Natural Disasters: A Community in Crisis

I want to acknowledge the co-authors of this work from my seminary class: Nathan Fields, Nicole Taylor and Beth White. It is my hope that in sharing what we learned this past Spring, more people will prepare to be effective workers with communities in crisis.

In light of the horrific impact Hurricane Harvey is wreaking in the United States, in addition to the horrible flooding in other parts of the world, I thought I would share parts of a research paper my small group presented to our Pastoral Crisis Intervention class this past Spring. Statistically we are seeing more and more natural disasters. “Since the 1980s there has been roughly a 400% increase in natural disasters” worldwide (Aten, 13). Even insurance companies call natural disasters “acts of God,” acknowledging the power of such events as beyond human control. By learning from previous disasters, we can take steps to prepare for future natural disasters and be ready to help.

Our research specifically looked at the role of the Pastoral care-giver. Pastoral care-givers function as spiritual leaders in our communities and, as such, should participate in trainings provided through organizations like Red Cross, Salvation Army, UMCOR and other denominational organizations, and federal and state emergency management agencies in order to mobilize congregations to care for those in our communities in the event of a natural disaster. Preparation for the pastoral care-giver should be physical, mental, spiritual and relational, for you will draw on all of these things in the moment of crisis. Yet it will not be enough; for natural disasters are all about chaos.

In natural disasters, the event is a crisis in and of itself, as well as a precipitating event for future crises through the recovery phases that follow. There are generally four recognized phases to disaster response: Heroic, Honeymoon, Disillusionment, and Reconstruction.

In the Heroic Phase the pastoral caregiver has to consider several points of focus:

  • the congregation members who are affected
  • community members who may be looking to the church for needed services such as shelter, food, clothing, emotional and spiritual support
  • First responders, other crisis workers, and pastors who may need the ministry resources of your church and your spiritual presence (Lindsey).

We have an advantage when caring for those within our congregation. We have often known these individuals and their families over a period of time, and are familiar with their personalities, gifts, and struggles.

Throughout the time of crisis in the community, there are a couple of things the pastor will keep at the forefront of her/his mind. Emotions run high and chaos is the rule during the Heroic phase. This phase can last from hours to days or even longer. If the church is serving as a shelter, the pastor’s presence is necessary there and not immediately at the hospital or on the scene; although s/he may also be needed in those places as the crisis unfolds. The pastor will be surrounded by needs in a natural disaster and may feel torn in a million different directions, never feeling s/he is doing enough. It is important to remember that the pastor’s primary role is the ministry of calm presence. By being present, the pastor can symbolize God’s compassionate presence in the midst of chaos.

The pastoral caregiver must be prayerful in response to the individual. This is a vulnerable time. One may offer to pray, or ask the individual if they would like to pray; but should not force a compliant response. “In the moment of crisis, many who are suffering desire an advocate who will plead their case before God, and in the prayer, they find comfort and assurance that God hears their plea” (Southern Baptist Disaster Relief Chaplain Training Manual, 11). However the attention of the pastoral caregiver should show no evidence of discrimination. Care recipients may or may not share the caregiver’s religion, race, politics or any other view the caregiver holds. Yet the pastor must be sensitive and respectful of these differences and beliefs as they administer care. The pastoral caregiver should also note any immediate physical needs of the care recipient and make the connections for those needed resources. In a natural disaster, the pastoral caregiver involved in the ministry of presence attends to whatever needs are presented in whatever ways s/he is qualified to give. For instance, since pastors are generally not medical professionals, they would not perform medical procedures beyond basic first aid for a disaster victim. However, they could hold the victim’s hand and bring compassionate comfort, listening to the victim, offering words of support as needed while the medical professionals are attending to them.

Phase 2, the Honeymoon Phase, begins to develop as the Heroic Phase ends. Depending on the crisis, it can last from days to months. Disaster agencies recognize a “rule of 10” for recovery phases. If the Heroic Phase lasts three days, the Honeymoon Phase can last 3 weeks, the Disillusionment Phase three months, and the Reconstruction Phase three years. This is not a hard and fast rule, but does give a predictable timeline for recovery efforts. During the Honeymoon phase, there tends to be a strong sense of community as people share the bond of surviving. Relief agencies and volunteers may start flooding in. If the community is not prepared, this can cause a “secondary disaster” as the community is overwhelmed with the generosity, and does not know how to disburse or organize it while coping with all the other issues with which they are dealing (Lindsey).

One of the key pastoral care and counseling issues during the Honeymoon Phase would be for the pastor to help the community navigate the help that arrives. Allison Lindsey, Associate Director of Connectional Ministries for the South Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church, has recently been involved in the different recovery phases of several natural disasters in the South Georgia area. She stresses that “the event belongs to the community. The outside agencies and volunteers that come or send their resources come alongside the community members.” The pastoral caregiver, as a community leader, spiritual guide, counselor, and resource, can serve as a liaison between the incoming resources and the needs of the congregation and community.

Another pastoral care and counseling issue to consider during phase 2 and beyond is the emotional and mental care of children, teens, and mentally disabled. As adults are busy with the clean-up and immediate recovery efforts and stress, sometimes the young are overlooked. They may have special fears and specific difficulties processing their experience that adults may not recognize. The Honeymoon Phase is an ideal time for the pastoral caregiver to make sure resources are available to help young people process their experience.

“Inevitably, reality sets in. Governments put conditions on the assistance they will give, insurance companies find reasons not to pay out on survivors’ once greatest asset — their home — and the media and some helping agencies go home” (“Common Stages of Disaster Recovery”). The Honeymoon phase gradually slides into Phase 3, the Disillusionment Phase. As recovery drags on and resources are harder to obtain, frustrations, anger and despair increases. The sense of community which was once so strong in the previous phases dissipate as individuals begin to focus on their own needs and rebuilding their own lives (Kanel, 200). The pastoral caregiver faces unique challenges during the Disillusionment Phase as s/he sees more personal crises develop. This is a good time to start the cycle of the ABC Crisis Counseling approach again, checking on the survivors and assessing the needs. It is not certain that everyone will receive the help they need. People fall through the cracks of the system and can be left waiting for help that may never come. It is important to remember that socio-economic barriers exist for those who are lower income, undereducated, and/or of minority races. Often in natural disasters, immigrant communities can be affected even more prominently because they may not be fluent in the language or possess necessary documentation in secure locations (i.e. bank safety deposit box). This causes additional strife in a community which already has difficulty trusting the governmental agencies that may be offering assistance (Lindsey).

Disaster response agencies recognize a “ten percent rule for unmet needs”: of the people affected by the natural disaster, about ten percent will not qualify for available aid resources. So if 6000 people were displaced from a natural disaster, 600 will not qualify for any assistance (Lindsey). This is where the church can step in and help. By knowing the needs of the congregation and community, the pastor can place those needs before the congregation and other connectional ministries. This empowers the congregation and others in connectional ministries to be in mission at these points of need. The disaster survivor’s input is necessary here, also. The pastor and helpers must not assume what the needs are. The disaster survivors should help determine their preferred outcome (Lindsey).

The final phase is the Reconstruction Phase. At this point, the community gradually assumes responsibility for the rebuilding of their lives and establishing a new norm (Kanel, 200). This is long-term recovery. Rarely does life fall back into place quickly after a disaster. Often the long term effects change the dynamics of the entire community. Over time, a strong presence of church community can minister to needs of encouragement and care. The church can respond as a place of refuge and understanding, comfort and support.

The pastoral care and counseling issues in the Reconstruction Phase are similar to the previous phase. In all of the recovery phases, community support groups are an important resource. The support groups help community members navigate the various assistance applications, provide continuity and encouragement, and also enable the community to network their available resources. The church as a facility can provide locations for these groups to meet. The church as a body can provide the structure to sustain the groups.

Those in communities affected by natural disasters are in an extended crisis which will last for many years beyond the disaster itself and the initial physical and emotional recovery. It may be instinctual for a Christian relief group that comes with aid to attempt to proselytize those to whom they give aid, but “disaster relief is considered outreach, not evangelism” (Lindsey). It is essential to keep in mind that these individuals are in the midst of a crisis and are thus in a vulnerable state in which they may feel pressured to convert, or feel as if they must convert in order to receive the much needed aid. No matter whether it is truly forced or only perceived to be so, the result is the same, and coercion plays no part in the fullness of the Gospel. Our Savior loves us. He gives us the free will to choose whether or not His love is unrequited; but His love remains regardless of what we decide. In the same way, we are to give relief, support, hope, and love to those outside the Church who are experiencing and recovering from natural disasters without any pressure, or even expectation, they will join the Church. In these moments we will find that to love without pressure, to give without expectation, is a gospel preached at all times, even without speaking.

Benjamin Franklin once said, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Although no amount of training can completely prepare you for the trauma of a natural disaster, and each disaster scenario is completely unique, preparation is a key piece to moving through the recovery process of a natural disaster. Relief agencies such as UMCOR, Red Cross, Salvation Army, and Southern Baptist Disaster Relief offer training classes and curriculum for clergy and laity. Local and state government agencies offer emergency assessments to determine what physical resources your church has to offer. The relationships and resources the church holds are essential pieces in both the preparation for and recovery from a natural disaster.


Works Cited

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In the Eye of the Storm

To say it’s been an emotionally “stormy” few weeks would be an understatement. Our extended family had originally planned to be on a beach trip celebrating our parents’ 50th wedding anniversary this week. Parents, siblings, grandkids of all ages, it’s quite the group and we have lots of fun. That was the plan. Then the storm broke in.

Mom and Dad were already in Florida babysitting the youngest grands (the “Littles”). They are the cutest! At the end of that time (on a Sunday), Dad ended up in the hospital with a rogue ear infection which had become bacterial meningitis and mastoiditis. Who knew that could happen? It did not look good: ICU, induced coma, ventilator, the “works.” Doctors were not too optimistic. Family came down. Prayer requests went out. Hundreds responded. God heard. Miraculously, by Wednesday of that week, he came off the ventilator and was coherent, recognized everyone, responded to commands, could talk and swallow. Even the doctors were astonished. It was NOT the outcome they had expected. The nurses and other care-givers were so loving and gracious. Dad was thanking everyone, praising God, witnessing to the doctors. We were celebrating and contemplating the next steps. Looking back, it was an eye in the storm.

By Friday, the storm started raging again. Dad started having some breathing problems. They got worse fast. That night the attending physician made the call to put him back on the ventilator (that’s a long story in itself.) It was a long night with more prayer requests sent out. By the next morning things were looking better and they took him back off the vent. When he woke up this time, though, he was a bit more serious. The trauma had affected him. On Sunday he seemed stable and on the mend. It was still “raining” and “cloudy,” but surely the sun was shining and clear skies were on the horizon. We said our good-byes and several of us headed back home to Georgia.

The week progressed and at some point he was moved out of ICU to a “step down floor.” Clouds were starting to clear. Plans were made again. However, this storm apparently had another “eye.” Or maybe it was another storm, I don’t know. But by Sunday the clouds were rolling in again. You know how storms are. You see a few clouds and don’t think anything of it. You sense a change in atmosphere, but dismiss it. Then all of a sudden the winds kick up, the lightening strikes and the thunder rolls. On Monday of this week, Dad was moved back to ICU. Doctors weren’t sure what was going on. Thankfully they recognized he would be best treated by his medical professionals at home, so they put in orders to have him transferred (what we were originally told the insurance company wouldn’t allow). Now he’s back in Georgia under the care and supervision of his specialty doctors. We are cautiously optimistic.

I haven’t listened to contemporary Christian radio in at least a week. But for some reason this morning, the song “In the Eye of the Storm” was queued in my subconscious. I was singing what little I could remember of it as I walked into work. I went into the Ministry Center for the juice of consciousness (coffee), and there was a group in there getting ready for River of Life. They had the radio playing on the same. exact. song. God had cued my subconscious and then poked my consciousness on the shoulder. I had to go look it up and see the lyrics. It turns out to be the perfect reminder for today. God knew that. He is our Anchor, no matter the storm.

I link it here for you because maybe your skies are cloudy. Maybe the wind is knocking you around. His love surrounds you in the eye of the storm. Be blessed!

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The Joy of Childhood

It’s VBS week at our church. With full-time work and school, I thought I really didn’t have time to help with it. But our children’s directors were desperate for volunteers so I agreed. They put me with the 4K group! I was more than a bit anxious of how I was going to make it through this week, concerned that my energy level would be zapped. It’s been awhile since I’ve worked with young children.

Now it is Friday morning and I am sad it’s the last day! I have experienced the joy, creativity, and love of God every day in these sweet children and in the other volunteers, especially our youth workers. The music is etched in my brain to the point that I’m singing it in my dreams; but it’s praises to God, so it’s wonderful. This week has restored joy to my spirit and INCREASED my energy!

It is so easy to get overwhelmed with theological studies and adult problems in church, work and at home (budgets, bills, meetings, reports, planning, house care, family care, etc.). This week God spoke to me through the children, even as they ran around, playing with new friends, just laughing and singing and enjoying life, knowing that they were cared for and watched over and loved. He spoke anew to me: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes Me” (Matthew 18:3-5, NRSV). 

We GET to be in ministry and serve God and people. With God in charge, that’s exciting!

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Setting a Goal, Day 3

Good Afternoon Christ Walk Group!

I have a special challenge for you. We have an opportunity to get our steps in AND help someone else!


Wesley Glen Ministries is a wonderful organization which provides care and housing for adults with developmental disabilities. The cost to participate is $28 if you register now. We would love to have a group walk together. I have registered for the 5K. Of course, if you have a more competitive nature and want to win some prizes, go ahead! We don’t want to hold you back. 🙂

For more information, check out this link: Comment below if you will be joining us. Also let us know of other causes we can support with our steps!

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Walking with Christ for Lent

51asdlbaaslToday is the second official day of Lent; but it counts as day 1 in our Christ Walk program. Because several in our group either aren’t on Facebook, or are fasting from it during this season, I have decided to use this as our group encouragement page. All comments, although moderated, are public. And anyone is welcome to join us. We are using the book Christ Walk: A 40-Day Spiritual Fitness Program by Anna Fitch Courie as our guide. We have weekly, in person, group meetings on Wednesdays, 5pm-6pm, in Room 99 at Forest Hills United Methodist Church in Macon, GA. If you can’t be with us in person, you are still welcome to be part of our online group.

Yesterday we held our introductory meeting. One of the first things to do is choose your mileage challenge from page 186-187 which you will personally walk over the next 40 days. Because this is a first time “Christ Walk” for many of us, and it’s Lent, I suggest we choose one of the “Jesus routes” the book lists, specifically:

  • Nazareth Challenge: The route between Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth and Jerusalem, 65 miles. This would be 1.6 miles or about 4,000 steps per day.
  • Jerusalem Challenge, aka the Via Dolorosa (Way of Sorrows): The route Jesus took through Jerusalem during the last week of his life, 88 miles This will be 2.2 miles or about 5,500 steps per day.
  • Bethlehem Challenge: The distance between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, 200 miles. This is 5 miles or about 10,000 steps per day.

Pick a challenge based on your fitness level. For the athletes out there, the author suggests doing the Bethlehem Challenge without a pedometer, getting 5 miles of exercise daily in one workout. You could also do the Bethlehem challenge for the first 5 weeks and then do the Jerusalem Challenge during Holy Week. For all fitness levels, the idea is to move your body in a healthy manner. If walking is a problem, 15-20 minutes of other exercise can count as one mile.

Over the course of the next 40 days, there are daily readings in the book which help you to examine your physical, mental and spiritual health. In our meetings we will cover these same topics, as well as nutrition.  Our congregational nurse is available for physical assessments to monitor weekly progress. We will also have some kind of class exercise each week, so wear your active-wear!

God gave us these bodies, not only to house His Holy Spirit within us, but to also move them in healthy ways, and ultimately to spread His Kingdom on Earth. Let’s encourage one another to take our next steps toward Christ! Comment below what challenge route you are doing.

Example of what we don’t want for our future…


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The Last Time

This morning I took a shower in my Mema’s house, probably for the last time. It’s funny how things hit you sometimes. For the last couple of weekends, we have been working to clean out Mema’s house since she doesn’t need any of this stuff in heaven. 🙂 The 9 months since her death have been eventful, to be sure. My Mom has the most stories to tell. This season has been a most difficult one in her life. She has been an absolute ROCK star! She takes after her mother.

Mema was practical, seemingly unbreakable. She took the crap that life handed her and dealt with it head on. She was tough, but gentle. She ALWAYS took care of the people around her. She never stopped. She worked, and worked, and worked, and loved and loved and loved. She was a phenomenal care-giver. She loved fully. She gave completely. We saw her generosity to us, but now realize we have seen only a glimpse of the far-reaching extent of her generosity. In fact, there were a lot of things about her we are discovering the depth of only now.

“Generous,” “loving,” “practical,” “long-suffering,” “wise,” “dependable,” “strong,” “private,” “discerning,” “hard-working,” “persevering,”– all words that describe Mema. In fact, as I type these words, I can’t help but think of the “Love Chapter” of 1 Corinthians 13. She embodied that passage like no one else I’ve ever known.

“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”

So here I sit. After a lifetime of visiting Mema’s house, we are down to the last time: the last time I sat at her table to eat with extended family, the last time of sitting in her den reading one of her books, the last time taking a shower at her house. It hurts my heart. We often don’t know when something is happening for the last time until we look back. In the last weeks of her life, every time we left her, we wondered if it was the last time. And then it was. A diagnosis of cancer or other disease makes you aware that each life event, each holiday, each good-bye may be the last time with a loved one. Yet oftentimes, we experience last events without that awareness. This is probably a good thing. Would we fully embrace the joy of the moment if there was grief hanging over it?

No. We don’t need to borrow tomorrow’s grief in today’s celebration. Mema wouldn’t want that.

Even in this last time, Mema’s practicality helps to bring laughter through the tears. As the sadness washed over me with the water this morning, the shower curtain rings caught my eye. I couldn’t help but giggle. What would you do if the best placement of the shower curtain rod caused too big of a gap at the bottom of the curtain? Mema just added another row of curtain rings to the existing curtain rings. Fixed for less than a dollar. I swear that woman could have been the original author of all the “life-hack” videos and lists we’ve seen on social media.

God, please give me just a portion of her spirit and wisdom. I KNOW it came from YOU. Amen!

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Whose Agenda are We Following, and Why?

“Then Haman said to King Ahasuerus, “A certain group of people exist in pockets among the other peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom. Their laws are different from those of everyone else (stricter, actually, because of their religious beliefs), and they refuse to obey the king’s laws (just the one stating they had to bow down to Haman or any man against their religious beliefs). There’s no good reason for the king to put up with them any longer (they weren’t bothering the king, just Haman.) If the king wishes, let a written order be sent out to destroy them, and I will hand over ten thousand kikkars of silver to those in charge of the king’s business. The silver can go into the king’s treasuries.” (Haman was willing to personally fund the campaign to wipe out those who didn’t agree with his prideful, selfish agenda. This was personal.) Esther 3:8-9, CEB, (my comments added.)

In this story, one man (Haman) felt another man (Mordecai) disrespected him. Haman’s pride caused him to then view everyone of Mordecai’s race as a threat to his powerful position. This fear wasn’t based on fact, it was based on prejudice. Because Haman was in a position of power, influence and wealth, he was able to spread his agenda quickly, without the king investigating the facts of the case. The king probably trusted his leaders who were closer to the situation. An entire group of people’s lives were endangered with no real thought at all from the “government” because a small group within the government felt disrespected by these people following their religious beliefs.

In light of the news this week, what can we learn from this story to apply to our society today?

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