Leading Psychologist Bridges Trauma Healing and the Black Church


JACQUELINE J. HOLNESS|MAY 18, 2022


Thema Bryant’s calling to psychology started when she picked up her family’s home telephone as a pastor’s kid growing up in Baltimore.


Her father, Bishop John R. Bryant, led Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church—one of the biggest congregations in the city and the oldest in Maryland.


“People would often call our home in moments of crisis,” said Bryant. “When people are in a moment of crisis, it often doesn’t matter who answers the phone, they kind of get started with whatever the issue is, and I was always drawn to bearing witness and to being willing to hear and listen and to encourage from very early on.”


Bryant went from being a curious and compassionate pastor’s daughter to a clinical psychologist specializing in trauma. Last year, she was named president-elect of the American Psychological Association (APA) and will begin her term in 2023.


Although she will be the fourth Black woman to hold the position, Bryant believes her background sets her apart and offers critical insight into the mental health needs brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly among the Black community. A recent profile of Bryant in TheWashington Post was titled “Meet the psychologist drawing from the Black church to reshape mental health care.”


Bryant grew up in a faithful family; her mother was also a minister, and her older brother became a pastor. As an ordained elder in the AME church, she is unapologetic about grafting her approach to psychology in her faith.


“I believe there are many different callings,” said Bryant, a psychology professor at Pepperdine University and director of the school’s Culture and Trauma Research Laboratory. “I think when people hear the word ‘calling,’ they think solely preaching, but there many different ways that God can utilize us. I feel that God has called me to emotional healing, so I entered the field of psychology.”


The church has looked to mental health professionals to help respond to the onslaught of burnout, anxiety, and grief in recent years. Back in February, Bryant spoke at a conference held by Wesleyan Holiness Connection and Point Loma Nazarene University. The theme: “Pastoral Ministry in Times of Trauma.”


The concerns are even more acute in many Black communities, where even before the pandemic, pastors and ministry leaders functioned as de facto first responders, problem solvers, advocates, and therapists.


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