Holding Space in the Midst of Tragedy: A Hard Story PART 2

We jump back into the question of holding space and self-care without sacrificing the ethos of the pastoral office. As pastors we help shoulder the burden of trauma carried by members of our community. The cost of this work can be overwhelming. Yet, to do this work well we must take care of ourselves without feeling the guilt of our own limitations.

We left off hearing about the small church I was working at during the 2017 October fires, in Sonoma County (Part 1 HERE). I find myself still processing the fullness of what happened over those two weeks. There was so much devastation. We are starting to see healing but the work is far from over. Here’s the rest of the story:

The Woman with No Family

A number of people found themselves at our church for a myriad of reasons. One older woman was with us for almost a week. Her name was Lillian. As I got to know Lillian, I discovered that her entire family lives in Canada and that she was living in an assisted living community nearby that had been evacuated. Having been dropped off by a friend and left, she had nowhere to go.

As the days moved by she became more and more sullen and reserved. I did my best to connect with her and lighten her spirits through jokes and card games. I asked a few times if she was sure that no one was looking for her. She would calmly say, “No. There’s no one.” My response was simply, “Well, Lillian, you have us now.”

I asked a few times if she was sure that no one was looking for her. She would calmly say, “No. There’s no one.” - from Holding Space in the Midst of Tragedy by Cassie Carroll Click To Tweet

When I sat with Lillian, I could feel her devastation start to weigh down my heart. I could feel her pain of isolation and the desire to feel connected to those she loved. I carried that with me… no, I still carry it. When I would leave for the night, to sleep in my own bed, it became harder and harder to go home and rest. I felt more and more guilty that I had my family to comfort me and Lillian did not. And yet, I knew if was going to be able to come back and sit with Lillian more I needed to go home and care for myself.

Surprised by Love

The last day she was with us, I remember she was sitting by the radio listening to the news. All of a sudden a women in her 40’s bursts through the doors of our gym. “LILLIAN! ARE YOU HERE?”

Lillian’s head snapped in the direction of the commotion. It was the daughter of one of her neighbors. They had been looking for her all week.

As I turned to check in with Lillian, I could see tears streaming down her face. I looked at her and said, “They found you!”

“I can’t believe they were looking… for me,” she was barely able to get out through her tears.

The neighbor’s daughter knelt down by her chair and said, “Lillian, of course we were looking for you. We love you. You are family. Let’s get you home!”

More tears spilled out, belongings were gathered, parting words were shared and Lillian left arm and arm with the family she thought she didn’t have.

Holding Space on Sunday

As time moved towards Sunday, I realized no one had even started thinking about Sunday Worship Service. The head pastor had been working with so many other people to help them find places to stay and get food, Sunday was a far off thought.

So I got to work. All I could think was that the traditional worship service was not what our community needed. We needed space and freedom to grieve, lament, and, for those that were ready, hope. I gathered some musicians, created a prayer banner, and made a wailing wall.

The entire Sunday service was centered around people praying for one another, connecting with each other, reading psalms of lament, and having space to feel whatever needed to be felt.

Before the service started I was nervous that the congregation wouldn’t buy into what I had prepared for them. Maybe I hadn’t really paid attention to what the needs of the community were? Maybe I just did what I wanted? Maybe I totally missed what the Holy Spirit had wanted? This type of prayer station, organic, free form service was an experience that most people in our older congregation have not had.

After I explained the instructions of the service there was a bit of hesitation. Yet, after the first song people started to get up and engage the different stations around the room. I could see people talking with one another, praying, crying, and laughing.

After the service was over, I was run-down. Even though the service was what I, as well as what the community needed, being the one to contain and hold the entire service was a lot to bear. It was a lovely service. I could feel the Holy Spirit with us and a bit of hope breaking through. I still needed to take time to recover.

Accepting My Limits to Hold Space Well

Needless to say, I was exhausted after the two weeks of intense pastoral care. I am still processing all that happened over those two weeks. I must to come to terms with the fact that my family wasn’t in any danger but my congregation was. I sat with people whose homes were ash and displaced. I held space for people in whatever place they were, so they could take the next step forward.

Learning Limits

I think one of the hardest parts of all this was telling people from outside the county, NO. I received so many calls from people throughout the West Coast looking to come and help. Yet, there was nothing to actually do at that time. The rebuilding wasn’t going to start any time soon. The only thing anyone could really do was send materials and money, which was not the answer they were hoping to hear. I had to hold a boundary with them to not come so that the people here could do what was needed.  

It’s intriguing, there’s a part of me that feels as though I shouldn’t admit that I was tired or that the stories unfolding around me impacted my ability to do good work for others. There is this myth of the pastoral office that pastors are to be everything to all people at any cost with all the energy and charisma of a superhero. I was not a superhero.

There is this myth of the pastoral office that pastors are to be everything to all people at any cost with all the energy and charisma of a superhero - Cassie Carroll Click To Tweet

I was tired and needed rest so that I could come back to church to continue to hold space and care for of others. I needed to go home to sleep in my bed so I could listen well while sitting with others that wouldn’t sleep in their own bed for a long while. I needed to sit and have a beer at the end of the day with my dad. I needed to pay attention to my physical and emotional limits so that I could be with others well.

Community Working Together

I could not have done what I did if others in my community had not stepped up to do what they could do. My community came together to care well for those in need. I was able to trust and empower those around me to give what they could. We had to work together.

Some people were able to stay the night to keep people safe, others were able to cook, some brought food, others sat and played games, while some volunteer medical professionals checking in with our older folks staying with us… the list is endless of the ways that the congregation came together.

Sharing the Work in Community

I could have chosen to run myself into the ground. I could have played the martyr and over extended myself to make myself look like I did sooo much, but at what cost? I would have made things more miserable for those I was seeking to help. I would have made it harder for others to help. I would have made it about me.

I chose to ignore that myth about being a superhero pastor, a myth that many believe to be fact. I believe that listening to my body and heart is what gave me the strength to do the work of being with people in midst of tragedy well. Without listening to my own limitations I would have hindered the love that was shared and I would not have pastored well. I would have gotten in the way of what needed to be done.

When we ignore our own limitations we hinder the love that can be shared in community - Cassie Carroll Click To Tweet

I don’t have the answers to all the questions I asked in part one of this post, but I do know that when I take care of myself I am able to take care of others. Ministry is messy and complicated. As pastors, we need to set the example of how self-care is not selfish… especially in the midst of crisis… self care is even more vital. We have a responsibility to lead through our actions and show that taking good care of ourselves sets us up well to hold space in hard times.

How do you care well?

How do you care well for yourself so that you can care well for others?

How are you practicing self care now, so that when tragedy hits you can preserve? Comment below.

Share with each other what works for you and experiment with how to care well for yourself… So that you can pastor your community from a place of strength.

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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