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.
How can a leader respond if they find themselves the unjustified target of blame or criticism after a church crisis?
People in crisis are frightened. They're often frustrated. It's important to understand that. That's the context for accusations or attacks on leaders. Often this is just venting. Leaders need to understand what's happening and consider that it's actually a privilege (though not a fun one) to let people vent at you. Don't see it as a threat to yourself. In those moments you have a tremendous opportunity to walk with people through their loss.
Beyond this, leaders can do a lot to alleviate tensions by responding quickly and openly when a crisis does come up. If they can close gaps in communication and take appropriate charge of the situation, people will take comfort. People see that. It earns their respect.
How do churches grow through crisis?
Crises are often decisive moments in the life of a church. They aren't interruptions to our work. They are the work. This is what we ready ourselves for. During crisis you can speak in direct ways, straight to people's most basic needs. In such times you know that you are with people at a crossroads in their life. It is a privilege to be there as a pastor, and as the church community of someone walking through a hard time. Churches naturally grow in these kinds of circumstances.
What should a pastor not do in these times?
Well, they shouldn't try to do everything. If there's any complexity to it at all, don't put the burden of a hard situation all on one person's shoulders. Even in a smaller church, the burden can be spread around by delegating to trustworthy lay people or partnering with neighborhood ministers. But as I mentioned before, pastors cannot manipulate people like some kind of puppet master. Even with good intentions, we can often find ourselves trying to artificially move someone's thinking or emotions from one spot to another. But this is the opposite of presence.
Of course we work to move people from a place of weakness and grief to strength and faith. Of course we speak words of truth and faith into the situation. But you don't "handle" people. People don't want to be handled. They want to know that you're there with them, supporting and praying for them, helping ground their experience. They don't want you to try and move their process artificially. They want you present and engaged.
Tell us how grace and truth play out in times of crisis.
Grace comes out in a true, uncomplicated, compassionate response to loss. That in itself is the core of the ministry of presence. After all these years of ministry, I still doubt it a bit and find myself thinking, It's such a small thing to go and to be with somebody. What can I really do? But I hear over and over, "Your being there meant the world to me."
Grace means other things too, like practical support. It means that people in your congregation drop everything to bring meals, work out practical details, and so on. Showing grace this way—grace that brings dignity—is our most important work.
One way that truth plays out is in regard to information. In crisis, information gets very messy very quickly. People play fast and loose with facts and information, and it can have hurtful, confusing consequences. Leaders can help by sharing appropriate, factual information and working to quell rumors. Truth also has to do with leading people into the reality of the situation. We need to come to terms with the reality of a traumatic event.
When a really big crisis happens that affects a lot of people, even people that don't know the people directly involved, it is a lot like an earthquake. The ground has shifted under people's feet, and their normal assumptions about life have been violated. Cracks open up in unexpected places, places that you wouldn't have thought would be affected by this event. People may come forward asking for marriage counseling or with other issues simply because they feel so shaken up. It's difficult. It's challenging. But it's also an opportunity. A crisis is a decision point. And just like an earthquake allows for rebuilding stronger and higher after a disaster, crisis can be a powerful time.
How can leaders care for their own wellbeing?
Again, spread the task around. Delegate. It's important to make sure that communication is clear so that no people or important details slip through the cracks. It also helps leaders make sure that they're in a healthy place during the situation. Trauma and crisis can take a toll.
With this said, we also need to understand "secondary trauma." If somebody sits down with a rape victim and hears the full story of that kind of violation, a normal human being will experience an extension of the victim's trauma. It's vicarious loss.
With these things in mind, we need to watch out for each other. If a staff member recently did a difficult funeral, and then a week later they counsel a trauma victim, and then right after that they are working in a domestic violence situation, that person has been on the frontlines an awful lot in a short span of time. Somebody needs to step in and support that person, and maybe even relieve that person for a tough task or two. If staff or volunteers at your church aren't sufficient, this is a place to call on other churches in your area to help the work of the greater ministry. Ensure that you and your congregation are supported in these tough times.
Mel's previous Leadership article on crisis is available in our archives for more detailed information.
Copyright © 2013 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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