Where Were You When It Happened?

Helping when mass tragedy strikes your congregation
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For the past century, and arguably longer, generations have self-identified with their own answer to this question. Where were you when Kennedy was assassinated? Where were you when news broke that Dr. Martin Luther King was shot, when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, when the World Trade Center collapsed? Sadly, recent events have set up our younger generations with even more options for an answer. Whether a movie theater, high school, college campus, or elementary school classroom, mass shootings now join a tragedy landscape that includes missing airplanes, commuter rail crashes, and natural disasters like tsunamis, mudslides, and tornadoes.

We all hope and pray that our communities will be safe, but what if a mass tragedy does strike? Is your congregation prepared to navigate widespread grief or wipe tears during multiple funerals? And do you have a plan if that tragedy garners national attention and media interest?

The reality is that (thankfully) most of us will not have to navigate the intense challenges of a mass tragedy. But we would be naive to operate without at least a loose plan in place for if it happens. Mass tragedies blindside us and force previously unnoticed communities into our national vernacular. Think Columbine High School, a once little-known place that is a household name. I serve on staff at a church that has been touched by more than one mass tragedy. There is no perfect set of rules to navigate these issues—they are unexpected, they bring feelings of grief so deep we wonder if the cavern of loss has an end. They feel inexplicable and they happen in a blink. The following is not an exhaustive list of how to manage, but rather a set of starter notes for leaders on how to honor God and the families who suffer most when mass tragedy strikes.

Family First

As a ministry leader your primary responsibility is to protect the most acutely affected families. They are dealing with all the natural emotions that come with sudden loss and yet, in a mass tragedy situation, they are often grieving on a national stage. This can mean sheltering them from well-intended yet overwhelming offers to help. When a mass tragedy gains national attention letters, financial gifts, offers for food, prayers, and vigils can all but swallow a family who likely needs quiet space to process the immediate details of their situation. Ruthlessly protecting them from unwanted media attention is also essential. Your job is to help them have as “normal” a process of grief as they can (if there is such a thing). Your best energy should be spent on their funerals and pastoral needs rather than on press or public engagements. Depending on the scale of the tragedy this can seem a near-impossible task, but give the families your best efforts, your best attention, your best time and resources first.

April30, 2015 at 8:00 AM

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