Wise as Serpents: Why Trained Trauma Chaplains Matter in the Wake of Crisis

Yesterday, just hours after the Colorado shootings, I began to read stories of “chaplains” being sent by evangelical Christian groups to the scene. Immediately, I felt my blood pressure rise.

Last summer my southern Vermont community was hit hard by Hurricane Irene. Towns were flooded, families lost their homes, and entire businesses were literally washed away. In the aftermath, all of us got involved in the rebuilding. As a local pastor, I spent a lot of time talking to people who had suffered devastating losses, and connecting them with needed resources.

One afternoon, a few days after the flood, I saw people walking in town wearing t-shirts that said “Chaplain”. I stopped to introduce myself to them, and they flashed official-looking badges and identified themselves as Red Cross trauma chaplains. But something seemed off. I went home, pulled up webpages, and started investigating.

I was a trauma chaplain. I spent three years in seminary, and then completed numerous units of Clinical Pastoral Education, a supervised training program for would-be chaplains. CPE, as any clergy person who has done it will tell you, is rarely fun. But it’s meant to train clergy to be able to serve others in the most devastating hours of their lives with compassion and grace. And above all, it’s meant to train them to, like doctors, “do no harm”.

I served first in the emergency room of a Level One pediatric trauma hospital and later as a staff chaplain in other hospital and hospice settings. I now serve as a chaplain to a fire department. During my time I have sat with a child who just lost both parents to a drunk driver, a mother who literally watched her son bleed to death from a gun shot wound, and countless wives who just lost husbands to heart attacks. And there have been many, many more. Every time I walk into a trauma situation I give thanks for every hour of training I have completed.

What I found out about the “Red Cross trauma chaplains” who had come to my town was not only surprising, it was dangerous. The organization that had given them the legitimate-looking badges is not actually connected to the Red Cross or any public safety community. It requires no accredited theological education and no clinical training. It does, however, offer its own, questionable, training. One pastor who attended several years ago left in disgust after the group’s leader reportedly made violently homophobic comments and talked about carrying a gun and extra ammunition into trauma areas.

But what is possibly even more disturbing is that the mission statement of this trauma response organization, and others like it, makes clear that they see disaster situations as opportunities for evangelism and conversion. In a crisis situation, where there is often chaos, it’s pretty easy to come to town, say you are a “trained trauma chaplain”, flash a badge that you can have created by a company on the internet, and get assigned to help people who are at their most psychologically and spiritually vulnerable. The potential for doing harm, to the point of spiritual abuse, is high.

But not all chaplains are like that. The United States military, for example, requires their chaplains to hold a graduate theological degree, and to complete clinical training. Board Certified Chaplains, often found in medical settings, are required to undergo even more rigorous review. And local public safety organizations, such as police and fire departments, have become more wary about the qualifications of those whom they let assume their chaplaincy.

All of these organizations also make sure that chaplains understand what their job entails. A chaplain does not try to convert those who have survived a disaster. Rather, a chaplain provides spiritual and emotional support by meeting people where they are at and helping them find the resources that they need. The chaplain may be a Catholic priest ministering to a Muslim, or a rabbi serving a Baptist, or a minister serving an atheist. It doesn’t matter. In any of those situation, the agenda cannot be dictated by the chaplain’s beliefs. It must be dictated by the needs of the traumatized person.

When this is done well, the result can be reduced traumatization, increased hope, and substantive stabilization. When done poorly, it can be nothing short of religious exploitation.

In situations like yesterday’s, it’s important for local clergy, and local government and public safety officials, to carefully investigate the religious agendas of spiritual caregivers. Look for someone who is trained by accredited sources, who has chaplaincy experience in the military or a medical setting, who is connected with a legitimate credentialing body, or who is already affiliated with your local public safety chaplaincies.

I learned the hard way last summer that in times of crisis there are plenty of spiritual “wolves in sheep’s clothing”. There are also plenty of good people who simply are not trained for the task at hand. Both types can do incredible damage. The Scripture of my tradition advises us that Jesus told us to be “wise as serpents, gentle as doves”. It’s a good reminder when deciding who should have access to those who have been severely traumatized.

2 thoughts on “Wise as Serpents: Why Trained Trauma Chaplains Matter in the Wake of Crisis

  1. Thank you for this Rev. Emily. It is very profound and on point. You have touched on a serious problem in this country for natural disasters will continue to occur and unfortunately, because of our lack of gun control in this country, mass shootings will continue to occur as well. My partner and I are both pastors and my beloved wife of 16 years is about to start a one year 4 unit CPE residency at a Houston (Texas Medical Center) hospital as well as provide services to one of the premiere children’s hospitals in this country. She and I have both completed one unit of CPE and as I serve in a year long pastoral intern position at a UCC in a Houston suburb, I can’t begin to tell you how much CPE has been beneficial to my pastoral duties at my intern church. Thank you so much for writing this and bringing this to light.

  2. Thank you for this excellent piece. I live and serve in an area recently hit by tornadoes, and saw these groups descend on storm survivors in the days after the storm. Many groups were almost predatory in their behavior. They knocked on doors relentlessly, and offered to pray. This doesn’t sound too bad, but they did not ever ask for a person’s own spiritual tradition before praying in their own. They also offered theological explanations for the storms (and who survived and who didn’t), which we local pastors are now undoing in their wake.

    I am currently serving as the chair of the Spiritual & Emotional Recovery Team for our long-term disaster recovery group in the community. We are working on this very concern, and have adopted the Points of Consensus from the National Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster. It gives great guidance on providing spiritual care, and can be found on the NVOAD site: http://www.nvoad.org/index.php?option=com_jdownloads&Itemid=41&view=viewdownload&catid=4&cid=16

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