Tragedy and Clergy Self-Care – the ‘Heroic’ Phase

One of the aspects of responding to tragedy and trauma that is least well-known, and that can come as the greatest surprise, is the initial ‘heroic’ phase. Far from being immobilised, some clergy find that in the initial hours and days after a traumatic event they can feel full of unusual amounts of energy and clarity, and even experience periods of elation and fulfilment, as they respond with unprecedented vigour to the disastrous circumstances around them. There can be a sense that one is truly living out one’s vocation for the first time. This extra energy and enthusiasm can be invaluable in the face of what might otherwise seem an insurmountable task. It prompts, and is in turn fed by, inspiring acts of generosity and compassion by congregation members and other members of the public.

The heroic phase is not without its dangers, however. It can be easy to forget that it is always followed by a far longer period in which levels of energy and mood plummet as the reality of the traumatic event and its consequences sink in. A failure to anticipate this inevitable movement from elation to despair can make the transition even more difficult. If one does not pay close attention to the need for regular eating, drinking and rest, and gives in to the temptation to take on more responsibility than can be managed reasonably – in other words, treat the event as a sprint rather than a marathon – there may be little energy left in the tank for the real work of leading the congregation through the traumatic experience and its aftermath.

So what are some of the tips for good self-care and management when the ‘acute’ or ‘heroic’ phase of a traumatic event kicks in? First – breathe. Take a moment to breathe, pray and assess before running in to take action. What is the scope of the role that you are equipped to assume in the situation? Are you in good heart, well-rested, fed and watered? If you haven’t eaten recently – do so – and carry water. The core of your role in the coming days may be delegation. What responsibilities can you give to others so that you are able to take an overview of the situation? It will be tempting, at first, to work all hours of the day or night, but make sure you work no longer than twelve hour shifts before getting proper rest.

In the longer term your responsibilities may be heavy and the recovery may be protracted. Make sure that in the weeks and months that follow you take regular time out to re-charge your batteries, and that you follow basic rules of personal hygiene. Those who have been through this experience recommend that one of the things you should do in the first few days of the crisis is to make time to sit down with a partner, family member or close friend and plan a holiday for three to six months’ time, book it and pay for it. This piece of advice should alert you to the strength of the forces that are likely to get in the way of self-care in the longer term! Self-care is not a luxury in these circumstances, it is an imperative.

For more reflection on the topic of clergy self-care in the face of tragedy, we highly recommend Laurie Kraus’ book, Recovering from Un-natural Disasters (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), especially pp. 16-19. Self-care is a topic to which we’ll return in future posts.

Meg Warner