Survival Strategies During Disaster
Responding to disaster may be spontaneous; but taking care of oneself during the emergency, relief and recovery periods AFTER a disaster are intentional and planned strategies for longer term survival.
Role as Religious Leader:
Whether or not a pastor seeks a specific role as a religious leader in the community, in disaster the expectation is that a pastor will have a role in the response and recovery.
The best time to develop a theology of disaster; however the chances are that if you are reading this, the disaster has already come. Lead form where you are and who you are. Some pastors are comfortable in the public role of ‘pastor to the community’ providing important support to persons beyond the congregation; while others see their role as more limited to the members of the congregation. Both are needed in disaster recovery. Pastors who are able to identify their ‘comfort zone’ in leadership following a disaster tend to survive the recovery better than those who take on a role that is either ill suited to them or uncomfortable.
As a pastor, survivors will look to you for leadership. Accept their need for you to provide pastoral leadership, even if you defer to others in actually doing it. If you and your family are heavily impacted families will understand your need to take take of yourself and your family; but you will still need to be conscious of their needs as members. Accepting assistance from others in the Presbytery or even PDA is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of caring for your congregation as well as yourself.
Be mindful of what you say and careful about what you promise. Not everyone will see the cause or the impact of the disaster as you do, nor as the majority of the congregation does. When responding to the inevitable declarations of ‘knowing God’s purpose in this disaster’, try to refrain for injecting your own view into the discussion. An organizational campaign once reminded hospital workers that “people may not remember what you say, but they will never forget how you made them feel.” This is good advice for pastors in responding to a disaster. Theological arguments are probably not a good talking point, but pointing to the Psalms or other scripture that provide hope may never be forgotten, even by those who do not agree with you theologically.
Identifying, preserving and gaining acceptance for boundaries requires a continuous maintenance of effort. Do members of the congregation call you at home? Do they have your cellphone number? Do they really need it? During a disaster, communication can quickly overwhelm ones boundaries and make one feel vulnerable, out of control and helpless at a time when the greatest need may be for safety, discerning control and feeling capable. Talk to your church leadership about communication, boundaries and reasonable time to rest and be away from the response. This can be a balancing act that will require constant monitoring and renegotiation depending upon the number of people in the congregation affected by the disaster and whether your own residence has been affected.
One should be accessible, but not necessarily universally available. When setting limits design ways to divert callers to more appropriate resources, develop systems of ‘softening’ the barriers and be kind yet firm in saying ‘no’ to unnecessary commitments.
Some benefits boundaries provide are:
Support and protection
A screen against unnecessary distractions
An ‘automatic’ protection agains our weaker moments.
Boundaries only work when they are preserved, and doing so requires both effort and dealing with the consequences of maintaining good boundaries. Maintaining good boundaries means that we have to be accountable for observing them ourselves. Once we have given someone permission to call us in an emergency we have to accept that they might actually call. Saying “if you really feel you need me, then I’ll come” when you either don’t intend coming, or will resent having come to someone’s assistance in not only dishonest, it lays the groundwork for conflict later. Many we can protect our boundaries merely by pointing to them. Simply saying, I have made a commitment not to take on anything extra, or I can’t come right now; but I will be glad to set another time, is emotionally neutral and give the caller an option.
Respect of boundaries only works when it is mutual. If you do not respect the boundaries of others, they will have little motivation to respect yours, no matter how strongly you insist on it.
If at all possible, ensure your own and your family’s safety before engaging in disaster response. If you are preoccupied with the safety of your family, you will not be as effective in your leadership in either the congregation or the community. Have a disaster plan and make sure members of your family are following it. Some families have a ‘call in number’ to leave a message or talk to a third party to let others know their condition and their immediate plans. In addition, families may have a designated gathering point well out of the disaster zone to meet and decide on how to manage their response. When there is time to prepare for a likely disaster, take the time to develop a calling tree or other system of communication to let others know that you are safe.
If you are not properly trained in rescue operations, remain on the sidelines. If you are injured while attempting to do something for which you are not trained, you add to the size of the necessary response and divert valuable resources from other operations.
If you are not properly trained in interfaith spiritual care in disaster, find a way of getting the training before volunteering as a spiritual caregiver outside your own congregation. Properly trained and oriented church leadership can be a valuable part of a community’s long term recovery.
Be careful about the number of hours you work and the amount of work you take on. There may be a necessity for a short period of intense work, followed by more attention to self-care and rest. While each of us is a unique person and precious in the sight of God, no one is irreplaceable in disaster response. Be sure to include time for exercise, rest, relaxation and time with family even during the emergency period. Compassion fatigue symptoms can come on quickly and without very much warning.
Church leaders are as vulnerable to the symptoms of traumatic stress as everyone else.
Support is essential for pastors as well as other church leaders. Gather the church leadership as quickly as possible and begin to strategize about how to spread the workload in order to keep anyone from bearing too much of a load… including the pastor.
When disaster strikes not only is time warped (our perception of the passage of time becomes relative); but our expectation of how long things will take to establish a new normal are frequently distorted.
Attending to ones own Spiritual Life
Praying, spending time with others in worship, and maintaining as close to one’s normal schedule of spiritual discipline can provide important release from tension as well as give one strength for the tasks ahead. Skipping prayer or daily meditations can be like skipping lunch: the time saved is not nearly as important as the focus and energy that are lost.
In the movie the Accidental Tourist, the narrator says at one point, “When traveling never take anything with you the loss of which would be too painful to bear.” In a disaster many times we don’t get a choice about what stays and what goes. We do, however, have a choice about the way we think about what is important and what is not. Clearly deciding what is important, and even discussing it with others, can be a helpful liberation from obligations that can easily weigh us down in a disaster. The process also helps us clarify what IS important, and recognize that our priority must be to attend to those few important things first.
Some people respond well to a formal letting go ritual, others may make a list and tack it on their bathroom mirror, while still others just need to make a mental note. Whatever system you use, be sure to remind yourself periodically what is important and what you have let go.