Knock on the door and listen

Trauma ministry begins on a small stage. It might stem from crime, accident, sudden illness or natural disaster.

But the ministry tends to begin with a simple scene, as I recently experienced. At dinner, a wife notices that her husband is panting for breath and calls 911.

Within a few minutes, two EMTs and a fire chief arrive. The EMT captain does a quick assessment. She directs her assistant to slap an oxygen mask on the patient. While the fire chief comforts the wife, the EMTs prepare the patient for an ambulance crew.

Within minutes, he is loaded onto a stretcher and wheeled to the ambulance for transport to the hospital. An EMT drives, while the paramedic rides in the back with the patient and begins assembling data for the hospital.

At the hospital, a team of physicians and nurses takes over. More tests, a CT scan of the patient’s lungs. A diagnosis: bacterial pneumonia. A decision: lung surgery ASAP. The hospital’s thoracic surgery team steps in. Over the next few hours, surgery is performed, the patient’s life is saved, and then begins a long period of recovery: two weeks of it in the hospital, several weeks more at home.

Trauma ministry engages many people, from nurses to technologists to a cheer-spreading woman delivering meals to medical students to surgeons, plus family visiting and calling. Then the scene moves home. Now friends stop by with food and encouragement.

If you are blessed to belong to a faith community, this is when a pastor is essential. The medical trauma has subsided, but more trauma lies ahead. The patient finds himself weeping over a TV show, filled with gratitude for having been rescued. This patient doesn’t have a faith community now. He tried to find a church, but the minister blew him off as unimportant. As he deals with life post-trauma, there won’t be an ordained pastor sitting and praying with him. So his wife, his emergency services colleagues and his children will be his pastor. He will say his own prayers and keep on shedding tears at little provocation.

Trauma ministry isn’t complicated. Oh, the medicine of it is complicated. But the sitting, the praying, the weeping aren’t complicated. They just require effort and presence. One needn’t know the “five stages of grief” or be a trained listener. One need only get out of the office and knock on a door where trauma has struck. Then listen.

Not all traumatic incidents lead to survival. Sometimes the spouse comes home alone. But the ministry remains a small venue where one or a few deal with loss. They listen for a knock on the door.

But the Christian pastoral enterprise is broken. Many church leaders spend their time seeing the institution and not its people, seeing the familiar tribe but not the stranger, staying safe in an office and not venturing into a home touched by trauma.

Maybe we just got scared. Knocking on a door takes a certain gumption. I just know that the knock on the door doesn’t often come. And I can testify to how much that knock is needed.

TOM EHRICH is a publisher, writer, church consultant and president of Morning Walk Media, based in New York.