By Kim Plummer Krull
Janet Hankins admits that several days of non-stop conversations and presentations about a school shooting, a bombing, tornadoes, wildfires and floods does “drag you down.”
But at the same time, the retired police officer and member of Trinity Lutheran Church, Cumberland, Md., said she was leaving her first LCMS National Disaster Response Conference, Oct. 7-10 in St. Louis, feeling uplifted and, frankly, surprised.
“I didn’t know our church did all this!” she said, referring to LCMS Disaster Response, the ministry that works alongside LCMS districts, congregations and partners across the world to provide physical and spiritual support when lives turn upside down.
“I’m just so proud and overwhelmed by what our church is doing,” Hankins said. “I want everyone to know!”
This was the fifth such conference hosted by LCMS Disaster Response, but the first to address the church’s role in the wake of man-made tragedies such as shootings or bombings, said the Rev. Glenn Merritt, director of LCMS Disaster Response.
“Man-made tragedies touch the very fabric of our being and call for compassion and support at all levels,” Merritt told some 100 conference participants, including pastors, deaconesses, and ministry and congregation leaders.
After a flood or hurricane, Merritt said, the impact tends to be more physical, material and financial. After man-made tragedies, “people are dealing more with spiritual and emotional effects,” he said.
“You can’t blame the strong winds,” said the Rev. Timothy Yeadon, president of the LCMS New England District, who discussed the church’s response after the Newtown, Conn., school shooting and Boston Marathon bombing.
Yeadon talked of “anger, fear, a sense of evil that Satan is at work” in the dark aftermath of a man-made catastrophe.
Superstorm Sandy survivors, he said, can mark their recovery in positive terms with each rebuilt home. “But after a man-made disaster like [the] Newtown [shootings] or the Boston Marathon [bombing], there’s not much to salvage,” said Yeadon, who assisted LCMS pastors in those cities after each tragic event.
In Newtown: All changed but hope in Jesus
One such pastor is the Rev. Rob Morris, who is in his first year of parish ministry at Christ the King Lutheran Church in Newtown, Conn. At 33, he is already a disaster-response veteran.
“There are no national tragedies, only deeply personal tragedies while everyone else is watching,” said Morris, who was the banquet speaker and also spoke informally during the conference.
“At 9:30 on December 14, everything changed except the hope we have been given in Jesus,” said Morris, whose community was rocked by the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School that killed six staff members and 20 first-graders.
One of those children went to Sunday school at Christ the King Lutheran Church.
“With a natural disaster, you can muck out basements, chainsaw trees, help people physically,” Morris said. But after a tragedy such as the shooting, “by the time you figure out what has happened, the only thing remaining is the grief process.”
At the banquet, Morris delivered what he termed a sermon, based on Genesis 50:20.
“I can’t tell my story [about the Newtown tragedy] because it’s not my story to tell,” said the pastor, who preached at the funerals for two of the victims. “What I can do is share Scriptures that have been helpful to me, and that I have been sharing with others.”
One such Scripture was 1 Thess. 4:13-14; another, John 11:35.
“Jesus wept,” Morris said, quoting the verse. “If the God of the universe weeps, we can, too.”
While the LCMS response in the wake of the Newtown tragedy stirred some divisions, Morris said that, personally, the suffering caused by the shooting “looms larger.”
“God’s people really are a gift. And like all gifts this side of heaven, they aren’t perfect,” he said in an interview.
“God’s people are a gift who are united by something that doesn’t change,” Morris added, referring to the Gospel.
Dangers of compassion fatigue
In addition to man-made disasters, the conference focused on compassion fatigue.
Dr. Beverly Yahnke, executive director for Christian counseling with DOXOLOGY, an LCMS Recognized Service Organization, called pastors, deaconesses and other ministry leaders who respond to disasters “the lights coming into the dreadful darkness” who “sometimes may endure burning.”
“Long after a disaster and everyone imagines the worst is over, compassion fatigue sets in,” said Yahnke, who calls this “big, real phenomenon” the personal cost of “caring genuinely and deeply for people you are called to serve.”
She cautioned that compassion fatigue burnout can grow progressively worse. It often begins with the compulsion to prove that “everything is going to be OK” and, if ignored, can lead to depression.
While church workers tend to “tell themselves to be responsible for fixing everything and meeting everyone’s needs,” Yahnke warned that “you won’t meet long-term needs if you’re not meeting your own needs.”
To help avoid compassion fatigue, Yahnke and the Rev. Dr. Harold Senkbeil, DOXOLOGY executive director for spiritual care, urged conference attendees to:
- debrief with other ministry leaders. “Don’t be a lone ranger,” Senkbeil said. “God has given you another brother or sister” to share with “and get this load off your heart.”
- be aware of compassion fatigue symptoms. Neglecting family and controlling behavior are common warning signs.
- consult with a licensed clinical psychologist if you detect symptoms multiplying.
For preventative spiritual self-care, Senkbeil urged attendees to develop regular habits of prayer and meditation revolving around God’s Word. Caregivers can turn to the psalms of lament to “file a complaint” to the living God, he said, referencing 16 such psalms, of which the first is Psalm 6.
“Rather than absorbing all that trauma [of a disaster], give it over to God who can do something about it,” Senkbeil said.
Speakers also spotlighted the church’s response to natural disasters.
“Post-traumatic stress syndrome is not limited to soldiers on the battlefield,” said the Rev. Dennis Lucero, pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church, Colorado Springs, Colo., and an emergency-services chaplain with the El Paso County Sherriff’s Office.
Lucero shared vivid glimpses into the suffering caused by wildfires that torched more than 18,000 acres in Waldo Canyon, Colo., last summer. “Some people turn to God; others turn away,” Lucero said. “There’s a constant searching for meaning in a meaningless time.”
The Rev. Mark Stillman, pastor of Village Lutheran Church, Lanoka Harbor, N.J., told how mercy ministries continue nearly one year after Superstorm Sandy battered parts of the East Coast.
The Rev. Mark Bersche, pastor at St. John’s Lutheran Church and School, Moore, Okla., told how children are the focus of the continuing disaster-response ministry.
Scholarships enable students affected by the deadly May tornado to attend St. John’s school. Plans are in the works to host a community event this Advent and another camp for young tornado survivors next summer.
“All the other [disaster] responders are gone, but we’re still working, still putting things together” for families who are still hurting,” Bersche said.
Echoing others, Bersche expressed appreciation for the only four-legged responders attending the conference. “An amazing ministry,” he said, pointing to Luther, Tara and other Golden Retrievers with Lutheran Church Charities K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry.
In Newtown, Pastor Morris told how Maggie, a Comfort Dog, lives with his family and generates smiles in the community.
Likewise, the canines commanded the most popular corner at the conference, inspiring pastors to drop to the floor to pet and pose for pictures with the cuddly comrades.
Vision for future
At the conference’s close, Merritt noted his previously announced retirement, set for June 2014. “But this is not my swan song,” he said, outlining several specific plans that are part of his vision for LCMS Disaster Response, including:
- continuing to work on the endorsement process so that trained and endorsed emergency-services chaplains can be deployed “at a moment’s notice” by LCMS Disaster Response.
- collaborating more closely with LCMS RSOs, especially those with a disaster-response component, to avoid wasting resources. “There should be no competition in Christ’s Kingdom,” Merritt said.
- working with LCMS Life and Health Ministries to deploy medical mission teams nationally.
The Rev. Ross Johnson marveled at the many examples of how the church loves and serves neighbors in need. Johnson, who is serving concurrently with and being mentored by Merritt as director of Disaster Response, will take over the ministry’s leadership next year when Merritt retires.
“What I’ve seen is amazing, and it’s only going to continue growing as we continue to build capacity,” Johnson said, citing the pastors, congregational and disaster-response ministry leaders for whom “serving seems to come so naturally and who clearly want to do it.”
Likewise, LCMS President Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison said he feels “very humbled that the Lord has blessed us right in the middle of terrible tragedies.”
Ever-improving proficiency, growing compassion, great leadership and more people “coming to the table” to serve in the name of Christ through disaster-response ministry are among the blessings Harrison noted in an interview following his greeting to conference attendees.
While acknowledging “my own weaknesses and failings and the failing of us all,” Harrison said “the Lord blesses” in ways we can’t even yet see.
“This is just exactly what we should be doing at this moment,” Harrison said.
Kim Plummer Krull is a freelance writer and a member of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Des Peres, Mo.