Hurricane Sandy Presents New Opportunities and Exposes Our Usual Practice.
When disaster strikes pastors are key players in their communities. Well, maybe we should say, “they could be.” I would like to say, “they, or you, should be!” Many pastors like to think of themselves as leaders in the “community.” Most times they are only leaders in their own congregations, and unfortunately many are not very good at it. I believe the Barna Group did a survey and found out that about 70% of pastors didn’t want to be leaders. They wanted to preach, teach, study, write, but not lead. When I first read that statistic I was saddened by it, but not too surprised. In some ways we don’t want our pastors leading too much, we prefer they that be kind, sweet, holy people who only lead by suggestion. If they get on their high horse of leadership they might start telling us how to live, or calling us out that we ain’t living right, or become political and the next thing you know they will be telling us how to vote. When disaster strikes people in a community might assume their local church, even if they don’t go to it, would lend a hand, would be a sanctuary, would mobilize to help at least their own people. The reality is that the way pastors lead normally will result in them responding pretty much the same way when disaster strikes. What I mean by that is that pastors will do little or nothing to be of practical help, and most likely won’t be much spiritual help either. Now, one good thing about a disaster is that it does give pastors a chance to change, a chance to step up and become the leader their church has always needed them to be. Some of them have taken that responsibility to heart, some of them have become different in the way they do ministry. I am speaking of the propensity of pastors to stay in their studies, to prepare sermons, hopefully they pray, but not to exercise leadership by casting vision to their people to learn how to reach out to their neighbors through what the Bible calls, “good works.” When the Apostles told Paul to “remember the poor” I don’t think it was because he was having memory problems. I think they wanted him to do something about the poor. So when Paul planted churches there he was spelling out to the new pastor the need for the office of Deacon, the qualifications for it, the need to take care of widows, the need to do good to all men but especially to the household of faith. Paul even wrote about in his epistles and helped set up a system of subsidizing widows who couldn’t provide for their own needs or had no families to help them. When we develop a practical plan of helping our neighbors in their physical needs, in the name of Christ and with the accompanying Word of God to share the Gospel with them many wonderful things take place. Not least among them is what it does for our own church members and our children. Personally I think one of the greatest things that happens in a church that lives out justice, especially racial justice and accompanies that with ministries of economic mercy and development is that it gives our children an identity of religious integrity. Our kids go to college, go away to other communities, and they hear someone bashing the Church because it is hypocritical and is segregated and doesn’t care for the poor. Children from churches that practice Biblical mercy and justice speak back to such slander and say, “I don’t know what you are talking about, all our church did was help the poor and stand for justice, we have nothing to be ashamed about.” Pastors need to learn how to lead in their communities in the daily need for mercy, but especially when disaster comes. I am proud of the Presbyterian Church in America for its disaster response ministry, and this is true for both MNA and MTW, our mission organizations. The PCA responds, and shares its wealth, and its people move to help those in trouble and they sacrifice to do it. However, not all our churches, nor do all our pastors participate. Usually they have to wait to get the message when the storm falls on them and the community comes and asks for food, shelter, support of some kind. Then they wonder what they can do because they haven’t taken the time to learn it when things would have been easier. Here are some things you can do: go out and walk the neighborhood and see what is affecting them. Go up to those who have trouble and ask them to tell you their story. Offer to pray for them. Take notes on what they need. Go back to the church and tell them what the needs are, ask for ideas and suggestions, pray over it. Go to local government and institutions and speak up for the community about what is needed. Ask your Presbytery or regional group what resources they can give you to help. Call the denominational office and ask for their help. You will be amazed how welcome your presence will be on almost every level if you are there to offer a prayer, give a word of encouragement. You will be amazed at how respected your congregation will be if they sponsor a team to come in and clean out someone’s flooded house, or give a stipend to someone who couldn’t work for weeks or a month. Some pastors feel they can’t do anything because they think they have no resources. Are you kidding, don’t you believe in God, do you think he is broke? You have not because you ask not; neither from God nor from your brothers and sisters. I think it is a shame to the name of Jesus that in times of disaster a pastor says to those who ask for help, or to his own people who ask what can they do, “we don’t do that kind of thing, we are a spiritual ministry.” I am proud of those pastors who are out visiting their neighbors, coordinating with other local leaders, calling on the denomination and marshaling resources so they can deliver some help. May God bless them and sustain them, especially as the burden of need falls on them and they hurt for those around them. They are not abandoning their spiritual ministry but rather filling their physical ministry with a spiritual authenticity. They are doing it in the name of Jesus and they are doing it at the right time, and they are ready to do it because they have trained themselves to do it by the practice of normal, usual, and daily acts of compassion and mercy.