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Lessons from the front lines as a pastor and emergency manager
profile photo of Jonathan Trapp

Jonathan Trapp, who is graduating as a doctor of ministry, has spent two decades working in emergency management and as a pastor. That bivocational experience allowed him to better serve his community during the COVID-19 pandemic.

— Becky Stein

Jonathan Trapp personifies a term that is increasingly common in faith circles: “bivocational.” But for Trapp — who serves as both associate pastor of faith formation at Atlanta’s Lutheran Church of the Redeemer and special advisor for emergency management at a federal public health agency — his dual calling runs far deeper than just a buzzword. 

Trapp is graduating as part of Candler School of Theology’s doctor of ministry (DMin) cohort. The three-year program offers those who already work in ministry settings the opportunity to strengthen the connection between theology and ministry practice. Its 90% online format means students can continue serving in their ministry contexts as they earn their degrees. Plus, they integrate that work into their final project for the degree.

Trapp’s parallel careers have unfolded across two decades. “I felt called to ministry in high school, but seminary and the discernment process never worked out,” he says.

Instead, he earned a bachelor of arts in political science from Berry College followed by a master of public administration from University of Georgia. After an internship, Trapp “fell into” emergency management in the wake of 9/11. He ultimately earned his master of divinity from Luther Seminary and has served four Atlanta-area churches, including Redeemer.

“It’s been really great because I’ve found that there’s a lot of overlap between being a pastor and doing emergency management,” Trapp says. “This is often most notable during crisis events.”

And such events have been prevalent during the past three years as Trapp pursued his DMin, thanks to the largest global health crisis of the past century.

Alleviating pandemic stress

“We were involved in the COVID-19 response since before the virus had a name,” Trapp says of his federal agency role. He heads the team responsible for the safety, security, health and medical support, and resilience support for all internal emergency-response staff.

Meanwhile, “in a ministry context, I ended up being on three different task forces looking at how the church should react and respond to the pandemic at a variety of levels,” he observes.

The shifts in churches caused by the pandemic first spurred Trapp to apply to Candler, thinking that would be his research focus. As a former Emory University Hospital chaplain, he knew the school’s caliber and reputation. “Plus, the way the program was designed fit my needs perfectly,” he says. 

With links to two of the vocations most impacted by pandemic-triggered burnout — health care and church ministry — Trapp ultimately focused his DMin final project on the implementation of the caregiver support intervention known as “Code Lavender” at his federal agency.

Originally developed in 2008 by the Cleveland Clinic, Code Lavender deploys a rapid-response team to support caregivers after they have been through an emotionally or spiritually traumatic situation through their work. Responses to a Code Lavender can vary depending on the circumstances; in this case, Trapp and his team offered virtual counseling because so many people were working either remotely or in the field.

Through his research and real-life implementation, Trapp says his team found a correlation between using Code Lavender to address acute stress and a decrease in reported stress among employees. “This suggests broadly that there is a role for spiritual and holistic health to play in supporting staff and addressing the stress they experience — particularly related to those involved in emergency response,” he notes.

In deploying Code Lavender, Trapp and his colleagues ensured that support was accessible and applicable to those of all faith traditions and those with none. Regardless of the person’s background, he found his own spiritual journey foundational to the process.

“It bridges both of my worlds because I have personal theological grounding for how the work is done. My pastoral experience and education were important to me in supporting staff who requested Code Lavender support.”

“Watching Jonathan’s DMin project develop over the past three years has reminded me how profound the work that students do in this program can be in the world,” says Jennifer Ayres, associate professor of religious education and director of the DMin program.

“In both of his roles, Jonathan embodies the very best kind of interdisciplinary, multivocational and even cross-institutional religious and spiritual leadership needed to navigate the complex challenges we face.”

Drawing from the well of community

For Trapp, the community forged by his fellow DMin students has been essential — even if they primarily connected online. “It’s been an amazing journey with a truly beautiful group of people who are working to create real change,” he says. “It’s a blessing to have gotten to know them and hear about their contexts and experiences that are driving them to create new things.”

And he voices what all of us have learned many times over since 2020: “Community on Zoom is still community. We learned about everyone’s personal lives, their pets, their interests. Just because we aren’t in the same room, or even the same state, doesn’t mean we can’t connect and create lasting relationships.”

Going forward in both vocational spaces, Trapp says he hopes his Candler experience will help him better identify and address the needs of his congregation and his public health colleagues.

“I’d like to keep working with the agency to more fully integrate spiritual health into the work that we do internally — with Code Lavender ideally being a first step, not an end.”

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