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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