When Tragedy Hits the News: 7 Ideas for Congregational Leaders

(For more, see my book, Leading Congregations through Crisis (Chalice Press, 2012)

A gunman slaughters innocents at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Boston-Marathon-BombingConnecticut. Bombs rip through the crowd at the Boston Marathon. A chemical plant explosion destroys homes and lives in West, Texas.

Every day seems to bring news of a devastating disruption in some community’s life. Sometimes that community is ours; but, even when we find ourselves geographically removed, we experience the effects of these tragedies. We feel our connection. We wonder what to do.

When news of disaster breaks in on us, here are 7 things congregational leaders can do:

  1. Think missionally. Congregations and Christians exist to be the presence of Christ. We exist to represent God’s purposes by the distinctiveness of our life together and the power of our service and witness in the world (Acts 2:42-47). As you consider your congregation’s response to current events, ask these two questions: What does it mean for our congregation to be the presence of Christ in this situation? How might God want to use these circumstances to develop us individually and congregationally toward our full potential in Christ?
  2. Rally the people. Christ once said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Mt. 18:20) There’s strength in Christian togetherness. In the midst of crisis, this becomes doubly true. Create times and places for corporate prayer and song related to the situation. Give people a way to express their concern and regain their bearings in the company of Christ-followers. Draw people out of isolation and into caring relationships.
  3. Speak to the faith questions of the hour. Every pastor needs what crisis-tested pastor Al Meredith calls a “catastrophology” – a theology of catastrophe. The Bible is not silent on this matter (John 16:33). It explains that we live in a broken, unfinished world prone to disasters, human errors, and outbreaks of evil. It points to the greater power and love of God. It encourages faith, even in the face of life’s unanswered questions. It invites our participation with God in the healing and transformation of pain. Those in and beyond the church look to us for perspective. They need to hear these things.
  4. Resource parents and other adults to interact with children. Adults in relationship with children benefit from guidance about how to listen and respond to children’s questions and concerns when it comes to scary events. Put age-appropriate resources in their hands. Provide them with perspective about how to show love and incorporate their faith into simple, honest, reassuring conversation.
  5. Cooperate with relief and recovery efforts. Gary Haugen, founder of International Justice Mission, once remarked, “How do those suffering in the world believe us when we say, ‘God is good’? We are God’s only plan. The body of Christ shows up, and it becomes possible to believe.” Whether we live where crisis has struck or at some distance away, we can lead our congregation to embody the love of Christ through participation in crisis response. While doing so, let’s make sure we work collaboratively with those leading the effort, so that we contribute to rather than complicate the situation. Find out what’s needed, when it’s needed, and mobilize accordingly.
  6. Tend to the short-term and longer-term needs of traumatized people. Events like those in Newtown, Boston, or West, Texas have a lingering mental and emotional effect on victims. We most likely see this in those nearest to the scene, their closest family and friends, and emergency responders. Experts warn us, however, not to limit the circumference of our concern arbitrarily. People with no direct connection to the events can still experience a heightened stress response and/or depths of grief that go beyond what we expect. However close to or far away from the events our congregation happens to be, we do well to have trained support systems at the ready to respond to the special needs of some.
  7. Learn from these experiences. Centuries ago, Machiavelli wrote that we should never waste a crisis. As jarring as that is to consider, missional leaders understand that tragedy can become a teachable moment that inspires the spiritual development of people, realigns the congregation with its mission, vision and values, and even opens the door to new ministry opportunity. How might you channel the attention and concern of your people toward individual and congregational development?

While you’re at it, consider how you might use this moment to become more proactive about managing risk. Done right, crisis-related planning can strengthen your organization, ease people’s minds, and prevent the fortress mentality from derailing your congregation’s missional spirit.

 

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