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Churches urged to prepare for when tragedy might strike

RIDGECREST, N.C. (BP)–Many churches operate under a mind-set of “it can never happen to us,” and when “it” does, they don’t know what to do, a pastor who also is a police chaplain said.
Tommy Mitchell, pastor of First Baptist Church, Pearl, Miss., and chaplain for the local police department, said when Luke Woodham walked into the local high school, shot to death two students and wounded seven, the entire town was taken by surprise.
“Pearl, Miss., is one part of the buckle on the Bible belt. We are not underchurched here,” Mitchell told participants attending a National Conference for Church Leadership seminar at Ridgecrest (N.C.) Baptist Conference Center, June 26-July 3. In full police regalia, Mitchell led a workshop about how churches might respond to random acts of violence.
The Mississippi incident was the first of several school shootings that haunted the country. Following Pearl’s Oct. 1,1997, tragedy, shootings also took place in Paducah, Ky., Jonesboro, Ark., and Springfield, Ore.
Mitchell, who is now part of a multi-city committee working to put in place a community and church crisis plan for violent tragedies, said he was called to the scene within 15 minutes after the Pearl shooting, and most heart-wrenching for him was that his son attended the school. After finding his son’s book bag abandoned between two shell casings, Mitchell finally discovered that he was OK and began the task of helping others deal with the tragedy.
“Our town was awakened by tragedy. We never believed it could happen to us.”
A secondary misfortune, Mitchell said, was that the town was in total chaos, and no crisis response system had been prepared. A tragedy such as this or the Oklahoma City bombing could happen anywhere, Mitchell said, and churches should be ready to step in and minister to the community when it does.
“Your church needs to think this through so that if this happens to you, you are not paralyzed. Everything you do should not be a reaction. You can be proactive in responding to something like this.”
In preparing a crisis plan, Mitchell said churches should address such topics as:
— working with community leaders in advance regarding what can be offered in the heat of a crisis. This can include counselors, buildings, personal care, food, drink.
— working with hospitals to be involved in their crisis or disaster plans.
— working with media outlets to do prevention work (public service announcements that alert parents to unacceptable behaviors in their teenagers).
— asking what kind of money is available for a crisis in the budget.
— asking who from the church will address the media. “Be careful with the media; they will talk to anybody who will talk to them. Select a spokesperson, and tell the media who it is. That creates accountability for the media.”
— asking where can the media gather on your property.
Mitchell suggested some responses for churches in the event of violent tragedies.
“Of course, your first response will be determined by your earlier preparation.”
Mitchell said in the event of a community tragedy, church leaders might as well clear their schedules and “drop everything. Forget programs and planning because you will be busy.”
He also suggested calling in anyone who can help. That might include Sunday school teachers of the people involved, youth leaders and qualified counselors. Immediately activate the church’s prayer chain, and call on Sunday school class members to pray.
For the immediate hours following the tragic event, Miller suggested churches just “start with the greatest need. Find out if any of your church family is directly involved. Is a student or faculty in your church injured or dead?”
If so, he suggested sending a church member immediately to be with that person or the family of that person.
Additionally, he said, church members who are primary caregivers are going to need care themselves.
“Is the mayor, police chief or principal a member of your church? If so, go take care of that family. Invoke multiple people in the church to minister to them.”
Decide whether your church can render servant ministries, Mitchell suggested. Those might include:
— supplying food and drink to locations where people are gathered, such as the police station, schools or hospitals;
— offering the church building for child pickup, injury notification, etc.
— providing transportation for anyone who might need it.
“Allow your church to serve as a communications center or a gathering place. When there is a lack of information, people tend to make up their own. You could help cut down on that.”
Beginning on day two of a tragic event and beyond, Mitchell advised churches to:
— Be careful with the media. “We banned the media from our church for one month because we wanted our kids to have a safe place to come.”
— Be sensitive to your caregivers. “It is not a question of if, but when they will melt down. Counseling is best when it is offered on the day of the tragedy and about one to two weeks later. Somebody is going to need to offer crisis counseling for the caregivers.”
— Learn, learn, learn. “It is critical that you evaluate what is working and what is not as soon as possible.”
— Minister through worship. “The Sunday after this thing happens, you can talk about it from the pulpit. Then don’t use the pulpit to talk about it after that. Talk about it, then let it go. You must allow healing to happen.”
Finally, Mitchell said, expect those affected by the tragedy to go through a recovery process.
“They will feel three primary emotions. Fear will be so rampant, you might as well tell the kids they are going to be jumpy for a while.”
Second, anger will surface.
“Don’t tell them not to feel angry. God gave us anger, and it’s good for a while, but we have to move past it.”
Third, those affected will probably feel guilt, Mitchell said.
“They will ask themselves why they didn’t tackle the guy or why they ran. I just tell them, if they survived, they did the right thing.”
The National Conference for Church Leadership was sponsored by the church leadership services division of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.

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  • Terri Lackey