Most pastors, as part of their preparation for ministry, are equipped to provide the comfort and counsel necessary when members of their congregations struggle with ordinary relationship problems or experience loss and grief. Good pastors are also capable of recognizing when the help needed goes beyond what they are able to provide. And thus they refer to specialists in one area or another.
With 9-11, however, many pastors around the nation felt at a loss to provide what was needed in this time of national fear and crisis. For many, little or nothing in their seminary training prepared them for a crisis of this nature or magnitude. Or perhaps their training prepared them more than they realized—but they didn't recognize it.
The essence of a national crisis
Timothy Robnett, associate professor of pastoral ministries at Multnomah Biblical Seminary, puts it like this: "The first way that a national or community tragedy differs from personal tragedies is the extent of the trauma. The mere numbers of people and places involved bring a sense of being overwhelmed."
However, according to pastoral counseling professor G. Peter Schreck of Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary, "In truth the trauma occasioned by [the events of September 11] is not much different in kind from that of a personal crisis." Indeed, although September 11 was a national crisis, it was experienced by people across the nation as a personal crisis. Says Schreck, "Differences that distinguish a national tragedy from a personal one have to do not with kind, but with degree."
According to Schreck, the core element of a crisis, whether personal or national, is the same, that being "the subjective assessment that the resources at one's disposal are not equal to the situation with which one is confronted." He adds, "For many people and communities, this was how they felt following the terrorist attacks."
Taking care of one's self
Cynthia Eriksson, codirector of the Headington Program in International Trauma at Fuller Theological Seminary, observes that a community tragedy is distinct in part because every member of the congregation is a "victim" in one way or another. This includes those, including pastors, who are attempting to provide care.
Eriksson stresses the importance of caretakers identifying and understanding their own reactions to the event: "A pastor who is struggling to deal with his or her own fears and doubts but pushes them out of his or her mind in order to 'care for others' is not going to be effective. Such a person could be harmful to others if the unconscious defensive response is to squelch the expression of fear and doubt in others."
Dan Zink, assistant professor of practical theology at Covenant Theological Seminary, echoes this view, observing that pastors need to be prepared to walk with others as they deal with the struggle. Of course, Zink adds, if a pastor in going to be this kind of presence in someone else's life, he needs to have his own "active faith [in] the living God, so he knows firsthand that God is faithful and good, and he will be present and he will make himself known."
A unique, spiritual perspective
Mark Bradford, associate professor of psychology and counseling at Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, observes that pastors are expected to bring a unique perspective to the caregiving process in the midst of a tragedy or crisis: "Crisis counselors, psychologists, and social workers all help people work through tragedy and crisis, as do pastors. The difference is that the pastor is often asked to bring spiritual resources to bear to aid recovery." Specifically, Bradford adds, "The questions related to God's perspective on the tragedy are usually reserved for pastors."
Says Larry Ashlock, pastoral ministry professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, "A crisis provides the pastoral caregiver an open window of opportunity that is often missed by other trained professionals. The church, too, is well positioned to show long-term concern as people travel through the grief process."
If pastors are to respond to crisis on a national or local level, they need to be adequately prepared. Says Multnomah's Robnett, "Pastors need to grow in their ability to facilitate grieving and growth. Often the evangelical church passes by traumatic events as if they involve only people distant from us. We need to weep with those who weep. This takes effort and intentionality."
Fuller Seminary's Eriksson cites various ways churches can be prepared for tragedies. These include identifying key resource people within and outside the congregation; forming a response committee that can organize efforts; and having resources available for people in the church, especially those who might need special care based on the nature of the crisis. Eriksson urges churches to make use of such websites as www.ncptsd.org, which includes information on common adult and child reactions to tragedy.
Denver Seminary's McCormack stresses the importance of pastors looking after their own congregations first. "There are others who have been trained to handle national trauma. Pastors should not run off to the disaster area unless they are aware of the needs and qualified to address them."
Principles for caring
The principles for providing pastoral care remain very much the same, whether the tragedy is a community or personal one. According to Southwestern Seminary's Ashlock, the first principle is "caring concern," which consists largely of listening in order for the caregiver "to let the sufferer know that he or she cares." Caregivers, Ashlock adds, should then help those in need to recognize both their internal and external resources and to identity alternatives for coping.
Melody Palm, assistant professor of psychology and counseling at Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, stresses the importance of understanding trauma and the effects of trauma. Counselors, including pastors, says Palm, "must know how to deal with unsettling questions and how to sit in the moment of confusion and process without feeling the need to give pat answers."
Eastern Seminary's Schreck identifies five counseling principles for a time of tragedy or crisis: (1) Establish a therapeutic presence. Literally be there for people in the midst of their distress. (2) Give people permission to feel and express what they are feeling. (3) Provide hope by embodying hope through your faith-based presence and God-derived confidence. (4) Increase their resources for coping with the tragedy. This includes everything from helping them to access spiritual resources through prayer and the church to helping them network with social service agencies equipped to offer aid. (5) Remain a presence after the initial crisis is over. The process of recovering from trauma and tragedy is a lengthy one.
Randy Frame, a freelance writer and editor, also serves as Executive Director of Marketing and Communications at Palmer Seminary.