Disaster Psychologist Jamie D. Aten: Churches’ Biggest Danger is How They Think About Disasters

by Jamie D. Aten

Before I became a disaster psychologist, I was a youth pastor.

My first job in ministry was at a small, rural church near the Indiana-Illinois state line. It didn’t take me long to realize I was in over my head. Nothing had prepared me for some of the serious struggles the youth in our community were facing. After a couple of years, I decided to go on to graduate school in psychology to better prepare for life’s disasters, like the trauma and grief I had seen in the lives of some of my students.

After I graduated, our family moved to South Mississippi for my first college teaching gig. Our first Sunday there, we attended a church service down the road from our house. I still vividly remember the pastor solemnly walking to the pulpit, and in a slow Southern drawl saying, “If you remember Camille, you’ll know what I’m about to say.”

The pastor went on to describe how the killer storm Hurricane Camille had devastated Mississippi in the late 1960s. He then warned about a rapidly approaching hurricane that some thought might be even worse: Hurricane Katrina.

I remembered all the post-9/11 public service ads that stressed how one common household item was crucial to everyone’s preparedness kit. As soon as I got home, I started rummaging through our drawers and unopened boxes to look for this lifesaving resource. Then I found it. The holy grail of preparedness, or so I thought: duct tape!

I was standing in the living room looking out our window, gripping that duct tape. I knew a threat was rapidly approaching, but all I could think was, Now what?

Once again, I was in over my head. Nothing had prepared me for the devastation that was about to rip through our community. Within weeks of Katrina’s landfall, I began reaching out to pastors to study how churches were responding. Twelve years later, with trips across the globe and too many disasters to list, I’m still studying disasters. During this time I’ve also weathered my own personal disaster of facing cancer, too.

Pastors I work with often ask me, “What’s the biggest disaster threat facing the church today?” Here’s what I’ve concluded: The biggest threat facing the church isn’t a disaster event—it’s how people in the church think about disasters. The way you and your church think about disasters will determine what actions you will take to prepare and care in a disaster-filled world.

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SOURCE: Christianity Today