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Short Guide For Churches: Responding to Individuals in Crisis

Importance of Responding to Crisis

Crisis situations typically drive individuals or families to the pastor’s door requesting counsel outside of normal church functions and interactions. As such, it is important for pastors to assess crisis situations in order to provide the most effective help. Defined simply, a crisis is “a perception or experiencing of an event or situation as an intolerable difficulty that exceeds the person’s current resources and coping mechanisms,” (James, 2008). It is a turning point with the potential for great danger or great opportunity for the one experiencing the crisis (Wright, 1985).

It is not only congregants and their families that rely on the ministry to help them in times of crisis. According to research posted on the EssentialChurch twitter feed, “26% of the church dropouts surveyed indicated that their church acted as a support network during a time of personal crisis.” (EssentialChurch, 2011). Because so many people seek help through pastors as an initial step in times of crisis, and because crisis presents both danger and opportunity, it is extremely important that the pastor provide help that is caring, effective, and within the scope of his duties, skills, and qualifications. Anything less could leave the individual confused and disillusioned concerning the ability of the church to help them in times of need.

What is Crisis?

Crisis theory states that an individual may face developmental, situational, or existential crises throughout his lifetime (James, 2008). Developmental crises are those that accompany life events such as birth, death, starting school, marriage, having an “empty nest”, and aging. Situational crises seem to arise unexpectedly and may include accidents, job loss, disease, familial strife, or any number of other unexpected events that create extraordinary stress. Existential crises are those that involve identity, purpose, spiritual or moral beliefs, and other internal conflicts of meaning. Often these types of crises overlap. For example, a mother may feel she has lost her purpose in life once her youngest child finally leaves home. A husband may question God’s existence after losing his wife in a car accident. The ministry has the ability to impact people who experience any of these three types of crises through spiritual and practical guidance, as well as care and fellowship.

An individual also may be in a state of crisis that is either acute or chronic in nature (James, 2008). In terms of assessing crisis, a pastor is among the most qualified to determine acute or chronic crisis, as he usually has the opportunity to see and know the counselee outside of the office and in several different contexts. A person that presents for counseling that normally is happy, fulfilled, rational in his behavior, and orderly in his thoughts and judgment, is likely facing a specific, acute crisis. This particular counselee should be able to recover quickly from the initial crisis and begin to cope using his usual coping skills and resources with limited guidance. A person that presents for counseling by the pastor that is usually depressed or irritable, irrational in his actions, and lacking in sound judgment on a normal basis is likely in a state of chronic crisis, and may require extensive support to overcome a crisis event. Recognizing the acute or chronic nature of the crisis is key to providing help that is effective and within the scope of the duties and abilities of the pastor.

What Can A Pastor Do To Help?

Pastors can provide much help to individuals in acute crisis of all kinds. First, people who come to a spiritual leader for such help expect that the Bible and biblical methods will be used to alleviate the crisis. This is advantageous, as we know that there is no greater source of help and healing for those suffering emotionally and spiritually. Second, in the early stages of dealing with crisis, very practical help and direction is needed, from providing material needs, to giving direction in practical tasks that will help ease stress and worry. This can easily be provided by the pastor, or delegated to another minister or layperson following the initial session. Third, as people in crisis generally are in need of greater social and practical supports, the church itself becomes one of the pastor’s most powerful therapeutic tools. It is very likely that your church already provides a ministry that would make a direct impact on the situation, or that particular families in the church can be sources of practical and emotional support to extend the counselee’s network.

If a pastor recognizes that a person is in chronic crisis that is exacerbated by complicated grief, trauma, mental illness, substance abuse, or other stressors, it may be necessary to refer out to an appropriate service provider to address these issues while continuing to offer all of the benefits of pastoral care, spiritual guidance, and practical help. Therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, attorneys, and financial advisors provide specialized services to address social, legal, psychological, and biological factors that contribute to crisis.

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When Should an Outside Referral Be Made?

When deciding to make a referral, a pastor must consider his limitations in the areas of time, training, and qualifications (Wright, 1985). Is there time among all the other responsibilities of being a pastor to help this person effectively? What background and specialized training is required to help this person? Is a specific license or qualification required to provide the service that this person needs? If there are doubts on any of these points, and there is a substantial risk of harm to the individual or others around them, then an obligation exists for the pastor to refer the counselee to an appropriate professional.

Many professionals in the community practice Christian values and show respect for their client’s spiritual and doctrinal beliefs. Develop partnerships with these kinds of professionals so that you are not taking a “shot in the dark” with your congregants and their families when specialized help is needed.

The primary responsibility of the ministry is “for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ,” (Eph. 4:12). The members of the Body of Christ will benefit and grow through crisis when a pastor can assess a crisis accurately; provide attentive care through prayer, the Word, spiritual care, practical counsel, and the church; recognize the limits of his time, skills, and qualifications; and build partnerships with professionals that allow him to make confident referrals for care.

See my Resource page for additional information on effective helping.

EssentialChurch. (2011, January 12). 26% of the church dropouts surveyed indicated that their church acted as a support network during a time of personal crisis. Message posted to!/EssentialChurch

James, R.K. (2008). Crisis intervention strategies, 6th edition. Belmont, CA: Thompson Brooks/Cole

Wright, H.N. (1985). Crisis counseling: Helping people in crisis and stress. San Bernadino, CA: Here’s Life Publishers

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