Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Theology

Early Trauma as a Predictor of Burnout and Social Network Structure in Mission Workers

Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Theology

Early Trauma as a Predictor of Burnout and Social Network Structure in Mission Workers

Article excerpt

Research has established that adverse experiences in childhood are far-reaching. Attachment persists into adulthood, impacted by internal structures that make sense of relational experience. Dunbar (1993) has estimated that humans maintain approximately 150 personal relationships, structured in concentric rings of decreasing intimacy within the active social network. However, no literature exists examining the relationship among adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), adult attachment dynamics, and social networks. Relational mission workers (N=84) completed a self-report questionnaire. Hierarchical multiple regressions revealed that, after controlling for Extraversion, ACEs and Global Anxiety attachment were significant predictors of the size of the innermost social network ring, and ACEs predicted the change in ratio between the innermost social network ring and the social network as a whole. Interpersonal, internal factors, such as attachment style, and experiential, external factors, such as ACEs, can impact the structure and size of an individual's social network.


Some individuals choose to enter vocations where, more than usual, relationships are key to the fulfillment of job-related tasks. Christian mission workers are among those with this type of vocation, having chosen to work in faith-based settings where routine responsibilities include the formation and maintenance of relationships. Given the importance of relationships in many ministry contexts, psychosocial factors that disrupt a healthy quality and quantity of relationships in relational-style ministers may be especially detrimental to life and job satisfaction and effectiveness. Here we focus on childhood trauma, attachment styles, and social network structures.

Research conducted with clergy and other Christian professionals has focused on depression, anxiety, compassion satisfaction or fatigue, and burnout (Pickett, Barrett, Eriksson, & Kabiri, 2017; Figley, 1995; Stamm, 2010; Jacobson, Rothschild, Mirza, & Shapiro, 2013; Randall, 2004). Many relational ministers have also been exposed to stressors such as trauma or challenging relationships that could impact their relational work and personal lives (Shaefer et al., 2007). Childhood trauma and attachment style may impact the size and structure of their social network and may contribute to an experience of burnout in these ministry settings.

Childhood Adversity

Many ministry workers have experienced childhood trauma (Burton & Topham, 1997; Walling, Eriksson, Putman, & Foy, 2010); however, to our knowledge, no prior study has examined the long-term impact of childhood adversity in relational ministry or mission workers. Other research has indicated that early adversity has a long-term deleterious impact on emotional regulation, neurochemical stress reactivity, and processing social cues (van der Kolk, Roth, Pelcovitz, Sunday, & Spinazzola, 2005. The frequency and types of childhood experiences of trauma and other adverse events (e.g. parental incarceration and divorce) have been demonstrated to affect adult physical and mental health, including morbidity (Felitti et al., 1998). Those with four or more adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) have been identified as significantly more at risk for depression, suicide, panic attacks, and serious health problems (Felitti et al., 1998). Survivors of early life maltreatment or trauma often continue, throughout their lifespan, to experience challenges related to emotional regulation in daily relational interactions due to limited development of foundational affect regulation skills that maintain social relationships (Ford, 2005; Newman, Harris, & Allen, 2011; Repetti, Taylor, & Seeman, 2002). Given the frequency of ACEs experienced by those in helping professions, particularly clergy (Burton & Topham, 1997; Walling et al., 2010), it is alarming that we do not know the impact of these ACEs on missionaries' social networks and mental health. …

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