Hurricanes Katrina and Rita have demonstrated in ways almost too large to comprehend the importance of excellent disaster preparedness, training, and response. The role of clergy and caring teams in congregations is hard to fully outline in advance of a traumatic event, but some basic steps are:
1. Have a plan. We live in a time of universal vulnerability, and every congregation would benefit from having a plan for facing a disaster. Some components might include:
- Getting training for clergy response, offered by Church World Service and other local response efforts
- Establishing relationships with the network of disaster workers in your community
- Maintaining a master list of phone numbers of response teams
- Training a congregation response team (sometimes your lay leaders, sometimes a caring group such as Stephen Ministers) with appropriate outreach techniques and strategies
- Utilizing resources, such as the Church World Service Web site (www.churchworldservice.org), for ideas on preparedness. In an eerie echo of reality, the Church World Service website has an article on “Spiritual Care: Bringing God’s Peace to Disaster” that states that “rural people are less likely to seek institutional help than urban or suburban people. People of color and the poor are less likely to receive institutional help than others, even when they have incurred more damage.” If we are to learn from Katrina, advance networks and relationship building will be essential.
- Familiarizing yourself and your team with strategies for coping and for identifying needs
- Preparing to minister beyond your own congregation’s needs. Having brochures with coping strategies printed in all the languages of your neighborhood is one example of ministering beyond your own walls.
2. Show up and stabilize. The ministry of supportive and compassionate presence is never more important than in a disaster.
- Showing up is the earliest and most basic form of crisis intervention.
- The biggest mistake that spiritual caregivers and mental health workers do in a disaster, according to one disaster trainer, is to skip over stabilization.
- Providing concrete items of water and food and moving people to safety so that things don’t get worse comes before theologizing.
3. Know that at first, everyone looks bad. In the first few days of a disaster, everyone looks traumatized. Distress is not dysfunction. Disaster response includes:
- Acknowledging common reactions to a disaster (anger, depression, not coping, crying, silence)
- Offering some coping strategies (helping others is a key to coping)
- Being aware of children’s particular developmental coping issues
Using maximum eye contact, be concrete in your communication-the more concrete the suggestion of resource, the more likely the person will use it
- Warning people away from alcohol use, which can magnify depression
4. Use your pulpit and Web site. Worship is an important stabilizer for people in a disaster.
- Pulpits are also important for dispelling rumors and providing coping strategies.
- Use your Web site even if all of your people do not have power. In the recent hurricanes, I checked my Louisiana relatives’ church Web site daily for news and information about their area and was able to telephone that information to them.
- Preach hope. The Church World Service Web site tells us the three major enemies of hope are silence (the repression that says “don’t complain”), fulfillment (“we can manage”) and technique (“we can solve everything”).
5. Watch for signs of prolonged stress. If, after 4-6 weeks, coping capacity is not returning, consider what other help is needed. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder occurs in at least 15% of persons in a disaster and help will be needed in resolving that stress. Some things to know:
- The suicide “zenith” following a disaster is 12-18 months out.
- Disaster workers are often acutely impacted since they are used to taking control.
- Follow up when people tell you they are depressed or sad with “what do you mean?”
- After the immediate disaster, ask people to tell you what happened for them, and what the worst part of that was.
Care for the caregivers. Monitor you own physical and spiritual reserves, as well as those of your congregation.
- Line up support from colleagues outside the impacted area.
- Identify when you need a mini-vacation and take it.
- Practice Sabbath.
- Pay attention to the early signs of stress and burnout.
It has been said that “chance favors the prepared mind.” Readiness in both the clergy and the congregation can help us move with God’s love in the midst of difficult times.
Congregational Trauma: Caring, Coping, and Learning by Jill M. Hudson
All congregations experience stress. Dealing with an out-of-the-ordinary event or tragedy–a fire, a sexual misconduct scandal, or the untimely death of a pastor, for instance–requires a specific set of congregational coping skills. Congregational Trauma addresses those needed skills by providing assessment tools for measuring healing and by discussing care strategies, how to adapt worship, how the judicatory can help, how to handle the media, and how tragedy can give rise to learning.
When God Speaks through Change: Preaching in Times of Congregational Transition by Craig A. Satterlee
Homiletics professor and parish pastor Craig Satterlee reflects in this accessible, provocative volume on how to integrate significant events in a congregation’s life into the preaching ministry of the church. Rather than offering a blueprint for preaching, he gently guides pastors, seminarians, and other congregational leaders who want to make sure the gospel, not an agenda, is preached.