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Why Do Communities Continue To Ask Pastors for Support When Tragedy Strikes?


Let a tornado or flood devastate a community, and local pastors are often the first ones called to help the community understand the devastation and destruction. Let a student shoot up the local high school, and local pastors are called upon to help students cope with the senseless violence. Let a school bus carrying high school athletes veer off the road, resulting in the death of several notable students, and local pastors are asked to come to the school and console and support grieving students. No one bothers to ask: WHY should pastors be called for support when tragedy strikes? What possibly could pastors offer people other than a shoulder to cry upon?

In rural Northwest Ohio, the place of my birth and current residence, Evangelical pastors are routinely called upon to give help when tragedy strikes. I have to ask, what could Evangelical pastors possibly say that would help anyone make sense of tragedy? These men of God literally have nothing to offer but meaningless clichés:

  • God knows…
  • God has a perfect plan.
  • God never gives us more than we can bear.
  • God will take this tragedy and turn it into something good.
  • God loves us and only wants what is best for us.
  • Just trust God and you will get through this.
  • All things work together for good for those who love God.

Overcome by grief. people rarely challenge these false claims:

  • If God knows, why did he let it happen?
  • How could God’s perfect plan include wiping out our town?
  • How could God possibly take the death of __________ and turn into good? Wouldn’t “good” have been letting ________ live?
  • How could God really love us and let this happen?

When confronted with such questions, Evangelicals pastors respond with more clichés such as just trust God or just believe. Why don’t these pastors tell grieving people the truth: shit happens and often we don’t know why things happen like they do? Instead of sheltering people from the harsh realities of life, perhaps it is better if they hear the truth: life is hard and cruel and sometimes good people die. Instead of portraying tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, and floods as acts of God, how about telling people the real reason such things happen? It is science, not Christianity that provides the answer to WHY these things happen. When a student murders his fellow classmates, perhaps it is better to focus on the senselessness of gun violence. Anything but giving students empty non-answers. Perhaps what pastors really need to do is put an arm around those feeling loss and love them. Forget the sermonizing and just love those who are hurting. Imagine how people might respond if pastors said, I don’t know. But Evangelical pastors will NEVER do this. They are expected to have answers — and they arrogantly think they do — and to provide help to those who are grieving. Speaking the truth is NOT in their repertoire. For them, every answer begins and ends with God and the Bible.

I would like to see communities STOP calling on pastors for help when tragedy strikes. First, many pastors have very little professional counselor training. Just because a person is a pastor doesn’t mean that he is qualified to counsel people. In fact, it is safe to say that MOST Evangelical pastors have no business counseling people (outside of giving spiritual advice). Taking several “Biblical” counseling courses does not a counselor make. Communities and schools would be better served if they turned to secular counselors or religious leaders with extensive counseling training for help. People are best helped when they are gently brought face to face with the realities of life, senseless death, and natural disasters.


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    The true danger is that someone who is not experienced with counseling after a tragedy or crisis could do more harm than good. All of those abhorrent clichés are great. “It’s part of God’s plan” or “Everything happens for a reason” are the last things people in these situations need to hear. And honestly they are false statements. So God planned for this family’s home to burn down and consume all of their possessions? Really, how do you think that’s going to make them feel about God. God had a child’s relative sexually abuse him when he was young because of some secret reason? Really, how does this make the victim feel about God? Don’t these situations make God culpable for the tragedy, pain and years of recovery?

    I have received an extremely small amount of training on crisis counseling (of a non-religious nature). It was some of the best training I have ever received, but it also taught me spouting off Christian clichés and quoting Bible verses are not the best way to comfort those in the midst of a tragedy.

    I had to sit in the same room with a young delinquent as he received news that his mom had died of an overdose. I was there in a spiritual capacity but also because I had worked with him for awhile. We also had a professional counselor on hand. We made sure we offered a professional level of counseling for him in this difficult time.

    I am afraid too many times Evangelical American Christianity capitalizes on crises and tragedies as an opportunity to evangelize. “Just ask Jesus into your heart and all will be well.” That’s a lie. The person will probably be changed in some way for life.

    I do believe correctly trained pastors can be good counselors in these situations if they keep the needs of the person first and don’t see it as an opportunity to “win one for Jesus” or increase their church membership numbers. As a community I would work with recognized organizations with volunteers who are trained to handle counseling in these situations. Most pastors are poorly prepared or completely unprepared for this type thing.

    The irony here is that somebody like Bruce is probably well experienced at handling something like this because of his years in the ministry. But because he no longer bears the title “pastor” or “Christian” he would not be considered for his valuable counseling experience.

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      Randy said:
      The irony here is that somebody like Bruce is probably well experienced at handling something like this because of his years in the ministry. Bullshit, Randy. I can think of fewer things that would prepare a person as a good counsellor than the wild, Calvanistic beliefs that it seems Bruce spread around in his days as a preacher. In fact, I would hazard that his experience might more likely entirely disqualify him from any chance at being a good counsellor. Besides, Randy, the man is an Atheist prophet…
      I have read the advice of many copyright Christian pastor counsellors and they peddle one door and only one…

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    J.D. Matthews

    The only real reason I can think of is fairly cynical.

    Because they come for free.

    Sadly, although most towns have mental health centers, their over-worked and underpaid staff are already loaded down. Yet, it would seem to make more sense to me to call upon them in these sorts of times. Let some of the MSWs, counselors, and hell, even case workers come down and talk to the kids. Unfortunately, though, those hours can’t be billed to Medicaid.

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