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Where Were You When It Happened?

Helping when mass tragedy strikes your congregation

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.

Assign a Point Person

Assign a media contact. Direct all offers to help, offers to send resources, donations, and media requests to one capable source who can then farm out the necessary pieces. Understandably, reporters and film crews are vying for sound bytes on how the affected families are coping, so when one or more of the families attends your church, they will be calling you (and anyone else from your congregation who is willing to speak).

Protect the impacted families by urging your staff and congregation not to speak with the press. Instead direct them to a contact person who understands how to handle media requests. This will prevent the spread of misinformation as well as protect the privacy of the grieving families. Also, direct well-intentioned offers for help through a single source that can convene proper care so that grieving families do not end up with 100 plates of brownies and 1000 people praying on their front lawn when all they want is a moment alone.

Phone Calls & People in the Pews

In the wake of 9-11 churches were filled. Tragedy brings people to the pews. The front desk of our church reported that more phone calls came in that day than any other day in the history of our church. Your own parishioners will want to know how they can help or pray. Others in the community who may not have a church home will suddenly have deep faith questions for you or your staff. They will want to know when funeral arrangements will be known or, they may ask if they can speak with a pastor about their own response to the tragedy. Have people on hand to support their hard and meaningful questions. Consider a team of volunteers who might sit in your lobby just to listen or answer phones.

Coordinate Prayer

We know that prayer is one of the most healing and beautiful responses to any tragedy. Be prepared to lead times of prayer for the families impacted as well as for the wider community itself. Do not attempt to answer the hard question “Why did this happen?” Instead, gather people and point them to the grace and mercy of a loving God who, even in the darkest of times, extends his healing and hope to our world. This is not the time to answer every theological question that gets kicked up. It is a time to draw people together. Invite other community leaders (even those of different faiths or non-faith) to join your gathering(s). Help your community know that prayer is a safe way to bring this tragedy before God. Pray for the affected families but respect the fact that they may not want to personally join a prayer event.

Avoid Self-Promotion

Do not, for any reason, EVER use tragedy as an opportunity to promote your church/ministry. This is not the time to promote your sermon series or VBS. Do provide the opportunity for resourcing, processing, asking questions. When appropriate, let people know that your church/ministry is a safe place to receive prayer or begin to process these tragic events. Share your wisdom on additional resources like professional counseling or in the case of a natural disaster, food, shelter, and other tangible resources. Be ready to direct inquirers to places and programs that can support their needs.

This is a small start to a long list of options for dealing with mass tragedy. Every event and family is different, but regardless of the horror we may have to face, God promises never to leave us or forsake us. Our privilege as Christians in the face of tragedy is to gently, warmly, and appropriately live out that truth. We worship a God who does not leave us to face loss alone. We worship a God who calls us to act as protectors, as friends to families in need, as good neighbors, and as shepherds when all seems to go astray. We can never fully prepare ourselves for a mass tragedy, but with thoughtful planning we can prepare our staff and congregations should the dreaded ravage our community. Let us be always ready to protect, pray, grieve, and support our communities and point to the God who mourns with those who mourn.

Tracey Bianchi is pastor for women and worship at Christ Church of Oak Brook in Oak Brook, Illinois.

April30, 2015 at 8:00 AM

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