This week in our series, “Getting to know the RTS Orlando Faculty,” we have the opportunity to hear from the most recent addition to our faculty, Elizabeth Pennock, Assistant Professor of Counseling. We asked Elizabeth about her ministry as a counselor, her research on trauma, and how these relate to each other.
(For an introduction to the series as a whole, see here.)
1. Tell us a little about yourself.
I’m a North Carolina Tar Heel, born and bred (as they say), and I’m grateful to have been raised both in a home where I was introduced to Jesus and in churches that nurtured my love for God and his Word. While in college at Furman University, I grew more interested in cross-cultural missions and moved to Bosnia-Herzegovina to work with a church-planting ministry just a few months after graduating from college. After seven years in Eastern Europe, I relocated to another foreign place – Florida – to study counseling at RTS Orlando. After that I spent many years working full-time in the area of missionary care and counseling. After an arduous (almost finished) journey towards completing my PhD in Counselor Education at the University of Central Florida, I was delighted to return to RTS Orlando as a member of the faculty in January 2019.
2. You’re completing your PhD thesis on the attitudes and beliefs of Christian clergy towards trauma. What led you to this topic?
During my studies, I came across a paradigm called “trauma-informed care” which looks at how organizations and institutions can become more sensitive to meeting the needs of individuals and communities who have experienced great harm. This paradigm has been applied to areas such as education, health care, and juvenile justice; so I began to wonder what it would look like to have trauma-informed churches. The church of Jesus Christ is meant to be a place where the brokenhearted can come to experience the healing love of Christ, however – at times – churches have instead been places of great harm to those who have already experienced trauma (whether because of blatant sin or simple ignorance). As a first step towards equipping churches to become trauma-informed, my dissertation examines what factors influence how pastors from various denominations view and understand trauma, with the end goal of being able to support the work of seminaries and denominations in equipping pastors and churches to be a place of refuge and healing for trauma survivors.
3. How has practicing as a counselor influenced your Christian life?
As a counselor who specializes in trauma, I have had to develop a robust theology of suffering, as well as a deepening assurance that trauma is not the end of the story. Author and Christian Psychologist Diane Langberg writes about the danger of beginning “to see God through the lens of sin and sorrow, rather than viewing sin and sorrow through the lens of [God’s] character.” I have had to be conscious of letting what I know to be true about the character of God inform my understanding of trauma, rather than the other way around. With each story of harm that I hear, my longing to see the redemption and restoration of God’s creation grows. I am so grateful that our suffering does not get the final word and comforted by the reality that we have a Redeemer who can sympathize with our weaknesses and suffering.
4. How has your work in missionary care overseas influenced your teaching, both inside and outside the classroom?
One reason I enjoy teaching in a seminary setting is having the opportunity to teach students who will one day be pastors, missionaries, and counselors. The pressures that they will face as they enter those roles will be enormous and my experience in missionary care has taught me that people in full-time ministry are still just people – people who struggle with sin, people who have experienced great harm, people who deal with mental illness. Yet they are also created in the image of God and able to reflect His glory in their lives and work. So I think I hold that tension in mind – that tension between the already and the not yet – as I help train future church and ministry leaders.
5. What projects, other than your thesis, are you currently working on?
My dissertation is currently demanding most of my focus, but I also maintain a small private counseling practice where I continue to see clients from the community and to provide clinical supervision to recent graduates who are pursuing licensure as mental health counselors. In the future, I hope to continue to engage in research in the areas of trauma-informed care, counselor education and supervision, and the integration of spirituality and counseling.