Tragedy is a fact of life. In the past year, terrorist bombings, active shooter incidents in schools and churches, and natural disasters occurring worldwide claimed many lives and critically injured more. As ministry leaders, we cannot shield ourselves or our congregations from heartbreak.
Christ warned us tragic times would come. He also
promised He would be with us through every moment (Matt.
28:20). This knowledge gives us hope and comfort and
helps us cope with loss and grief.
THE ROLE OF CHURCH LEADERSHIP IN THE MIDST
Ministry leaders are primary points of contact for the
bereaved. When a tragedy occurs, church leaders provide
emotional support and spiritual guidance for those who experience
loss. Tragic deaths, such as young person’s suicide
or mass shooting casualties, affect an entire congregation.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
The church’s greatest strength is its ability to provide
hope and comfort in a time of grief. As spiritual leaders,
reach out to those who are hurting and provide for their spiritual
needs. Pray with the bereaved and remind them of God’s
love through their time of suffering. Demonstrate compassion
and sympathy through the use of active listening skills.
Bereaved individuals are reassured when they believe you
hear them, and their emotions are validated.
Equally important is the ability for church leaders to
create a safe place for people to grieve together. Open the
worship space for prayer vigils. Hold a community meeting
to discuss the tragedy. Creating a safe space for those not
directly impacted gives other church members the chance to
mourn and find support from each other.
Another option is to hold a meeting with the congregation
following a service. Members can then openly dialogue with
each other and their spiritual leaders about their experiences,
emotions, and concerns about the situation.
These events do not have to be structured, but someone
must be designated to make certain all members have
a chance to be heard. It is important that everyone involved
understands that these meetings are not meant to be group therapy sessions. Limit conversations to the subjects of the
tragedy and those directly impacted.
WHEN TO SEEK OUTSIDE SUPPORT
Many times church and spiritual leaders are sought after
by bereaved members to render counseling services. Unless
the leader has been trained in clinical counseling or another
counseling discipline, providing psychological therapy
goes beyond their scope of practice. It may be necessary to
meet with the individual(s) once or twice to determine if their
needs are of a spiritual or psychological nature.
If the needs are of a psychological nature, such as grief
counseling or family therapy, refer the bereaved to trained
professional counselors. Ministry leaders should have a referral
list of appropriate counselors and social workers for
domestic and child abuse, drug and alcohol abuse, marriage
and family therapy, and individual counseling.
When an event affects an entire congregation, leaders
can network with local professional counselors or aid agencies
on behalf of their members. Churches can also assist
bereaved members by posting flyers, brochures, or contact
information for trusted organizations such as Adventist Community
Services, The American Red Cross, The Volunteers
of America, or Children’s Disaster Services. Organizations
such as these are trained to provide aid and mental health
counseling for those coping with large-scale disasters.
GIVE LOVE AND HOPE
Utilizing outside help is not a sign of weak faith or distrust
in God. God knew that the hardships of a sinful world would
threaten to overwhelm us; therefore we are counseled to bear
each other’s burdens (Gal. 6:2). As Christians, the greatest help
we can give to those who are hurting are the gifts of love and
hope. Love for each other and hope in a loving God who watches
over us, grieves with us, and longs for the day when He can
gather us to Himself to wipe every tear from our eyes.
Asheley Woodruff, writing on behalf of Adventist Risk Management,
Inc. in this piece, is a licensed clinical counselor and writer. She has
authored articles on bullying prevention and is a contributor to the
2015 parenting devotional, Help! I’m A Parent. Asheley lives with
her family near Washington, D.C., USA, where they enjoy hiking,
camping, and visiting the sites in the nation’s capital.