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Recovery and healing: Supporting congregations after trauma

When the walls come crashing in – the awful day of the tornado, the flood, the accident, the shooting – at first everyone surges into overdrive, into survival mode. Then comes everything else: including the seeping recognition of the magnitude of the loss and all that needs to be done.

Kate Wiebe, a PC(USA) minister, serves as executive director for the Institute for Collective Trauma and Growth

For congregations and pastoral leaders committed to recovery, the next step toward healing can be a connection with Kate Wiebe, a Presbyterian minister and executive director of the Institute for Collective Trauma and Growth (ICTG). The institute is a California-based nonprofit that helps congregations and community organizations (such as schools) respond to the impact of trauma — both after it happens and in preparation for what might come down the road.

The Institute works collaboratively with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, for which Wiebe has served for more than a decade as a national responder.  While PDA and other first responders deal with physical needs such as providing food, shelter and rebuilding of damaged structures, the Institute responds to more organizational needs — figuring out what needs attention and healing, and helping people understand the trajectory of recovery.

When it comes to trauma, think broadly. Wiebe and her team have worked, for example, to assist pastors and congregational leaders affected by fires in California and mass shootings such as the Thousand Oaks shooting in November at the Borderline Bar and Grill. In south Santa Barbara County, the institute is working on a long-term recovery project for organizational leaders following the massive Thomas Fire that began near Ventura, California, in December 2017, which burned more than 280,000 acres and led to deadly mudslides in Montecito in January 2018 that killed 21, with two children still missing.

Some traumas involve not physical cataclysms but crises of faith and trust triggered by betrayal, such as when a congregational leader commits sexual abuse or embezzles money. Or sometimes it’s a communal experience of loss, such as when a cherished pastor dies, or a group of high school students are killed in a car crash.

“The last year and a half has been extraordinary for every disaster-focused organization,” Wiebe said. “The fall of 2017 was unlike any other season any of us have encountered before.” A decade ago, when she first got involved, “it was really common to think about there maybe being one to three major natural disasters in a year,” maybe one or two mass shootings.

Marvel Hitson, also a PC(USA) minister, is a trauma chaplain who works with congregations and communities as they recover from disasters.

Now, the shootings seem nonstop. And for firefighters on the West Coast, “there is no longer a fire season,” Wiebe said. “There’s just fire risk all the time. … All the groups that work in this area are stretched to beyond capacity.”

Marvel Hitson, who also is a PC(USA) minister and serves as a trauma chaplain and director of congregational health for ICTG, has been working for the past year with recovery efforts in Montecito following the fires and deadly mudslides. Even as people are starting to rebuild, they face new threats, as the vegetation on the hillsides still is taking root, so every hard rain brings more evacuations and a continued fear of new mudslides. “The scary part for the community is: Will it happen again?” Hitson said. “How can they move forward with that uncertainty?”

Other factors contribute to the unsettled feeling as well, including the polarized national climate; the impact on immigrant communities particularly vulnerable to losing paychecks; and the reality that those who serve as leaders of organizations may have suffered personal losses as well. “Often our pastors don’t have a place to turn themselves for support, encouragement, counseling or even just walking with someone in discernment,” Hitson said. “We’re not necessarily taught in seminary how to deal with disaster.”

More and more, however, congregations are being forced to learn.

Marvel Hitson participated in an Interfaith Community Thanksgiving Service in Montecito, California, last November, an expression of communal gratitude for all those who have played a role in the community’s recovery following deadly mudslides in January 2018.

Wiebe grew up in Pennsylvania, where her childhood church was rocked by a report that some boys had been sexually abused. “What I remember most about the situation was that from the sidelines, it seemed like the church had to mostly manage things on its own,” she said. She went to college; then to Princeton Theological Seminary, focusing on pastoral care and counseling; then to earn a doctorate at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, concentrating on congregations in crisis.

Toward the end of her doctoral studies, Wiebe was director of congregational care and her husband, Erik, was director of worship at a Presbyterian church in Wilmette, Illinois, that experienced a double murder and suicide committed by the husband of a church staff member. PDA responded, and “they really came along beside us,” Wiebe said. “We experienced firsthand what it was like to have that ministry of presence and care. … Before, I was vaguely aware of them as the ‘hurricane people.’ I had no idea they responded to human crises.”

Wiebe began working as a first responder for PDA, getting to know the patterns of faith-based disaster response — which tended to focus on working with a congregation’s head-of-staff or on rebuilding facilities. She, however, was encountering others, such as worship directors, youth ministers or Sunday school teachers, who “really had no training whatsoever in either basic psychological first aid” or in how to respond after a trauma.

More than 2,000 people came to the “Raising Our Light” anniversary gathering January 9, 2019.

So in 2012, Wiebe and others established the Institute (originally with the name the Institute for Congregational Trauma and Growth). It started as a website with resources, but quickly grew as calls came in from congregational leaders seeking coaching and education.

“The language we’ve found to be really helpful to people … is that most people in crisis, especially a community trauma, they really recognize that the spirit of their community has broken,” Wiebe said.

Hitson spoke to the media at a “Raising our Light” community event commemorating the one-year anniversary of the mudslides, which killed 21.

Most often, her organization responds when someone in the affected community calls for help. “The first question is ‘What happened?’ In most cases, the calls that I receive are very chaotic and disoriented.” She tries to figure out who the decision-makers are. “To what extent are they available and present? The next step is double-checking that everyone is out of harm’s way and basic needs are being met,” she said.

The Institute’s team tries to figure out what resources the congregation or organization has available and what the needs are. When first responders such as PDA are on the scene, “we hang back.” Later, after immediate needs are met, the Institute can provide organizational coaching — helping a congregation determine what its future mission will be and its next steps. If those questions aren’t addressed intentionally in the first year or two, she said, “an organization kind of spiritually can get stuck.”

Often, those closest to the trauma begin to feel overwhelmed, Wiebe said. Coaching can help leaders discern what’s tied to personal loss – individuals feeling burned out or experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder – and what’s organizationally related. “A group can have its spirit broken just like a person can,” Wiebe said.

Marvel Hitson, right, stands with a survivor of the mudslides at the January 2019 anniversary event.

Times of trauma also can be times of rebirth. Hitson has been working in Montecito as part of a community wellness team that is addressing the community’s ongoing spiritual and emotional needs. “It’s creating really unique opportunities for collaboration, for unity, in times that seem to contradict that,” she said. “Disaster has a really unique way of bringing people together. It strips us down to that common denominator of we’re all human, and we’re all in need of those basic human connections, spirit connections, that allow us to be sustained in difficult times.”

On January 9, the community of Montecito gathered for a one-year anniversary commemoration of the destruction and the lives lost a year earlier — and the healing that had come since. Carrying candles, 2,000 people walked towards All Saints-By-The-Sea, an Episcopal church where first responders had triaged victims one year earlier, traversing with their candles a road that a year earlier had served a conduit for the lethal mud. A pastor from that church described the transformation she witnessed that anniversary night as redemption, according to Hitson. “What she saw was a river of life coming down the street.”

Hitson has worked ecumenically with congregations in Montecito and Thousand Oaks, helping leaders plan for congregational health — for communication, ritual, shared meals, liturgies to help with the pain. Pastors often have questions – such as, “Is it normal for there to be an increase in domestic abuse and alcohol abuse? Things they’re starting to notice” in their congregations after the trauma. And “often times there’s not a place to turn for all the grief they are encountering, the second-hand trauma of listening to stories” — so she hears the pastors out and connects them with resources for renewal, such as retreat centers or counseling.

Kate Wiebe, right, listens to a speaker at a “Black Leaders Matter” training event.

In Montecito, a PC(USA) congregation that was not in the direct path of the mudslides opened up space for worship for a congregation from ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians that was in the debris flow evacuation zone and could not use its own facility. The chance was there to “not worry so much about those things that separate us ideologically, and really just come together and worship in times when we all need to be together,” Hitson said. “I feel like there are some lessons there and some hope for our denomination. When it comes down to it, we all really need each other.”

In addition to working with those already affected by disasters, the institute also works with organizations wanting to develop resiliency and plans in case something happens later. Congregations, for example, need to consider crisis and contingency plans — such as: “Do we have a way to reach congregants if we don’t have access to the church office?” Businesses might want to consider how employees could work remotely and productively if the office were closed.

There are practical considerations, technological ones, emotional and spiritual needs, but theological questions too. In times of grief and loss, Wiebe helps churches learn to lament. She acknowledges the pain, “recognizing that God has space for the fullness of what we experience … that God is Immanuel, abiding with us in that.”