Scholar Fridays is a weekly series on Bearings Online where we interview 2017-18 Resident Scholars. Susan Sink recently spoke with Jean Sullivan, who spent November 2017 at the Collegeville Institute as a short-term Resident Scholar. Sullivan is co-pastor at United Church of Monticello in Monticello, IA, and worked on a project titled “Compassion, Advocacy, and Healing: The Church Responds to Adverse Childhood Experiences” during her residency. To view previous Scholar Friday interviews, click here.
Tell us about your project.
For the last several years I have had one foot in the world of the Church, serving alongside my husband as co-pastor and collaborating with my local colleagues to provide assistance to people in our small, rural town through a food pantry and emergency fund, and the other foot in the world of social work, serving as a volunteer chaplain in a residential treatment program for teenage girls and providing leadership on local boards that serve children in families at risk.
What I’ve learned about toxic stress and the long-term effects of trauma has changed the way I understand, and think we should respond to, the people who are in need of the food pantry, the emergency fund, and other local resources available to families. I see the potential for even the smallest church in the most rural setting to be a source of profound change in its community.
In response, I have created a modular set of presentations that I will use with clergy and church leadership to explain the neurobiology of stress and trauma and its connection to the difficulties our congregants and communities are experiencing alongside scriptural references that help guide our response as Christians. I hope that with a better “big picture” understanding of how experience changes biology and behavior, the Church can find more effective ways to respond – with prevention and resilience-building supports.
I like the title of your project: “Compassion, Advocacy, and Healing.” Sometimes it is hard to recognize what the role of the church is for those dealing with childhood trauma. Pastors, spiritual directors, and all ministers have to be careful not to take on the role of therapist. How do you see their role?
Pastors are not therapists. Bible Study classes are not support groups. Food pantry volunteers are not nutritionists. But, if we understand toxic stress and trauma and the many ways they affect the human body, mind, and spirit, we can approach our interactions with those we serve with newfound understanding and compassion. Social Justice and Mission committees can evaluate their efforts and redirect their work toward advocacy aimed at reducing or eliminating root causes of suffering and oppression. And we can look with new eyes at the healing resources we as church communities do have to offer: a quiet, safe place to rest and find a loving presence; people to create an extended family of aunties and grandpas for people without those in their lives; spiritual practices of prayer and contemplation to soothe and enliven even the most downtrodden spirit. Each of these is recognized in the research as a way to build resilience, and could be an important part of healing and recovery from abuse and trauma.
What is it in your background that drew you to this project?
Bringing about positive social change has been the motivation for most of the work I’ve done as an adult. From my early interest in the study of gentle approaches to childbirth and parenting, to understanding the cultural context for health through medical anthropology, I found my way to the study of human networks and networking as a way to affect change. While all those can be useful tools for study, and even implementation of programs, if deep cultural concerns are to be addressed, we need to find the best leverage point where we can change the trajectory of a life. If we focus on preventing childhood trauma, supporting families, and helping individuals and families heal from the trauma they have experienced, we will go a long way toward reducing disease, improving life expectancy, lowering incarceration rates, increasing productivity, and enhancing educational success.
Can you recommend a book or poem that inspires you?
The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, by Bessel van der Kolk, M.D., and Childhood Disrupted: How Your Biography Becomes Your Biology, and How You Can Heal by Donna Jackson Nakazawa are both excellent resources for understanding the long term, and even intergenerational, effects of experience on our bodies.
Did you have any “surprising conversations” with other resident scholars?
Rachel Miller Jacobs’ presentation on forgiveness was particularly interesting to me. When there has been trauma as a result of abuse, the question of forgiveness becomes very complicated. Her work, though, was around the role forgiveness plays every day in our relationships. It helped me to consider how we might move toward compassion and forgiveness when dealing with the everyday “offenses” we experience when interacting with people who have experienced trauma.
How has your spiritual practice changed over time?
My time at the Collegeville Institute was a wonderful reminder of the spiritual practices that have served me well in the past. I felt the freedom to focus some time on walking through the woods, starting and ending the day with some gentle yoga stretches and integrating Centering Prayer in the midst of my study and reading time. Even just the process of mindfully preparing food and eating each meal, then, when it was time, “just doing the dishes,” all contributed to my sense of wellbeing. I spent time with familiar scripture passages, but read them in a new way within the context of my study of the church community’s response to people who have experienced trauma.
Where do you see the Church in ten years?
I see the church reclaiming its role in the community – as a place of social connection and support – by offering people a way to form relationships across the generations (something I think has been lost in so many communities). Many shrinking congregations still have big buildings – the space many social support programs lack. And the average age of members in many congregations continues to increase – many of whom could still play active, loving roles if given the right context and opportunity. If struggling families with young children found the church to be a friendly, welcoming place where they could “come as they are,” they would be more inclined to participate and offer what they can. A message and a reality of loving acceptance would go a long way toward bringing stressed families into contact with the wise old grandmas and grandpas that are currently filling our pews and miss the young families. Sharing the love of Christ with those working hard to nurture the next generation would be a win-win!