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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Trauma Response
November 9, 2017

Where were you Sunday morning? I was worshiping with a congregation welcoming a new pastor. It was a day of grand celebration, yet in many ways it was simply church being its ordinary, natural self. Gathering to worship God in spirit and in truth. Lifting up thanksgivings and petitions in prayer. Singing and listening to inspiring music. Hearing God’s Word read and preached. Celebrating the gifts of grace at the Lord’s Table. Welcoming new leadership for the next leg of a journey that has been underway for many generations. Enjoying a hearty meal together afterward. It was beautiful. And it was oh, so blessedly ordinary.

Then on my way home I heard on the radio of a church that had a very different Sunday morning experience. A congregation much like the one I had just worshiped with had also gathered on All Saints Sunday to give thanks for their saints who had preceded them into the arms of eternity. Little did they dream as they gathered that the number of their departed faithful would grow by more than two dozen during that very worship hour. Sutherland Springs, Texas, heretofore known by virtually nobody beyond its immediate environs, will henceforth ever be widely famed as the scene of massive, horrific, incomprehensible trauma. In church, no less.

Why them, not us? The number of shootings in churches has risen to the point that the Center for Homicide Research in Minnesota is now cataloging them in a database. Including the number of deaths that have taken place more recently, more than two hundred have lost their lives in church shootings since 1980. Many such shootings have targeted just one person, such as the Kansas physician gunned down in a church pastored by a friend of mine, because he performed abortions. Family feuds fuel other such events, apparently including this Sunday’s shooting. Sometimes other hatreds are vented in church, such as the rabid resentment of African-Americans that led Dylann Roof to slaughter nine worshipers in Charleston.

Here is the point – none of us is exempt from the risk that our church could be next. Do we dig our heads into the sand and simply hope it won’t be so? Do we even talk about such events in church?

After praying aloud in church for those who have suffered such terrible trauma and loss, our next responsibility is to talk with each other about these events openly and honestly. Our children deserve it. Due diligence demands it. It could have been us, and there is no guarantee that it won’t be us one day.

So I urge each of us to take the time and trouble to do the unthinkable – develop a plan of response should an assailant target your congregation. Don’t be caught unprepared, flat-footed. School systems can help us here, as they have developed and trained their teachers in protocols for responding to such events following Columbine and Sandy Hook. Call on your local school district to help you develop a response plan should such an event unfold in your congregation. Your insurer may also have resources to help you develop a response plan in the face of such violence.

While on the topic of trauma, let us also address the issue of sexual harassment that has received new public visibility through recent exposure of perpetrators in news, entertainment, and political circles. I was chilled to see the breadth of the harassment experienced by family members, close friends, and professional colleagues through the “Me Too” thread on Facebook.

Whether the trauma is mass shootings or sexual harassment, we need to be vigilant in doing everything possible to minimize the chances and damages of any such events in the church. One basic, no-brainer way to minimize opportunity for sexual misconduct is to make sure that each door to our offices and classrooms includes a large window. “Behind closed doors” is no longer a viable option for how we do any business in the church.

Jesus advised his followers to be “harmless as doves,” unfailingly gentle and generous. But in the same moment he also counseled us to be “wise as serpents.” (Matthew 10:16) What does such wisdom require of us in this time of widespread trauma that could strike any of us at any time?

Yours for the safety of God’s flock,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

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