I serve on staff at a church that has been touched by more than one mass tragedy. There is no perfect set of rules to navigate these issues—they are unexpected, they bring feelings of grief so deep we wonder if the cavern of loss has an end. They feel inexplicable and they happen in a blink. The following is not an exhaustive list of how to manage, but rather a set of starter notes for leaders on how to honor God and the families who suffer most when mass tragedy strikes.
1. Assign a Point Person
Assign a media contact. Direct all offers to help, offers to send resources, donations, and media requests to one capable source who can then farm out the necessary pieces. Understandably, reporters and film crews are vying for sound bytes on how the affected families are coping, so when one or more of the families attends your church, they will be calling you (and anyone else from your congregation who is willing to speak).
Protect the impacted families by urging your staff and congregation not to speak with the press. Instead direct them to a contact person who understands how to handle media requests. This will prevent the spread of misinformation as well as protect the privacy of the grieving families. Also, direct well-intentioned offers for help through a single source that can convene proper care so that grieving families do not end up with 100 plates of brownies and 1000 people praying on their front lawn when all they want is a moment alone.
2. Have additional people on hand to answer questions
In the wake of 9-11 churches were filled. Tragedy brings people to the pews. The front desk of our church reported that more phone calls came in that day than any other day in the history of our church. Your own parishioners will want to know how they can help or pray. Others in the community who may not have a church home will suddenly have deep faith questions for you or your staff. They will want to know when funeral arrangements will be known or, they may ask if they can speak with a pastor about their own response to the tragedy. Have people on hand to support their hard and meaningful questions. Consider a team of volunteers who might sit in your lobby just to listen or answer phones.
3. Avoid Self-Promotion
Do not, for any reason, EVER use tragedy as an opportunity to promote your church/ministry. This is not the time to promote your sermon series or VBS. Do provide the opportunity for resourcing, processing, asking questions. When appropriate, let people know that your church/ministry is a safe place to receive prayer or begin to process these tragic events. Share your wisdom on additional resources like professional counseling or in the case of a natural disaster, food, shelter, and other tangible resources. Be ready to direct inquirers to places and programs that can support their needs.
This is a small start to a long list of options for dealing with mass tragedy. Every event and family is different, but regardless of the horror we may have to face, God promises never to leave us or forsake us.
Adapted from "Where Were You When It Happened?" WomenLeaders.com, April 30, 2015.
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