In the aftermath of Elmbrook Church's recent tragedy, Leadership Journal's editors sat down with Mel Lawrenz, one of Elmbrook's ministers-at-large. We discussed what church leaders should—and shouldn't—do when a traumatic event takes place in their congregation or community.
Leadership: How can church leaders prepare for crisis?
The church exists for times of crisis as much as it does for the easier parts of life. So it's critical for staff and key leaders to be ready for crises before they happen. Leaders can prepare for it by preparing their people. This looks like teaching biblically, talking realistically about the easy and difficult things of life, making sure that there's a culture of support in your church, and encouraging spiritual growth. If your staff and congregation are prepared, then when the crisis hits they are ready to deal with it. If you're able to respond well, these times can be an extraordinary time for ministry.
What are some mistakes you've seen leaders make in responding to a crisis?
Not dealing truthfully with the situation is a main one. Often, well intentioned people want to spin the truth in order to make people feel better. If leaders think too much about How are we going to handle this? they can begin to "manhandle" the situation. It becomes artificial. We start to feel as though it's our job to manipulate feelings or to push aside people's experiences in search of resolution.
The challenge is to deal truthfully with the situation. This includes being truthful and careful about information. In crisis we can't allow ourselves to speculate about things that we don't have information on. It's important for leaders to communicate the facts and come up with a plan of unified communication regarding the tragedy for the church to follow. This helps ensure that the truth isn't spun or twisted in the chaos following a traumatic event.
In a previous Leadership Journal article, you made a distinction between grief and trauma. How are these different? How can church leaders respond appropriately to each?
Well, grief is our natural response to irreversible loss. In these situations grief is a normal, though difficult, part of life. The pastor's role is to help people to work through their grief, to really do the grieving. In Scripture there's a very specific role for mourning. Ecclesiastes 7 says, "It's better to go into the house of mourning than into the house of laughter … a sad face is good for the heart." That doesn't mean we want to mourn, but when a genuine loss has happened, the appropriate thing is to mourn, to "live" in that house for a while.
Trauma is when a loss happens that breaks the normal rules and assumptions of life. Your grandma dying in a nursing home typically brings grief. When somebody's sister is shot in a random drive-by downtown, that is traumatic. They started that day assuming that they'd talk to that person in the evening, and then all of a sudden they are gone. Natural catastrophes, murder, rape, suicide are all examples of traumatic losses. Responding to trauma as a pastor means that you have to walk with people both through the grieving process, but also through their response to the violation of their persons, or assumptions about life.
In both situations, the most important thing is to be present. To really be with people. To let them know that they are not alone. Pastors need to be prepared for the whole range of human shock and grief once they are there, but showing up is the first step.