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How Church Leaders Can Respond in a Crisis

Call me—it’s an emergency. 

The dreaded words crossed my screen, and I immediately dialed her number. Her voice was shaky as she explained the details of the night. In the middle of dinner, their phone rang with dreadful news: their 17-year-old son had attempted suicide and was on his way to the closest hospital.

Her voice was full of fear, anxiety, and confusion. She wanted to understand. What was happening? What led him to attempt suicide? Will he be OK? 

If you’re a church leader, elder, or pastor, you’ll likely have to respond to crises within your local church body or in your community. You’re the one people call when they face things like the death of a loved one, hospitalization, mental health crises, or conflict within a marriage or between children. It’s important you’re equipped to respond well to those in your care.

In my job as a social worker, I often help others navigate these kinds of crises. I’ve learned how they provide us with a unique opportunity to care for others and love them well, and so to reflect Jesus.

What Is a Crisis?

Crises can be defined as unstable times, usually emotionally significant, where decisions need to be made. The turnaround time is quick, all hands are on deck, minds are processing information at double speed, and emotions are high.

A crisis reflects that something isn’t working as it should, and it can’t remain the same. People, circumstances, families, societies, and even finances go into crisis mode when they’ve been strained too far. Crises are loud, impossible-to-ignore shouts for help.

This has two implications for us to understand. First, any situation that culminates in a crisis is complex. There are no easy answers or quick fixes. They require significant wisdom.

That leads us to our second implication: we don’t have what is necessary to navigate any crisis well.

For us to be effective, we must acknowledge and confess this lack, turn our eyes to the Giver of all good gifts, and rest in confidence that he’ll provide us with the wisdom, clarity, patience, and energy we need for the crisis at hand (James 1:5). Then we can get to work.

Step 1: Triage

In a crisis, it can seem as if everything discussed is of the utmost priority and needs to be resolved immediately. This is unrealistic. Remember there’s a time for everything under the sun (Eccl. 3:1), and your task is to help prioritize which problems need to be resolved first.

We don’t have the knowledge or wisdom necessary to navigate any crisis well.

Consider the following triage assessment:

1. Assess physical safety and well-being. When you receive an emergency call, your first question should be “Are the people involved safe?” If an individual isn’t physically safe, there’s little we can do to move forward. For example, if a wife calls you because her husband is drunk and acting erratic, your first response shouldn’t be “Let’s schedule couple’s pastoral counseling.” It should be “Are you and the children safe? If he’s acting erratic, it may be a good idea to go to your mother’s home. Do you think that’s possible?”

2. Call the appropriate authorities. If a child discloses abuse, call the local child welfare institution. If an elderly member falls, call the ambulance. If someone’s home was robbed, call the police. Don’t assume you have it “under control.” Always call the appropriate authorities.

3. Notify the appropriate parties. This is surprisingly hard and requires wisdom for each situation. You can start by asking the individual you’re supporting whom he or she would like you to notify—don’t assume. For example, in the case of the wife with her erratic husband, don’t call the husband immediately. This will only threaten her and the children’s safety. On the other hand, if an adolescent discloses suicidal ideation, you must call his or her parents.

4. Identify and seek to meet tangible needs. Do they need childcare? Housing? Food? Transportation? Dog sitting? Help to notify their employers? Assistance in navigating family medical leave? Support can be offered in different ways, and creating a list is helpful, as is identifying a timeline for when things need to be accomplished.

5. Share the hope of the gospel. Underneath every crisis, there’s a deep and heartfelt need for the hope of the gospel. It’s the gospel that helps us handle crises well and the gospel that’s applicable to every life situation. The message of Jesus Christ needs to be shared, heard, and held on to.

6. Adjust as necessary. During a crisis, every plan needs to be flexible, adapting as the crisis evolves or as other crises arise at the same time.

Step 2: Listen Well

Once the initial period of crisis is over, we need to ask questions. A crisis is an alarm bell, and we must listen well before we move forward with a plan to prevent it in the future. If we don’t, we may miss the problem, delay the solution, or even sin against others in the process (Prov. 10:19).

Though it’s difficult, don’t be quick to fix things or rush through the discomfort of the unknown. Be present and listen carefully to the individual you’re caring for. There’s nothing more discouraging than sharing our fears, anxieties, concerns, and deep pain in the middle of a crisis and then receiving a rehearsed response that shows what we said wasn’t heard at all.

As you consider the other party’s concerns, understanding of the problem, and ideas to reach a solution, here are a few questions to keep in mind:

I want to understand what’s happening. Can you please explain to me what the problem is?
How did things deviate from the way you expected them to be?
How can we work toward a solution?
Can you clarify what you mean by _____?

Listening doesn’t mean the person in crisis is right in everything he says. As a pastor, you can point him to the Word of God and his patterns of sin. When the time is right, you can call him to repentance.

Step 3: Develop a Plan

Resolving the immediate situation doesn’t mean the underlying causes have been fully addressed. If possible, you should develop short-term and long-term plans to follow up.

Don’t be quick to fix things or rush through the discomfort of the unknown.

This is where biblical counseling, clinical therapeutic services, one-on-one mentorship, and care by home groups come in. The crisis calls attention to the need, but the deep work begins afterward.

Implement a timely, reasonable, and evidence-driven approach to meeting the needs of the individual. If possible, partner with medical, mental health, social work, or other appropriate providers to ensure the “team” is on the same page. In this way, you may achieve the best long-term outcome: the physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being of the body of Christ.


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