Becoming a Rubber Ball Church: The Case for Prioritizing Resilience in Church Communities

In all my years in Christian community I have devoted exhaustive resources to achieving growth, productivity, engagement, profit, and even sanctity. It is only in the past few years, however, that I have become convinced of the importance of promoting resilience within ourselves and within our communities.

What you can learn from post-traumatic stress in a grocery store

I was standing in a grocery store aisle, trying to pick up another batch of gift cards for people whose homes had been flooded in yet another devastating hurricane season. I noticed it was raining outside again, triggering my hands trembling and making it impossibly hard to focus on a decision about whether the “Happy Birthday” gift cards were more or less inappropriate than the “Lucky You!” cards. I found myself mournfully pondering how many times we can be expected to face trauma before it is just too much to endure.

St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Beaumont, Texas, was afflicted in August 2017 by Hurricane Harvey along with other communities across the gulf coast. The church, its members, and our neighbors suffered damage from days of flooding, loss of power and safe drinking water, and cut-off from the outside world. In the midst of this trauma, I was humbled and overwhelmed by the compassionate response of St. Stephen’s members. They set up an emergency center in the parish hall, distributed diapers and canned goods and medical supplies, sheltered their neighbors in guest rooms and living rooms, and got to work demo-ing and rebuilding homes. I witnessed the embodied gospel before my eyes, Christian community in action.

In September 2019, however, St. Stephen’s and the surrounding neighbors were struck by Tropical Storm Imelda. Many were flooded again, many even worse than from Harvey, some for the second time in just two years. We went to work rebuilding, but the reserves were depleted and compassion fatigue weighed heavily. Episcopal Relief and Development warns congregations to watch out for burnout, anxiety and depression, increases in health problems, and strain on relationships, all of which we observed at St. Stephen’s in the aftermath. The thought of rebuilding again was daunting for all of us. Being repeatedly subjected to trauma felt like being squeezed again and again in a terrible grip and we were at a loss as to how to avoid it.

I walked the grocery store aisles with my gift cards, feeling pretty helpless in evading being so squeezed by trauma. As I walked past a whimsical display of dog toys my attention was caught by a simple rubber ball. “Our church needs to be like that rubber ball,” I thought. Our church community cannot avoid being squeezed: it just needs to respond by being resilient. That moment in the grocery store was when I realized we need to become a Rubber Ball Church.

Rubber balls vs. snow balls

I find it surprising how often congregations have the same emotional needs and suffer from the same emotional pitfalls as families or individual people. If you have studied the writings of Dr. Murray Bowen1 and Rabbi Edwin Friedman2, it is already easy to see similar family systems dynamics at play in a congregation being squeezed by trauma as well as the benefits of resilience.

When a person is being traumatized it causes a stress reaction. This trauma could be physical, mental, or emotional. Whether getting injured in a car accident, losing a home in flood, or having your child get married and leave the home (yes, even good things can be traumatic), it is perfectly normal to be stressed about being traumatized. Post-Traumatic Stress is when a person is having that same stress response triggered even when the trauma is no longer present: a sudden car horn, a rainstorm, or looking at an empty bedroom triggering the same stress as if being retraumatized. These triggers, just like the original traumas themselves, are often outside of our control, so it takes tremendous effort and is often futile to try to avoid being triggered.

Just like individuals, St. Stephen’s and other congregations can find themselves being triggered into stress responses. Between the events of Harvey and Imelda, in May 2018 an explosive device was detonated at St. Stephen’s as part of a short-lived series of bombings in Beaumont. No one was harmed in the explosion and the damage was mercifully minor, but the community was nonetheless shaken. While I never would have expected there to be much common ground between a hurricane and bombing, I was surprised to discover how emotionally connected they became. While performing pastoral care, parishioners routinely talked about how the bombing brought back the feelings of being targeted, vulnerable, and–perhaps hardest of all–alone. There is no reason on the surface for the people of St. Stephen’s to be re-living the trauma of Harvey because of the explosion, except that is how triggers work.

Individuals receiving professional treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress are often taught the benefits of resilience3. Think of resilience as being a rubber ball during a stressful time (one might even say a “stress ball” is a better example, but I was in the dog toy aisle). The rubber ball cannot avoid the squeeze and it cannot avoid the trauma, but when the squeeze lets up the rubber ball gently rebounds once again. I think of this as an alternative to being like a glass ball, which tries to be rigid and unyielding but when squeezed enough will crack and fall apart, or being like a snow ball, which becomes smaller and misshapen when squeezed.

As a colleague of mine was recently musing out loud, it seems like there will always be another time of trial ahead (c.f. “The Lord’s Prayer”). She wished there was something we could do to help the church we love to weather those trials. There is. We teach individuals the value of resilience in response to triggers they cannot avoid and we can teach our church communities this as well. I think back now at all my years in church leadership, both lay and ordained, and I realize that I was doing it wrong. I spent so much energy inside the ball, pushing out with all my might, trying vainly to keep from feeling the squeeze. We do not want snow ball churches that crack or crumble when we finally cannot keep pushing any longer. We want to build Rubber Ball Churches.

“Great, so you have all the answers figured out?”

Nope. I do not pretend to have figured out all the answers but rather encourage us all to start exploring the question together. My mission to help St. Stephen’s become a Rubber Ball Church has just begun. The truth is that, just as which tools help individuals grow more resilient varies from person to person, the steps each church community needs to take will vary. I can, however, share with you the steps St. Stephen’s is taking in this journey toward resilience. These ideas come from a collection of lessons learned from my own individual therapy for Post-Traumatic Stress, working on disaster recovery with Episcopal Relief and Development4 , and collaborating with Episcopal Health Foundation5 on building health in our communities. I commend them to you in the hopes that something is useful for your community.

The first step we took was building a shared language about resilience in our context. You do not have to use my silly “Rubber Ball Church” simile but you do need a shared language around what resilience is and why you are trying to achieve it. This is a new concept for many of us, especially when trying to apply it to a church community. Get the leaders of your church in the loop, invite members in for group discussions, and aim to have “resilient” be a church goal just as familiar to people as “hospitable,” “welcoming,” and “generous.”

Second, focus on building knowledge and agency in your community. In times of stress–be they from trauma or post-trauma triggers–giving people access to the information they need and equipping them to do something about it are great building blocks of resilience. Knowledge about trauma and stress, how they work, and your shared language of building resilience helps de-stigmatize mental and emotional health needs and, crucially, reminds us we are not alone. When someone is in midst of traumatic stress they often feel lost, alone, and that there is no end in sight. One of the most helpful pieces of knowledge is the reassurance that they are not alone and that this squeezing feeling will not last forever. We can likewise remind our church communities that the stress is temporary and we are resilient.

As for agency, provide the community with resources for counseling and emergency care contacts. Even if someone does not end up needing these services it is empowering to know you have these tools if you need them. St. Stephen’s is making liberal use of Mental Health First Aid6 training courses, where people are taught simple, empowering actions they can take during a crisis. Mental Health First Aid is a tool that achieves both goals of knowledge and agency for our community.

Third, we began measuring the programs and activities of our church community with the rubric “how is this a Rubber Ball Church ministry?” (or, more generically, “how does ministry help us be resilient?”). Just as we should be asking “how does this fit into the mission of the church?” and “how does this live into our Baptismal Covenant?” about any undertaking consuming the precious resources entrusted to our communities, we can also ask if the undertaking helps us be more or less resilient. Again, I think back on the times I led ministries that were rigid in times of crisis and how draining it was of our time, money, and energy to try to force these inflexible ministries to keep working. Alternatively, St. Stephen’s has a wonderful feeding ministry based simply on the idea that our community’s love language is food. Whether a parishioner with a sick child at home or neighbors displaced by a hurricane, St. Stephen’s readily turns to preparing hot meals with love. In times of disaster we have scaled it up to feed the many in need. In other times it goes into hibernation because all is well. It is empowering. It measures well on the mission of the church, our Baptismal Covenant, and it helps us be resilient. It’s a keeper.

Fourth, redundancy is resiliency. Want to avoid compassion fatigue and burnout? Want to avoid people feeling alone in a time of crisis? Another rubric by which we should measure our undertakings is how much redundancy is built into them. The goal at St. Stephen’s is that no ministry, project, or program exists without at least one assistant leader. When new leaders enter a role their first job is to find who back-up or replacements will be. Equipping and empowering our successors does not just give us peace of mind in times of trial but also makes us more resilient. Consider also redundancy in neighboring church communities: who will step in to help bear the load during times of stress? St. Stephen’s has developed relationships with “sister parishes,” specifically charged with helping us all be more resilient when trauma strikes any of us.

Notice how all these steps dovetail with one another. Making sure our ministries are resilient helps our people be resilient, shared language helps us achieve knowledge, building in redundancy also increases agency, and so on. These are admittedly broad brush concepts, but perhaps give us each first steps as we delve into finding the specific tools for our particular communities.

Lastly, you know what Jesus would say about it

Many of us have learned much and I expect we will learn a great deal more from experiences of church communities facing stress from trauma. No one needs to wait for trauma, however, before building a resilient church community. We can all do this work now and perhaps already be ready to rebound before the next squeeze even comes. Let us not forget that Jesus’s ministry was never about trying to successfully dodge the squeeze. Jesus was traumatized as much as any of us yet was the embodiment of resilience. He gathered his disciples. He did not give them a trick to avoid the trauma, instead actually promising that it was coming their way. Jesus knew that the stress would not be too much for the church, for they were going to build a church which would always rebound from it: the Rubber Ball Church.

1Gilbert, R. M. (2013). The eight concepts of Bowen theory: A new way of thinking about the individual and the group. Lake Frederick, VA: Leading Systems Press.

2Friedman, E. H. (1985). Generation to generation: Family process in church and synagogue. New York: Guildford Press. 8

3Connor, K.M. & Davidson, J.R. (2003, September). Development of a new resilience scale: The Connor-Davidson Resilience Scale (CD-RISC). Depression & Anxiety, 18 (2):76-82. 2003;18(2):76–82.

4Episcopal Relief and Development has been leading the way in the important work of building resilience in communities:

5Episcopal Health Foundation. (2020, October 6). In Common 2020 – Collective Resilience: Practices for mental health and well-being [Video].

6The Mental Health First Aid program by Mental Health First Aid USA was brought to The Diocese of Texas as a training program for congregations and communities by The Episcopal Health Foundation:

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