Most pastors, as part of their preparation for ministry, are equipped to provide the comfort and counsel necessary when members of their congregations struggle with ordinary relationship problems or experience loss and grief. Good pastors are also capable of recognizing when the help needed goes beyond what they are able to provide. And thus they refer to specialists in one area or another.
With 9-11, however, many pastors around the nation felt at a loss to provide what was needed in this time of national fear and crisis. For many, little or nothing in their seminary training prepared them for a crisis of this nature or magnitude. Or perhaps their training prepared them more than they realized—but they didn't recognize it.
The essence of a national crisis
Timothy Robnett, associate professor of pastoral ministries at Multnomah Biblical Seminary, puts it like this: "The first way that a national or community tragedy differs from personal tragedies is the extent of the trauma. The mere numbers of people and places involved bring a sense of being overwhelmed."
However, according to pastoral counseling professor G. Peter Schreck of Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary, "In truth the trauma occasioned by [the events of September 11] is not much different in kind from that of a personal crisis." Indeed, although September 11 was a national crisis, it was experienced by people across the nation as a personal crisis. Says Schreck, "Differences that distinguish a national tragedy from a personal one have to do not with kind, but with degree."
According to Schreck, the core element of a crisis, whether personal or national, is the same, that being "the subjective assessment that the resources at one's disposal are not equal to the situation with which one is confronted." He adds, "For many people and communities, this was how they felt following the terrorist attacks."
Taking care of one's self
Cynthia Eriksson, codirector of the Headington Program in International Trauma at Fuller Theological Seminary, observes that a community tragedy is distinct in part because every member of the congregation is a "victim" in one way or another. This includes those, including pastors, who are attempting to provide care.
Eriksson stresses the importance of caretakers identifying and understanding their own reactions to the event: "A pastor who is struggling to deal with his or her own fears and doubts but pushes them out of his or her mind in order to 'care for others' is not going to be effective. Such a person could be harmful to others if the unconscious defensive response is to squelch the expression of fear and doubt in others."
Dan Zink, assistant professor of practical theology at Covenant Theological Seminary, echoes this view, observing that pastors need to be prepared to walk with others as they deal with the struggle. Of course, Zink adds, if a pastor in going to be this kind of presence in someone else's life, he needs to have his own "active faith [in] the living God, so he knows firsthand that God is faithful and good, and he will be present and he will make himself known."
A unique, spiritual perspective
Mark Bradford, associate professor of psychology and counseling at Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, observes that pastors are expected to bring a unique perspective to the caregiving process in the midst of a tragedy or crisis: "Crisis counselors, psychologists, and social workers all help people work through tragedy and crisis, as do pastors. The difference is that the pastor is often asked to bring spiritual resources to bear to aid recovery." Specifically, Bradford adds, "The questions related to God's perspective on the tragedy are usually reserved for pastors."