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De-moralizing a Crisis

Whatever their causes, all issues provoke the same optional jolts. There is the humbling admission that the situation is threatening and that our strengths seem inadequate. We know our lives will never be the same. As James F. Hopewell explains in Congregation: Stories and Structure (1987), congregations reveal their essential character when responding to crisis.

Some crises are caused by sources beyond our control, such as floods, fires and hurricanes. These can blindside even the most prudent congregations. Some crises come in the failures of people we trust, like the sexual abuse by a beloved pastor or the embezzlement of funds by a long-term treasurer. Whatever the crisis, the threat is perceived differently according to the disposition of the church. From the varied experiences of pastors and church leaders, I have noted three types of responses. Let me use as examples three Florida churches that were hit by Hurricane Andrew and faced the task, in the words of an insightful yet ambivalent church person, of "re-constructing a new life for ourselves."

One was a suburban Presbyterian church in a community of successful business and professional people, many retired. After these members recovered from their initial feeling of having been personally violated by the powerful storm, they were energized by a sense of responsibility. They wanted handles on the chaos; they wanted institutional structures to provide the resources to rebuild. Behind their sense of responsibility lay angry faultfinding. They proclaimed anyone who helped a hero, and designated anyone who failed to give aid a villain. They also blamed themselves. Occasionally individuals shook a fist at heaven, asking, "Why should this happen to me, when I've worked so hard for what I got?" For many in this church the religious experience came not in the storm, but in the order that they imposed "to reconstruct a new life" for themselves.

The second was a more spiritually minded congregation affiliated with the Church of God. (I heard similar responses from congregations of other denominations.) Like the first church, they had a strong sense of responsibility, but not in themselves. They lived in God's world, and they expected God to pull them through. In their faith "God has a plan for everything" and "with prayer, God shows us the way." They felt equally violated by the winds of Hurricane Andrew, but they doubted that outsiders could understand. Said one, "To tell you about my losses is like taking you to the funeral of someone you never knew--you might care a lot, but you'll never understand." They worried that in the storm God was punishing them. With far less anger than the Presbyterians, they said, "It was God's way of testing us." They began with fewer resources than the Presbyterians and recovered more slowly. Their healing nurtured their sense of community, but collectively they felt chastised by the Lord.

The third was a large Catholic parish, but again, I heard their response from small Protestant churches as well. The storm crushed their dreams and left many of them homeless, but they revealed a different character. When asked what skills they brought to this devastating crisis, they said, "We're best at gossiping and cooking--they go together." They neither credited nor blamed, and cast no moral responsibility upon themselves or God. When asked how they had coped in the past, they laughingly said, "Like so many people in distress, we eat our way through our problems." They had no less initiative to find shelter, give aid and rebuild their community. But in faith they combined a long view of history with a solid awareness of God in their midst, repeated in a mantra I heard many times: "We've been this way before, and we know we're never alone."

In coping with crisis, these congregations revealed themselves and reflected their leaders' attitudes. Throughout I felt the emotions of their pastors--I* was exhausted by the mobilizing anger of the in-charge Presbyterians and was frustrated by the enervating resignation of a faith that shifted the blame to God. I never realized how much energy is consumed in finding fault.

But when I spent time with the church that refused to assign moral responsibility to either themselves or God, I found a congregational character that could meet the challenge. Without the moral burden of fixing guilt, they empowered their members without emotionally draining their leaders.

All three ways worked, but "demoralizing" the crisis worked better and cost less. When I thought about how often we are demoralized by crises, it seemed much healthier to demoralize the crisis first. Unburdened, we are free to begin "reconstructing a new life for ourselves."

November-December 1995




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