By Bob Allen
Four-and-a-half months after the mass murder of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, Newtown-area chaplains, counselors and clergy gathered April 26 at a Baptist church in nearby Wilton for a conference on ministerial response to crisis and trauma.
Jason Coker, pastor of Wilton Baptist Church and former member of the CBF Coordinating Council, introduced the clergy and crisis conference goal as “helping and empowering those in helping professions.”
“We want to empower you with different tools to help the hurting and help them to find meaning and purpose in their new normal,” Coker told area clergy gathered around tables in the Wilton Baptist Church fellowship hall.
Four months ago, Coker was flooded with e-mails from the CBF network offering to help. He replied that the community was already overwhelmed with an outpouring of support from across the country, but he hoped the Fellowship family would still be interested if a need emerged in six months.
“Newtown was crushed with good will, but crushed nonetheless,” Coker said.
In Arkansas, CBF Responds coordinator Charles Ray was thinking there really wasn’t much his people could do under the circumstances but pray.
“Number one, you were far off,” Ray told Connecticut clergy. “Number two, we had never faced anything like that.”
Ray had recently read a new book by Greg Hunt, a former CBF pastor and now a consultant and writer, that he thought would be helpful to Coker. After reading Leading Congregations through Crisis, Coker said he wished he could give a copy to every minister in the area.
Ray found funds to purchase and ship a number of books to Wilton. At a meeting with other CBF disaster-relief leaders a few days later in Joplin, Mo., Ray mentioned what the Arkansas CBF was doing for Newtown, and someone remarked it would be nice if Hunt could go there personally.
“I stepped out and called Greg, and in 15 minutes we put together what is going to happen today,” Ray said in his introduction.
CBF organizations in Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas pooled funds with CBF disaster response, making it possible for Newtown-area caregivers to attend free of charge.
David Lane, professor of counseling at Mercer University, who worked with CBF to lead four trips to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake to train pastors, teachers and community members to work with trauma victims, brought a team to lead an afternoon workshop.
“In the midst of a crisis, leaders don’t have the luxury of twiddling their thumbs and deciding what to do,” Hunt said. “There is a need for an immediate response.”
Leading Congregations through Crisis was 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.
Hunt described the book, named one of the top 10 books in 2012 by The Academy of Parish Clergy, “a best-practices guide for what you do in an institutional crisis.” Hunt said he found a lot of literature about managing crises in the corporate world and in academia, but next-to-nothing about churches.
“What there was was oriented toward shepherding the congregation and with the pastoral care mindset,” Hunt said. “This is very important, but what was missing was a leadership orientation that would bring another dimension.”
“We’re not just talking about how we can get people through the night and return things to normal, because here by definition is one of the fundamental things about a crisis,” he said. “Things never go back to normal. They move in some fashion that can be better or worse, but it is never the same.”
Hunt said congregational crises are a fact of life. While that sounds like a no-brainer to Newtown area clergy, he said even after Sandy Hook he talked to people who “were basically looking at that as a news item separate from them” and thinking, “This will never happen to us.”
Hunt said the reality is that congregational crisis is not a matter of “if,” but “when.”
“All of us have to be aware that it could happen to us at a given time,” Hunt said. “That awareness allows for preparation.”
Hunt said balancing effective leadership and management with pastoral care is crucial to a positive outcome. The principles for leading through a crisis are not a mystery, he said: Keep cool, stay warm, act decisively, communicate continuously, team up, stay focused and finish well.
Hunt said crises are an opportunity for learning and growth, and that congregations can get in front of a crisis through proactive planning and preparation.
A congregation’s “not-so-secret” advantage in responding to crisis, he said, is God. “We bring into crisis resources that are unique to us as people of God,” he said. “We get to call on those in ways that are heart-warming, transforming and they are beacon to others.”
Hunt said ministers can lead through crisis without burning out, but not by accident. “I want to challenge you about how you take care of yourself,” Hunt said. “Part of our concern in coming is we know you have a long-term challenge.”
Hunt said just because they are human, he is 100 percent certain that no one in the room is doing well enough in the area of self-care.
“You haven’t adequately cared for yourself, and you must,” Hunt said. “If you need a selfless reason for doing so, know you cannot sustain yourself as the leader God needs you to be in the current situation if you do not sustain yourself.”
Leah Cohen, rabbi of Temple B’nai Chaim in Georgetown, Conn., said she found the session very helpful. “Everything is so applicable,” she said.
Hunt will remain in the area for a week and is available for other sessions or for personal time. Ray said CBF responders would convene after the conference to discuss a possible template for how to respond to other man-made disasters like Boston and West, Texas.
Ray said CBF responders are trained and equipped to respond to natural disasters like tornados and hurricanes, but something like Newtown is different. He said he hopes the Fellowship can take leadership in producing a new model.
“This is really important to us,” Ray said.