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Counseling Those Impacted by Trauma

Truth in Love 244

Quite simply, traumatic events are happening more frequently in the context of our culture.

Feb 3, 2020

Dale Johnson: This week on the podcast I’m delighted to have with us Dr. John Babler. Dr. Babler serves as Professor of Biblical Counseling at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. He’s also the Missions Pastor at Birchman Baptist Church. He’s married to Mary Lee and they have 11 children and now 12 grandchildren as well. I love Dr. Babler and the time I was able to spend with him as a colleague down at Southwestern Seminary. He was actually one of my PhD professors, so I had a chance to spend a lot of time with him. He has a lot of years of experience in dealing with issues of trauma through several of his ministry opportunities, and I’m looking forward to the discussion that we’re going to have today. We have an opportunity to glean from him on some of the issues that he’s dealt with that have been very, very traumatic. So Dr. Babler, I’m so grateful that you’re here with us. I’m looking forward to our conversation today.

John Babler: Thank you, Dale. It’s good to be here.

Dale Johnson: So as we think about this issue of trauma, sometimes we wonder in crisis mode and trauma issues. It’s too late if we wait, as ministers, until the crisis happens to prepare to do something about it. So why is it important for us to prepare to minister to those who are impacted by trauma?

John Babler: One of the reasons it’s important to prepare is because of the fact that, quite simply, traumatic events are happening more frequently in the context of our culture. The number of active shooter events has gone up dramatically in the last 17 years. The opportunities for people to minister in those contexts are great. In addition to that, the suicide rate continues to increase.  I’ve been working in the emergency services for many years. It’s skyrocketing among police officers and firefighters and in the military as well. Many people are impacted by those types of traumas, but there are even more common events, for example a DWI crash, that may impact many more of our church members than an active shooter event. Preparing to minister to people in the midst of those traumas or in the aftermath of those traumas is very important.

Dale Johnson: It’s interesting that we do notice that trauma is happening all around us. You’ve had the opportunity to be involved in several high-profile cases. Do you mind telling our listeners a little bit about some of those cases. There was a shooting at a church nearby in Fort Worth and some others that you’ve been a part of as well. I think that context would be helpful.

John Babler: I responded as a fire chaplain to the shooting at Wedgwood Baptist Church in 1999, and out of that was asked by the counselor at that church to develop a model of crisis counseling, which I’ve developed and put in book form as well. In addition to Wedgwood Baptist Church, I responded to the Virginia Tech shooting. I’ve responded most recently to the shooting at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas, and have had the opportunity to minister in those contexts as well as a number of other crises, natural disasters, tornadoes, hurricanes, those types of things, and been heavily involved in responding in counseling in those contexts as well.

Dale Johnson: One of the things that I love about Dr. Babler is that his ministry has demonstrated that the church certainly is the institution at which we do soul care and we promote biblical counseling, but what we see is that the truth of God’s Word applies even outside of a formal context of ministry in things such as fire chaplaincy and being involved in police chaplaincy as well. The truths of God’s Word, especially in trauma, apply anywhere we go and everywhere we go, and Dr. Babler’s ministry has demonstrated that. Dr. Babler, as we think about how we counsel those who are impacted by trauma, there are different ways and there are different styles to utilize as we counsel. Can you discuss some of those?

John Babler: One of the most important things that I try to communicate with people as we think about counseling in and around trauma events is to not be intimidated. How would we respond? How would you respond to someone who just had their husband or wife killed in the line of duty? How would you respond to that family, that we dealt with not too long ago in a suburb of Fort Worth, that was headed to church and turning in to the church driveway when they were rear-ended. The wife was killed and one of the children was killed, the husband and the other child survived. I had the opportunity not just to be involved in that, but to counsel the man who was driving the pickup that ran into them. What would you do? How would you counsel in the midst of those situations?

My encouragement to biblical counselors is that you would counsel the same way you would counsel anyone else. The tools, the sufficiency of Scripture, the Scripture you use, the prayer, hopefully the support of the church body that you use in day-to-day counseling would be the same counseling that you provide for somebody that’s dealing with trauma. One of my concerns is that sometimes we’re intimidated or fearful of entering into the lives of people impacted by trauma, so we may hesitate or we may not get involved. The encouragement from me is to be involved and to recognize that even as God provides in the midst of counseling somebody who’s dealing with anxiety, fear, discouragement, or depression, God will provide. His Word is just as effective for those in trauma.

After that Wedgwood shooting, as we developed the model, one of the things that we decided was that, if we were going to develop a biblical model, we needed to look and see what the Bible said about crisis. And so, four of us, one of my colleagues and two of our doctoral students, divided the Bible into four different parts.  We read through with an eye to what it said about crisis and each one of us were surprised at how much crisis there was in the Bible. Maybe we shouldn’t have been, but all four of us were. The Bible, from Genesis through Revelation, contains myriad examples of crisis. The Bible is not unfamiliar with crisis and we need to be encouraged and reminded of that as we think about preparing for counseling those that are in crisis and dealing with trauma.

One of the other things that is important to keep in mind is, even though the ministry and the counseling is the same, it’s still different as well. It often is much more long-term. Often there’s much more listening. We talk frequently about the fact that in counseling we often listen during that first session before we provide much teaching and counsel, and I would argue in the midst of trauma we may listen a whole lot more than just in that first session. For somebody in trauma, everything changes quickly. It’s very fluid. What’s true today may not be true tomorrow. What’s the most significant issue today may not even be an issue tomorrow. Listening and responding to someone as we minister to them is important.

In addition to listening, just having compassion is vital. Having compassion for what they’re thinking about and what they’re dealing with becomes a vital part of that preparation as well. And you might think, “Well of course I would have compassion for somebody who’s dealing with crisis.” But think this through from a perspective of Jesus’ example in Matthew 9:36, that he saw the multitudes and he had compassion on them. Why?  Because they were distressed and downcast, like sheep without a shepherd. And to think through, this person is not only in trauma and crisis but they are like sheep without shepherds.

For me having grown up in Dallas, that was just a biblical phrase. But as I’ve learned about sheep, I’ve realized that sheep without shepherds are in trouble. They don’t do well.  And so, we have compassion for that person as we reach out to them and realize that sometimes they may say things that are inappropriate or that are offensive, and sometimes we as biblical counselors need to address those things, but not always right when they say it. Maybe we need to come back and deal with that statement or that question about God a little later rather than in that very time where they mention it.

Dale Johnson: You know, I hear all the time when people are talking about doing biblical counseling that there’s a certain fear that they’re going to say the wrong thing or that they’re going to say something that makes the situation worse. I remember early in ministry, a senior minister told me, “I would much rather do funerals than weddings.” As a young man, I’m thinking, “Well those are the hard situations. I don’t know if I want to do funerals.”  He reminded me, when people are broken and when things happen that remind us of our mortality, people are more open to hear about the Gospel of Jesus. Talk for a second about how, in trauma and crisis, we might have a tendency to fear entering into a situation like that, but crisis may be a situation where people are much more open.

John Babler: That’s a great observation. People in crisis are open to spiritual things. They’re already dealing with life and death. A lot of times when we’re dealing with people who are just going through life as normal, there may be challenges, but eternity and life and death aren’t central. It’s not a prominent thought. But people, especially those that have dealt with trauma, they’re thinking about life and death. That’s prominent to them. And so, there’s opportunity to come alongside them and develop a relationship.

And that’s another thing I’ll point out about ministering to those in crisis and impacted by trauma. Relationships often develop very quickly, and people that I’ve known for less than a day I’ll sometimes have a deeper relationship with than people I’ve known in the context of a church for months maybe. One of the reasons is because, in the midst of that thinking about life and death, I believe that they’re trying to answer a basic question. Can I trust this person? And if they answer the question, “Yes, I can trust him,” then we’re going to deal with this, because we’re dealing with life and death. And so, I think that’s a great observation that people in crisis are open to spiritual things. And we as the church, and specifically biblical counselors within the church, we need to be prepared and observant, looking for those opportunities and taking advantage of them.

Dale Johnson: So when we think about counseling in trauma, or traumatic situations, or what we call crisis, we do have a separate category. We describe these things as being an intense, drastic alteration of a situation, or intense pressure of some sort. What are some of the unique aspects of counseling when we’re working with those who have been impacted by trauma?

John Babler: Well, I think one of the things is that a lot of times we have some ability to relate to those that we’re counseling even though we may not be struggling with the same issue. If we’re dealing with somebody who’s struggling with adultery and we’ve not struggled or dealt with adultery, but we’ve struggled with sexual temptation, we can have some level of identification and understanding with that person. Frequently, when we’re dealing with somebody who’s impacted by trauma or crisis, there’s no basis for which we have an ability to connect to that.

My oldest son is a firefighter in Dallas, and he talked about the fact that for several of his people on his engine that he ran with on a particular CPR call, a pediatric CPR call, to them it looked like, “Well we had a child, a baby, and we did CPR on him and then we took him to the hospital and the child passed away.” He said, “But my experience was different. My experience was that mom came out to the curb and placed that dead baby in my hands, and I did those chest compressions, and I had a different experience.” They’re firefighters. They’ve had a similar experience, but it’s still a different experience. Frequently, we’re going to encounter people that have experienced something that we really have no way of relating to. And in the midst of that we need to be encouraged by the fact that it hasn’t taken God by surprise. And again as we consider the Word, it’s certainly not out of keeping with what God’s Word speaks about and speaks to. So that would be one thing that we need to keep in mind as we prepare.

Another thing is that listening, as I mentioned already, becomes very important and we need to prioritize that. One of the ways that I think we can do that is to become more proficient in asking questions, because I’ve found a lot of times when you’re ministering to somebody in trauma, a well-placed question can often bring about some conviction or can bring about some thinking. So I don’t have to say, “Thus saith the Lord, here’s what God’s Word says,” but sometimes I can ask a question and they’ll say, “Oh, you know, you’re right. That’s really not the way I ought to be thinking.”

One of the questions I like to ask to people in trauma and crisis is, “So where do you think God is in this?” And a lot of times in the midst of the answer to that question people will give us a lot of information about their current state, but their belief in God as well. In my context of working with police officers right now and having worked with a lot of firefighters as well, by and large, they don’t share a whole lot. One of the ways that they survive in those fields is to pretty much cope and deal with things internally, and that’s not a bad thing. I think that it doesn’t have to be a bad thing. I think God gives them the ability to cope in the midst of that.

But sometimes those questions will allow them to think, “Oh, there’s been a series of things that have bothered me.” Maybe those infant CPR’s, like my son described, there’s been a series of things and that all comes together. We need to recognize that there can often be a cumulative effect, especially for those as First Responders, or maybe in the military. There can be a cumulative effect of crisis and trauma as well. So those are some of the unique aspects of counseling those that are dealing with trauma and crisis.

Dale Johnson: Those are certainly so helpful to us as we think about engaging in very difficult situations. I know it is a fearful moment when you think you have to step in, and in a very broken situation, to know what to say. That helps to slow the process down, to give us encouragement from the Word that we have answers that can breathe life into a very desperate situation. Dr. Babler, thank you so much for the conversation. I think this will be helpful for all of us as we work through it.

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