By Bob Allen
Multiple Cooperative Baptist Fellowship organizations are joining forces to offer support for clergy in Newtown, Conn., struggling to minister to congregations still dealing with the aftermath of last year’s massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
A daylong Clergy and Crisis: A Conference in Response to the Sandy Hook Tragedy is scheduled for Friday, April 26, at Wilton Baptist Church in Wilton, Conn. Wilton is located about 30 miles from the village rocked by the Dec. 14, 2012, mass murder committed by 20-year-old Adam Lanza, who fatally shot 20 children and six adults before killing himself.
The event came together as the result of discussions among leaders in a network of national, state, regional and partner organizations that comprise the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
It started with conversations in Little Rock, Ark., about what the CBF of Arkansas might do to meet needs in such a faraway place with little Baptist presence.
Determining there is a CBF church in neighboring Wilton, state CBF coordinator Ray Higgins contacted Jason Coker, a past member of the national CBF Coordinating Council and pastor of Wilton Baptist Church since 2007.
Higgins recommended a new book titled Leading Congregations Through Crisis written by his longtime friend Greg Hunt, a former CBF pastor who now works full-time for Directions, Inc., a nonprofit that he and his wife, Priscilla, formed in 2001.
The book, named one of the top 10 books in 2012 by The Academy of Parish Clergy, is born out of Hunt’s experience as pastor of First Baptist Church in Shreveport, La. On July 12, 2009, 23 youth and adult sponsors from there were involved in a tragic bus accident that left two dead and others seriously injured.
From there, Hunt turned to research and to other ministers who had weathered similar storms. They include Al Meredith of Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, where a gunman opened fire during a youth rally in 1999, killing seven.
The book also looks at University Baptist Church in Waco, Texas, where a congregation watched in horror as Pastor Kyle Lake died from electrocution when he reached for a microphone while standing in the church baptistery on Sunday morning, Oct. 30, 2005.
Other stories include congregations that navigated high-profile cases of clergy misconduct, financial ruin, lawsuits, fires and natural disasters.
After receiving a copy and reading the book, Coker commented he wished he could give a copy to all of the ministers he has gotten to know through the Association of Religious Communities in Danbury, Conn., which began coordinating an area-wide pastoral response to Sandy Hook immediately after the tragedy.
Charles Ray of CBF Arkansas disaster response got a discount and purchased 20 copies that were shipped to Coker to distribute to his friends.
Meanwhile, Hunt had a conversation with Coker and volunteered to come to Connecticut to offer support. During a gathering of CBF state coordinators who were involved in disaster relief in Joplin, Mo., following the May 22, 2011, tornado that killed 161 and destroyed about a third of the city, someone said that would be a great idea, but they couldn’t afford to do it alone.
CBF leaders from Arkansas, Missouri, Texas, Oklahoma and South Carolina ponied up funds to pay for Hunt’s expenses and meals for conference attendees. Harry Rowland of the CBF national office in Atlanta got wind of it and suggested incorporating David Lane from Mercer University into the plan. Rowland and Lane had worked together in Haiti to train pastors there about trauma response.
“The net effect of this is that we are all collaborating now on a conference for Newtown area pastors that will take place on Friday, April 26,” Hunt said. “I will lead two morning sessions; David and his team will lead afternoon sessions; and we will conclude with a Q&A-oriented panel discussion. We’ll have a brunch gathering on Saturday morning to allow for more informal follow up with participating pastors.”
Hunt said CBF national is providing support related to promotional materials. Coker is taking the lead on inviting pastors, and Ray has headed up planning through conference calls.
Coker said he was inundated with messages from friends across CBF life in December asking how they could help. His advice at the time was that local leaders were already receiving more aid from people all over the country than they could handle, but he hoped their interest would remain strong enough for him to call on them in three to six months when needed.
Contacted March 20, Coker marveled at the CBF community’s ability to pull together.
“In moments of tragedy, I cannot explain how powerful and helpful it is to have the abiding support of an entire Fellowship,” Coker said. “Through hundreds of e-mails and phone conversations, CBF and the state and regional arms of CBF have come together to form a conference in light of the Sandy Hook massacre.”
“Our church, Wilton Baptist, will host this conference that will equip our local clergy with the tools it takes to help congregants deal with crisis,” Coker said. “We are helping the helpers.”
None of the families at Coker’s church lost loved ones at Sandy Hook, but many had relationships with those who did. Because of their proximity, church members were all caught up in the crisis. Meanwhile, friendships through the ministerial alliance put Coker in close company with several pastors trying to minister to families who were traumatized.
In addition to Hunt’s expertise, Coker said Lane and Mercer colleague Craig McMahan will help clergy recognize and help parishioners with post-traumatic stress disorder, a program they used successfully in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake that killed an estimated 220,000 and destroyed a quarter of a million homes.
“There have been so many people involved in making this happen, and the timing couldn’t be better,” Coker said. “The initial shock of it all has lessened, but it is still so incredibly raw. I drove past the Newtown/Sandy Hook exit off the interstate yesterday, and I was overwhelmed with emotion that I couldn’t explain. We all are still dealing with it like that. This conference will go a long way in helping our local clergy help the general public work through the grief that accompanies such a traumatic experience.”