Becoming Trauma-Responsive Leaders

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. It is exciting to note increasing conversations around the subject of mental health in growing circles, including our faith communities. 

It pushes us to become trauma-responsive shepherds offering Christ’s healing love, compassion, hope and healing. We can get involved in tangible ways by downloading and posting posters and other resources to help destigmatize mental health challenges, which will support and encourage the hurting in our circles of influence.1

Most of our nation reflects ongoing increases in reported mental health issues and mental health medication use. On a positive note, more people are reaching out for help dealing with stress, anxiety or depression post-pandemic. Recent stats show that 24% of Americans are now taking mental health medications — that is one out of four people.2 For many, receiving support from medications will help them experience improved emotional stability to do the emotional work necessary to progress their healing journeys.

These statistics should not be stigmatized or taken lightly. Pastors and their members, teachers and their students alike are experiencing mental health challenges. Experiencing mental health challenges or taking mental health meds do not mean the affected individuals don't love or trust God. It simply means they are dealing with trauma and its effects.

Mental health is pivotal to healthy relationships with God, self and others.

Relationships are important. All of life is about relationships, beginning with the Holy Trinity who reign, love and serve in relationships. In fact, twice, Jesus spoke paradigm shifting reframes when He postulated the golden rule of His kingdom. He declared clearly that when we relate to others in the way we would like others to relate to us, “this is the law and the prophets” (Matt. 7:12). Again, in chapter 22, Jesus clarified that the kingdom priority on which the law and the prophets depended was displayed in relationships — specifically, on how we relate in love towards Him, others and ourselves (Matt. 22:34–40).

The commandments written by the finger of God are about — you guessed it — relationships. The first four deal with our relationship with God and the last six with our relationships with others.

We were created to connect with God and others in healthy and loving relationships. However, it is no secret that post-fall, not all relationships are healthy; in fact, some are clearly destructive. 

Trauma and the resulting mental health consequences can play a vital role in how people do relationships.

According to SAMHSA’s Trauma and Justice Strategic Initiative, “Trauma results from an event, series of events or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and physical, social, emotional or spiritual well-being.”3

Many individuals have experienced trauma during their lifetimes. Trauma can occur individually, in families and in communities, as we most commonly see in communities of color that have often experienced generational racial trauma. Childhood abuse, neglect and other Adverse Childhood Experiences4 significantly affect how people will engage and function in their family, at work, at church and in all of their relationships.

The way trauma is experienced and processed by individuals varies widely.  Factors such as the degree of emotional resilience and the presence of supportive people and systems can encourage and empower individuals and change the trajectory of people’s lives. 

While many individuals who have been exposed to trauma may demonstrate few or no lingering symptoms, those who have experienced repeated, chronic, generational or multiple traumas are more likely to exhibit pronounced symptoms and consequences, including substance use and abuse, mental illness and health problems. All of these factors create challenges in their personal and professional lives and relationships. 

We can become trauma-informed and trauma-responsive pastors and leaders by learning what the signs and symptoms of trauma in children, youth and adults. Learning how to minister to hurting people and understanding how untreated trauma affects every aspect of their lives and relationships is a good place to begin. Attending trauma-informed seminars, reading books and listening to podcasts on the subject of trauma will also help enlighten our understanding of emotional trauma and mental health issues and treatments available.

As Adventist leaders, we can and must model a practical and compassionate roadmap for the hurting and marginalized in our homes, churches and communities. Authentically and compassionately “normalizing” the mental health challenges common to the trauma journey is a great beginning. This may include being transparent about our own mental health and relationship struggles.

For me, this has included sharing my diagnosis of attention-deficit disorder, how being raised in an unhealthy Adventist ministry home ridden with mental health challenges and chronic conflict thwarted the healthy development of my brain, and how this reality has affected my life and relationships. Being vulnerable and transparent about our own imperfect journeys will pave a path for the hurting to come out from hiding to seek the help and healing that will help them break generational cycles of trauma.

If we are to be relevant spiritual leaders amid our nation’s mental health crisis, Jesus’ ministry mission must be ours: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed; to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:18–19).

All trauma and its fracturing and debilitating life and relational consequences are the works of the devil.

All healing actions and their reconstructing life and relational results are the works of Jesus!

Let us not forget for one second of our busy ministry lives, that Jesus left His heavenly throne with a key purpose in mind: “The reason the Son of God was made manifest was to undo the works the devil [has done]" (1 John 3:8).

Let’s get to work.




Carolann De León

North Pacific Union Hispanic, family ministries and ministerial associate director