when tragedy strikes your own campus tribe

In light of the recent stabbings and shootings near University of California Santa Barbara, I wanted to dust off some notes I first wrote following the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007. I had the honor of visiting with college ministers only a semester after that tragedy, and I learned a lot through that experience.

We may not want to think about it, but we can take steps to prepare for possible calamities on our own campuses. And we should take those steps.

In my time with ministers at Virginia Tech, some clear strategies for dealing with campus-wide tragedies became apparent – not simply checklist items to pull out once problems arise, but even some actions we can take now to prepare for a possible then. In recent years, there have been plenty of campuses affected by accidents, natural disasters, and man-made evil; it seems wise to be prepared for God to use us to the utmost in these worst of times.

We can get to know the Experts now. Do you know who you would call if something tragic happened on your campus tonight? The foremost practical suggestion from those I talked to was to connect with disaster relief and “aftercare” people now, within your denomination or organization, or among other local Christians. Why not get to know them, and get to know their suggested procedures to follow?

Likewise, you’ll want to know locals who can counsel students, faculty, staff, and others in the midst of tragedy. Unless somebody on your staff has real training here – or you want to go back to school for a while – knowing experts in helping-through-counseling could make a big difference.

We should plan to look to Experts then. Besides disaster relief folks, my friends suggested calling in other experts, as well. For one thing, it was wisely noted that college ministry-types preside over a lot of weddings… but we’re not real accustomed to doing funerals. So if the time comes to walk through grief with family or friends, it can help to turn for advice to those who do experience both ends of life’s spectrum – namely, church pastors. These experts can give us tips on carrying out our own pastoral roles in the midst of pain.

Another “expert” worth connecting to will be someone who’s gone through tragedy before; this is one specific way that God’s past comfort is able to overflow to others. Darrell Cook, Director of the BCM at Va. Tech, told me he found help from someone who had experienced the pain of Hurricane Katrina while ministering at Mississippi College, for instance. We’ll have specific questions when tragedy arrives – and there are individuals who can give specific, seasoned answers.

Finally, employing students or other volunteers in a focused, “expert” capacity can be helpful in a crisis period. One example suggested to me was a “filterer” – someone ready and able to filter the many emails and calls that will come in during a well-publicized crisis. That way, you (as a ministry leader) can avoid well-meaning distractions while staying attentive to the contacts deemed most important. Delegating specialized roles can keep things running most efficiently at a time when wisdom and strategy are most important.

We should get to know the campus administration. If at all possible (and if you haven’t already), help the school’s administration see your ministry as helpful. In times of crisis, old lines and old walls can go out the window – but it will help if your ministry is already known and appreciated. Ultimately, it would be great if your ministry could be seen as a great “go-to,” even before it’s needed.

We’ve gotta be ready to “roll with it,” and teach our students to do the same. There’s a lot of “going with the flow” that has to take place in tragic times, too. We don’t know who God will raise up as leaders in moments like these, and we sure don’t know how His Spirit will lead or work or gather people together. We also don’t know what opportunities He will reveal. But He will.

Enabling students, ministries, etc., to respond to what God is doing – rather than trying to force our agenda – will be vital… even if it means canceling a Bible study, skipping a class, paying for a lunch with a hurting student, or missing some sleep.

But we’ll also need to lead. Even as we “roll with it,” we should remember God has called us leaders “for such a time as this,” and our campuses need us to lead in the Lord. Furthermore, there will be those functioning without wisdom in the midst of suffering, too. So sometimes our leadership will step on toes – even on other Christians’ toes – as we tend to broken legs.

So what can you do this summer, to prepare for tragedy that may strike your campus someday?

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