”
The other project members are the Revd Hilary Ison and Canon Carla Grosch-Miller. Dr Megan Warner, lead editor of the book Tragedy and Congregations: A practical theology of trauma, left the team at the end of April last year.
The Archdeacon of Gloucester, the Ven. Hilary Dawson, said that the work of the project had been a lifeline in recent weeks: “Noticing what is happening around us, recognising the early activity and busyness, supporting one another in tiredness and even disillusionment, and drawing on our reserves of prayer and faith to be creative as we serve others.”