Being the Church in Disaster

Growing Through Disaster:
Tools for Financial and Trauma Recovery in Your Faith Community

By Clayton Smith and Matt Schoenfeld
Abingdon Press, pp. 144, $17.99

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Review by Dane Neufeld

In the days following the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire that terrorized and emptied our city for a month, I found myself wondering if there were any guidelines or books to help a pastor in such a situation. With our parish scattered, most people’s lives in chaos, it was not at all clear what I should be doing. While a path forward certainly emerged, I would have benefited immensely from a book like Growing Through Disaster, which provides a practical, ecclesially-centered guidebook for churches in the midst of disaster and trauma. Natural disasters set an enormous and necessary organizational process in motion that involves government, the private sector and non-profit agencies. But the place of the Church in all of this is not always clear.

The authors, Clayton Smith and Matt Schoenfeld, stress that churches need to continue being churches in disasters, not just because that is what they know how to do, but because that is what people need. Churches can do many things to assist in the aid and recovery effort, such as making their spaces available, facilitating recovery programs, and offering assistance to those in need. But Clayton Smith writes: “The reading of sacred scriptures, healing prayers, and connecting to a faith community are essential for short term and long-term healing and hope.” Smith turns readers to the Psalms as a place where lament, frustration, and hope are mingled together in a faith that grows through trial: “God’s scripture can and will calm your anger, your pain, and your frustration.” This is a big claim, and an unusual one in the increasingly technical space of disaster and trauma recovery. But for Church leaders who are feeling useless in the middle of a natural disaster, it is good to remember the power of the gospel and the gathered community in Christ.

The book begins with a series of topical chapters that deal with relief, recovery, and restoration. While not overly theological in their focus, these chapters have a theological backbone that informs the guidance that Clayton Smith offers. The second part, by Matt Schoenfeld, offers a series of reflections on financial recovery, and the difficulties that people will encounter in disaster scenarios. I know from experience that finances will become a major theme of any recovery effort. It may have been helpful here to have offered some examples and advice for how churches can manage their own and donated funds during recoveries. The financial advice is largely for individuals, which is, of course, deeply important, but it does diverge from the book’s earlier focus on the role of the Church community.

The final portion of the book offers a series of very helpful studies and outlines for group meetings that range from Bible studies to financial planning seminars. The appendices as well include a number of practical documents – in particular the advice for volunteers who are coming to work in a disaster zone. The sample volunteer covenant, for example, urges volunteers to be mindful that they are guests, and to try to not burden the distressed community with their presence, an important point in such circumstances.

Growing Through Disaster is rooted in the authors’ concrete experiences within the United Methodist Church and its various relief and recovery operations. This is useful because it provides visibility and a standard for denominational churches as they prepare to engage with natural disasters in their communities. Though all churches are structured differently, this book would be an excellent tool for regional and national bodies to have ready at hand.

For Anglicans, it would be both reasonable and advisable for diocesan leaders to be acquainted with this kind of resource. It could easily be placed in the hands of local parishes as well. But in times of disaster, when the local community is in chaos, it is critical that diocesan leadership be knowledgeable, to some degree, in the recurring patterns of disaster and recovery. Growing Through Disaster is short, simple and immediately useable, just what is needed when victims have little attention and focus beyond their immediate struggles. Clayton Smith and Matt Schoenfeld have done a good thing for the Church, and I hope their work bears much fruit in the years to come.

The Rev. Dane Neufeld is rector of All Saints, Fort McMurray, Alberta.


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