Power to Overcome

New Research on Fostering Resilience in Urban Ministry

Cynthia Eriksson | Aug 5, 2013

Photo by Luigi Caterino.

Recently released from jail and suffering from mental illness, 19 year-old Lawrence is struggling to recreate his life.[[This story, as well as the others in this article, is adapted from the conversations we had with urban ministry workers as part of our study. Any names used here have also been adapted to protect the privacy of those who actually lived theses stories.]] As a teenager Lawrence was abused and disowned by his family, and now he feels like he has been disowned by much of society.

Astonishingly, in the midst of all of this chaos Lawrence is developing responsibility, growing in his own sense of self-worth, and becoming part of a community. How does a young person like Lawrence move from a seemingly hopeless situation into a new hopeful reality? The answer can be found in something researchers and psychologists call “resilience.”[[This article is adapted from research completed for a dissertation project completed by Rachel L. Langford at Fuller Theological Seminary, under the supervision of Cynthia B. Eriksson, PhD. The original project was titled, Understanding processes of family resiliency from the perspective of urban ministry workers.]]

The Resilience Factor

Resilience has been defined as positive adaptation in the face of challenging or adverse circumstances. [[Crawford, E., Wright, M. O., & Masten, A. S. (2006). Resilience and spirituality in youth. In E. C. E. Roehlkepartain, P. E. King, L. Wagener, & P. L. Benson (Eds.), The handbook of spiritual development in childhood and adolescence (pp. 355-370). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc. doi:10.4135/9781412976657; Masten, A. S. (2001). Ordinary magic: Resilience processes in development. American Psychologist, 56, 227-238. doi:10.1037//0003-066X.56.3.227; Masten, A. S., & Coatsworth, J. D. (1998). The development of competence in favorable and unfavorable environments: Lessons learned from research on successful children. American Psychologist, 53, 205-220. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.53.2.205; Walsh, F. (2003). Crisis, trauma, and challenge: A relational resilience approach for healing, transformation, and growth. Smith College Studies in Social Work, 71, 49-71. doi:10.1080/00377310309517704]] In other words, for a person to be considered resilient they must have encountered a trauma or crisis, survived it, and adapted in ways that show positive growth. In an urban ministry setting, this might look like a stronger sense of faith or a deeper sense of community support and connection.

Resilience is a useful concept for urban youth ministry because of the unique challenges of the inner city environment. For example, community members tend to experience more than one traumatic experience, continually facing challenges to overcome.[[Garbarino, J. (1993). Children’s response to community violence: What do we know? Infant Mental Health Journal, 14, 103-115. doi:10.1002/10970355(199322)14:2< 103; Streek-Fischer, A., & van der Kolk, B. A. (2000). Down will come baby, cradle and all: Diagnostic and therapeutic implications of chronic trauma on child development. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 34, 903-918. doi:10.1080/ 000486700265; Wadsworth, M. E., & Santiago, C. D. (2008). Risk and resiliency processes in ethnically diverse families in poverty. Journal of Family Psychology, 22, 399-410. doi:10. 1037/0893-3200.22.3.399]] Stories of young people who overcome these circumstances often seem miraculous, and perhaps sometimes they are. However, research on resilience has also identified multiple factors that help these recovery stories occur – factors that can help urban ministries be more effective in helping teenagers and their communities not just survive but thrive.

What Makes a Difference?

The more you know and understand how resilience develops, the more you can actively help the young people (and adults) you work with overcome the adversities they face.

One of the essential factors for developing resilience is the presence of safe and supportive “attachment relationships.”[[Attachment theory most often uses the parent-child relationship to describe these concepts; thus, the parent-child relationship will be used in this article to describe concepts, which will then be applied to urban ministry relationships. Most concepts of attachment theory in this article are taken from Wallin, D. J. (2007). Attachment in Psychotherapy. New York, NY: Guilford Press. For other helpful resources, see: Cassidy, J. (1994). Emotion regulation: Influences of attachment relationships. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 59, 228-283. doi: 10.2307/1166148; and Labile, D. (2010). Does it matter if preschool children and their mothers discuss positive vs. negative events during reminiscing? Links with mother-reported attachment, family emotional climate, and socioemotional development. Social Development, 20, 394-411. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9507.2010.00584.x. Also see Streek-Fischer & van der Kolk (2000).]] When a person knows that he or she is deeply cared for and has a dependable source of support, that person is more likely to be resilient. These kinds of relationships can exist both within the family and within the community.

People who have a larger network of social support[[Hammack, P. L., Richards, M. H., Luo, Z., Edlynn, E. S., & Roy, K. (2004). Social support factors as moderators of community violence exposure among inner-city African American young adolescents. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 33, 450-462. doi:10.1207/s15374424jccp3303_3; Taylor, R. D. (2010). Risk and resilience in low-income African-American families: Moderating effects of kinship social support. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 16, 344-351. doi:10.1037/a0018675]] and the ability to make meaning of the trauma or difficulty faced[[Brown, L. S. (2008). Trauma and systems of meaning making. In L. S. Brown, Cultural competence in trauma therapy: Beyond the flashback (pp. 227-242). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. doi:10.1037/11752-000]] are also more likely to be resilient. Churches and other faith communities can be incubators for these factors,[[Crawford et al. (2006)]] making urban ministries great resources for resilience.

What Does This Mean for Urban Youth Workers?

Our Fuller research team talked with three groups of urban ministry workers in the Los Angeles area and listened to their experiences with faith and trauma in their communities, including how they see community members overcome and grow through difficult circumstances.[[This research was conducted as part of the Urban Trauma and Spiritual Development Project, conducted by The Headington Program Center for Research in Trauma, Coping, and Community Resilience, advised by Cynthia B. Eriksson, PhD, and funded by the Fuller Youth Institute. For a more detailed description of this study see Langford, R. (2012). Understanding processes of family resiliency from the perspective of urban ministry workers. Pasadena, CA: Fuller Theological Seminary.]] The stories we heard emphasized the importance of supportive relationships that encouraged personal and spiritual growth. Using insights from attachment theory, we identified four characteristics of these supportive relationships that encourage resilience: Compassion, Consistency, Collaboration, and Correction.

Fostering Compassion, Consistency, Collaboration, and Correction

Remember Lawrence, the young man suffering from mental illness and stigmatized by a felony? What made such a difference in his life? The simple (yet simultaneously somewhat complex) answer is found in the relationships he developed with ministry leaders in his neighborhood. These relationships provided what one youth worker described as a “surrogate family” that taught him about responsibility and to believe in his own worth and dignity as a human being. This began with the family sharing their meals with him and grew into teaching him “life skills,” providing tasks for him to “earn his keep” and learn about responsibility, and treating him like a family member by holding him to the same rules (for example, waiting for others to eat before having seconds). By becoming part of a surrogate family that modeled these four key characteristics, this young man developed the capacity for resilience.

1. Compassion

Perhaps the most important feature of a safe and supportive relationship is compassion. Receiving and experiencing compassion from another, particularly a parent or caregiver, teaches us that we are valuable enough to be cared for.[[Wallin (2007)]] This helps develop positive self-esteem and models caring action.

When we talked with urban youth workers about resilience, they pointed more to the importance and presence of compassionate relationships than any other factor. They told stories of community members giving and receiving support from one another, such as one woman who “saw the community of people not giving up.” The leader shared with us, “[The woman] definitely feels like the community has helped her.” They also described how being able to “identify with” teenagers’ experiences becomes part of showing compassion; when youth feel understood, they become more comfortable and willing to seek support and compassion from ministry leaders. Sometimes this meant the leader had experienced something similar to the young person, but other times it only required that the leader listen with an open and understanding ear.

2. Consistency

Attachment theory also teaches that the consistency and availability of a caregiver is essential for the development of confidence and security in children.[[Wallin (2007)]] If the child knows and trusts that her parent will be available for help, she feels more freedom to explore and engage in new experiences; she can take on new challenges because she knows she is cared for and will be helped when needed.

The urban youth workers we interviewed emphasized the importance of consistency in their ministry relationships. They talked about the importance of being invested and committed to mentoring relationships, of “being involved in their lives” and “walking beside them and just living the day-in and day-out, and being there.” One youth worker described the value of a “long-term commitment” by saying,

They know you are going to be there next week, or a month down the road …not that God couldn’t call us someplace else, but it seems that he’s called us to these communities…and so they know you’re going to be there when life falls apart.

Commitment to these relationships and to the wellbeing of community members helps them know where to go when crisis occurs, which is an important part of consistency. Youth workers create a sense of safety in their relationships even to the extent that their homes become “places of peace or safety…where (people) know they can come for prayer.” In other words, the young people and community members know to whom and where they can go for support because the leaders have been consistent and have built a sense of trust and safety.

3. Collaboration

Collaborative communication helps develop resilience by shaping a young person’s ability to think for himself and develop effective problem-solving capabilities.[[Wallin (2007); Walsh (2003)]] Collaborative communication is both encouraging and challenging – affirming the individual’s thoughts or suggestions while also providing new perspectives.

For example, by asking young people to think about what the Bible says when making decisions, youth workers can engage in a collaborative dialogue that corrects when needed but also empowers teenagers to grow. One area in which this really emerged in our study was meaning making, or the process of making sense of a difficult experience. The leaders described how they helped young people walk through this process both by providing helpful scripture verses as well as by encouraging them to apply their own knowledge of God and scripture to their situation.

Collaborative problem solving promotes resilience by fighting against feelings of helplessness. The most prominent way this was described by the leaders we talked with was the way communities worked together to solve problems. For example, one worker described how families in her community found creative ways to share resources and meet everyone’s needs, such as sharing meals together. She described how a neighborhood that seemed to have very little resources suddenly had enough whenever someone was in need (similar to a “loaves and fish” experience). Research tells us that organizations like urban ministries can help communities become resilient by teaching them to work together in problem-solving, then encouraging the community to rely on its own resources.[[13 Norris, F. H., Stevens, S. P., Pfefferbaum, E. B., Wyche, K. F., & Pfefferbaum, E. R. L. (2008). Community resilience as a metaphor, theory, set of capacities, and strategy for disaster readiness. American Journal of Community Psychology, 41, 127-150. doi:10.1007/s10464-007-9156-6]] This means including indigenous community members in leadership, so that the community has a clear voice in the way the organization acts.

4. Correction

Finally, providing appropriate correction or discipline is an important part of safe and supportive relationships, and actually incorporates the three concepts described so far. Correction for inappropriate or unhealthy behavior helps establish boundaries, reinforcing a sense of safety and care in the relationship.[[Wallin (2007)]] Further, clear and consistent communication of rules or expectations helps young people know how they can succeed, which develops their sense of confidence.[[Gorman-Smith, D., Henry, D. B., & Tolan, P. H. (2004). Exposure to community violence and violence perpetration: The protective effects of family functioning. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 33, 439-449. doi:10.1207/ s15374424jccp3303_2; Walsh, F. (2007). Traumatic loss and major disasters: Strengthening family and community resilience. Family Process, 46, 207-227. doi:10.1111/j.1545-5300.2007.00205.x]]

In the ministry setting correction is often thought of as accountability. We heard multiple examples from ministry leaders of ways church and community members provided accountability to one another, which was described as a form of relational support. One leader spoke of a woman in her community who was confronted by other women on an issue: “Having that support system…has really helped her in her spiritual growth.”

Youth workers also talked about the importance of accountability in mentoring relationships. One described her struggle to provide consistent correction, feeling like she was being “mean,” then realizing how it helped kids learn and appreciate spiritual values. Another worker emphasized the importance of giving accountability without being judgmental. She told us about a woman in her community who has grown “because we have not judged her. Sometimes we have kind of challenged her, and she’s said, ‘I needed to hear that.’ And ‘thank you for saying that. Nobody else has cared enough.’”

How Can Your Ministry Support Resilience?

The first step in strengthening your effectiveness in building resilience is to take some time to evaluate yourself and your ministry. Here are a few questions to consider on your own and with your ministry team:

1. Think about a time you saw someone grow through a difficult experience.

  • What helped them?
  • How did you show that you cared? That you were available?
  • How did you provide helpful and appropriate correction?
  • How collaborative was the experience?

2. Think about a time you saw someone struggle and move away from God or your ministry through a difficult time.

  • What do you think went wrong, and how could it have been prevented?
  • What else could you have done (if anything) to show you cared and were available?
  • Where was correction needed?
  • Where would collaboration have been helpful?

3. How do you and your team need to grow in offering compassionate presence in your community?

4. How consistent are you and your team in communicating expectations and boundaries to students in your ministry?

5. How can you empower your community to participate more in their own growth and achieve their own success?

Our hope is that these questions give you a good starting point, but the most important perspective to remember is that resilience is largely about relationship. So as you think about these concepts, continue listening to your community members and their unique needs and resources. Then you will become co-laborers, working together as a community of God’s people with the power to overcome trauma and struggle.

Cynthia Eriksson

Cynthia is one of three faculty in the Headington Program in International Trauma at Fuller Seminary and an Assistant Professor of Psychology. The Headington Program conducts innovative research in order to better understand the variables affecting acute, chronic, and post-traumatic stress, and creatively applies this knowledge to the development of better methods of identification and treatment of individuals, families, and communities that have been affected by chronic stress and trauma. Cynthia has participated in trauma research and training in Liberia, Guatemala, The Netherlands, and Japan.


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