Pastoring Through A Natural Disaster
Natural disasters are becoming an ever-increasing reality for communities across the U.S. Having pastored his own community through natural disasters, Jeremy Pleasant (Pastor of the Vineyard Baton Rouge), offers a comprehensive and practical guide for helping leaders walk their communities through these often traumatic events.
Senior Pastor, Vineyard Church Baton Rouge, Baton Rouge, LA
Dealing with natural disasters is a seemingly ever-increasing reality.
Sometimes we find ourselves amid an entire community that’s been affected (e.g. hurricane). Other times, we’re walking with just a couple of people through a more localized situation (e.g. house fire).
In any event, understanding the impact natural disasters have on our communities and those who come to help (e.g. early responders) will help us guide those affected to experience comfort in the moment, restoration in the long-term, and a healthy (albeit, difficult) experience of recovery that doesn’t result in long-term trauma.
I write this as someone who has endured natural disasters and has pastored a community through it, including doing significant relief efforts through our local church. It was having friends who came around us during this time to help us understand and work through the many facets and variables of coming alongside others during a natural disaster that had a tremendous impact on my capacity as a leader and my ability to pastor well.
Trauma is a word that carries a lot of meaning. It’s used in a variety of contexts with each context providing a different meaning. It’s often misunderstood and believed to only apply to intense events such as war or domestic violence. For our purposes, I want to define how we will use trauma, and why we need to understand it when it comes to this work.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, one form of trauma is ‘Natural Trauma.’ Individuals or groups can be traumatized by any of the following potentially cataclysmic natural events: tornadoes, lightning strikes, wildfires, avalanches, physical ailments or diseases, fallen trees, earthquakes, dust storms, volcanic eruptions, blizzards, hurricanes, cyclones, typhoons, meteorites, floods, tsunamis, epidemics, famines, and landslides or fallen boulders.1
It’s important to know this because when not dealt with properly, trauma can have long-lasting negative effects on a person and on a community.
Victims of Disaster
When encountering people who have suffered at the hands of a disaster, there are a couple of key things we need to do. Before that though, we should have one guiding value.
Let compassion be our guide in everything. One may believe this goes without saying, but in our culture, often in an attempt to help, we can cause a lot of hurt along the way.
The first key principle in working with the people is to Do No Harm.
When looking upon devastation and pain it’s only natural to want to make things better and bring people peace and comfort. Often we find our security in being able to understand everything that happens in the world and assign a cause, reason, or person to these events.
We all have our belief systems. We all have a theological grid that guides us and our leadership. This is not the time to theologize. This is not the time to explain why this is happening to those this is happening to. This is not the time to defend doctrine.
This is a time of compassion. This is a time to sit and be with people in their pain, in their uncertainty.
Even if we think we have answers this is the time to not give any answers. Often people are looking for those answers. These long-term questions can be dealt with later. It is often in these situations, where we lead from defense and not compassion that we do the most harm.
The second key principle is Debrief.
The unspoken traumas maintain their power and control in the lives of people often because they remain unacknowledged. In the early stages of a traumatic event, it’s helpful to work with people in processing through what they are experiencing. Processing through these experiences early can help mitigate the onset effects of trauma.
There are a couple of caveats. If someone doesn’t want to process through their experience or has expressly indicated that they are not ready to, it’s very important to not force them to. The same applies to children. They need to process through these events as well, but only when they are ready. Otherwise, to do so can result in re-traumatization.
Finally, allow people to lament. Often in our theologies, especially in our American theology, we don’t have a space for people to lament. We don’t allow a space for people to express the depths of their pain. Instead, we often ask people to put aside their pain and to show no dissent or doubt of God. Instead, we tell people to just have faith. Faith is important, but so is lament.
The honest expression of our doubt can lead to more faith as we learn in the Gospels. Our canon gives space for it. Not only do we have an entire Book of Lamentations, but the majority of the Psalms are also psalms of lament.
I understand this may go against the paradigm of many. If a resource would be helpful in this regard, I recommend Open and Unafraid by David Taylor.
During every disaster, there are often people in the community and outside of the community ready to respond and help. If you can equip your early responders properly, the impact your church will have on the larger community will be extended.
Volunteerism is a major component in recovery, but they’re a couple of things to be aware of when working with volunteers, to have the best experience for everyone involved.
First, volunteers need to apply the same principle. Do No Harm. Early responders have a similar orientation to want to make things better for people, but can also suffer from the same inclination to cause hurt while trying to help. Reviewing with volunteers this process will help as much if not more, the labor they are performing.
What’s often overlooked with volunteers, especially with those coming from outside the disaster area, is that these responders are susceptible to being traumatized as they step into the lives of those who are suffering. By seeing the devastation and witnessing the pain of those they are supporting, it’s not uncommon for these volunteers to take upon themselves that which has affected others. This is called vicarious or secondary trauma by some. It’s not always apparent, it is more common with those who do more long-term work in challenging environments. The risk is still there however and should not go unaddressed.
One way to help volunteers prevent this from happening is to debrief with them (as discussed above) at the end of each day. It doesn’t have to be one-on-one, nor does it have a to be a “session.” Talking with teams about their stories and experiences, validating their emotions and reality of what they have seen, can help them process through the destruction in a helpful way.
The reason this section is titled “Triage” is that these are initial steps to help prevent or mitigate trauma. For those experiencing or who have experienced trauma through these events, I recommend referring to a trained mental health professional in this area who can treat them with ongoing care.
Phases of Disaster
Natural disasters occur in a moment, but their impact is long-lasting. Anyone who has endured a natural disaster can attest to this. What we don’t realize however is the impacts of these events go even longer than we imagine.
I have found it’s also very helpful to understand what occurs throughout this period. There are typically 6 phases that occur, and by understanding these phases, you can plan well, prepare for seemingly unexpected responses, and know where to focus your efforts.
The following are the six phases of a disaster adapted from Zunin & Myers as cited in DeWolfe, D. J., 20002
Phase 1, the pre-disaster phase, is characterized by fear and uncertainty.
The specific reactions a community experiences depend on the type of disaster. Disasters with no warning can cause feelings of vulnerability and lack of security; fears of future, unpredicted tragedies; and a sense of loss of control or the loss of the ability to protect yourself and your family. On the other hand, disasters with warning can cause guilt or self-blame for failure to heed the warnings. The pre-disaster phase may be as short as hours, or even minutes, such as during a terrorist attack, or it may be as long as several months, such as during a hurricane season.
Phase 2, the impact phase, is characterized by a range of intense emotional reactions.
As with the pre-disaster phase, the specific reactions also depend on the type of disaster that is occurring. Slow, low-threat disasters have psychological effects that are different from those of rapid, dangerous disasters. As a result, these reactions can range from shock to overt panic. Initial confusion and disbelief typically are followed by a focus on self-preservation and family protection. The impact phase is usually the shortest of the six phases of disaster.
Phase 3, the heroic phase, is characterized by a high level of activity with a low-level of productivity.
During this phase, there is a sense of altruism, and many community members exhibit adrenaline-induced rescue behavior. As a result, risk assessment may be impaired. The heroic phase often passes quickly into phase 4.
Phase 4, the honeymoon phase, is characterized by a dramatic shift in emotion.
During the honeymoon phase, disaster assistance is readily available. Community bonding occurs. Optimism exists that everything will return to normal quickly. As a result, numerous opportunities are available for providers and organizations to establish and build rapport with affected people and groups, and for them to build relationships with stakeholders. The honeymoon phase typically lasts only a few weeks.
Phase 5, the disillusionment phase, is a stark contrast to the honeymoon phase.
During the disillusionment phase, communities and individuals realize the limits of disaster assistance. As optimism turns to discouragement and stress continues to take a toll, negative reactions, such as physical exhaustion or substance use, may begin to surface. The increasing gap between need and assistance leads to feelings of abandonment. Especially as the larger community returns to business as usual, there may be an increased demand for services, as individuals and communities become ready to accept support. The disillusionment phase can last months and even years. It is often extended by one or more trigger events, usually including the anniversary of the disaster.
Phase 6, the reconstruction phase, is characterized by an overall feeling of recovery.
Individuals and communities begin to assume responsibility for rebuilding their lives, and people adjust to a new “normal” while continuing to grieve losses. The reconstruction phase often begins around the anniversary of the disaster and may continue for some time beyond that. Following catastrophic events, the reconstruction phase may last for years.
A couple more considerations. While the recovery following a disaster occurs over a long period, often longer than expected, the mental and emotional recovery is often longer than the physical recovery. For example, don’t be surprised a year after a hurricane devastates your community, how a simple rainstorm will trigger intense anxiety among many people and you’re receiving panicked calls as people are reliving the traumas of said hurricane.
Finally, it’s common to assume that when the community recovers, everyone has recovered. This is not true for everyone, and especially those who are marginalized in our cities and towns. The shared experience of a disaster throughout a community is exacerbated for those in your cities and towns who are on the fringes-those with fewer resources, less access to resources, and less mobility within the system. I encourage you to take special care in recognizing this part of the population knowing the road they travel is further.
Need & Supply
To conclude, a discussion on need and supply is pertinent.
The needs are extensive in a community-wide event such as fire and flood. The capacity to meet those needs will run short. As mentioned before, the heroic phase has the potential to exhaust significant resources in a short amount of time. Resist this urge and focus more on defining and understanding the problem with patience. Interpret data and work with diverse viewpoints among a team of people who can help create a more impactful strategy that will also ensure your church doesn’t exhaust all its capital (not just finances, but people and structures).
Another important factor is that you are not pastoring in a vacuum. One of the biggest challenges of pastoring through a natural disaster is that you are going through this same disaster. You are not exempt from the toll all of this takes on each person. Therefore, it is critical that the care and maintenance of your soul remain at the forefront.
Below are some resources to help in this regard if needed. If your supply runs out, the result will go beyond disaster relief and affect every aspect of the local church and home. It is easy to sacrifice your well-being first in times of deep need. Sacrifices do need to be made, and you cannot do everything you normally would in connecting with God, but finding rhythms of renewal that keep you connected with God will sustain you in this season. It may not be the same rhythms as before and don’t expect them to be. Sometimes a fresh spiritual practice will rejuvenate a desperate soul.
Understanding all of this, have grace for others and yourself. Know that people are responding out of pain, fear, and anxiety. Know that you will make mistakes, that people will be hurt by decisions you make, and that hard decisions have to be made daily. Have grace for yourself and others as you traverse these waters. See what the Father is doing and partner with that, trusting the Grace of God will supply the need he is leading you toward.
For additional disaster and trauma resources, Dr. Eric Sandras – (Psychologist, Author, and Pastor) has a website to help you in your work. He also does training with churches and pastors to come alongside as they support their communities. You can learn more at traumaforward.com.
If you are looking for more guidance in your own spiritual practice or if you have felt that your soul needs renewal, these books are excellent starting points:
If you’d like a quick start on a spiritual practice that is simple yet effective in intense times try out Breath Prayer.
Adapted from Spiritual Disciplines Handbook – Adele Calhoun3
Breathing is an unconscious thing. And breath prayer reminds us that just as we can’t live on one breath of air, we can’t live on one breath of God. God is the oxygen of our soul, and we need to breathe him in all day long. After all, it is in him that “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Breath prayer reminds us that each breath we are given is God’s gift and that God’s Spirit is nearer to us than our own breath.
This prayer has been practiced in the church for millennia.
To practice breath prayer, ponder the nearness of God. Settle deeply into the truth that Christ is in you. Deeply breathe in, repeating any name of God that is dear to you. As you exhale, voice a deep desire of your heart. When you exhale, offer up the desire of your heart. The brevity of the prayer (how short the prayer is) allows it to be repeated over and over throughout the day.
Examples of breath prayers are
- breathe in “Abba”, breathe out “I belong to you.”
- breathe in “Healer”, breathe out “Speak the word and I shall be healed.”
- breathe in “Shepherd”, breathe out “bring home my lost son.”
- breathe in “Holy One”, breathe out “keep me true.”
- breathe in “Lord”, breathe out “here I am.”
- breathe in “Jesus”, breathe out “have mercy on me.”
Step By Step
- Become comfortable. Breathe deeply. Intentionally place yourself before God. In rhythm with your breathing, gratefully inhale the breath of life. Exhale remembering that Jesus gave his last breath for love of you. Gently and thankfully repeat, “Breath of life, breathe on me.”
- Decide to pray any of the prayers above or another scriptural breath prayer as often as you are able during one day. if you worry about forgetting, set a clock at every hour to remind you, or put the prayer on your car mirror. Reminders should be gentle and not forced. In the evening spend time telling the Lord what it means to you to be able to return to him again and again during the day with one particular prayer.
- Is there someone for whom you wish to pray ceaselessly? Listen deeply to what Jesus’ desire for this person might be. Form a breath prayer naming God’s adequacy and your desire for that person. Throughout the day as they come to mind, offer up your prayer. Don’t allow yourself to be drawn into long prayer dialogues about what you want God to do in this person’s life. Let the breath prayer carry all your desire to God.
- Begin and end each day with your breath prayer. Let it be the word that comes to mind as you wake and as you fall asleep.
- Tell someone what breath prayer means to you.
- Help a child form breath prayer to say while at school or play.
Jeremy Pleasant is the Lead Pastor of the Vineyard Church of Baton Rouge in Baton Rouge, LA.
Learn more about the Vineyard Church of Baton Rouge here: www.vineyardbr.org/
This content has been reviewed by the following:
Gerald Reddix, Psy.D. Clinical Psychologist
Nikesha Parker, LMFT
1 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (2014). SAMHSA’s concept of trauma and guidance for a trauma-informed approach. Rockville,MD: SAMHSA’s Trauma and Justice Strategic Initiative.
2 Adapted from Zunin & Myers as cited in DeWolfe, D. J., 2000. Training manual for mental health and human service workers in major disasters (2nd ed., HHS Publication No. ADM 90-538). Rockville, MD: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Mental Health Services.
3 Adapted from Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices That Transform Us. Adele Ahlberg Calhoun (IVP Books 2009).