By Jamie Aten
I don’t just study disasters—I’ve lived disasters. Hurricane Katrina struck my community just six days after I moved to South Mississippi. I started helping just weeks after the storm and went on to dedicate my career to helping others survive and recover from all sorts of mass disasters.
Then at age 35 I faced my own personal disaster after being diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. I am grateful that I have had no evidence of disease since my last cancer treatment nearly five years ago.
But now, I am passionate about helping leaders understand and know how to navigate crises, both personally and alongside a community.
There is no shortage of crisis in the church right now, which is why we need strong leaders who can help people navigate trauma and disaster. Speaking personally and professionally, here’s what I recommend:
1. Cling to faith
We must be reminded of the simple truth—keep praying and talking to God when crisis hits. Strive for meaning—through journaling, prayer, Scripture reading, and conversations with those you trust—especially when suffering feels senseless.
We must lead people facing crisis to be honest with yourself about what you can and can’t control: do what you can and give up the rest to God. This requires a willful obedient faith, not a passive faith. Choosing to embrace trust and contentment, no matter the outcome, allows us to enter into God’s loving presence more deeply.
This sort of spiritual surrender comes not from changed circumstances—but rather changed hearts and minds—it reconciles our desires with current reality while sustaining hope for what could be.
2. Don’t try and ride out the disaster or rebuild alone
When we find ourselves in a full-scale disaster we must let others know, so make sure people know you’re available when crisis hits and how to ask for help. Look for people on your team you can train and empower to meet needs. Don’t be afraid to reach out to your church and church leaders to help.
The sooner people admit they need help the sooner your help can be received. Build a culture and cultivate a safe environment—one that values trust and confidentiality.
And when people mess up or they choose not to share, be cautious not to let unforgiveness pile on more debris to the wreckage they find themselves under.
3. Give them permission to lament
It’s important to grieve emotionally and spiritually for what you are going through—and what you fear is ahead. It’s okay to be scared, anxious, sad, angry, and confused.
Whether it’s you in the crisis, or someone you lead, allow time to lament. This means letting down their guard down and giving themselves permission to let go of the burden they’ve been carrying.
When pushing back against the pain doesn’t work, try accepting the pain. We all need to share our pain with God, especially our anger and doubts.
Encourage your people to seek out others, like friends, family, church leaders, or professional helpers who can sit with them in their suffering. Through trial and error, try to encourage them to find healthy ways to cope so they’re not stuck or consumed by the sorrow.
4. Be optimistic—but more importantly—be hopeful
Keeping a positive outlook can help sustain you when the odds are against you—and if you maintain this attitude, it will rub off on those you lead. I truly believe my optimism through my cancer journey played an important role in my survival.
Embrace hope, but be wary of being hoodwinked by “pathological” optimism. The two are very different. Jurgen Moltmann wrote, “Genuine hope is not blind optimism. It is hope with open eyes, which sees the suffering and yet believes in the future.”
When my optimism shifted from healthy to pathological, denial rose up its ugly head causing me to minimize not only my suffering but the suffering of others closest to me, namely my wife and my girls.
There were times it kept me from living in the moment, from not acting when I should have acted, and remaining unchanged when I needed to change. If my health had not made a turn for the better it could have very well robbed me from saying goodbye to my loved ones well.
5. Establish new life rhythms
If you’re leading someone facing crisis, encourage them to find ways to do what gives them life. Shortly after starting my cancer treatments I discovered I was going to have to find new life rhythms.
I couldn’t do the same things I had always done that brought joy. I rarely had the strength to leave the house but I could still spend time with my wife and daughters at home.
I rarely could attend my faith community gatherings, but I could still pray from my bed.
I could rarely work, but every once in a while, I could write a few paragraphs.
This will be common for people facing crisis, and the more leaders can help people establish these new life rhythms, both inside and outside of the church, the more supported they’ll feel.
6. Find your new normal
Be patient with yourself if you’re in a crisis, and with your people if they’re the ones facing disaster. Encourage them to rely on God and community to carry them through times when they lack the strength.
Find ways to still do good in the midst of your suffering, even if something seemingly small or trivial. There are many ways to still do good in the midst of suffering, and as a leader, your encouragement in that way is powerful. Even something seemingly small or trivial can be extremely powerful.
We must practice self-compassion when we need to recalibrate and redefine what accomplishments and goals look like. Even when we don’t know what tomorrow holds—especially when things look the bleakest—keep going (or trying) forward. Help them discern when immediately returning to “normal” isn’t in the cards.
JAMIE ATEN (@drjamieaten) is the founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute and Blanchard Chair of Humanitarian & Disaster Leadership at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. He is the co-author of Disaster Ministry Handbook and author of A Walking Disaster: What Katrina and Cancer Taught Me About Faith and Resilience.