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Is your congregation ready for public violence?

March 7, 2017

By Jim Skillington*

It’s Saturday night, the sermon is prepared, the bulletin is printed and in the narthex. The pastor is about to go to sleep for the night when a parishioner calls and asks if she has heard about the shooting at the local shopping center. Several people have been killed, the caller says, and his son was there when it happened. His son wasn’t injured, he adds, but can the pastor arrange something for the youth on Sunday?

Will the pastor stay up most of the night, tear up her prepared sermon and write a new one, create a new bulletin and call pastoral counselors she knows, hoping one of them can be at church the next day? Or does she go to bed and just add a prayer for those impacted by the violence? 

One clergyman described this situation as his “worst pastoral nightmare.”   

Public violence — when a random violent incident traumatizes a community — is occurring more than once a day in the United States. No community should expect to be exempted.

When an incident of public violence occurs, churches report inactive members and an influx of visitors attend the next day of worship. Whether the visitors return the following week often depends on their experience that day.

While a new sermon and worship service can be created overnight, it is better to be prepared for the inevitable day when public violence occurs in the community.

Creating a plan for the first worship following an incident of public violence should not just be a task for the pastor; members of the leadership team should also participate. It’s better to have leaders agree ahead of time that no matter what special music or service features had been previously announced, the entire worship experience may be changed when violence occurs.

The message for the day should also be outlined in advance. All incidents of trauma have some commonalities that can be used to prepare a generic message; fill in the details when the incident of public violence occurs.

The same is true for the actual service. If printed bulletins are used, produce extras of an undated bulletin and keep the copies offsite in case worship has to be moved. Don’t forget the childrens’ message if one is normally prepared; make sure it is appropriate and consider providing trauma resource suggestions for families.

A key component of the plan must focus on communication to members and the general public. Who will update the Website, the Facebook page, Twitter feed, and email list? Who will write and who will approve the message, and how quickly can it be distributed? Following the Saturday nightclub shooting in Orlando last year, just two local houses of worship included anything on their website and less than five had anything on their Facebook page in time for worship the following day.

Also, decide ahead of time who will speak to the press and be sure that person knows the right information and what to say — and not to say. This is not the time to get into a political debate.

Know where the worship service will be held if the building is within police lines or threatened by a local disaster. Develop a plan ahead of time with another religious community or another appropriate location that is available with little notice.

By definition, public violence causes trauma. As many as 60 percent of community members will need professional help to navigate through the trauma in the coming weeks and months. Identify credentialed professionals trained in crisis and spiritual care counseling to whom congregation members may be referred when an incident occurs. Include a plan for care for clergy and other staff, who can easily suffer Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) while caring for everyone else.

Finally, plan for the future. Topical workshops, future services of remembrance, and ongoing trauma counseling should all be part of ongoing care following the first worship service. Lives and places are forever changed following public violence, and working through the recovery phases will take years even for the best prepared communities. Be open to offering or participating in new ministries as the community heals.

This article first appeared in MinistryMatters.

*The Rev. Jim Skillington is appointed to extension ministry in the Baltimore-Washington Conference. He is the executive director of the Center for Public Violence Recovery in Columbia.

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