Ministering in the Face of Tragedy

Ministering in the Face of Tragedy: What One Pastor Learned from Pulse

“I hate the man who did this!”

My daughter spoke them early in the morning as we watched the chaos of the Pulse shooting unfold on the local news station in Florida. Over a year later, those words still haunt me.

Ministering in the Face of Tragedy

I am haunted by her words because I knew that we would have to move her past hate. As followers of Jesus, we aren’t allowed to hate even evil men who do evil things. The words haunt me because it was such a natural reaction for her. She simply hated.

Most of all, her words haunted me because I was feeling the same hate. I also hated this man.

I have urged people to love their enemies, as I believe it is the highest good and yet I was seething on my couch with hatred for a man who had done horrendous things in my city to my neighbors.

So we began the long journey of learning not to hate. We prayed. We cried. We preached. We served. We questioned our theology.

We have spent a lot of time reflecting as a family and a ministry over the last year on how we welcome strangers, spend time with those not like us, and love our enemies. It has been hard and painful, but it has also been good.

It Happens Again

Part of me was hoping that the Pulse shooting, just like Sandy Hook before it, would wake us up and we would find a way to move past our cultures obsession with violence. I was hoping we would figure out how to care for those suffering from mental illness or how to have and use weapons responsibly.

And then it happened again. We woke to the news of another mass shooting. The worst in US history, surpassing the Pulse shooting a little over a year alter. Close to 60 people dead and over 500 wounded.

Sandy Hook, to Orlando, to Las Vegas – we are once again witnesses to the capacity humans have for evil.

All we knew is that a man attacked our city and killed our neighbors, and for this we hated.

As ministers of the Gospel, we have the responsibility to walk with our students and parishioners through these moments. We have a responsibility to help our families move toward reconciliation and action in the world. We must lead our people toward the Prince of Peace so that we can live under His rule and reign in a culture that exchanged peace for violence, love for hate.

As a family and a ministry that lives in a city that experienced such violence and served people who lost loved ones in a mass shooting, we stumbled often and have learned a lot along the way. As we have raised our children through the backdrop of terror and led our church through such pain, here are some things we have learned.

1. People respond to tragedy, both near and far, differently… and this is good

After the Pulse shooting, I led a small staff meeting at our church and I picked up on three responses to the tragedy.

Some people wanted to sit and mourn. They just wanted to cry and talk about the lives lost. This was good and right. These moments are appropriate moments to mourn.

Others wanted to take immediate action. They wanted to take water to victims, give blood, pray at hospitals, and more. Again, this was good and right. People needed help immediately and this was an appropriate time and place to meet those needs.

As we walk with our students through this time of pain and confusion, let us speak life into them and let us love those we consider enemies and “the other.”

And still others took the long view. In the midst of the chaos, these people asked big questions like “why?” and “how?” They wanted to talk philosophy, theology, ethics, and politics so they could wrap their minds around what seemed to be meaningless violence. Again, this is a good and appropriate response. These big ideas need to be explored and wrestled with.

As we minister to our students and families in the backdrop of such evil, we will come across all three of these responses and more. It is important to not value one response over another. All of these responses are good, normal, and worth validating. Our responsibility is to honor the value of each response and help each person work through it in ways that are healthy and life giving.

2. People want Jesus

In the wake of the Pulse shooting, I remember a friend asking if we could just be with Jesus. All she wanted was to sit at His feet. So we opened up the book of Matthew and read the Sermon on the Mount. We talked about His teaching, His care for his people, and His ability to calm storms. We prayed and sang songs of praise.We welcomed Jesus into this moment and in His presence we found hope and peace.

As ministers, we cannot overlook the simplicity of this life-changing act. No matter how people are responding to tragedy, all of us need to be with Jesus.

While we sit with our church family and process the evil we have experienced personally or witnessed on the news, make sure we sit with Jesus. Read from the Gospel, open our prayer books and pray corporately, sing songs of lament and praise, and let us be the body of Christ together.

3. People need to be led into peacemaking

After the initial shock and pain grows dull, people continued to ask us what was next. They wanted to engage their community in ways that would move us past hate and anger. They wanted to love their community and bring peace to a community in fear. We spent a lot of time talking and teaching on how to be sent into our communities as agents of peace and love. How to be relational and care for people with no agenda.

We spent our time focusing on two practices that would help us being peace to our community.

First, we developed the practice of speaking life and not death. We refused to use “us versus them” language. We avoided calling people foolish, bigots, and idiots. We tried to transcend the conservative and liberal divide by validating the real emotions and ideas of others and by using the words of Jesus (particularly the Sermon on the Mount).

Where there was fear, we spoke life. Where there was hate, we spoke life. Where there was confusion, we spoke life. Speaking life brought peace and opened honest dialogue in a community that was hurt and scared.

Second, we made an intentional effort to love “the other” and our enemies. We encouraged our Caucasian members to spend time with our minority brothers and sisters. We encouraged straight people to take members of our LGBTQ community out to lunch. We encouraged liberals to hangout with conservatives.

Our approach was to love our enemies and those we deemed “other than us” until enemies and others became brothers and sisters. We called our people to it and then we did it. We spent time in neighborhoods and cafes that we never would have in the past. We took our church members with us and we lived as witness to the kingdom God in these spaces.

As we walk with our students through this time of pain and confusion, let us speak life into them and let us love those we consider enemies and “the other.”

This is a Journey

This started with the story of my daughter and I processing our hate for a man neither of us knew. All we knew is that a man attacked our city and killed our neighbors, and for this we hated.

As we sat on our couch, I knew we couldn’t stay here. We couldn’t sit in our hate. I also knew it would be a journey to move past the initial response to a place of being faithful followers of Jesus, the Prince of Peace.

Just as it was a journey for my daughter and I, it was a journey for our church. It has taken us a long time to move through our initial response. We have had to spend much time processing our thoughts and emotions. We have had to spend countless hours in the presence of Jesus as we have cast our fears and doubts upon him. And we have had to commit to being present with people we never imagined as we have attempted to be peacemakers in a hurt community.

Our nation is hurt right now. We have experienced natural disasters that have taken homes and lives. And bringing even more pain, we experienced another mass shooting that is forcing us to reflect on the posture of our culture and question our personal beliefs.

I pray for all of us as we minister in this climate. As we engage a people who are hurt, angry, and defensive may we crate space for a variety of good and important responses. May we journey with people, as they desire to be with Jesus. And by our words and example, may lead people into our communities as ministers of reconciliation serving as peacemakers in a broken and conflicted world.

About the Author: Jeremy Penn

Jeremy PennJeremy Penn is the founder and pastor of The Crowded House Network ( The Crowded House is a network of missional house churches that serves dechurched and unchurched communities.  Prior to this Jeremy served as a youth and young adult minister at Northland, A Church Distributed in Longwood, FL. He earned an MA in Theological Studies from Talbot School of Theology. He is currently enrolled in a doctoral program at Fuller Theological Seminary that focuses on The Church and Post-Christendom. Jeremy and his wife, Crystal, have a daughter, Riley, and a son, Phoenix.

The Pain We Carry

The Pain We Carry:
7 Strategies for Supporting Hurting Teens

Kids, Concrete, and Care

Ten years ago, while on church staff, I helped to initiate and co-lead a $4 million building program to build a state of the art youth ministry wing. One of the key aspects of the final design was a stained concrete floor.

Once the building construction was underway, I eagerly anticipated the day when the concrete floor would finally receive that deep mocha stain. Painters initially arrived with sand blasters and not paint rollers. For the next two full days they blasted every square inch of concrete.

The Pain We Carry

When a surface is placed under that kind of dynamic intensity it becomes unbelievably porous. Whatever is poured onto the surface of the concrete sinks in and fuses deeply.

Let’s play with this metaphor for a minute.

Humans are incredibly porous. We have a dynamic capacity for absorbing the hurt and trauma of others.  When we enter into the mix with hurting teenagers and their families who have experienced trauma, we can expect to carry it with us.

Being needed is very seductive. Don’t be fooled by an abyss of opportunity to respond to hurting people in crisis. It is not your job to fulfill every need.

The more intense and enduring the trauma we enter into, the more deeply we can expect it to sink into us.

If we are not careful we can get awfully lost in the trauma of those we seek to serve. Their trauma can quickly become our trauma.

I would like to suggest 7 strategies that have been helpful as my wife and I have walked with deeply hurting individuals for the last 20 years together.

Strategy #1: Show Up

There really is no need to think through helpful strategies for entering into human pain if you are not actually showing up in the life of someone who is hurting.

When you show up, be fully there. Enter into the messiness.

Practice the lost art of listening. Sit down. Relax. Breathe in deeply. Breathe out slowly. Lean in with an open posture. Make eye contact and reflect back what you hear and understand people are sharing with you.

So, be gentle. Be warm. Be curious. Be near. But be there.

Strategy #2: Move Slowly

When you orient your life toward those who are stuck in pain, move in slowly. More than likely, trust has been compromised in the life of the hurting individual. We honor their pain well by not spooking them by need to be needed.

Ease into relationships with hurting people at a pace that your own life can handle. There will be moments of overwhelm when we overestimate our capacity. We are served well when we pay attention to those feelings and make adjustments accordingly.

Don’t over-program. It’s easy to sell your soul to the devil of busyness.  Hurting people need men and women who are grounded.

“Slow” is the only way forward.

Strategy #3: Practice Saying NO

Believe it or not, it’s not cruel to tell someone NO. In fact, it may be the most loving thing they have ever been offered when it flows from a healthy heart.

Strategy #4: Don’t Go Alone

Build an infrastructure of others who will help you discern when to say NO. Invite people in around you who care more about your flourishing than what you can produce.

Cultivate a network of highly specialized clinicians skilled at entering into trauma in an ethical and competent manner. Ask other therapists who they respect in this arena.

Read. There is a wealth of wisdom available now in the area of trauma. We’ve learned so much about how the body heals. Adopt a spirit of teachability and receptivity in this area. Don’t just externalize it. Allow it to form you as well.

Strategy #5: Take Self-Care Seriously

Self-care is not selfish. It’s good stewardship. If you destroy your “self” then you really have nothing to offer.

Before jumping into the hurt of another, be willing to dive into your own. Meet with a counselor. Have lunch with a spiritual director. Seek out silent spaces for quiet reflection. Go on a soul care retreat. Hang out with monks. Incorporate play. Live!

Strategy #6: Cultivate Healthy Boundaries

Being needed is very seductive. Don’t be fooled by an abyss of opportunity to respond to hurting people in crisis. It is not your job to fulfill every need.

My brother in law says, “You have to teach people how to treat you.” My therapist told me, “No one will value your time more than you.”

Become unavailable to need. Practice sabbath keeping. Isn’t it interesting that of all the commandments God handed down to us, “Remember the Sabbath” is the only one that includes the word “remember”? God knew we would ignore this one.

Strategy #7: Prepare Yourself for Feelings of Inadequacy

It is inevitable that you are signing up for intense feelings of inadequacy. You will let people down. Accept that you can’t fix it. It simply comes with the territory of working with hurting and wounded people…which could be you or me on any given day.

We Are Called to Deal with Pain

As caregivers, we need to be surrounded by a healthy community of wise men and women who are not so impressed by us that they forfeit concern for the well being of our souls.

Over the course of the last twenty years, kindred friendships have sustained us as we have entered into the depths of pain with students and their families. Sometimes these friendships have cheered us on as we have taken those necessary risks to really be there with kids. Other times those same friends have confronted us to let go of our need to be there.

The reality is that “being there” and “not being there” are both really hard. Lingering in pain or leaving pain is the tension that we live in as those called to care for others.

Who are a handful of people who really know you and care for YOU more than your work?

About the Author: Hayne Steen

Hayne Steen - Kindred Youth MinistryHayne Steen is the Director of Counseling and Care at The SoulCare Project as well as a Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice with Elbow Tree Christian Counseling. Hayne grew up on surfing on the northeast Florida coast where met his wife Ruth Ann while attending Flagler College in St. Augustine, FL where they were both students and Young Life leaders together. Since then they both have been serving in full time ministry with Young Life and the local church all over the state of Florida, in Atlanta and most recently serving on the ministry staff of Signal Mountain Presbyterian Church and the Chattanooga Youth Network. Hayne and his wife continue to live on Signal Mountain with their three children where they enjoy living, playing and worshipping in an amazing community of family and friends.

Identifying Teens Prior to Crisis - Emily Edwards

VIDEO: All Signs Point To?
Identifying Teens Prior to Crisis

Identifying Teens Prior to Crisis - Emily Edwards

In this video, Emily Edwards presents All Signs Point To? – Identifying Teens Prior to Crisis. Emily currently serves as the Director of Youth and Education Ministries at Coronado Community UMC and has worked in student ministry for nine years. Emily also works with individuals (ages 6 and older), couples, and families as a therapist (Registered Clinical Social Work Intern #ISW9255) at New Smyrna Beach Counseling Center.

This presentation took place at the Flagler Forum on Youth Ministry at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida.


At Risk

“At risk youth is someone who is less likely to transition successfully into adulthood.”

“‘Successfully’ is often defined as able to avoid crime, achieve academic success, and become financially independent.”

“So what teens are at risk for crisis? …Really all teens have the potential to be at risk for crisis.”

Teen Statistics in 2 Hours


How do we recognize these at risk teenagers before they hit crisis?

  • Make passive suicidal statements (“The world would be better off without me.”)
  • Begin to isolate self from family & friends
  • Display sudden change (appearance, mood, attendance, interests, etc.)
  • Usually ask for help from a friend
  • Engage in high-risk behavior

“So what teens are at risk for crisis? …Really all teens have the potential to be at risk for crisis.”

“Your friend may be mad at your for telling… but your friend is going to be alive to be mad at you.”

“Our unique benefit of being youth workers is that we have no punishing rights… but we can sit there and have very open and honest communication (with them).”

High Risk Behaviors

  • Truancy
  • Substance use/abuse
  • Unprotected sex or sex with multiple or unknown partners
  • Restricting eating/binging and purging
  • Self harm
  • Fighting
  • Running away

“Our unique benefit of being youth workers is that we have no punishing rights… but we can sit there and have very open and honest communication (with them).”

Our Role

Our Role as Youth Minister is NOT:

  • Savior
  • Parent
  • Professional Counselor

Our Role as Youth Minister IS:

  • Building relationships
    • Recognizing red flags of teens approaching crisis
  • Training and equipping volunteers
    • Involve other safe adults in the ministry as mentors/sponsors/prayer partners
  • Utilizing teens’ strength and spiritual gifts
    • Student leadership
  • Talking openly about hard issues
    • Feelings of isolation come when difficult topics are not discussed
  • Having open door with non-judgement
    • Listen and validate

Our Role as the Church

  • Consistently point teens and their families to a transforming relationship with Jesus
    • Mark 12:30-31 “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.
  • Provide meaningful connections to God
  • Provide safe sanctuary for all teens
  • Support Parents/Guardians
  • Provide resources or connections to resources
    • Develop a local resources list to assist with prevention of crisis
Youth Ministry & Mental Health - Sarah Kamienski

Video: Youth Ministry & Mental Health – Interview with Sarah Kamienski

In this video, our own Zach Gurick talks to Sarah Kamienski, licensed mental health counselor and faculty at Flagler College, about youth ministry and mental health.

This interview took place after Sarah’s presentation on Youth Ministry and Mental Health at the Flagler Forum on Youth Ministry at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida. Be on the lookout for her full presentation to be released in an upcoming post!


Zach Gurick: So hey! We’re sitting here with Sarah Kamienski. And you just spoke at the Flagler Youth Forum for Youth Ministry, about adolescents and mental health. And you are a licensed mental health counselor and you’ve been doing that for?

Sarah Kamienski: 15 years.

Zach: 15 years, so a lot of experience working with adolescents and mental health obviously. And we are talking about youth workers today so, what would be the ideal scenario for you if a youth worker were to call you and say ‘Hey Sarah, I need some help, I have these students that are having these challenges.” What would you say to youth workers about that situation?

Youth Ministry & Mental Health - Sarah Kamienski

Sarah: Great question. I wish more youth workers would do that to be honest. I would probably be amazed at first, because that has happened so little in my experience, much more recently. But my first probably reaction would be, to could kind of just, that typically happens in crisis, so I would probably walk through, is there eminent danger in this very specific situation? Kind of walk through on what is happening.

But kind of going forward preventative, that kind of thing, I’d probably encourage them to get to know me, to add me to the rolodex of excellent list of people who could be called. I think one of the best things that youth ministers can do is sort of recognize when they are kind of hitting the lid of their own competence. And when they need to get help from a professional.

Just calling me and saying ‘Hey Sarah, this is what just happened.’ If you know me and have a relationship with me it’s a lot easier than just like panicking, you know ‘what would we do next I have a girl who’s cutting and she’s wanting to kill herself’.

So I would say preventatively, seek out a few counselors in your area, cultivate relationships with them so that you could have an ongoing relationship there. And then additionally I would love to… (Excuse me) I just talked to a youth pastor about this 2 days ago – as a counselor I would love to like partner with you and depending on your obviously your church and what is your situation is. But if you are interested in a kind of training yourself, your staff, and the other youth volunteers that you have to kind of go over, some of just the basics of listening, kind of crisis intervention, you know – is this an ongoing problem? is this a crisis? what is our protocol? and that kind of thing.

I think just talking about having conversations about those things can sort of help people know what to do so they don’t panic, they are not acting reactively, but instead they are offering soul care that is consistent with who they want to be as youth ministers.

Zach: Soul care… that’s a good word…

Sarah: Yeah

…just having conversations about those things can sort of help people know what to do so they don’t panic, they are not acting reactively, but instead they are offering soul care that is consistent with who they want to be as youth ministers.

Zach: So maybe having a bit of a plan and a place, having those relationships built ahead of time rather than, ‘Oh my gosh! This just happened, now what would I do?’

Sarah: If possible, don’t wait for the crisis – try to identify a few people in the area in advance who could be helpful in working alongside.

Zach: Do you have some partnerships like that; you mentioned you spoke with a youth pastor a couple days ago. Do you have partnerships here locally; is that an ongoing thing for you?

If possible, don’t wait for the crisis – try to identify a few people in the area in advance who could be helpful in working alongside.

Sarah: I think it’s kind of a thing on the rise and I’ve just kind of entered into the youth ministry department at Flagler. But I would say every connection that I make with the youth minister, the more we talk, the more their face kind of lights up and oh, there is hope here, there are answers to some of these problems. And by answers I just mean, an ability to learn how to create a safe space for someone to be where they are, because that’s, in general, what we do in counseling. But just knowing what kind of framework is for that, I think is really helpful and it dismantles a lot of fear.

Zach: Yeah I would say, thank you so much for what you are doing. In 15 years of youth ministry experience there have been, many times where I hit that competency and been way over my head. Just having someone like you as a partner that is involved would be an amazing gift.

Sarah: Absolutely, thank you.

Zach: Appreciate it.