Scripture Is Triggering

[This post will make some readers unhappy.]

A Big Issue in my denomination over the past several weeks has been the decision to use this question on the Senior Biblical Exegesis Ordination Exam:

“In your role as the Associate Pastor for Christian Formation, you are leading a Bible study for your congregation’s UKirk college-age ministry exploring unsettling passages in the scriptures. The final story you will be studying is ‘the Levite’s Concubine’ (Judges 19:1-30).”

Judges 19:1-30 is one of Phyllis Trible’s Texts of Terror. It’s one of those passages that Margaret Atwood was thinking about when she wrote The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985. Violence against women is both an ancient and current sin. As Atwood has said many times in explaining how she came up with the ideas for her famous dystopian novel, everything that happens to women in The Handmaid’s Tale has happened or is now happening in human history. Some of it happened in the Bible.

Seminarians are outraged about this ordination exam question. College Chaplains are outraged. Congregational Pastors are outraged.

At the risk of offending most of my friends, I am not outraged. Yes, this question is absolutely triggering for anyone who has experienced violence – particularly sexual violence. It was a poor choice of scripture. And also: Scripture is triggering. Life is triggering.

To all Pastors, Chaplains, Counselors, and Seminarians: we will be triggered in our ministry. And we will trigger others in our ministry.

This means we need therapy before we go out there and deal with people whose tragedies might resemble our own. We need to be prepared when we inadvertently trigger someone else.

I can’t say it enough: every pastor or soon-to-be-pastor must have therapy so that when we are expected to sit with those whose trauma resembles our own, we don’t . . .

  • Make it about ourselves.
  • Find ourselves re-traumatized.
  • Say something harmful.

I remember preaching about the healing of Jairus’ daughter when I looked into the congregation and saw the parents of a four year old who had died on Mothers’ Day that year. It was the first time they had felt strong enough to return to worship and I was preaching about a little daughter who had been healed to people whose little daughter had not been healed.

Dear God.

It’s going to happen. Someone who’s been sexually assaulted will turn to those of us who have also been sexually assaulted. The lectionary is going to land on Matthew 5:21-27 and there will be worshippers present who will have experienced violence, adultery, or divorce. Someone with fertility issues will be triggered when we preach about Hannah. We must be prepared for this.

I agree with those who say, “Of all the passages to use for an exegesis sermon – why not pick John 3:16-17? Why would you pick one that’s not included in the lectionary and will probably not be chosen for a sermon or Bible study in most ministry contexts?” Again, it was not a good choice for an exegesis exam.

And yet: we need to be prepared to talk about/ask questions about/exegete what’s in the entirety of the Bible. Are some passages more essential than others? Absolutely.

Still, we must prepare ourselves for real life. If it was too triggering for a seminarian to answer that particular question, then it would have been okay not to answer it with an explanation why. That response would have helped the writers of ordination exams in the future. It doesn’t help, though, to accuse the exam writers of many of the things they’ve being accused of.

Scripture is triggering. In some instances, we need to be triggered. And life is certainly triggering. And part of spiritual maturity involves learning how to move forward in our own grief and terror so we can sit with others in their’s.

Image is from an actual YouTube video telling the story of Judges 19 and, frankly, it’s creepy. Trigger warning.

23 responses to “Scripture Is Triggering

  1. Yes to almost all of this. And as for “violence in the Bible,” feel free to mention the passion narratives. IN the lectionary. Preached on EVERY year. And I get that people feel like “that’s different.” But why? Our whole theology is triggering for some people.

    But on the other hand … not to say serious questions don’t need to be raised about the ords, and how they are presented, their format, how we lead people to think and feel about them, etc. etc. [WOULD a candidate have thought they could recuse themselves? Really? I’ve had a lot of therapy, but I’m not sure I’ve had that much.]

    Then on the other other hand, the conversation around this also raises some hard questions, maybe yet again, about the way we Presbyterians think about and relate to the Bible. You say “because it’s in the Bible.” I’d share that answer. But I’m pretty sure that would not be everyone’s answer.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. In all the conversations I have been a part of or witnesses, I had not seen the quote you provide that says why not pick John 3:16. Where are you pulling the quote from and why aren’t you referencing them? Because fabricating quotes is a rhetorical fallacy, and as a pastor you should know better.


  3. Well said, Jan.


  4. I might be missing something here. I see that a potentially troubling passage would be assigned as a topic for Bible study. What is the question actually put to the candidates for ordination?


  5. Thank you, Jan.


  6. I agree heartily. Yes, we will be triggered in ministry and we have the responsibility to heal our own demons enough to do good ministry. We will be confronted wiht difficult passages and situations again and again in ministry.


  7. Oh dear. While I do agree that therapy is a really good idea for all seminary students (and not just those who have been traumatized, because straight white male privilege especially toward female colleagues is still such a huge thing, let alone white privilege and health/ disability privilege, cis privilege, economic privilege, etc, I still don’t think that equates to the ordination exams (which are not used in the UCC or ELCA, I might add). More and more I wonder, why not just ask the candidate to submit a copy of their final paper for an NT methods or OT methods class to the CPM? Surely we can come up with a reasonable rubric across PCUSA seminaries, that students could share with their professors at ecumenical partner seminaries? I would also add that CPE is probably also a more constructive place in which to engage our own traumas (and privileged assumptions) while both learning hands-on pastoral care with a wide variety of people, and also under the close supervision of an experienced chaplain as well as a group.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Jan, thank you for your wisdom!


  9. I appreciate this perspective, Jan. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Therapy is essential for healthy ministry and healthy ministers. One thing that still troubles me is that many of the triggering texts disproportionately impact women, including the Judges 19 text. Reports from our denomination show continuing evidence of gender disparities, including both salary and Board of Pensions participation. The Judges 19 text seems to me another tick in the gender disparity column. Thanks, as always, for your thoughtful insight.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Rev. Dexter Kearny

    Respectfully, I disagree. I love this blog and have had many great interactions with you so hopefully my comments are seen not as pure diatribe but real and honest conversation. Yes there are many triggers in life. But to make that trigger an obstacle to ordination is a violation of all of our vows made as PCUSA ministers. I am not being a friend or colleague if I say that abused people have to go through an exam that forces them to relive that trauma. Every person agrees that people need to learn how to deal with this passage, the problem is when it is set up as the thing you will be graded on for ordination without any relational context at all.

    Liked by 3 people

  11. Thank you.

    Julie MacLemore Wells (member of the Presbyteries’ Cooperative Committee – polity, though, not exegesis…)


  12. Thank you, Jan. I agree. I once led a Lectio Divina session on the passage including the raising of Jairus’s daughter with a group that included a couple who lost their 12-year-old daughter. I realized it at the last minute, but decided not to skip to the finale of the bookended story. It turned out to be an amazing opportunity for every participant to dig into the losses they lived with every day, consciously or not.


    • Jennie Sankey

      In this instance, this family was in community with people they trusted, and with their pastor to sit with them and listen. Exam takers did not have this privilege. So many of the examples I have seen of people making comparisons are happening in community, including the committee that discerned this text selection. It is not the same, and it was not a wonderful experience for those who encountered this exam. I hope the pastors who don’t see an issue with this exam can listen to those who are hurting.


  13. This has been and will continue to be aa fraught conversation. I appreciate your thoughtful insights and contributions.


  14. My daughter is a licensed therapist and specializes in a therapy for people who have experienced trauma – rape, incest, PTSD, to name a few. Several pastors in our community, recognize their limitations in counseling someone with this terrible experience and refer to her. Perhaps it would be better to instruct future clergy to acknowledge when they are in over their head and seek professionals to refer to.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Sharon K Core

    I affirm there are hard and violent passages in scripture. I don’t disagree with that or the notion that people need to work through that which triggers them. Yes to all that. What makes me angry about this particular use of scripture is that there was no “heads up” given. After enough comments, a trigger warning was provided to the readers. Given the importance we place on ordination exams (which is a whole other conversation in that I’d be glad to see them go), to spring this passage on people without any warning is unconscionable. A member of the PCC said there are people on the committee who are victims of sexual abuse and violence and everyone on the committee agreed with the choosing of this passage. Yes, well, and they had time to come to terms with it. That was not offered to those who had to sit for the exam. In this instance, we are not our best here.


  16. Jennifer Irene Ring

    I should not have to prove my ability to exegete a text of terror to prove my ability to be clergy in the PC (USA). There is no doubt that there are hard texts etc. however, to ignore the heavy burden this text might bring as a gatekeeper as ordination is just another barrier that the denomination puts in front of people they deem not fit. As someone who has their mental health evaluation used as a weapon against them, I’m glad I did not take this exam.


  17. In ministry, the stories of sexual abuse and assault sneak up on you way too often- though that’s no fault of the storytellers. They come up in a bible study, a hospital visit, on retreat, in premarital conversations, while trying to trap a raccoon in the sanctuary attic, in a tearful conversation after worship, while cooking dinner for the homeless. Pretty much anywhere church life happens come these snippets of self-revelation. You don’t get the chance to gird yourself and so sometimes, it IS traumatizing holding what happened to these beloved parishioners. Yes, I have had to grapple with my own history as a survivor of assault and recognize that when my parishioner shares something that requires so much trust and care, I can’t make it about myself. Therapy helps, plus whatever else I can do to care for my inner life and scream against the outer world that allows such violence to occur. I know that if I am going to choose someone as my pastor, they need to be able to stay present and write with care about this ugly, awful thing that happened in the Bible, if I am going to trust them with my stories.


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