Holding Space in the Midst of Tragedy: A Hard Story Part 1

Holding space for people is part of the pastor’s job. But how do we, as pastors, hold space for others while taking care of ourselves? At what cost do pastors do this work? What happens to the pastor when we hold space (to focus on the healing of others) for those in times of hardship and pain?
I wish I had all the answers to these questions. It feels as though some of the answers are at least centered around self care. When I say self care, I am not talking about taking a bubble bath and drinking a glass of wine. I am talking about the idea that if you are not taking care of yourself well, then you can’t take care of others well. I’m talking about the basics; like balancing the checkbook, making sure there is food in the fridge, and going to bed on time so that you can show up the next morning for others in the midst of trauma.
If you are not taking care of yourself well, then you can’t take care of others well. - Cassie Carroll Click To Tweet I often feel the weight of holding space for others in my body; I’m lifted fatigued and spent. After hard conversations or situations with others, I leave with my pastor’s hat wilted from the weight I now carry with me. Having spent time listening, sitting, praying, and helping shoulder the burden, I leave with my body now feeling heavy and slow.
After time spent in those hard moments, my brain only wants to watch reruns of Friends, or watch Finding Nemo (fastforwarding through the scene where the mom dies… obviously). I want to not only dissociate from what I just experienced but I also desire to disengage from what my life holds.
What does the balance of caring for others and caring for oneself really look like? Why does it feel selfish to listen to our bodies and hearts when they tell us they need a break?
Here is my story of how self-care and self preservation helped me care well for others in the midst of traumatic events.

When the Fires Came

I work in Sonoma County, California. The fires of October 2017 in my county were devastating. In my former small church alone there were 11 families who lost their homes. For two weeks, we had over 25 people sleeping on pews and inflatable mattresses who had been forced to evacuate from their homes.
The first day of the fires were terrifying. The police didn’t want anyone on the streets to keep everything open for emergency vehicles. So making my 15 mins drive to the church was out of the question. It was irritating to not be able to be with my congregation and at my church (which had been turned into an emergency shelter).
The next day, I jumped in my car. When I arrived, the head pastor, who had been evacuated from her home, was so exhausted that I had to escort her off campus to get her to actually rest at a congregants home around the corner. She needed rest so she could come back and care to those that have been charged to her care.

The first thing I noticed was there was no sign in system setup. There was no telling how many people were moving in and out of the building at any time. So I went to work. I set up a simple check in station with a chalkboard, conferred with every person in the building to create a list of names and contact information, and then gave everyone name tags. It was these simple actions that allowed people to feel safe, connected, and that they belonged somewhere in the midst of chaos.
The church constantly had people ebbing and flowing from it. We had people that just needed a place to charge their phones, to people looking for food, to people that were looking for a place to rest their heads at night. During the days we had easily 45 people in and out of building for whatever reason. During the night we had, on average, 25-30 people making the sanctuary a temporary home.

The Lost Woman

Taking the time to talking with each and every person in the building, I met a elderly woman who had no idea where she was, what was going on, or her own identity. We were able to put together that her name was Claire and she had been dropped off by someone from the local nursing home. Claire ended up staying with us for three days and we were starting to worry because we did not have the medical training to care for this woman well, nor did she have any of her medications.

Great Need vs Personal Limits

Now, as the enormity of Claire’s situation washed over me, I realized how much care she would need and how my own energy at this point was so limited. I felt torn. I wanted to spend every moment with Claire, making sure she was ok and felt calm, but I knew at some point that wouldn’t be sustainable. I wouldn’t be able to keep up the level of care she needed without taking time to recharge.  
Thankfully, on the third day a member of the congregation, who is a caregiver for those with dementia, walked through the doors looking for ways to help out with the devastation. I partnered him with sweet Claire. He was able to take his time, talk slowly, and carefully unfold the mystery.

Hope Emerges

After about two and half hours sitting with her, he discovered that out of the five items she brought with her a cell phone was neatly tucked away in her purse. It was as though, at that moment, joy permeated through the entire building. We found a charger and plugged that phone in! Thankfully, there were only two numbers in her phone, both were for her daughters.
I was on the phone with them in minutes of the phone being charged. They were ecstatic! After three days of searching their mother had been found! Within 20 minutes they were at the church, picking her up, and taking her to a real bed. When this woman’s face saw her daughters, her face was filled by a smile. Clare was in the arms of her family and we could rest easy.
Moments like these give you an incredible boost and remind you why the work we do is so important. Yet, these moments are fleeting and are not the intention. Self-preservation and care is needed to be able to persevere through the totality of this work.
The story is not over. There is more to come. Keep your eyes open for part 2 coming soon.

About the Author

Cassie Carroll

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Rev. Cassie Carroll is the Head Pastor at Palisades Presbyterian Church, in San Diego, California.. Cassie graduated from The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, with a Master's of Divinity in 2016. Cassie’s desire is to help people see the Divine in the midst of life - especially when it feels as though the Divine is not present. She believes that a church community encourages each other in their growing faith and to show God’s love to the neighborhood.

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