Serving Families in Crisis: Understanding What Is Needed in Light of the ‘One Thing Needed’
This article first appeared in Issues on Lutheran Education, a resource provided by the Office of Graduate Studies and Continuing Education for Martin Luther College, New Ulm MN.
By Dr. Joshua Mears, Christian Family Solutions
A child suddenly loses a parent. A teen begins acting out after years of abuse. A natural disaster destroys a family home. Chronic illness. Suicide. Divorce. Addiction. All of these situations shake individuals to the core and threaten to destroy the foundational units of society – our families.
Those of us in the clinical counseling field seek to help and heal individuals and families in crisis by applying our knowledge of the theoretical frameworks of crises, assessing needs, and intervening with appropriate treatment. Our knowledge and training in social and behavioral sciences is essential; yet, as Christians in a counseling vocation, we rely steadfastly on Christ and his work in restoring souls during times of crisis and hardship. True healing can happen when evidence-based clinical treatment and the foundational truths of Scripture are fully integrated.
As such, when it comes to ministering to families in crisis, we see the partnership between clinically trained Christian counselors and called workers essentially linked. Called workers who become aware of the theoretical frameworks and resources can enable families to deal with crises more adequately. In addition, there are resiliency factors that enable some families to cope with crises better than other families. YOU as a called worker are equipped for the important work of supporting those resiliency factors, regardless of whether or not you ever counsel a family in crisis.
Called workers often have the distinct opportunity to minister to families in their times of greatest need. I want to encourage and embolden you, “and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:25).
First, let’s consider the types of crises families face and the opportunities they present. In doing so, we can see the inextricable linkages I describe between ministry and evidence-based treatment.
- Catastrophic crisis: These include natural disasters, house fires, violent crime, or other significant calamites that cause grief and loss. In these situations, it is natural human tendency to ask “why.” The confusion around these events often leads the sufferer to explore an existential understanding of authority and power in this world.
- Physical and mental illness: Nearly half of adult Americans will at some point be diagnosed and treated for a major mental health condition. A family may also be impacted by chronic health related conditions that inhibit the overall ability of the family to function well. Being able to minister and support this family, knowing when to suggest other intervention, is critical and can prevent further escalation of the crises.
- Addiction: Whether chemical addictions or behavioral addictions, the consequences are overwhelming and extremely destructive for individuals and families. A treatment approach that focuses on moral deficiency might apply too much Law; a treatment approach on a medical model, while admirably grace-centered, could apply too much Gospel. The Christian (particularly Confessional Lutheran) worldview of our dual nature as described in Romans 7-8 equips us with a unique view of the addict, as well as a unique approach to support and treatment.
- Trauma: Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) is the term used to describe all types of abuse, neglect, and other potentially traumatic experiences that occur to people under age 18. The secular world often suppresses the Christian community’s attempts to help people who are suffering from the impact of a sinful world: Self-determination strategies are often recommended for health and well-being. It is extremely important that Christians are able to articulate and defend the faith even if the societal and cultural view opposes a Christ-centered view of health and well-being.
- Divorce: Nearly half of the children born into marriages will go through a divorce prior to age 18. This is happening to approximately one million children every year, each one beginning an emotional journey as victims of a devastating process. There are many misguided reasons why individuals or churches choose not to offer support: privacy is one reason. Another is that religious views speak against divorce, and therefore we should not show grace and support to a divorced family unit. The result is a family in distress left to be counseled by the secular world.
Gaining a theoretical understanding of how to interact with and comfort a family in crisis is extremely important because it can guide the interventions when emotions are running high. One of the most important facets of ministering to a family in crisis is to help them make sense of what they are going through. The primary theoretical frameworks can do just that – articulate what is making the stress occur and how that stress is making the individuals within the family resort to maladaptive coping patterns. As a called worker, you may be the person who first sees the family’s state of confusion and guides them to appropriate intervention.
In addition, Christians have the wonderful opportunity to integrate clinical science and interventions with Christ-centered ministry. We know that Christ is the Wonderful Counselor who has cured all suffering or crises, and Scripture affirms this: “I lift up my eye to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth” (Psalm 121:1-2). The best science and evidence-based practice for assisting families in crisis must always rely on Christ and his work in restoring souls during times of crisis and hardship.
Having a firm foundation in Christ-centered methods of healing may mean that we have to challenge people’s thoughts and interpretations about crises/tragedies. One of the most important foundational issues for some people when dealing with stress is why God allows them to go through these types of situations. Many well-meaning Christians develop certain catch phrases such as “God has a plan” or “He never allows you to go through more than you can handle” in order to grapple with this concept. Many times, these statements and cognitive interpretations of God’s providence can be detrimental to the development of realistic and positive adjustment to crises.
It is important to explore the issue of “why” with the family you are ministering to. Be empathic and patient as someone expresses their frustration and sadness. Lamenting to God is one of the most important tools that we have in these scenarios. We must learn to cry out to God for mercy when we feel that his promises for safety, blessings, and comfort are hollow.
In my work with families and in helping many get through life crises, the single most important predictive variable for the likelihood of positive outcomes is the daily ritual of family devotions. The daily gathering around God’s Word is helpful as the Holy Spirit joins with the members of the family unit around the Family Altar. It is key to building resilience.
I have provided an overview of the many crises that impact families today, and I’ve encouraged you familiarize yourself with the theoretical frameworks for diagnoses and intervention. Having appreciation for what we do on the clinical side helps you understand when and what type of clinical intervention may be needed. I hope you also can appreciate how important it is to integrate crisis treatment with our foundation and hope in Christ. As a called worker, know how important your work is, both in the midst of crisis and in helping families develop habitual time in God’s Word as a resilience measure. We in the clinical sector see our partnership with you as essential ministry to souls.
Joshua T. Mears, PSYD, LP, BC-TMH is Minnesota Clinical Director for Christian Family Solutions. Dr. Mears specializes in psychological assessments, child and adolescent behavioral disorders/family conflict, as well as chemical abuse issues.
Price, C.A., Bush, K.R., & Price, S.J. (2017), Families and Change: Coping with Stressful Events and Transitions (5th ed.). London: Sage
Barna Group (2019), “What Makes a Spiritually Vibrant Household?” https://www.barna.com/research/spiritually-vibrant-household/