When I became a disaster spiritual care chaplain as part of the 9/11 response, we were asked whether we had a seminary degree, at least one unit of Clinical Pastoral Education, and had been in ministry for over five years. Such a preparation seems like a good foundation for such an intense ministry. I believed that then and still do today. However, there is one problem with that theory. Disasters do not wait until we are fully prepared. A disaster may happen five days, not five years, after a new pastor begins in a congregation. Or, as my colleague from Egypt reminded me, five days after a field education student begins in a parish. Seminarians in the United States may feel a long way away from the violence faced by congregations in Egypt, however, it was only twenty years ago that African American churches were facing that threat at numbers that far outweighed either the usual number of church burnings and those arsons in largely Anglo- or Euro-American congregations. I wonder how long the pastors had been incumbent, whether there were any field education students there, and whether they felt anything in their seminary training had prepared them.
More and more seminaries are adding training around disaster and trauma to their curriculums. More and more seminarians are asking for such. Whether it is a weekend workshop or a full semester course, for a start the consciousness raising about the complexities of such a ministry is a gift to a seminary student. Our course explores disasters that range from virus pandemics, to school shootings, to church burnings, to natural disasters, and terrorism. Nothing can prepare a student for the kind of disaster they will face, however learning about other disasters, how a disaster affects that brain which may lead to trauma, and what some useful strategies are to maintain a sense of agency and activity to mitigate against the sense of helplessness a disaster can create, goes a long way to the kind of resilience in the face of disaster that our clergy need.
Yet, we need to go beyond that, as we know disasters do not simply happen to congregants and those in the wider community. A question that has continued to play in my mind since 9/11 is: how to we minister to the traumatized when we are somewhat traumatized ourselves. One of the things that mitigates against trauma is community. It is not just a clergy person that will care for a community (a sure recipe for burnout) but a community of care that will face into a disaster together. Preparing clergy is only one component, preparing congregations is another. As part of their work for the course on Disaster Spiritual Care, our students compile a Congregational disaster plan which goes from practical issues like mapping the exits and fire extinguishers in the church and parish hall, to assessing the likely disasters, such as flooding, that a congregation might face. Such an exercise takes both agency and imagination, and it takes a congregation to buy into the possibility that the best might not always happen.
For those of us who are Christian, we are moving through the Easter season. In many ways this is a post-disaster story for a community. In this story, things don’t go back to normal but the community learns to live with a ‘new normal.’ In this new normal we need to take account of the scars of the trauma, the patterns that change, the absences of those who are or will be ‘lost,’ and the need for the community to gather in a new way. The story of the trauma gets woven into the new narrative, not in a ‘everything’s alright now way,’ but a reframing that includes both Good Friday and Easter Sunday. This indeed would be a good time for a community to turn, as our students do, to the fabric, both personal and practical of our congregations: to map resources, to assess risks, and to build resilience. Engaging in a congregational disaster plan is indeed preparing for the unpreparable, but to do so, is to be an Easter people, knowing that even in the face of disaster, we can rise again.
For customizable emergency disaster recovery plans for religious communities, visit safechurch.com.
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