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.