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

Open the Doors . . .

Last week’s Church Times (13 October 2017) carries a story about an event titled ‘The Parish: Has it had its day?’ held at St Mellitus College during the week. The story opens like this:

The Grenfell Tower fire and the Parsons Green tube bomb showed that if the parish system did not exist, “you’d sure as heck want to invent it,” the Bishop of Kensington, Dr Graham Tomlin, said on Monday evening.

Dr Tomlin spoke at the event about the two parish churches close to these two disasters. For example, St Clement’s, Notting Dale, is only a few hundred yards away from the Grenfell Tower. Its vicar opened the doors at 3 am on the night of the fire and St Clement’s “became a great centre for gifts, for respite for people who had been evacuated from the surrounding blocks and the tower itself.” The parish church in Parsons Green, on the other hand, “was a place in which people could go, sit quietly, take a breath when they were panicked as a result of this event.”

Even to those of us who observed the two events from the safety of our living rooms it was readily apparent that local churches played very prominent roles in the responses to the two events, and both churches and clergy were highly visible in the days and weeks following the Grenfell fire, in particular. We saw clergy and bishops speaking with survivors, politicians and media, we saw parishioners distributing food and hot drinks, and we saw piles and piles of donated clothes, blankets and furniture.

As part of the ‘Tragedy and Congregations’ project, the team has been interviewing clergy about their experiences of responding to similar disasters. The range of events has been very large – from sudden deaths of congregation members, to terrorist attacks and natural disasters – but one action has been almost universal in the context of these varied disasters; “I opened the church”.

A further theme that has emerged from these interviews so far is that clergy have been surprised at the positive reaction that they have received to the church’s involvement. Often expectations of public authorities are high after major disasters. When these expectations are not met the result can be mounting anger and frustration. The Grenfell Tower fire has been a parade example of this. Expectations of churches, conversely, have tended to be low, but have regularly been exceeded. Churches (and mosques and synagogues) are often to be found close by disaster sites and their clergy are in a position to respond quickly (more quickly than local authorities), while congregations offer potential bodies of volunteer workers.

This important role of churches in responding to disasters can make it all the more traumatic when disasters strike so close as to have the effect of forcing churches to close their doors. This was the experience of Southwark Cathedral, for example, following the recent London Bridge attack. The Cathedral might have offered an ideal focal centre for people responding to the attacks, had it not itself become part of the crime scene. Only last week, tragically, the death of a visitor who had fallen from the Whispering Gallery forced the brief closure of St Paul’s Cathedral. Neither of these examples comes close, however, to the experience of residents of Christchurch, New Zealand, whose cathedral was inaccessible following the earthquakes of 2011 until the erection of a cardboard cathedral in 2013.

These disasters aside, it is clear that the role of parish congregations in responding to major disasters is becoming more prominent. As this prominence grows it may be necessary to monitor and manage public expectations. Response to traumatic events can, in the short term, be invigorating and bonding for congregations. When trauma, or the response to it, becomes long term, however, the impact for both congregations and clergy can be very significant and the burden very heavy. These will be matters for the project team to ponder over the life of the project.


The (Great Ocean) Road to Recovery

I’ve just come on board as Post-doc researcher for the Tragedy and Congregations Project. When I say ‘come on board’, I haven’t had your average first few days in a new job. I had already planned to be in Australia for a few weeks either side of 1 September, my official starting date, spending time with family and doing various teaching gigs for dioceses and theological colleges. On 1 September itself I was in the middle of a week-long journey along the magnificent ‘Great Ocean Road’ in South Western Victoria that runs from Warrnambool in the West to Geelong in the East, taking in such famous landmarks as ‘London Bridge’ (which has duly fallen down) and the ‘Twelve Apostles’. I grew up in Warrnambool and had driven the road many times before, but this was the first time that I realised that the whole road had been designed to be a 151 mile-long war memorial (the world’s largest). The Great Ocean Road was built, I discovered on this trip, immediately following the First World War by returned servicemen as a memorial to the Great War and to those who died in it, and possibly also to the new sense of Australian nationhood that had been forged through the heavy losses suffered at Gallipoli and in related campaigns.


Somehow the post-war Australian powers-that-be had recognised that the soldiers who returned from these campaigns needed a kind of ‘half-way house’ to assist their transition to ordinary civilian lives after their experiences of war. More recent research done on the experiences of returning military veterans indicates that the trauma encountered in theatres of war often leaves veterans unable to cope with a return to ordinary domestic life. The only thing enabling many veterans of war to feel ‘alive’, this research suggests, is further experience of dangerous work undertaken alongside fellow-veterans. The Great Ocean Road project was therefore an ideal solution to the problem of large numbers of unassimilated and traumatised ex-soldiers every bit as much as these same ex-soldiers were an ideal solution to the problem of the large work-force required to complete such a major project. The amateur road-builders lived in male-only camps over the extended period of construction, which involved back-breaking work blasting into rocky cliffs in order to create the scenic road that today snakes around Victoria’s spectacular but rugged coastline. Signs along the road that record its history specifically note that some of the men who suffered from what we would today label ‘Post Traumatic Stress Disorder’ were excused from activities that involved blasting into rock because the loud explosions caused distress and flash-backs. These signs don’t say that at the end of the road-building project the men were better equipped to return to ordinary jobs and wives and families, but it is tempting to think that this may have been so for many of them and to surmise that the combination of creative work, familiar social situation and surroundings of extraordinary beauty were effective in helping to ease returns to ordinary domestic lives.  


A little bit of hasty research is all it takes to discover that this Australian post-war project was by no means unique. The Skyline Drive that travels through the ‘blue-ridged’ mountains of Virginia, for example, was also built in the aftermath of the first World War, and in the context of the Great Depression, using a labour force from Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ ‘Civilian Conservation Corps’, which from 1933 included a separate branch for veterans, who lived and worked in special veteran-only camps.


Modern trauma theory owes its origins to research undertaken by those treating the trauma of returned service-men and women, yet the intuitive wisdom of these creative post-war projects has perhaps been lost. Veterans of the Vietnam and Korean conflicts, as well as those more recently engaged in Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere, would no doubt benefit, or have benefitted, from similar ‘half-way house’ projects. Whether because of lack of public funding or of creative imagination, governments tend not to think about care for returning veterans in terms of major re-deployment programs. Might there be some be some kind of lesson, or model, here? Today governments across the Western world are struggling with their responses to influxes of traumatised peoples. These include veterans of war and of peace-keeping operations, certainly, but also refugees and asylum seekers fleeing war, terror and starvation in their own countries as well as the disillusioned seeking to return home from ill-judged flirtations with Islamist fighting forces. As Germany’s recent experience makes clear the problems of the immigration crisis are not resolved simply upon acceptance of asylum seekers. In some respects problems are magnified as large groups of traumatised newcomers seek to find their places in their new homes, though assimilation or not.


Major assimilation projects require large amounts of public funding, of course.  As I write, however, the Australian government is spending enormous amounts of money detaining asylum seekers (many already confirmed as genuine refugees) off-shore in appalling conditions as a means of deterring other would-be ‘boat people’. How would it be if such funds were instead spent on major public works projects designed to offer employment and long-term opportunities for genuine assimilation for traumatised peoples?


Such major public works projects are not in the remit of your average congregation, of course, and will thus not be at the forefront of my thinking as I return to the UK and begin my work on the Trauma and Congregations Project. Nevertheless, I hope not to lose sight entirely of the beauty of the Great Ocean Road on my return, and hope also that I might find echoes of the lessons of its history as I begin to assist the team in thinking about how to resource congregations in the UK to respond to tragedy and trauma in ways that are creative, fruitful and life-giving.    

July 1 2017

It is very strange to working on this project in the light of four ‘critical incidents’ that have rocked UK cities – the two terrorist attacks on London bridges; the terrorist bomb in Manchester; the devastating fire in Grenfell Tower. Even as the team reflect on what constitutes good, wise, resilient, prudent, pastoral response to such devastating events, our hearts go out to those most affected. We also give thanks for the courage of those – professionals, bystanders, faith communities, who moved so swiftly to respond.