I went to New Orleans in response to the devastation left by Hurricane Ida, helping a church in LaPlace with disaster relief.
One of the resources I overheard a resident turning to was a well-known prosperity ministry. I could only imagine the problematic results of such theology for the homeowner after the category four hurricane destroyed all of their belongings.
These experiences were at the front of my mind as I saw the tornado damage in Kentucky and Tennessee at the end of 2021, and the devastating fires in Colorado to begin 2022.
Clergy response after a natural disaster can be a mixed bag, but the response to human suffering is incredibly important.
Too many clergy seem to lack knowledge in how to help process corporate grief.
In some instances, pastors merely do not know how to respond. In other cases, a common answer is that natural disasters happen due to God-like punishment for the community’s sins. While these pastors may mean well, this response harms people.
Catastrophic events can leave us feeling isolated from God, and the last thing suffering people need to hear following a natural disaster is that it is a God-caused event resulting from sin.
As Larry Graham (1942-2017), professor emeritus of pastoral theology and care at Iliff School of Theology, explained: “There is overwhelming shock and devastation that rips through a community when a catastrophe occurs. In both the literal and spiritual sense, catastrophic disasters turn citizens into exiles and inhabitants into refugees.”
In addition to more refined theological reflection, we also must understand human psychology amid disaster. People who have experienced a natural disaster have mental health responses to that traumatic event.
According to Mohsen Rezaeian, “Mental distress, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety disorders, etc. occur between a third and half of all the persons who have been exposed to such disasters.”
If up to half of a community has lasting mental health responses to natural disasters, then we must learn how to walk alongside them appropriately.
The beliefs of our community become fragile following catastrophe, and our initial response is vital to helping them navigate both the theological and psychological struggles they are facing.
In response to the seemingly unending news of climate change and the growing need for appropriate pastoral care following natural disasters, a group of people from Japan has worked towards addressing the issue.
Chizuko Saito and colleagues created a pastoral response to a major disaster based off of their experiences with the tsunami that hit Japan in 2011.
The first step is to examine the caregiver’s own religious cultural modes and utilize them effectively in clinical practice.
Self-examination is essential if we are to give proper pastoral care to those suffering not only from natural disaster, but also from other types of trauma as well.
The second step is to understand the cultural modes of religion of the people being cared for, and to use appropriate spiritual and religious interventions based on this information.
Examining the receivers’ beliefs and practices will allow ministers and other pastoral caregivers to faithfully shepherd those who are in need of pastoral care.
The final step in disaster care is to study the context in which the receiver lives and examine the contextual meaning of the receiver’s beliefs.
Caregivers must apply their own beliefs, as well as the beliefs of the receivers, in order to effectively care. Such applications will differ from community to community, and person to person.
Not every culture is the same, sometimes even within the same city limit. For pastoral caregivers, knowing how to adapt the care we give to our communities can allow us to show the grace of Jesus in a more effective way.
These three steps can be helpful when determining the methodology of pastoral care amid not just natural disasters, but other causes of collective trauma as well.
Ultimately, the care of our community is what is most valuable. If clergy can lead grieving communities to comfort, then we will have done our job.
Our response to natural disasters can tune the beliefs of those whom we care for.
If we can establish a sense of comfort in God following a natural disaster, then our work is being faithful to the kingdom of God.
Editor’s note: This article is part of an ongoing series focused on engaging the emerging generations of faith leaders. If you know anyone who might be interested, encourage them to submit an article for consideration to email@example.com.