How the Church’s Europe Area developed new training to help others minister during a crisis
Training offered in several languages helps Church leaders and members with Psychological First Aid
This is Part 2 of a two-part series. Read Part 1 about how Psychological First Aid can help Church leaders and individuals be a support to others during a crisis.
In October 2020, a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints serving in Switzerland tragically slipped and fell to her death while hiking with five other missionaries.
The tragedy affected many people who needed help in the form of Psychological First Aid. This is an evidence-informed response that was developed to meet immediate crisis needs.
But the Church’s Family Services agency manager for Europe, María del Rocío Gutiérrez Ramirez, did not have a professional response team or enough resources to deploy quickly in such a crisis.
That’s when she started brainstorming with Kevin Broderick, the program manager for emergency response for Family Services at Church headquarters in Salt Lake City.
“Kevin shared with us some amazing information and resources they had developed in order to provide psychosocial support to people in crisis,” Gutiérrez said.
Gutiérrez and the Family Services team took this specialized ministering care to a higher level, developing a published booklet for the Europe Area, which includes the discussion guide titled, How Can I Minister to Others During a Crisis? and a self-help guide called, Facing Challenges, as well as guides for helping children and youth face challenges.
Now they are providing training across Europe for Church members and leaders interested in learning how to provide emotional care during a crisis. The introductory courses and a discussion guide are available in 14 European languages.
Europe has also dealt with major flooding in July 2021, and the ongoing refugee crisis caused by conflict in Ukraine. The crisis ministering training is helping Church members and leaders respond to immediate emotional, spiritual and social needs caused by these events.
Elder Mark Rencher and Sister Lizbeth Rencher, a licensed psychologist holding a Ph.D., were tasked to roll out the program with the assistance of local mental health practitioners. They were full-time volunteers at the Church’s European headquarters in Frankfurt, Germany.
“‘Ministering in Crisis’ is a gospel-based approach for psycho-social support,” explained Elder Rencher to the Church’s U.K. Newsroom.
Sister Rencher said, “Oftentimes, when you’re interacting with someone who’s in a crisis, you don’t know what to say. This teaches you what to say and how to relate to people who’re struggling.”
She said these resources are not intended to replace professional help. “We are not here to offer psychotherapy or therapeutic intervention. We’re just here to give them some emotional support to prevent further damage,” Sister Rencher said.
Gutiérrez told the Church News that in some cases, a therapist will be needed later. “But at least we overcome this first moment where no one knows what to do. At least people will know how to handle it until the person can be connected with resources.”
In September 2021, Teresa Raposo, a Family Services advisor and therapist who was also working with the Red Cross in Lisbon, Portugal, piloted the training program in her stake. Gutiérrez said the feedback was very positive.
“Leaders said, ‘This is good because now we know what to do.’” Gutiérrez said. They told her, “90% of the times a person calls us, it’s because they are in some type of crisis. So now we can apply these simple questions and sentences and skills. And then from that we’re just trying to roll this out to other countries and offering to leaders.”
Elder Rencher said, “We’ve gotten a lot of feedback from bishops and Relief Society presidents saying that they wish they could have had this earlier.”
Eva Diez, from Germany, said she always considered herself a close and empathetic person, with a desire to alleviate the afflicted. After she took the training course, she said, "I have come to understand more deeply and apply specific resilience tools with people around me who are going through difficulties."
The skills she learned have helped her in her own family. "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."
Crisis ministering training and refugees
Gutiérrez said this training has been adapted to the Ukrainian refugee crisis. Volunteers and missionaries who speak Russian and Ukrainian have been able to use the specific training from the Europe Area to respond to emotional needs while others provide temporal support to people leaving Russia and Ukraine and seeking refuge in other countries.
Antonio Guerra, a stake high councilor in the Oeiras Portugal Stake, has been volunteering weekly with the Portuguese Red Cross at the Refugees Reception Center in Lisbon. The center receives refugees and takes care of their records within Portugal.
Guerra and other volunteers provide clothing, bedding and meals to those staying at the center until they are found a place to stay within Portugal.
Guerra participated in the Ministering to Others During a Crisis trainings, and now he uses those tips when ministering to others. “Showing compassion, listening is something we have been doing all the time with the refugees,” he said. “We have seen different situations that made me realize how hard this situation may be for our Ukrainian friends.”
For example, some Ukrainian children came from a city that was bombed. The Lisbon reception center is close to the airport, and when the children heard planes taking off or landing, they were terrified they were going to be bombed, Guerra said.
He also talked to a Ukrainian woman who fled with her daughter, but had to leave behind her husband and son and has been sad and worried about whether she will see them alive again.
“I have realized that you can provide emotional support and you can minister by doing simple things, it doesn’t have to be complicated. This program is about how to help emotionally, is about how to understand other’s needs,” Guerra said.
He asked the questions from the discussion guide, and he listened, showed compassion, talked about hope and faith, and answered their questions.
“People need a minimum of love, to be heard, that’s what they want. To be heard. Some may not even want to share their experiences; it is too traumatic in some cases but that’s OK,” Guerra said. “They just want to receive love and compassion and a hug, receive a smile, and receive security also emotionally.”
Guerra said the experience of ministering to people he did not know before made him ponder what he is doing to minister to people he does know, like those in his branch at Church.
“If I have the motivation to minister to strangers, refugees, I should have the same motivation to minister to the people I know, I can use these principles with them too,” he said.He believes every member of the Church would benefit from the course.
The booklet can be downloaded and studied by one's self or with family members. Gutiérrez also offers training for leaders and members, either a one-time training going over the basic principles, or five weeks of sessions going more in-depth.
The concepts are useful not only for big events like a major crisis, but also in ministering, like a bishop who finds the right questions to ask a struggling member of a ward, or a mother who validated her son’s emotions when he was sad to be leaving home for a school trip (see part one).
“It’s just how to provide emotional support to people struggling with emotional distress,” Gutiérrez said.
Broderick said this great team — Gutiérrez, Raposo, the Renchers and others — getting this information printed and translated into 14 languages has allowed for more opportunities to share. They are helping with For the Strength of Youth (FSY) counselor training, and seminary and institute teachers are reaching out as well.
Gutiérrez said it makes sense to teach these skills to those groups because they work so much with the youth — many of whom today are dealing with a lot of mental health issues.
“Sometimes the youth share more with their seminary teacher than with their parents, and seminary teachers may not know how to respond or what to say or what to do,” she said. “So in the training for the youth, we've included some tips and more specific topics.”
Full-time missionaries are also learning some of these skills in Europe now, as they meet people in crisis or people they are teaching come to them in emotional distress. And wherever natural disasters strike around the world, there are likely elders or sisters affected.
Broderick said, “We’re not going to teach them to be therapists, and we’re not going to teach them even to dig deep into people’s challenges. But we can teach them Psychological First Aid. And that is a skill that really would benefit them in their ministering as it does all of us, leaders and members.”
Gutiérrez said her team is now trying to roll the program out in all the countries in Europe and get it translated into more languages. She does not want it to be seen as yet another program that overwhelmed local leaders feel they have to do in their stake; she wants them to see it as a benefit they can access.
“They will be more confident if they know what to say and what to do to help people in crisis.”