How can we create non-shaming churches for those who have been traumatised?

For those who have been significantly traumatised it is important that churches are non-shaming environments. Memories of traumatic events can leave any of us feeling deep shame for not being able to avoid or protect oneself from what happened. However, creating church cultures which do not reinforce shame often has a long way to go.

My research with tenants from the housing charity Hope into Action suggests that too often judgemental comments from congregation members at Sunday services put people off coming back. Many churches have found that events other than Sunday services such as drop-in cafes and craft groups are less risky places for vulnerable people to put their toe in the water of church. One of the tenants I interviewed in my research was proud of the items he was making in a church craft group. The money he gave to charity from selling his products, the satisfaction of creating something and the social interaction around the craft table all contributed to his recovery from toxic shame.  

Trevor Withers (Withers, 2022) is a church leader who also runs a pottery project. Trevor’s pottery sessions aim to help people connect with their innate creativity as a means of affirming a positive sense of self. As people are encouraged to ‘have a go’ in the context of the encouraging, non-shaming environment that Trevor creates, they stand taller because of appropriate pride in what they have created.

As a church leader of an independent church, Trevor has attempted to create a low-shame culture in his congregation. He says a leader needs to be a facilitator primarily – a coach, creating an environment where all can contribute and where all who have something to teach can be enabled to do so. It is so important to dispense with the performance aspect of leading meetings, he advises. He says he as a leader is constantly looking for potential in others, asking himself, ‘what does this person get excited about?’. He asks anyone in his congregation with a story of faith in the midst of challenges to give a public testimony so others can see that they are not alone in their struggles. He sees it as important for some of these stories to include issues where things are not resolved so the message coming across is true to real life.  

Rather than directing his congregation from on high, he is constantly finding folk to a share the pulpit who have something to teach the rest of the group. He says he may need to help them a bit with their presentation, and needs to be prepared to be a backup in case the potential speaker can’t face it on the day, but he is utterly committed to the importance of doing this. He says artistic folk may need help organising thoughts or wish to speak through drawings, and some people will communicate more clearly if they are  interviewed. It seems to me that he is following Paul’s words about valuing every part of the body very well. (1Cor 12) 

He is constantly encouraging a culture of experimentation and encouragement rather than the fear of getting things wrong. He admits it requires an ability to tolerate a certain level of chaos, and it is important to create a sense of safety for the congregation despite the unexpected happening in meetings. Giving good explanation at the beginning helps, as does giving clear expectations for their behaviour and time for reflection afterwards. ‘Playful rather than serious is good’, he says. It reminds me of the advice from a church leader I interviewed who runs a service for people on benefits: ‘It is important to encourage heckling. It keeps the leaders humble.’ 

Churches which are significantly hierarchical or which place their leaders on pedestals, apparently immune to the challenges facing ordinary congregation members, are more likely to be shaming for their congregations​ (Goodliff, 2005).​ Jesus warned us about this in Matthew 23:8-10. Overvaluing the position of leaders discourages questioning and being real about life’s difficulties and challenges to faith.

It is important for people who have experienced more than their share of hardship that the faith they see modelled in church takes suffering into account. Too often what comes across is a faith that assumes a nice middle-class affluent life for all. Preaching a very black-and-white approach to faith which doesn’t acknowledge that the life of faith leaves us with uncertainty and questions is also unhelpful, it seems to me. As Richard Rohr says, ‘The opposite of faith is not doubt. It is certitude.’ 

Openness, transparency, listening well and not judging are all key. Support workers from Hope into Action told me that once they had truly listened to the stories the tenants told about how they became homeless they became much less judgemental. Often they were moved to respect for what has been endured. If churches are to be emotionally safe for such people there needs to be a culture which encourages listening to those who have been traumatised by life.

Those who listen need to allow themselves to ask legitimate questions of their faith in the light of what they have heard, and need to give this permission to others also. If true listening takes place, some theological positions and certainties will inevitably be challenged, and this is good – it shows an openness to spiritual growth. However it means having leaders who are prepared to be honest about their own struggles, even with shame. The prayers of the Northumbria Community are very helpful in getting in touch with such questions. Here is one of their meditations:

Once you've heard a child cry out to heaven for help,
and go unanswered, 
nothing's ever the same again.
Even God changes.

But there is a healing hand at work
that cannot be deflected from its purpose.
I just can't make sense of it, other than to cry.
Those tears are part of what it is to be a monk.

Out there, in the world, it can be very cold. 
It seems to be about luck, good and bad,
and the distribution is absurd.

We have to be candles, 
burning between hope and despair,
faith and doubt,
life and death,
all the opposites.
                                                               William Brodrick

Maintaining a willingness to be vulnerable when appropriate is difficult when leaders already frequently face continual criticism for all sorts of little things. Where leadership teams exist, they can help, but they can also be tempted to become secretive as a way of protecting themselves from criticism. Shame thrives in secrecy. If shame is to be countered, it is so important that teams are prepared to be transparent rather than keeping their business secret from those affected by it. My own experience of many churches suggests that sadly, secretive leaders, bullying and shaming of congregations are not uncommon. These are features of many of the churches where abuse by leaders have recently been uncovered. (Christianity Today, 2021) I recognise, however, how very difficult it is for individual leaders to swim against the tide when the hierarchy and history of their denomination encourage shame in anyone who deviates from standard practice.

We have a long way to go, but this is so important if our churches are truly to be places of welcome and healing for those struggling with the shaming effects of trauma. Jesus would be right there in the middle of them: we need to be too.


Brodrick, W. (2003) The Sixth Lamentation London: Little, Brown Book Group

Christianity Today. (2021, May 27). The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. Retrieved from Christianity Today: 

Goodliff, P. (2005). With unveiled face: a pastoral and theological exploration of shame. London: Darton, Longman and Todd

Northumbria Community

Rohr, Richard

Withers, T. (2022). Shame and the gospel: transforming our view of the good news and our Christian communities. Welwyn Garden City: Malcolm Down Publishing