Large churches often have multiple staff members who may be on call and able to respond to any manner of crisis that may occur in a church. Smaller churches seldom have that luxury. In churches where the pastor works a second job in addition to the church, even the pastor may not be immediately available during a crisis situation. Therefore, lay people in the church may be called upon to respond to a crisis in the congregation. Such situations often have a high level of confusion and anxiety revolving around them. There is no real time to prepare one’s thoughts on how to deal with the situation, so the lay people who respond should simply seek to bring a sense of calmness to what may be a chaotic situation.
In such situations, it is important to realize that people who feel overwhelmed with a crisis may turn to a lay person at church because they do not know who else to call. The lay person may not be the person they should have called, but once the call is made, a caring Christian should respond the best way they know how. There are some things lay people can do in advance to prepare to respond to a crisis in the congregation, such as take whatever crisis training may be available in the community. Schools, hospitals and other organizations often provide training in how to deal with issues such as domestic abuse, first aid, suicide intervention, disaster relief, sexual assault, and grief counseling. Sign up for which ever courses seem most suitable and learn as much as possible about how to deal with these issues.
When first learning of the crisis, attempt to establish a rapport with the person in crisis. A crisis makes a person feel like no one can understand why he or she is upset, which in turn makes him or her more upset. To defeat this cycle, it is important to win the person's trust. Never tell someone in crisis how to feel. Instead validate their feelings by saying something like: “I might feel that way too if I were in your situation.” Speak in a calm, even voice, which is not always easy if someone is angry or screaming. Stay focused, remember whatever training has been taken, and seek to be a source of calmness in the midst of the crisis. In many situations, once a lay person has been a “listening ear” to the person in crisis, it is best to refer the person to other more professional services in order for the person to receive real help.
Let the person in crisis tell his or her story. People often feel better if they can tell their story and know they have been heard. Be an active listener. Show understanding by asking questions and/or repeating back what they just said. Be alert for certain words and phrases that might indicate a person is in profound distress and might be considering suicide because of the crisis. Statements such as "This is hopeless" or "My life is over" may be indications of serious danger. If the person seems to be considering suicide, be very direct about it. Ask them outright if they are planning to hurt themselves. Though this may feel awkward, if it saves the person’s life, it is worth the awkward feelings.
Offer hope without misleading the person. If it is a situation which the lay person is experienced in handling, say something based on past experience about the likelihood of a positive outcome. Or if some of the training that has been previously taken included some factual information about such situations, offer that information as a way to bring hope into the crisis. Such statements let the person in crisis know the odds are on their side. But such statements also acknowledge that the situation may not be resolved the way everyone wants it to be. Offer hope, but do not make up stories or statistics that are not factual or that provide false hope. Otherwise more harm than good might be caused if a worst case scenario happens. It is important to avoid a response that blames the person for what happened.
Once enough information has been gathered, help the person in crisis explore his or her options by developing an action plan for what to do next. After the situation is under control, formulate a plan for moving forward and finding a solution that will help the person get through the short-term state of a crisis.
After the immediate crisis has passed, contact legal authorities or other agencies if required. Make a follow up visit or phone call to the distressed person within 24 hours. Make a written record of the situation and how it was responded to. Keep that record on file in case the situation comes up again or if legalities regarding the crisis develop.
Responding to a crisis is never easy. But Christians must be there for each other, especially in times of crisis. Lay people willing to seek advance training and follow the steps outlined above can be a calm presence in the midst of crisis situations that may erupt in the lives of church members.
This is an excerpt from the book, Developing Leadership Teams in the Bivocational Church, published by CrossBooks, a division of Lifeway. The book contains six easy to use lessons to train lay people to assist their pastor in ministry.