Ministering during a crisis: How Psychological First Aid can help Church leaders and individuals be a support to others

Learning principles of ministering during a crisis can help Church leaders and members

This is Part 1 of a two-part series. Part 2 features how the Church’s Europe Area developed new training to help others during a crisis.

Refugees fleeing a bombed city. Survivors of an earthquake. Families devastated by suicide. Witnesses to a tragic accident. There are so many who need support and ministering care in a crisis. Learning Psychological First Aid can help.

Psychological First Aid (PFA) was developed by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network and the National Center for PTSD. It is an evidence-informed approach to help anyone after a traumatic event. Like with medical First Aid, it was developed to meet immediate crisis needs by reducing the initial distress and fostering coping skills. PFA is based on an understanding that survivors may experience physical, psychological, behavioral and spiritual reactions. 

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has used this approach to create training and resources for members and leaders, including a discussion guide titled, “How Can I Minister to Others During a Crisis?” and a self-help guide called, “Facing Challenges.” Other resources can also be found through the Church’s “Tips for Emotional Preparedness.”

Kevin Broderick, the program manager for emergency response for Family Services of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, provides information, training and support to staff throughout the world who are responding to large-scale or small-scale disasters or incidents. He has engaged in those response efforts as well. 

Broderick said part of the discussion guide was originally developed in Haiti in 2010, after a major earthquake. He and colleagues realized they didn’t have enough support or resources for the members who were in crisis there.

“They didn’t at the time really have any member psychologists or counselors in the country,” Broderick said. “And so we determined that we had to teach the members who were more resilient, who were recovering a little bit better or who weren’t affected as deeply — we had to train them so that in their wards and stakes they could minister to each other.”

Then, a few years later, Broderick got a call from a stake president saying he was going to be visiting with a family whose son died by suicide, but he didn’t know what to say to them. Broderick gave him a pattern to look at and five principles to guide him.

“So really this discussion guide is a combination of what we did to help the Haitians serve each other after the earthquake, and then those five principles came out of my discussion with the stake president saying, ‘What are some basic steps that a leader can follow when meeting with a family who’s in crisis?’” 

5 principles of ministering during a crisis

Those five principles in the discussion guide are:

  • Be compassionate
  • Allow others to express their feelings
  • Empathize and normalize responses
  • Suggest ideas for ways to cope
  • Offer hope 

Broderick said leaders and members may not request help from Church Family Services in an emergency because they think they don’t need counseling or therapy. 

“They are right, people don’t need counseling or therapy during a crisis,” he said. “But they don’t realize that we also offer Psychological First Aid to help with acute stress situations that can help alleviate some of the distress that they’re experiencing at the moment and, in some cases, help mitigate or even prevent more difficult responses later on.”

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The Church’s team of professionals has responded to large-scale disasters and traumatic events involving Church members. But Broderick said it doesn’t have to be just a licensed counselor; anyone can learn how to provide Psychological First Aid.

“That’s one of our efforts. We are working on ways to train leaders, ministering brothers and sisters, and family members how to address crisis or difficult situations,” he said.

How crisis training helps with ministering

In a crisis, leaders like bishops, stake presidents and Relief Society presidents are often some of the first on the scene or one of the first phone calls. Ministering brothers and sisters are also involved.

Being able to use those five principles — be compassionate, allow others to express their feelings, empathize and normalize responses, suggest ideas for ways to cope and offer hope — will help with ministering to those who are struggling, said Broderick.

“These kind of situations are heavy and shocking and members and leaders occasionally don’t know exactly what to say, and don’t know what to do,” he said. “But that’s what this discussion guide is about — there are things that you can say, there are questions you can ask, there are ways that you can express compassion and just be there with them and hear what they’re going through, if they want to talk.”

Hands clasped in prayer. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Bishop Levi Vasconcelos, bishop of the Sacavém Ward in the Lisbon Portugal Stake, has been able to apply the principles in his ward and not just in a crisis situation.

He said when he was called as bishop, the Relief Society president mentioned trying many times to talk to a woman in the ward who was less active, but the woman wouldn’t say much. 

Bishop Vasconcelos was participating in the training about how to minister to others during a crisis, and heard the facilitator talk about how important it is to allow others to express their feelings.

“So, the following day, I called this sister. It was the first time I spoke to her. I introduced myself as her bishop and asked about her and her family. She introduced herself and then, silence,” recalled Bishop Vasconcelos. 

He used some of the questions from the training that facilitate expression of emotions — questions such as, “What worries you the most right now?" "What are the hardest challenges you have faced this week?" "What concerns do you have about the future?” and so on. 

The woman started talking to him, and the phone call lasted more than an hour. Bishop Vasconcelos said, “It was a very spiritual experience because I felt at that moment that through key questions, this sister openly shared the thoughts and feelings she had, and I was able to help her.” 

Now he and the Relief Society president had a better idea of what challenges this woman was going through. Bishop Vasconcelos said he still uses the content in the discussion guide in his interviews with the members of his ward.

“Asking key questions so that people can feel more comfortable expressing their feelings certainly helps to minister to people who are going through difficult times,” Bishop Vasconcelos said. “I always try to use the key questions so they can express themselves and especially, so they feel comfortable talking about the things they have in their hearts, which is often difficult to perceive.”

How crisis training helps the individual and family

Eva Diez, who lives in Germany, took the training course on ministering to others in crisis that was offered in Europe. She said she has come to understand more deeply and apply specific resilience tools with people around her who are going through difficulties. 

“I believe that being able to have these concepts clearly present and structured in my mind has helped me to guide conversations, listen more patiently and accompany with compassion in a more Christian and healing way,” Diez said.

“Ministering in Crisis” training for stake leaders in the Cartagena Spain Stake in 2022. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

It also helped her in her own family. Recently, she was taking her 11-year-old son to the train station so he could join a three-day excursion with his school class. He was leaving home for the first time and started to cry in the back seat.

“My spontaneous reaction would have been to try to encourage him by saying something like, ‘It’s no big deal,’ or ‘It’s only two nights, you’ll be back soon,’” Diez said. 

She remembered the principle from the training to empathize and normalize responses. She recognized that his feelings were legitimate, and so were hers — she was going to miss him, too.

“With a lump in my throat, I spoke to him calmly, trying to inspire reassurance and told him I understood. That it must be hard to be away from home for the first time, alone, and that it was normal to cry and have those feelings of sadness,” Diez said.  

“I also told him that I loved him and that I was going to miss him too. When we arrived at the station, he gave me a big hug, we told each other again that we loved each other, and he left, cheered up with his buddies.”

Broderick said crisis training helps people understand that emotional, physical, mental, social and spiritual responses to trauma are typical and common.

“People start to get a feel that, ‘Maybe I’m not going crazy. Maybe this is a common thing to be experiencing after a significant loss or trial or difficulty or prolonged challenge,’” he said. 

Part of being emotionally resilient is checking in with one’s own self and identifying not just struggles but also coping strategies. Through the self-help guide, people can identify their responses and how to alleviate their own distress through things like self-care, journaling, praying, meditation, serving and connecting with others.

“We like to say that the coping strategies are like taking pain medication for, let’s say, a broken arm. The pain medication doesn’t heal the broken arm, but it does alleviate the level of pain, and that’s what coping strategies are for,” Broderick said. “It’s really just to get some sense of relief as they work through their challenges.”

Ongoing support

Broderick said after Church leaders and members use those principles in showing compassion, listening, expressing empathy and providing hope, they should also know additional resources are available that can help if they need ongoing support.

Human nature tends to jump to coping strategies quickly and trying to solve the problem or alleviate the pain, “but first, just be with them,” said Broderick. “Express compassion, try to understand what they’re going through as best you can. Once they feel heard, and once they feel understood, then they might be open to talking about those next steps.”

Broderick said the Church does not have enough counselors even in Utah, let alone throughout the world, to take care of all the challenges, especially when it comes to crises and larger-scale disasters. 

“And so we do have to focus our energy on helping members and leaders learn how to minister to others during a crisis,” he said. “We can help them learn Psychological First Aid skills to provide a higher level or a specialized way of ministering to one another.”

Read Part 2 — How the Church’s Europe Area developed new training to help others during a crisis

More resources: Tips for Emotional Preparedness from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

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