Ministry after communal trauma

In the wake of violence, pastors have to lead people out of hell. Jesus has been there.

A double murder and suicide took place on a church property in a large suburban congregation. Two adult congregation members and a member of the youth group were dead. A few weeks later, during Lent, the pastor shared from the pulpit a theological shift that had occurred within her own thinking since the trauma. Growing up, she explained, she had memorized and recited the Apostles’ Creed with one omission: the phrase “he descended into hell.” Her own childhood pastor, who did not believe that Jesus had descended into hell, had personally crossed out that line in every hymnbook the congregation owned. Consequently, she had never integrated Jesus’ descent into hell into her theology.

But something had changed, she said. She realized that “this congregation has descended into hell. And if we have had to go down into hell, it is comforting to know that Jesus has been there before us, and can show us the way out.” This pastor’s report on her shift in thinking made the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection deeply personal and real, not just for that Lenten season, but for the many seasons of pastoral care that lay ahead.

Sometimes violence impacts an entire congregation or community, not just a family or individuals. Its rippling effects spread across the land and may even pass through generations. In the wake of such disaster, the preacher and presider’s immediate task is to allow scripture and ritual practice to support a congregation as people frame their theological response.