The morning after the shooting during an emergency planning meeting with the Associate Pastor and the Director of Music Ministries, as we looked at adding a prayer service, having just one service on Sunday instead of three, scheduling a congregational debriefing, and hosting the first memorial service on Monday, someone uttered the phrase: this changes everything! Six months of planning for worship – gone! Scheduled fellowship events – gone! Regular committee meetings – gone! The ability to talk about what happened among the staff – gone! (Remember, one of the victims was the husband of a staff member.) The ability to sit peacefully and listen deeply – gone! In an instant the three of us realized that everything we had planned, hoped for, and looked forward to in the seasons of Lent and Eastertide were gone! It was as if the shooting and its immediate on-going impact upon ourselves, our staff, our congregation, and our community shredded not just our hearts and souls but also our vocational waypoints. We were navigating uncharted waters without a map, compass, or GPS. What we realized collectively but were not yet able to articulate was that 'normal' was also a casualty of the shooting. Years later, as I write this post, I realize it was the Holy Spirit who whispered “this changes everything” as it was this phrase that allowed me to respond as faithfully as possible to the overwhelming needs I encountered as pastor. What follows is some practical advice clergy can use in the immediate aftermath of a traumatic event.
Shred the Sermon
Whatever you planned to preach, no matter how eloquent or coordinated with the music and/or slide presentation or the fact that it is sermon number 4 in a series of six – no matter what you had prepared to preach – the first piece of practical advice I will give to us is: shred the sermon. Allow yourself to be human, to be devastated by what happened and model, for the congregation, what it might look like for a person of faith to struggle with the realities of a mass shooting event or an arson fire or a rape or the suicide of a staff member: be real! Do not forge ahead, sticking to what you wrote out the day before the horrible event occurred. Shred that sermon! Even if the situation occurred on Saturday night or early Sunday morning and you have to go into the pulpit with nothing but your confusion, anger, outrage, brokenheartedness, and you stumble through 10 to 12 minutes of almost inarticulate rambling about how hope comes in the morning – SHRED THE SERMON! I give you permission to allow the magnitude of the situation to affect your preaching and I emplore you to face the sitaution head on from the pulpit and be real in your response.
Clear the Schedule
On the morning after the event, we cancelled every scheduled event for the next two weeks. We wiped the calendar clean and asked: what do we need to do in order to be faithful to what God is inviting us to be and do given that 'this changes everything'? We knew instinctively that to 'carry on as usual' was not just impossible but unfaithful as well. We could not hide our devastation, our brokenheartedness, our anger at God, our questions, etc. so in order to tend to the emerging needs of everyone, we simply cleared the schedule. By clearing the schedule you create space for you and your leaders to discern how to faithfully respond to the ever changing and overwhelming immediate needs of the congregation and the community.
Focus on the Basics
As the community rallies in response to a traumatic event, the invitations and expectations pour in for you, as a 'leading pastor in our community', to be involved in all the events which immediately spring up – the prayer vigil, the candlelight service, the civic/political gathering, the ministerial meetings, the community gatherings, etc. I encourage you to focus on the basics – yourself, your family, your staff, your church, and then (maybe, if absolutely necessary) things in the community. My encouragement is for you to focus 'from the center out' and to tend to your own well-being before you tend to the well-being of others. If you do nothing in the month following a traumatic event except for worship well on Sundays you have done enough. Focus on the basics of leading worship and caring for one another (yourself first).
Get Out of Town
My final encouragement is that at about 4 to 6 weeks out from a traumatic event, have the church send you and your family on an all expenses paid retreat to someplace beautiful, peaceful, and relaxing. I found it so important to get out of town, to leave the trauma-altered patterns of daily life in ministry, and to simply be with my family. Since the demands of ministry rise exponentially in the aftermath of trauma, having the opportunity to lay aside those demands for a while in order to tend to yourself and be with those who love you and whom you love can be an experience of God's restorative grace.