A community church in North Andover, Massachusetts

Handling Crises

Gertrude Jekyll, the gardener quoted in February’s Open Door, was right. We did have at least a few days in February that hinted at the coming of spring to give us hope. That came on the heels of extremely cold weather on February 4th, cold enough to drop the temperature into negative numbers at night. It was cold fierce enough I had to check the forecast on top of Mt. Washington just to make myself feel better about how cold the night was here. Up there on the mountain top on February 4, 2023, they hit a record wind chill that night of -108 degrees. During that frigid night, pipes froze in our church and burst. When that was discovered, it set a whole chain of events in motion that took days to maneuver through. It was quite the laundry list, beginning with shutting off the church’s water supply and canceling the Sunday service. I want to thank everyone who played an integral role in straightening out that situation over the ensuing days. We were not alone. Churches, hospitals, businesses, and homes had to deal with similar situations across the region.

This kind of crisis really disrupts the rhythm of our lives. Thinking about that and the impact it has on people, I turned to one of my books to better understand the impact any crisis can have on our lives and what we can do to help people who suffer the most when it feels the world has been turned upside down. That book is the Dictionary of Pastoral Care and Counseling, if you want to check it out. Here’s what I learned. I hope it is helpful to us all.

We all like our routines, our tidy schedules. Any crisis can just shatter the ordinary, reassuring routine of the day. Depending on the crisis, it can scrap a lot of our carefully made plans. It certainly changed some plans for our church!

With any crisis, and all the changes that go with it, our cherished illusion of control over our lives gets tossed out the window. Some folks handle crises really well, making lists of what has to be done, who needs to be contacted, and then roll up their sleeves and getting down to the messy business of sorting it all out. They are people who readily adapt to what life throws their way. Other people have far greater challenges in handling what has come to pass. They don’t adapt to changes in their routine well at all. There is no judgement in that assessment. Some people are just wired differently from others.

Crises throw us off balance. Crises create confusion. For those who don’t adapt well, emotional distress is sure to follow. This distress can appear as anxiety, depression, guilt, or anger. Those negative feelings can express themselves in our lives in four different ways. 1) They can wreak havoc within us, jumbling our thoughts, leaving us confused. That confusion can lead to emotional outbursts and impulsive behavior. If we spontaneously burst into tears watching a movie while angrily eating an overly large portion of a chocolate cake we suddenly just had to have, well, it might be a negative response to crisis. 2) The chaos of crisis can also lead to angry debates with others. This is especially true if we’re overwhelmed and simply cannot wrap our minds around constructive problem-solving strategies requiring cooperation with others. We may explode at someone who thrives on the chaos that leaves us emotional wrecks. This, sadly, can lead to seriously damaged relationships, especially if the other person is t aware of our distress. 3) The person with difficulties coping in a crisis may also sicken. 4) Their faith may fade in crisis, when unable for the moment to see God’s activity in their lives. During a crisis, anyone who has trouble coping will respond in one of these four ways. Fortunately, the sufferer is unlikely to react in all four of these ways at once, for which we can all be thankful … especially if it is happening to us!

When we see someone suffering in any of these ways during or right after a crisis, we can help. We can listen to the person’s issues calmly and with care. Once they feel heard, we can help them to see the source of their distress is this crisis and nothing more (assuring them this is an unusual or unique situation that will pass and not the destruction of their whole lives as it may surely feel). Then, with patience, understanding, and support, we can help that person pick up the pieces after the disaster. We can help them see ways they can indeed move forward, once they are calm. With that, the sufferer will begin to feel they are regaining control over life, and they will become more stable. Once they are through the initial crisis, if they truly do have strong difficulties handling crises whenever they occur, they can be gently steered toward professionals who can offer greater guidance.

We can help those among us suffering after a crisis to recognize that there really is summer in the light and that every cold and dark phase ends.