Guest Blogger Makayla Payne invites us to consider an accessible and integrated approach to pastoral counselling for complex trauma survivors.

The State of the Church

It is no surprise that the church is in the midst of an abuse crisis, a reckoning. Every day it seems, there are reports of another leader who has been abusing people behind the scenes. Leaders who are not abusers have been complicit. Then we hear of church cultures that are toxic—who dig their heels in even further when the abusive leader is exposed. We hear about years and years of lies and cover-ups and silencing and subtle abuse tactics that have gone unrecognized. Spiritual, emotional, financial, and sexual abuse has been consistently hidden, and the waves of news stories do not seem to end. For many of us, this problem is not a distant issue. Many of us see this playing out in our own churches. We have our own stories to tell.

Even if their leader wasn’t abusive, many parishioners have suffered abuse in other relationships. Research shows one in four girls and one in six boys—one-fifth of all children—suffer from sexual abuse by the time they are eighteen.[1] In addition to this is the emotional, physical, and spiritual abuse that occurs apart from sexual abuse.

This leaves the remaining church leaders in a desperate place. Pastors have people in their midst who have endured abuse, and therefore many who have complex trauma. If this abuse is handled poorly, it is very likely the pastor will compound the survivor’s trauma. Complex trauma requires specific skills—skills that pastors do not naturally possess and are needing to learn quite quickly. One of the most dangerous things a pastor can do is attempt to counsel a complex trauma survivor without the necessary training. Yet, with the tools provided here, pastors can learn to identify complex trauma, establish safety with the survivor, teach the survivor grounding techniques, and recognize the opportunity and limits of pastoral counselling. While this post won’t be comprehensive, the hope is that pastors can more effectively minister to complex trauma survivors without trying to replace a licensed therapist.[2]

Defining Complex Trauma

Trauma is overwhelming distress that surpasses a person’s capacities to cope and therefore compromises their ability to function.[3] L.C. Terr identified two types of trauma. Type one consists of a single event or is very short term; impersonal in nature; and sudden and unexpected. For example, the trauma that may result from a natural disaster. Type one may result in a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) diagnosis. Type two consists of multiple events that are prolonged and pervasive; interpersonal and intrusive in nature; and recurrent, anticipated, and dreaded. For example, sexual abuse from a family member over several years. Type two may result in complex trauma, which includes a diagnosis of PTSD, but is often accompanied by other comorbid diagnoses such as depression, substance abuse, dissociative identity disorder, and borderline personality disorder.[4] Research conducted by Ford and Courtois reveals that, “Most often, complex trauma occurs in a repeated and layered fashion that causes a compounding of the need for ongoing psychobiological defenses that ultimately alter the body and mind of the survivor.”[5] This is not to say one type is easier than the other. It is to say that the deeper the trauma, the greater the impact on the body and brain. Trauma changes the survivor at a cellular level.

The Impact of Complex Trauma

Trauma’s impact can affect the survivor’s abilities to regulate their own emotions and to engage in healthy relationships. In other words, trauma can impact the survivor’s relationship with themselves and their relationships with others, including God. Internally, a trauma survivor may experience strong emotions that they feel unable to cope with. This can show up as numbing, avoidance, or emotional outbursts. Survivors may be diagnosed with depression, anxiety disorders, personality disorders, addictions, or eating disorders. Trauma can also lead to seemingly unrelated physical illnesses. Externally, a survivor’s relationships may be chaotic because their ability to accurately detect when someone is safe is impaired. A survivor might be very closed off in some instances but overly trusting in others. They may have a hard time knowing what appropriate boundaries look like because their boundaries were shattered by the abuse.

In pastoral counselling, a parishioner may readily disclose their abuse. However, a parishioner may also describe experiences that suggest they have gone through abuse, without recognizing it as abuse. Suppressed memories of the abuse could surface during counselling sessions. If this happens, it may be necessary to name the experience as abuse. Whether aware of the abuse or not, is important to remember that a pastor cannot diagnose a parishioner.

Step One: Establishing Safety


Survivors of trauma often believe the world is not safe. They have learned this by experience: the people closest to them who were supposed to provide safety were the very ones who abused them; their agency was suppressed, and their vulnerability was exploited. In many cases, the abuser was a relative, close friend, romantic partner, boss, pastor, or counsellor. Who then is to say this won’t happen in the next relationship they enter? Trauma occurs where safety has been lost—physically, emotionally, and spiritually. For the pastoral relationship to be a place of healing trauma, safety must be re-established.

Safety must be consistent throughout the pastor’s entire relationship with the survivor. While a client might see a therapist one hour a week at the clinic, a parishioner has the unique opportunity of seeing a pastor in many different contexts. The pastor not only interacts with them in pastoral counselling, but also on stage during worship, preaching the sermon, and perhaps more casual interactions like small group and church events. Each of these interactions is an opportunity for the pastor to either show themselves to be a safe person or to be duplicitous. Therapist and author Diane Langberg writes, “If you say you are a safe person, this ultimately means nothing unless others find you to be such a person consistently over time and in different places. Your words do not make it so; the incarnation of safety in the flesh makes it so.”[6] This, like the therapy relationship, does not mean the pastor must be perfect. All relationships—therapeutic and pastoral included—will involve conflict, or rupture. What matters is a trajectory of consistency that includes repairing the relationship when it has been ruptured. Genuine repair indicates integrity and therefore safety.


Another indicator of safety is empathy. Validation and solidarity are necessary to show empathy. Validation begins with believing the survivor’s story. This is where knowledge about abuse and trauma is crucial for the pastor. Statistically, it is very rare for someone to falsely report abuse.[7] Additionally, when abuse is reported, it is critical for the listener to believe what is reported so that trauma is not compounded. Survivors are regularly shamed and threatened into silence. Therefore, it takes a radical amount of courage to disclose their abuse. The counselling session should be a place where the survivor can freely express their emotions without judgment. It is the pastor’s job to hear and validate the survivor’s experience without inserting their own opinions or making the conversation about themselves. In therapy, this is called “holding space” for the client. This is not the place to advise or to preach, but the place to listen well. In abuse, a person is silenced and overpowered. In counselling, the pastor has the privilege of creating a space where the survivor can regain their voice and agency.

The second facet of empathy is solidarity. The pastor is called to express their unity with and support of the victim. This requires recognizing an injustice has been done. The fullness of the injustice needs to be named without minimization. Abuse needs to be named as abuse. Violence needs to be lamented over. Simply the act of recognizing and weeping over the wrongs committed goes a long way for the survivor. A profound sense of healing can occur when the depth of the wrong done is felt and acknowledged in the counselling session and in public where appropriate.

Awareness of Power Dynamics

Another indicator of safety is a pastor’s awareness of the power dynamic between them and the parishioner. This means the pastor acts with awareness that they are the person with more power in the room. They are the one in a position of authority, the counsellor, the care-taker. The parishioner is the one who is vulnerable and in a position of need.

In her book Redeeming Power, Diane Langberg names many different kinds of power: physical, economic, and verbal power are examples.[8] A pastor may have all of these, but the most prominent area of power for a pastor, especially in pastoral counselling, is the “powerful combination of knowledge, intellect, and skill” as Langberg calls it.[9] Like a therapist, the pastoral counsellor has a specific area of skill that enables them to help people in crisis. Yet, by virtue of being the person a survivor approaches for help, the pastor is in a position of power over the parishioner, leaving them very vulnerable to how that power is wielded.

Boundaries, therefore, are vital. It is always on the person with more power to keep the boundary. Langberg gives a scenario:

If a woman comes to you for counselling about her marriage and one day, confused and longing for attention, she stands up and undresses in front of you, what happens next depends entirely on you. What she has done tells us some things about her, for sure. But what you do in response tells us about you. It tells us what you are like in the presence of unfettered vulnerability.[10]

It is the pastor’s job to take responsibility for their own actions. While they cannot control what a parishioner does, they can and must control how they respond.

The pastor is also responsible for maintaining confidentiality. This is true in any relationship, even those with equal power: when a friend discloses vulnerable information to you, it is your responsibility to keep that information to yourself unless they tell you otherwise. In friendship, these disclosures are a two-way street—my struggles are safe with you and yours are safe with me. Confidentiality is even more important in the pastoral relationship, where the pastor will not be vulnerable with the parishioner the same way the parishioner is vulnerable with them. The pastor will hear many stories they can’t tell anyone else about. Confidentiality is for the protection of the parishioner.


Many pastors themselves have complex trauma. If not, they likely have ways of engaging with the world that can become toxic. It is important for the pastor to “do their own work.” Pastors need to see a therapist themselves—hopefully before they become a leader—to process their own wounds. Without an awareness of their own proclivities and a commitment to heal from them, the pastor will inevitably replicate unhealthy dynamics with the people in their congregation. A lack of self-awareness from the person in power will cause harm to those under their leadership. However, a pastor who is aware of their emotions, wounds, and temptations will be better equipped to counsel. Their growth will aid the growth of the parishioner.

Photo: Makayla Payne

Step Two: Grounding Techniques

Trauma is stored in the body. Our bodies physically hold memories of trauma until we process through them.[11] This leaves survivors with a complicated relationship to their bodies. The trauma, when triggered, sends them back to re-experience the past in all its emotions and bodily sensations. The goal for therapists is to keep the client aware of the present—that there is a difference between what happened in the past and what is happening now. Grounding techniques are tools that help us remain in the present, to keep us in touch with our feelings and sensations here and now.[12] A license is not required to teach these techniques. They can be useful in the counselling session and for the survivor to practice at home.

Each of these techniques use our bodies. In some traditions, the default belief is that changing our thoughts will change our emotional state. However, thoughts are not the only thing that impacts our emotions. What we do with our bodies also affects how we feel. These techniques will hopefully foster integration between the mind, body, and emotions.


First is breathing. Correct breathing enables the body to de-escalate the sympathetic nervous system and activate the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system controls the fight or flight response in our bodies while the parasympathetic nervous system regulates feelings of calm.[13] One helpful breathing technique is called diaphragmatic or belly breathing. To practice belly breathing, place one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach, below the ribcage. Inhale slowly through the nose and exhale slowly through the mouth. The hand on your belly is the only one that should move, while the hand on your chest should remain still the entire time. This ensures that you are taking deep rather than shallow breaths.[14]

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Second is progressive muscle relaxation. Progressive muscle relaxation involves going through each part of your body as you tighten and then release your muscles. It’s important to be careful here, as this practice can be triggering. A safe way to teach this to parishioners is to only clench and release their fists or curl and release their fingers and toes.


Another technique is called tapping. This technique involves tapping various acupressure points on the face and neck. This technique has been shown to improve symptoms of PTSD and anxiety.[15] To practice this, take two fingers and repeatedly tap the spot above the beginning of your inner eyebrow, your temple, the spot under your eye directly below your pupil, the indented space between your nose and upper lip, and the indention on your chin below your bottom lip. You can also use both hands to tap your collar bones. There is no specified order or number of taps, just a few times in one spot before moving to the next one. While tapping, people have focused on different things. Some think of the problem they have or the emotion they’re experiencing. Some start with the problem and then move to an affirmation. The important thing is to tap these points in a consistent way until the anxiety subsides.

5-4-3-2-1 Technique

The 5-4-3-2-1 technique brings you into awareness of each of your senses. All you need to do is name five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can touch, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste.


Smells can be a strong trigger for trauma survivors. Our brain naturally connects smells with memories. In the opposite way, a smell can change one’s focus away from a trigger and bring a sense of calm. A parishioner can use essential oils, perfume, a candle, a peppermint or gum, coffee beans, or some other strong smell. When they are triggered, they can take out the oil or light the candle to bring them back into awareness of the present moment.

The Limits of Pastoral Counselling

If a parishioner is dealing with complex trauma, it is necessary for the pastor to refer them to a trauma-informed therapist. Pastoral counselling does not replace clinical counselling. Yet, the techniques here can be integrated into a pastor’s counselling sessions. In this way, the pastor and the therapist can work alongside one another for the sake of healing for the wounded. A complex trauma survivor needs a therapist. And they also need a pastor who faithfully embodies the heart of God to them. One cannot cancel out the other. I am grateful for licensed counsellors, yet, it is a devastating indictment that they are having to mend the damage caused by abusive pastors. When a pastor—one who represents God—abuses, it is catastrophic, but when a pastor is a safe presence, it has the power to change the narrative about the survivor and God, and to rewire pathways in the brain.  

Hope for Healing

The need for pastors to be trauma-informed increases by the day. People in our pews have complex trauma, and many have complex trauma from sitting in the pews. Pastors will be best equipped if their counselling includes trauma research. In our day, we need pastors to understand complex trauma, establish safety with the survivor they are counselling, teach the survivor grounding techniques where helpful, and recognize the limits of pastoral counselling. With their lives they can tell a story of a God who is safe, who understands, and who heals.

Makayla Payne (MDiv) is passionate about writing theology beautifully and making it accessible to the church. She’s particularly interested in issues related to gender and trauma.


Church, Dawson, Peta Stapleton, Kevin Kip, and Fred Gallo. “Corrigendum to: Is tapping on acupuncture points an active ingredient in emotional freedom techniques: A systematic review and meta-analysis of comparative studies.” The Journal of nervous and mental disease 208, no. 8 (2020): 632-635.
Fisher, Janina. “The work of stabilization in trauma treatment.” Trauma Center Lecture Series (1999): 1-13.
Ford, Julian D., and Christine A. Courtois, eds. Treating Complex Traumatic Stress Disorders in Adults: Scientific Foundations and Therapeutic Models. Second Edition. NY: Guilford Press, 2020.
Langberg, Diane. Redeeming Power: Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church. Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2020.
Peterman, Gerald W. and Andrew J. Schmutzer. Between Pain and Grace: A Biblical Theology of Suffering. Chicago: Moody, 2016.
Sovik, R. “The Science of Breathing: The Yogic View.” Progress in Brain Research 122 (1999): 491-505.
Terr, L. C. “Childhood traumas: An outline and overview.” The American Journal of Psychiatry, 148(1). 1991. 10–20.
van der Kolk, Bessel. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. NY: Penguin Books, 2015.

[1] Gerald W. Peterman and Andrew J. Schmutzer, Between Pain and Grace: A Biblical Theology of Suffering (Chicago: Moody, 2016), 212.
[2] More resources for pastors to educate themselves on trauma and its effects: Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, 2015; Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery: the aftermath of violence—from domestic abuse to political terror, 1992; Diane Langberg, Redeeming Power: Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church, 2020.
[3] Julian D. Ford and Christine A. Courtois, eds., Treating Complex Traumatic Stress Disorders in Adults: Scientific Foundations and Therapeutic Models, 2nd Ed. (NY: Guilford Press, 2020), 4.
[4] Terr, L. C. Childhood traumas: An outline and overview. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 148(1) (1991), 10–20.
[5] Ford and Courtois, Treating Complex Traumatic Stress, 5.
[6] Diane Langberg, Redeeming Power: Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2020), 48 (e-book).
[7] David Lisak, Lori Gardinier, Sarah C. Nicksa, and Ashley M. Cote. “False Allegations of Sexual Assault: An Analysis of Ten Years of Reported Cases.” Violence Against Women 16, no. 12 (December 2010): 1318–34.
[8] Langberg, Redeeming Power,53—57 (e-book).
[9] Ibid., 56.
[10] Ibid., 28-29.
[11] Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (NY: Penguin Books, 2015), 21.
[12] Janina Fisher, “The work of stabilization in trauma treatment.” Trauma Center Lecture Series (1999): 1-13.
[13] R. Sovik, “The Science of Breathing: The Yogic View,” Progress in Brain Research 122 (1999): 491-505.
[14] Allow the parishioner to choose whether or not they want to close their eyes.
[15] Dawson Church, Peta Stapleton, Kevin Kip, and Fred Gallo. “Corrigendum to: Is tapping on acupuncture points an active ingredient in emotional freedom techniques: A systematic review and meta-analysis of comparative studies.” The Journal of nervous and mental disease 208, no. 8 (2020): 632-635.

As with all our guest posts, views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of the CSBV.

Pastoral Counselling for Complex Trauma Survivors

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