Things aren’t simple anymore. When a crisis care team is needed, you will not just feel empathy for the hardship someone is going through, you will also feel uncertainty about what ought to be done next. We’ve left the realm of common life experiences. We don’t need to freak out when this happens. We do need to think more strategically.
Examples of a Crisis Care Team
Think of the college student who just confided that she was raped on a date last weekend. Think of the family whose house burned and lost everything they owned. Think of the person who just got a terminal cancer diagnosis their mid-40’s. Think of the family who is navigating the implications of their oldest son getting a DUI after a traffic accident which killed the other driver.
While each of these situations is beyond a basic care team, each would greatly benefit from the peer support that a care team provides. Without a care team, these individuals would feel alone in their pain. With a poorly constructed or executed care team, the person in a crisis and the care team are likely to get exasperated with the church. That’s why more time needs to be devoted to selecting and orienting a crisis care team.
Context for a Crisis Care Team
We tend to know a crisis care team is needed when our “ruh-roh reflex” goes off – that intuitive sense that something is wrong and unless we know what we’re doing we could make a bad situation worse. The problem is, we can’t always put into words what is different. But if we’re going to be effective, we need to be able to articulate what is different as we put together and orient a crisis care team.
Here are three things that are different, and one thing that is the same as we move from a basic care team to crisis care team.
- Hard Choices: During a crisis, the person/family is making choices with profound implications that don’t always have a clear, “right” answer. Often they do not have all the information needed to make an informed choice. A crisis care team needs to be able to provide support and be a sounding board for this person/family without making the choices for them.
- Matters of Privacy: The person/family in crisis has a right to privacy. They should get to choose who-knows-what-when about their life. A care team gets privileged information (more on that in a moment). They need to know how to honor this information as private and privileged.
- External Experts and Jurisdictions Involved: Medical professionals, law enforcement, attorneys, social workers, financial advisors, and other experts are often involved in a crisis. A care team needs to be able help the person/family assimilate and apply advisement from these people without feeling like these professionals are rivals to the guidance of the church.
- Logistics and Listening Still Primary: The primary role of a care team does not change. The listening just involves receiving weightier information, and logistical assistance may require considering input from other experts and jurisdictions. The weight of a crisis can easily discourage a care team by distracting them from the benefits their role provides. Even if the situation does not get better quickly, their presence is still of immense benefit.
These four points comprise the basic outline for the pastoral conversation with each person invited to serve on a crisis care team. Naming these challenges before a care team member gets in an uncomfortable situation is a major step towards preventing these situations creating division, producing a sense of being overwhelmed, or being mishandled.
Forming a Crisis Care Team
The person/family in crisis has the final say in who is and is not invited to serve on their care team. In a crisis, not every “nice” person gets invited into the inner circle of information. If the role of the care team is to provide relief (and it is), the person/family in crisis knows whose presence will be an “emotional net win” for them.
The pastor initially caring for the person/family should ask, “Who from our church do you trust enough to support you in this situation? I want our church to support you, but I want to make sure you are comfortable with who is involved.” Ideally, you would get a list of 3-5 people.
After getting permission to talk to the people listed, the pastor should update those people on the situation, let them know the parameters of the care team (see above), and ask if they would be willing to serve in this capacity.
Communication on a Crisis Care Team
Once the care team is formed, the pastor needs to designate a point person to serve as the liaison between him and the care team. Preferably, this would be the best crisis manager or subject-experienced person (for instance, a nurse if the crisis is medical related) on the care team. This person leads the care team and provides regular updates to the pastor overseeing the team.
Crises are complicated. This makes clear lines of communication more important. The more every person on the care team individually shares with the pastor what they think the church ought to do, the more likely it is that the person receiving care is to think the church is under-responding. The care team should come to consensus and the liaison share that consensus with the pastor to discern what is feasible. What the pastor and liaison decide upon is what is communicated to the team and person/family receiving care that the care team is going to do.
Additionally, the care team needs instruction on how to handle privileged information.
- Privileged information is “non-public information” received because of a unique role.
- The person/family in crisis should decide who-knows-what-when about their situation.
- Sharing outside the care team is both hurtful and sinful (gossip). It should not be done.
- If someone is not emotionally, relationally, and spiritually mature enough to understand and honor this criteria, they are not a good candidate to serve on a crisis care team.
- Support for the weight of information being carried should be sought from one of two sources: (a) other members of the care team – caring for one another as they care for their friend, or (b) the pastor overseeing the care team. Knowing the outlet for appropriate communication is an important part of avoiding inappropriate sharing of information.
In a crisis, other professionals are likely to be advising the person/family. The pastor or elder overseeing the care team needs to understand how to interact well with these individuals.
- Confidentiality: Counselors, social workers, law enforcement, medical doctors, and other professionals have limits on what they can share. This is not because they mistrust or disagree with a church’s assessment. It is part of their professional code of ethics.
- Release of Information: To speak with church leadership, these professionals need a signed release of information. The professional creates this document, not the church. For the same reasons that a pastor wants one person to speak with from the care team, a professional will want one person to speak with from the church.
- Only at the Individual’s Request: The individual receiving care must request the release of information from the professional. It is their personal information being released. It is inappropriate and will create mistrust if a pastor directly requests a release of information.
- The Church as a Collection of Friends: Professionals view the church as a collection of friends. The roles, hierarchy, and authority that exist within a church are not relevant to their jurisdiction. It may help you to realize that the role of pastor to a church member is more like an aunt or uncle than a parent in the eyes of these professionals.
When you talk with these professionals, it is important to realize they are concerned with health and safety rather than character and theology. That’s okay. You care about health and safety too. You want to learn from these professionals how the member’s well-being and health may change the prioritization of support the church is providing. You want to share the relevant elements of the church’s care that may impact the service they provide. This allows both sides – church and professionals – to fulfill their respective roles with awareness of what the other is doing.
When we move from a common life experience to a crisis, the role of a care team becomes more complicated. The information involved is more private. The emotional weight of the situation is heavier. This means both the person/family in crisis and the care team will require more pastoral attention. But the presence of a good care team can be an immense asset for an individual/family going through a situation that is scary and would be painfully lonely without their presence.