Seminars offer path to better dialogue

Intentionality and understanding key to addressing trauma and pastoral burnout

Michelle Hofer, right, and Jill Hofer speak about how to listen to someone sharing about trauma. — Tim Huber/Anabaptist World Michelle Hofer, right, and Jill Hofer speak about how to listen to someone sharing about trauma. — Tim Huber/Anabaptist World

Many congregations and conferences are recognizing ways division, polarization and trauma manifest in church life. Seminars at the Mennonite Church USA convention addressed these dynamics.

Leah Thomas, Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary assistant professor of pastoral care, said in her July 6 workshop that trauma flares up when an ability to integrate emotional experiences is overwhelmed. Trauma can even disrupt a connection with God, especially when a painful incident is connected to faith.

Thomas encouraged turning away from asking “What is wrong with that person?” to “What happened to that person?” because trauma is a normal response to an abnormal experience.

She recommended giving time and space to someone experiencing trauma, because the key to healing lies in forming caring relationships on their timetable and no one else’s.

“Even the smallest evidence of the ability to form a loving connection, even one positive memory of a caring person, can form the basis of a positive connection,” she said.

Forming those caring and trusting relationships is based on authentic listening, said Michelle Hofer and Jill Hofer, two women from South Dakota who discussed on July 4 their own experiences of navigating the pain of sharing stories of abuse.

“Finding healing happens when someone validates our experience, when they say it’s OK to feel angry about that,” said Michelle Hofer, Central Plains Mennonite Conference moderator-elect. “When someone ­acknowledges that feeling, it can be like a soothing balm.”

Jill Hofer, pastor of House Church of Freeman in Bridgewater, said this is especially important in religious communities that uphold the virtue of forgiveness, because such systems have a tendency to protect those who cause harm and shame those who share their stories.

“In order for our churches to survive and thrive, we must learn to listen and care for each other,” she said. “. . . Don’t offer quick fixes.

“We love to offer oversimplified solutions to complex situations. We want to offer the quickest way to healing and can be offended when they don’t do it. Just listen to their story.”

That listener need not be a pastor, though it is a task that often comes their way. Pastors have helped carry the load of many incidents of trauma or congregational discord. The pandemic and mounting polarization nudged many in the direction of burnout.

“Jesus said, ‘Where two or three are gathered . . . there will be conflict.’ No, he said ‘There I am,’ ” said conference minister Doug Luginbill of Central District Conference on July 6. “But often when two or three are gathered there are different perspectives and understandings.”

Luginbill stressed that healthy pastor-congregation relationships benefit from clear expectations. Be proactive and overcommunicate, so that tiny issues don’t grow into bigger challenges.

“We talk a lot about healthy boundaries for pastors and their relationships,” he said. “It’s also important for a congregation to be aware of healthy boundaries with the pastor and what to expect.”

A detailed covenant or memorandum of understanding is better than vague pleasantries. An understanding of changing times is also important.

“When I started as a pastor, the expectation for full-time was 48 to 52 hours a week,” he said. “The latest MC USA pastor guidelines say 40 hours a week,” with greater recognition of opportunities for family leave and professional development, all to avoid burnout.

Luginbill recommended establishing a pastor-congregation relations committee focused on tending the congregation’s relationship with its pastor, offering not just support but honest and balanced feedback.

Tim Huber

Tim Huber is associate editor at Anabaptist World. He worked at Mennonite World Review since 2011. A graduate of Tabor College, Read More

Anabaptist World

Anabaptist World Inc. (AW) is an independent journalistic ministry serving the global Anabaptist movement. We seek to inform, inspire and Read More

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