Between Sunday morning services on November 17th, 2013, an EF-4 tornado ripped through Washington, Illinois, destroying hundreds of homes, and touching down only 100 yards from the community center where Bethany Community Church meets. Senior Pastor Daniel Bennett did not preach his second sermon that day. In just a few moments, one person lost his life, and many people's belongings were strewn "across the state of Illinois," says Rev. Bennett.
Pastor Steve Walker was sitting in his office on October 1st, 2015, when his phone began ringing, dinging, and buzzing. "Someone down the hall yelled that there was an active shooter situation at Umpqua Community College," he says. "I don't need to tell you the news was very dark—a number of people had been executed, and there were rumors that the shooter had intended to target Christians."
Rev. Dr. Laurie Kraus was a new pastor in Miami, Florida, in August 1992, when Hurricane Andrew displaced 35 percent of her congregants.
Regardless if your church doors are open—or if your church is even still standing after a disaster—people from your church community are going to turn to you for guidance. Walking alongside those who are suffering is part and parcel of every pastor's calling. But when major disasters strike, affecting entire communities and sometimes even gaining national attention, it's difficult for even the most seasoned pastors to meet the needs of struggling congregations.
Through our work at the Humanitarian Disaster Institute (HDI), we've talked with pastors who have faced everything from personal disasters that have sent shock waves through small communities to international crises affecting thousands. Following are five suggestions for pastors from those who have preached into some of the most difficult situations imaginable.
Share the Good News in your sermon to instill hope (1 Cor. 15:1-2). Rev. Paul Cooper, minister at Marshall Missionary Baptist Church, reminds us that Christian suffering has purpose and meaning. The Scriptures tell us we will suffer. And often in our trials we gain a platform we may not have had otherwise—one that allows us to point others to the Savior. It is this living hope that Mark Gallagher, campus minister for the last 38 years with Christian Student Fellowship at Indiana State University, calls his students to during life's storms. He reminds them they can have confidence in an inheritance that can never perish, spoil, or fade (1 Pet. 1).
Preaching after a disaster needs to make room for questions, for lament, for doubts, and for the full range of emotions people may be experiencing.
Hope is critical to helping people pick up the pieces of their lives in the aftermath of disaster. For example, researchers found that hope decreased the negative psychological impact of drought among Australian communities. More hopeful families also coped better after Hurricane Katrina. To paraphrase Henri Nouwen, when we are hopeful we put our trust and our lives in God's hands.
Rev. Canon Andrew White served as the vicar of the only Anglican Church in Iraq for a number of years. Now president of the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East, he serves people who have lost everything—refugees who have fled their country due to violence and war. To these people, he always offers living hope. "The Lord is here. His spirit is with us," he says. "When you have lost everything, Jesus is all that's left. What suffering has done for them is to demonstrate the real presence of Christ."
Rather than trying to have all "THE" answers, infuse your message with humility (Phil. 2:1-11). Model appropriate vulnerability and transparency, and share your own spiritual journey when possible. "If I can acknowledge what I know, and what is confusing and don't know, it allows others to process and be real too," says Rev. Walker, whose church played an important role in the community's recovery process after the shooting at Umpqua Community College.
Dr. David Wang, associate pastor at One Life City Church and assistant professor of clinical psychology at Biola University, believes one key to preaching on suffering in the wake of disasters is to admit that ultimately we do not know the why. He says, "Be especially careful not to make any attributions or inferences regarding the potential causes of the natural disaster, especially moral attributions."
Research led by Dr. Donnie Davis, Georgia State University assistant professor of counseling psychology, suggests that humility helps strengthen relationships and reduces relational friction. By preaching with humility, you may strengthen bonds with your congregation, and reduce relational strain caused by the added stress of the recovery process.
"Sometimes we might think we know best about what a community needs following a disaster. But assuming that you know 'best' can cause harm," says Dr. Joshua Hook, assistant professor of psychology at the University of North Texas. Asking questions, seeking first to understand, and trying to get a sense of needs of the people who were affected are a few ways he suggests cultivating a message of humility.
Help survivors deepen their connection with God and ease their fears about living in a disaster-filled world with your sermons (Isa. 41:10). Rev. Nelson Roth didn't preach a sermon for three weeks after Hurricane Katrina. "During that time, the people were the sermon—sharing their stories. It was both an incredible and needed time," he says. Moving forward, he preached directly from the Word, verse by verse, "letting the Spirit bring peace and comfort."
In our HDI survey of nearly 200 Hurricane Katrina survivors, we found religious comfort was associated with positive outcomes, and religious strain was associated with negative outcomes. That is, people who maintained a positive relationship with God were able to adjust better to life after the disaster than people who felt resentment toward God or others in their faith community.
After the tornado in Washington, Illinois, Rev. Daniel Bennett preached a sermon about all the things we cannot keep (our stuff, our lives), and the importance of clinging instead to something that's secure (Matt. 6:19-21). "When you are found in Christ, you can't lose him."
As you prepare your sermon, keep in mind that recovery can take time. "Out of the desire to provide comfort, there can be a temptation for preachers to try to move people too fast through a process that's intended to take time," says Rev. Kraus, now director of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. She suggests that preaching after a disaster needs to make room for questions, for lament, for doubts, and for the full range of emotions people may be experiencing.
Look for ways to encourage community in your sermons (Heb. 10:24-25). We'll never forget what one pastor from New Orleans shared in another HDI study after Hurricane Katrina: "I can still remember slab Sunday following the storm. I call it slab Sunday because all that was left of our church was a concrete slab foundation. But you know what, we still all got together that day. We worshiped. We cried. We hugged. We made it by the grace of God."
Stress associated with going through a disaster can cause people to disconnect from others who care about them, the things they used to enjoy doing, and even the sacred. Disaster survivors who find themselves isolated and withdrawn from others often struggle more through the recovery process. Helping survivors connect to others in your church and to others in your community can provide them with a powerful source of social support and healing.
In an HDI study, to be presented later this year at the American Psychological Association Convention led by Wheaton College associate professor of psychology Dr. Ward Davis, we found that survivors of the 2015 South Carolina Flood who reported feeling supported by their congregation and broader community coped better than those who struggled to make connections. In another study, following the mass shooting in Roseburg, OR, we found survivors who had higher levels of support were likely to view God more positively and less punitively than survivors who experienced less support. According to Dr. Ward Davis, "Overall, helping disaster survivors draw on the love and support of people in their lives and their faith community can really help them in their coping and recovery process."
Encourage your congregation to be the hands and feet of Christ (1 Cor. 12:27), not just to one another, but also to the overall community. Ken Logan, pastor and seminary professor, suggests in the midst of disaster is the perfect time to "teach and live out the reality that God's sovereignty does not function to mitigate people's responsibilities, and we have a moral responsibility to love others who suffer." The Bible beckons us to use our time, talents, and treasure to help the vulnerable (Acts 10:4), and Scripture is rich with examples of people like Nehemiah, who God used to bring about redemption and recovery in times of disaster.
Not only have we been instructed to help our neighbor, it turns out that it's also good for nurturing resilience. Dr. Daryl Van Tongeren, a social psychologist at Hope College, notes that helping others fosters a sense of meaning, purpose, and even feelings of happiness. Similarly, Santa Clara University clinical psychologist Dr. Thomas Plante writes, "In a nutshell, if you want to cope better with stress, serve others. Stress management and resilience can be enhanced by connecting with others in need."
When Ed Stetzer's community experienced a flood, his church got busy—setting up the church as a water station, mudding out houses, and donating backpacks for kids. "I would not wish the flood on anyone, but God used it for his purposes, and changed the heart of our church," says Ed, former pastor of Grace Church, and now executive director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism at Wheaton College.
Service led to opportunity for the congregation at Bethany Community Church. "The tornado allowed us to proclaim the love of Christ in ways we wouldn't have thought possible," says Rev. Daniel Bennett. In the days and weeks following the tornado in Washington, Illinois, his church worked with the city and became the hub for tornado volunteers. "We had over 10,000 people from all different communities come through, and as part of our training, we shared the gospel with every volunteer, simply by telling people why we were involved."
This article was co-authored with Katherine Halberstadt Anderson. Katherine is the communications director for the Humanitarian Disaster Institute and an author who has written numerous articles for magazines, journals, and newspapers.
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5. Aten, J., & Boan, D. (2016). Disaster Ministry Handbook. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
6. Davis, E., Epperson, T., Aten, J., Ranter, J., Hook, J., Davis, D., Van Tongeren, D., Smith, W., & Boan, D. Impact of the South Carolina flooding on faith and mental health. Paper to be presented at the 2016 American Psychological Association Annual Convention, Denver, Colorado.
Jamie D. Aten is the founder and co-director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College, in Illinois. He is also the co-author of the new Disaster Ministry Handbook (IVP). Follow him on Twitter: @drjamieaten.