Responding Well to a Crisis

Working in both security and various ministries, I have witnessed or been involved in a variety of crises. Whether it was treating a compound fracture, being pastor-on-call when a deacon and father passed from a sudden heart attack, caring for a family who’s loved one took their life, administering first aid to a twisted knee, handling a mental health crisis, or ensuring a leader suffering a heart attack stayed conscious while EMTs arrived, there are moments in all of our lives that will be crisis moments. We must be prepared to step into them well.

Not all of us will have the same skillset or training, but God has uniquely and divinely equipped and positioned each of us to be present in those moments for an express purpose. I believe that in order to truly handle those moments and situations well, we must be prepared and knowledgeable so we can care well for our people.

Today I want to provide you with some ways to prepare (as best we can) for crisis moments by helping us think through steps before, during, and after the crisis that will help us best respond and minister to the people under our care. I will say this though: these steps do not make you a crisis negotiator nor afford you any special training or ability to be something we are not. In many crisis moments referral is necessary as we are not equipped to handle various things. This is simply meant to help you think through how you respond and are equipped as we know that we will experience these moments in our lives.

Pre-crisis.

Know your team. This is so important because knowing who is on your team and their skillset allows you to be prepared for various circumstances. Perhaps you have a mental health counselor, or an EMT, or a nurse on your team. Knowing these people allows you to gain knowledge and insight from them, to empower them to take the lead in crisis situations, and helps your leaders take more ownership because they are seen and empowered to lead.

Know your networks. This is one of the most important things you can do before a crisis. If you know the people, agencies, and services that are provided in your community, you will be better suited to know how to respond and who to respond to. Knowing the counselors in your community and building a relationship with them allow you to help people better. Knowing the crisis hotline and helpful, caring, knowledgeable health professionals means you can bring a trusted resource and needed care to your people. Knowing the police officers, EMTs, and firefighters means that you not only can advocate for and care for first responders, but can also help them know and love your people and vice versa. When you build a network you are building a trusting and caring community and you can be a bridge to the person who is experiencing the crisis by connecting them to someone you know and trust.

Be educated. Whether it is by taking a CPR and first aid course, reading or listening to trusted resources, furthering your academic education, or talking with a professional, make sure to continue to grow in your knowledge and expertise. The more you know the better suited you will be to care for people and respond to a crisis.

During the crisis.

Stay calm. This is huge. As a leader, your level of intensity, panic, or calm will reflect outward to your people and the person experiencing the crisis. Think about this: if a fire alarm goes off and you start freaking out and yelling “we are all going to die,” your people may not respond well. But if you keep a cool head and direct people out, making sure they are safe, then your people will reflect your resolve and peace. This is true in any crisis situation, so always seek to remain calm. Now I will say this: it is okay to feel the intensity and adrenalin within yourself, but don’t let that be reflected outward. Should a student call you and say they have a plan to take their life, it is okay to feel all the things and begin to make a plan of intervention. But don’t let the intensity or panic reflect in your voice or in your actions.

Remember and rely on your training. This goes hand-in-hand with staying calm. The more training you have the calmer you will be in a situation. Sometimes when a crisis develops it is helpful to simply pause and breathe for 3-5 seconds and calm your heart as you assess what is happening. As you assess remember your training and step in and respond to the best of your ability.

Bring in necessary people. This goes back to knowing your team. You may have some training or equipping, but there may be others who are better suited to respond. I’ve had various types of training when it comes to handling first aid and crises, but if someone is hurt I am defaulting to the nurses and doctors in my program. Their training and education is much greater than mine and they can handle the situation in better ways.

Contact the necessary people and/or agencies. This is paramount. If there is a fire we all know to call 911, but do you know who to call in a mental health crisis? What about in the event of a power outage? What if there is a tornado or hurricane? Knowing who to call and when is key in a crisis, and honestly something that all leaders of a ministry should know and equip their volunteers with as well.

Pray. This is something that you as the primary responder should be doing throughout the crisis, but I would also encourage you to call your leaders and people in your ministry to pray as well. You may not always have that luxury as some crisis moments are between you and just the individual, but if a crisis happens in a public setting like your youth group, encourage your leaders to pull people away from the crisis (nothing elevates stress and embarrassment like a crowd hovering) and have them pray for what is happening.

Care for your people. Let the person(s) involved in the crisis know that you love them and are there for them. Be a calming presence and allow the peace that God affords us to be reflected through you to them. Also, if you aren’t the primary responder, make sure to care for the other people at the crisis. If a nurse steps in, care for the friends of the individual. Pray, read scripture, cry together, and walk with them.

Post-crisis.

Continue to care for your people. Sometimes after a crisis has been handled and the appropriate people and agencies contacted, it may seem easier to assume our job is done. But honestly your job is only just beginning. Continuing to care for your people, those who had the crisis and those affected by it, is paramount. As you continue to follow up, speak love and truth, and minister to people, you will be showing them the power, peace, and love of God.

Stay involved to the appropriate degree. As you continue to care for people, it is also important to know your role. It is easy to for us to want to care and be involved, but there are only so many degrees to which we can do so. Trying to get involved in the counseling sessions after a mental health crisis could muddy the waters. But continuing to care for and minister to that person is key. Trying to get into an operating room isn’t allowed, but sitting with the family and being present is hugely important. Seek to find a balance to the level of involvement that enables you to care well for others.

Know your limitations. While care and involvement are good things, it is also helpful to know our place and our limitations. Sometimes we can be prone to inserting ourselves into situations that don’t warrant our involvement, or exhausting ourselves through our efforts to stay involved. So know your skillset, know how you can be of the best help, and know when to step back and let others handle the situation. This will help you make sure that your people receive the best possible care and allow you to breathe and find peace in the midst of the aftermath of the crisis.

Pray. Prayer is something that should continue to be a part of this journey. Pray for your people. Pray for everyone involved. Pray for continued treatment and helpful results. Pray for healing and resolution. Pray for peace and for people to see and trust Jesus. As you pray continue to trust God and rely on Him to bring healing and restoration to this moment.

Talk to a counselor or a trusted person for decompression. This is more about self-care. As someone who has been in too many traumatic situations to count, I know the weight they can put on you. The emotional, physical, psychological, and even spiritual weight that can come from these events can feel overwhelming and crippling. So make sure to talk to someone and process through what has happened. Release the emotions, talk through what happened, and process your thoughts. Doing this will help you heal and be a better minister to those in your care.

Helping Students Deal with Tragedy

Tragedy can be defined as an event that causes great sadness, hurt, destruction, and distress, but the reality we must understand is that tragedy looks different in each of our lives. What might be a tragedy or crisis for one person will look different for another.

However, what we do know about tragedy is that our students are facing it more and more each day, and are emotionally connected to tragedy even if it does not directly affect them. Students today feel more empathetic and sympathetic to what is happening both within their own sphere and from a global perspective. Students understand more, they feel deeper, and they live in a heightened state of fear due to all the horrific events happening in our world.

Because of the emotions and connections, tragedies can be felt even when they aren’t experienced. Students can feel the effects of a school shooting in California or the tsunami that hit in Japan or a suicide in their school in very similar ways. What this means then is that we as their youth leaders, parents, pastors, and adults in their lives must be having very frank conversations about tragedy before, during, and after it happens.

I know this may sound overwhelming because there are moments when we will ask, “How are we equipped to talk about these tragedies, when we don’t even fully understand how to process them ourselves?” I want to offer a few helpful conversation tips, and then to give you some resources to utilize as well.

So how do we engage our students in the conversations surrounding tragedy? Here are couple of tips to help with those conversations:

Begin the conversation sooner than later. It is always better to be proactive than reactive. We live in a very fallen and broken world where we will hear about tragedies constantly on the news, social media, at school, or in a number of other capacities. Talk to your students as they grow and help them to see that our world isn’t perfect, that bad things will happen, but that God is still sovereign and in control.

Point your students back to God and Scripture. Whenever tragedy occurs, typically our response goes to either blaming God or asking God why. Having a good grasp on who God is, His plan for our lives, His vision of this world and our lives with Him, will allow for you to better love, care for, and walk with your students during tragedy.

I do want to say that in the midst of tragedy, do not simply toss out Scripture to gloss over the difficult moments. That tends to be a knee-jerk reaction for many of us. Many of our students know those Scriptures and understand them, but they still are processing and grieving. We need to give them that space, to empathize and sympathize with them, to listen, to love them, and to walk with them as you both look for answers and understanding.

Be available. Students want to be known and heard. Be willing to engage with them, and to go past the surface questions. Don’t settle for “fine” or “okay” as a response. Ask questions that generate meaning and depth of conversation. Instead of “how was your day” or “what is bothering you” ask something like, “what was hard for you today” or “what emotion was strongest for you today?” These types of open ended questions not only allow you to be available physically but show that you are emotionally and mentally present as well. Having someone they can talk to, just be with, and process with is a big part of caring for your students, so make sure to be available.

Look to grow in your own knowledge and understanding. Educate, educate, educate. In order to understand how to care best for your students, seek out resources and equipping to help you better care for them. Utilize some of the resources below, talk to your mentors or other youth pastors, read books, listen to podcasts. The more you know, the better equipped you are to care for your students.

Never minimize how your students are feeling or say that what they experienced isn’t a tragedy. We all feel and process differently, so don’t minimize the situation. This is a form of escapism because we feel ill prepared. Instead validate their feelings, help them to process, walk with them, and being willing to just listen and love them. The greatest gift you can give to someone who has experienced a tragedy is love and time. Be with them. Be wholly present and love them well. A great way to think about this is to ask yourself, “What would I want someone to do for me in a time like this?” Use that as the framework for how you engage with your students.

Build your resources. This is more than just your own knowledge and library. I would encourage you to network, know who the counselors are in your area, talk to the church about their resources, and consider what you can contribute as well. As you build your resources, you become better equipped to handle trauma and tragedy, and you will know when to refer out and seek additional help that may be needed.

Tragedy is a difficult conversation, but one that we must lean into in order to better care for our students. Don’t believe the lies that you are ill-equipped to speak into their lives. Your voice, presence, and love means more than you could ever know, and simply being willing to engage will help them grow and mature in their relationship with you, their peers, and Jesus.

Below are some articles and websites that provide a lot of insight and additional resources to help in your conversations going forward.  Thank you for walking these roads with your students.