By Eddie Pipkin

You savvy readers have long ago figured out that Excellence in Ministry Coaching is based out of central Florida (specifically, the east coast side), so we’ve been in Hurricane Dorian lockdown, counting our blessings as the storm skirted by and praying for our beleaguered friends in the Bahamas.  The many churches with which we are tangentially associated in our area had a variety of responses to the impending storm — in worship and online — and it’s a good reminder that we, as community leaders, should always have plans in place for life’s inevitable disasters.  And we should never lose sight of the truth that, although shared disasters are blessedly few-and-far-between, there is always someone in our circle navigating a personal disaster.  We should be organized and prepared for those moments, too.

There is a shared emotional space that is the product of a natural disaster, and it makes people want to be together and be attentive to shared anxiety and needs.  Florida congregations (who share the yearly ritual of hurricane season) know it well, but there is no community exempt from shared tragedy.  Whether other natural disasters (from tornadoes, earthquakes, fires, or floods) to the now-too-familiar man-made crisis of mass shootings, people gather with their worship families to take strength from God and one another.  Sometimes it’s even a national tragedy: many of us well remember the common grief and brief spirit of unity and purpose that followed 9/11.

It’s good (and biblical) to lean on one another.  In times of shared disaster, we have a little more patience and empathy, and we can become very organized and enthusiastic in responding to the crisis at hand.  (In fact, many of you have pre-planning done for the advent of such a crisis, natural or otherwise.  This is a good strategy for many reasons.)

But the truth is that there is always someone in our midst who is weathering a personal storm.  There is always an individual or family among us that is right in the middle of emotional tumult and soul strain.  Wouldn’t it be great if we were as prepared to be attentive and responsive to those individuals and families as we are to the “big picture” dramas:

  • Death.
  • Divorce.
  • Illness.
  • Joblessness.
  • Suicide.
  • Heartbreak.
  • Addiction.
  • Debt.
  • Even the anxiety that can stem from positive life developments, like having a baby.

It’s easy to get people motivated to respond to a regional tragedy (like everybody joining in to help one another after a storm).  It’s even easy to get people to respond to a singular tragic event (for instance, if a neighbor’s house is struck by lightning and burns to the ground).  We are pretty good at responding to the immediate crisis of a death.  We do good funerals, and we are excellent at providing food (and lots of it).  These kinds of crises allow for a kind of direct response that has familiar contours.

But if a family in our church is experiencing a crisis of addiction, we are on shakier ground in our response.  Such a crisis is impervious to a GoFundMe campaign or a quick collection of gently used clothes.  It’s harder to know what to do, and we are wary of the long-term commitment seemingly required.

Generally, for most local congregations, families facing crisis are directed to contact the pastoral staff.  The pastor provides one-to-one guidance and counseling as he or she is able.  It is rare that local churches have a more rigorous plan or response — even though the life events listed earlier occur in every single congregation everywhere — they are, in fact, guaranteed to occur.  There are resources that can be developed for (or known by and linked to) each of these events, and local congregations can be conduits for getting people the resources, programs, and contacts they desperately need when they find themselves in these situations.

A crucial step to being better prepared for helping folks navigate these events is moving beyond the “pastor does it all” model.  As we build response systems within the structures of our churches, we train congregation members to take care of each other — not just a generic “carrying one another’s burdens” approach, but with specific, targeted training and resources — that helps build a responsive community AND equips disciples to move out beyond the church walls to offer a path to support to people in the community who have nothing to do with your church (except that they are within the circles of influence of everyone who is a part of your church).

People in crisis are responsive to conversation and help.  This is “thin places” thinking (the Celtic, Christian concept of places where heaven and earth overlap, and a holy presence is palpable). Phil writes about this extensively in his excellent resource, Connect!. People facing storms are receptive to the help we can provide, and not only should our churches be resource-rich for people who turn to us for help, but a well-equipped, well-grounded, and well-trained body of disciples can be ready to respond to the people they encounter who are in crisis.  (And a note here that there are different levels of response, and part of being well-trained is to know what you are capable of providing as an individual as opposed to a crisis that you need to hand off to more-seasoned crisis manager.  It’s one thing to provide a friendly ear for your neighbor, and it’s another — and sometimes dangerous or damaging  thing — to start acting like you are a professional counselor just because you are familiar with the book of James.)

It is a teachable skill to learn to be a good listener — to offer God’s grace in that essential way.  And it is a teachable skill to learn how to help direct people in crisis to useful resources.  Ask yourself: Would a person in my congregation know how to direct a friend to productive resources?  Or would they only know how to give them the pastor’s number or the church office number?  If those points of contact are your agreed-upon strategic points of contact, are they even aware of that — or are they, instead, unsure whether to “bother” the church office or pastor?

If we are ineffective in such scenarios, it’s sometimes hard to see, because there will always be enough people who are “confident” enough to press for assistance that there is always someone we can point to who is being helped (anecdotally).  But what about the people who are too timid?  The ones who just give up and drift away because of the problems they face?

Perhaps it seems insurmountable to provide effective aid to those in crisis, but many churches provide space for addiction support groups.  It’s good to not only provide that room on Tuesday nights but to have a solid working relationship with that group’s leadership.

There are wonderful layperson-led, community-oriented projects such as GriefShare, which provide a powerful outlet for people dealing with a universal condition.  We don’t have to reinvent the wheel to deal with every social challenge: we just have to be committed to getting people to the help they need, whether we provide that help through homegrown initiatives or whether we give them an easy way to navigate community and professional resources.  (One of the most frustrating things for a person in crisis is navigating the complex and intimidating terrain of governmental or charitable resources — how wonderful if we had a volunteer expert available at our church whose passion was serving as a navigator through those rocky shoals.)

I know a church administrator who is an expert at helping families find their way forward in the days after the unexpected death of a loved one — I am sure she is one of many professionals who has made a valuable ministry of focusing on such a niche.  She has a binder with all the details of the decisions that must be made and the resources available to make them.  She provides these resources in an easy-to-understand format, and she makes herself available to walk the families not only through the funeral, but through much of the red tape that follows.  She is a great comfort to those families in their time of crisis.  She is a patient and committed exemplar of the love of Christ when they need it most.

How about you and your congregation for the “think places” crises listed earlier?  Take a look back at each bullet point and ask yourself what a person facing that event would experience if they reached out for help in your congregation?  (Or just by calling your office?)

What are the ways that your congregation is prepared to stand by people as they face their personal storms?  Do you have an organized system for providing resources and support for people in crisis?  Do you rely on the pastor and the church office to “do it all”?  Share your stories in the comments section.