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Congregations are often places where we share the best, most joyful parts of our lives. Members develop relationships with an intergenerational network of friends and families. Because of these close connections, we will inevitably experience the gravitational pull of other people’s triumphs — as well as their tragedies.

School shootings, drug epidemics and heartbreaking accidents are just a few of the sad realities we may be called upon to address in our ministry. Christian leaders traffic in hope, but we must keep a few things in mind as we provide guidance to people who are trying to reconcile faith in a loving God with an experience of agony.

First, when tragedy strikes, don’t lead alone. Every pastor needs their own pastor, counselor, or spiritual director — maybe one of each. The more we learn about the effects of second-hand trauma, the more we understand that leaders need support when they are supporting others.

Second, find ways to stay grounded and centered, especially during the most intense period of the tragedy. While it is noble that pastors feel called to serve, even sacrifice, just remember that you will do much less for people in the long run if you do not find a way to stay spiritually grounded and centered. It is not selfish to step away to care for yourself. This is wise leadership.

Finally, handle the big questions with care and compassion. When tragedy strikes, people ask big questions. The main question you will hear is “why”: “Why did God allow this to happen?” Some leaders will struggle to provide answers. However, when the pain is most intense, most people need us to listen, not explain. Give people space to grieve and lament. When the time is right, you will have the opportunity to dive into the deep end of the theodicy pool. Until then, remember that you are called to rely on God to provide the peace that “surpasses all understanding.”

Resources

Reclaiming the power of lament

By Dominique D. Gilliard

The ministry of ‘Why?’

By Lisa Nichols Hickman


Before you go…

Leading a congregation, a person or a family through tragedy is holy work. Scripture provides a reservoir of spiritual wisdom to cultivate faith even under the most catastrophic circumstances. Fortunately, we don’t have to wait until there is bad news to offer God’s good news. We can teach and preach from Psalms, Lamentations and Job at any time. When we do the holy work God has called us to do, we can help cultivate deep spiritual roots to sustain our people as they confront the tragic facts of life.

Feel free to be in touch with me and the Alban Weekly team at alban@duke.edu. Keep leading!

Prince Rivers

Editor, Alban at Duke Divinity

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