Visible actions

From time to time, traumatic events in society require the congregation to make response.

Recent shootings at University of California Santa Barbara are such an event.

The event itself, like the recent killing of schoolchildren in Connecticut, touched some of your constituents deeply — women who have been stalked by men like the shooter or have been victims of sexual abuse, for example, as well as parents of children similar to the shooter (same age, socially awkward, lonely).

As a church leader, you can reach out to them specifically, if you know their stories, and perhaps invite them to join you in providing an immediate response to others, such as a prayer vigil.

The key is to take visible action, so that you provide a venue or channel — both for people you know and for people you don’t know. The power of prayer in your sanctuary isn’t that it will rewrite the scripts of, say, Santa Barbara, but that it will embolden your own community to address its comparable issues.

A further step is to blog about it. I know many church leaders resist blogging, but situations such as this make it critical that you have a reliable way to reach people quickly.

Same with preaching. A sermon about an event like UCSB can be recorded on video and then posted on YouTube for access by many. You do this out of concern for your flock and others being impacted, but it also has the practical benefit of showing your congregation to be bold and compassionate.

I encourage you to look at the deep passions that this event stirred — outrage among women as shown in thousands of personal stories told at #yesallwomen, men feeling sympathetic (but wary of being the target of undifferentiated rage), feelings about gun violence mental illness — and to imagine a conversation about them.

The aim wouldn’t be to attain solutions or a right- opinion, but to underscore the complexity and legitimacy of people’s feelings. An open mic session, perhaps, plus some input from thoughtful people covering the range of feelings.

There’s no perfect formula. Your aim is helping people to speak and to listen, to open their minds to what other people feel, and to articulate their own, often conflicted feelings.

Out of these event-aftermath efforts will come ideas for longer-term responses, such as a hot-line for abuse victims, back-to-college guidance to women and men on how to handle date rape and alcohol-based socializing, and perhaps a larger and ongoing dialog on resetting attitudes on gender and violence.

In your planning team be sure to include people who are thinking beyond the safe and stale. Life takes people to the cutting-edge. A church’s response must be to stand at that cutting edge with them, not to toss shallow words of condolence from a safe distance.

Older constituents have a critical role to play: telling their own stories of, say, abuse and to show practical solidarity with today’s victims. New victims need to know there is hope, or as many older homosexuals have been saying to teenage gays and lesbians being bullied into suicidal thoughts, “it gets better.”

Remember: events a continent away aren’t really a continent away. In our connected age, trauma in one place stirs trauma in other places.

TOM EHRICH’S new Fresh Day online magazine offers fresh words about faith and life, fresh voices, fresh ideas. For  a free trial go to