Leading Your Church Through Trauma

By Mark Vance

There is no script for leading a church through trauma, but these five principles have held true throughout our season of crisis leadership.

Thursday, June 2, 2022 was the worst day of my life, the worst day in the history of Cornerstone Church, the worst day in the history of our college ministry, Salt Company.

On Thursday, June 2, 2022, just before our college ministry kicked off its first summer college gathering, a disgruntled ex-boyfriend, Johnathan Whitlatch, shot and killed his ex-girlfriend, Eden Montang, and her dear friend, Vivian Flores, in our church parking lot. Dozens of college students and our Salt Company ministry staff witnessed this horrific event firsthand. Instead of joyfully worshiping with their friends, they ran in fear for their lives.

June 2 left all of us heartbroken. Honestly, heartbroken doesn’t quite capture the depth of our pain. The pain we have walked through – and are walking – after June 2 feels like some sort of bottom below the basement of grief.

There is no script for how to lead a church through grieving a double-murder suicide. I pray you will never experience the level of painful trauma our church has experienced.

But while the shape of your suffering may differ, every pastor needs to know how to lead a church through what the Psalmist calls “the valley of the shadow of death.”

Here are five principles that have held true throughout our season of crisis leadership.

1. Make people aware of God

Psalm 34:18 says “The Lord is near the brokenhearted; he saves those crushed in spirit.” In Matthew 28:20, Jesus’ final promise to His disciples was “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” God promises his presence in every situation. Traumatic pain so shocks the system that we become unaware of God.

In his book Managing Leadership Anxiety, Steve Cuss uses a phrase I have found very helpful: “Jesus is already there.” In the funeral home with a grieving family, Jesus is already there. At the prayer meeting when you are at a loss for words, Jesus is already there. When a staff member can’t breathe during a panic attack, Jesus is already there. When you wake up crying, Jesus is already there.

You cannot make a terrible situation better in an instant. You cannot make the pain go away. You cannot fix everything. But you can help your people become aware of God.

Jesus is already there.

2. Get help to navigate traumatic grief

The word “trauma” is recklessly overused. Life has many moments that are hard, sad and painful. All these hardships matter to God and deserve our pastoral attention. But normal pain, even deep grief, is not the same as trauma. My point is not so much that traumatic pain is worse than everyday grief; my point is that trauma is different and experienced differently.

In his incredible book A Grace Disguised, Jerry Sittser describes traumatic grief as a “sudden halt to business as usual.” He writes, “We live life as if it were a motion picture. Loss turns life into a snapshot. The movement stops; everything freezes. We find ourselves looking at picture albums to remember the motion picture of our lives that once was but can no longer be.”

Traumatic death is shocking, startling and unnerving. The experience of trauma feels like someone dropped an exclamation point into the middle of the sentence of your life.

Grief comes with sadness. Trauma comes with symptoms, often physical symptoms. After witnessing the shooting and its chaotic aftermath, many of us who were present experienced trembling from the adrenaline rush, panic attacks in tight spaces, upset stomach, racing heart rate and the inability to sleep. We wanted to run away from any places, people or sounds that could trigger memories. After June 2, the first time I saw a police car rush by me with lights flashing, I completely froze, panicked and unable to move.

Pastor, you need to humble yourself and get some help to understand how to help people heal who have experienced trauma. One of the greatest graces God gave Cornerstone Church was access to Gospel-rich, professional trauma counselors. Over the years, our pastoral team had intentionally cultivated trusting relationships with professional Christian counselors in our area. Those relationships with counselors we had built over years saved us June 2. At 8 a.m. the morning after the shooting, we had a team of professional trauma counselors onsite at Cornerstone to serve our staff and students who witnessed the shooting. I cannot imagine where we would be today without their love and care.

3. Be honest about your painful story

Traumatic suffering destroys neat Christian cliches. People will rush to remind you that God works all things together for good. They will point out to you all of the good work God does through painful moments.

Every one of those hopeful statements is true. God has saved many people through the witness of the lives of Eden Montang and Vivian Flores. God is good. The work God has done is good. And God is good.

But a thousand good things God does won’t change the evil of what happened. I wouldn’t wish this pain on my worst enemy in the world. June 2 was not good and will never be good.

The morning after June 2, one of our trauma counselors told me, “Mark, you have experienced a shared moment of trauma you will never forget. You might wish to forget it, but you won’t. Thursday June 2, 2022 will mark your life forever.” When he said that, I was angry – with him and with God. I wanted to move on, to forget the pain. There are still times when I wake up and feel as if I am living in the midst of a bad dream. But this isn’t a dream. June 2, 2022, is a date that will mark my life and our church forever.

This is my story. The pain will heal. But the scars are real. And they will be a part of my story and our story forever. Acknowledging that reality doesn’t make me a victim; it makes me a human living in a sin-cursed world. It does me no good to try to paint a rosy picture over bloody evil.

Instead, I have to tell a story that is honest and true. God is good; this is not good. I still have hope in Jesus; I hate this. That is my painful story. Speaking the story honestly gives space for healing to begin. Neat cliches won’t work in deep trauma.

4. Anchor your soul in Christ

Trauma makes you powerfully aware of your weakness. You will find very quickly that you do not have enough strength to handle leadership in these dark spaces. If you try to power through without pausing to care for your own soul, you will drown.

If the tragedy of June 2 was like a hurricane; I felt like a very small boat in the middle of that churning ocean. I could not fight the storm. There was no way I had the strength in my little boat to make it. So I had to anchor myself to Christ. In that anchoring process, Spurgeon summarizes my experience when he says, “I have learned to kiss the wave that throws me against the Rock of Ages.”

How have I anchored my soul in Christ?

  • Daily time with the Lord – I leaned into a very simple daily liturgy and started every day on my knees … literally. This kept me alive.
  • Regular reflection – I reviewed my days and weeks before the Lord, listing the joys and sorrows I was experiencing. I wrote my experience in a journal and prayed constantly, “The Lord gives, the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord.” These practices of regular reflection helped me to see the presence of Christ with me in my pain.
  • Physical self-care – Traumatic stress has physical manifestations and some simple pathways of physical treatment. God healed my heart through the common graces of sunshine, sleep, a hug from my wife, tears and sweat. One trauma counselor shared that God designed the human body to flush stress hormones fastest through tears and sweat. So I cried while I ran.
  • Singing – Over and over again, I sang “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” “Yet Not I But Through Christ in Me,” “Firm Foundation,” and many more songs. I sang the truth until I believed it.
  • Wise counsel – I spoke regularly with a mentor. This older, wiser pastor constantly provided me with prayers and insight.
  • Silence and solitude – I regularly spent time walking alone in the woods. A local Christian camp let me use a cabin to get away when I needed it.

Through this season of suffering, God has grown my soul. I’ve never more clearly experienced the presence of Christ in my life. From this place of calm, I could lead others.

5. Preach the gospel over and over and over and over

Life is short. Death is certain. What you do with Jesus Christ determines where you will spend eternity. I’ve lost count of how many times I have said those three truths since June 2.

For Eden and Vivian, their faith in the gospel was real, beautiful and true. Which means death did not and cannot have the final word on their lives. The gospel gives me this hope.

The best way I can honor Eden and Vivan is to point people to Jesus. So I have preached as a dying man to dying men that there is hope for a look at the Savior. Look to Jesus and live!

The greatest way I can love people, the most important gift I can give isn’t my presence, my care or my compassion – as important as those pastoral tasks are in moments of traumatic grief. The greatest gift I can give is the good news of Jesus Christ. He died and rose again to give eternal life to all who believe in Him.

Speaking in 1866, amid a cholera outbreak, Spurgeon gave this charge to pastors:

And now, again, is the minister’s time; and now is the time for all of you who love souls. You may see men more alarmed than they are already; and if they should be, mind that you avail yourselves of the opportunity of doing them good. You have the Balm of Gilead; when their wounds smart, pour it in. You know of Him who died to save; tell them of Him. Lift high the cross before their eyes. Tell them that God became man that man might be lifted to God. Tell them of Calvary, and its groans, and cries, and sweat of blood. Tell them of Jesus hanging on the cross to save sinners. Tell them that “There is life for a look at the Crucified One.”

Tell them that He is able to save to the uttermost all them that come unto God by Him. Tell them that He is able to save even at the 11th hour, and to say to the dying thief, “today shalt thou be with Me in Paradise.”

Tell them of him.

There’s more wisdom I could share, but those five principles have been the core of my ministry after our tragic loss. There are still lots of tears and hard moments. God is also faithfully and steadily healing us.

And in the midst of our pain and weakness, we’ve experienced the very real work of God in us and through us. God has made us fruitful in the desert. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.

Published February 20, 2023

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Mark Vance

Mark Vance is lead pastor of Cornerstone Church in Ames, Iowa. Prior to stepping into the role in 2018, Mark served as director of The Salt Company, Cornerstone's ministry to students at Iowa State University. Cornerstone Church has a vision to live as a faithful presence in Ames and to fuel church planting on major university campuses in North America through The Salt Network. Mark is married to Crystal and they have three children: Owen, Avery and Reid.