Growing Through Disaster

By Clayton Smith

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It really is a double disaster if you try to go it alone.

While in seminary, I was interviewing for a clinical hospital chaplain’s internship, and the chaplain said, “Clayton, everything in your life has gone well. You have been blessed.” Then he asked me, “Clayton, what are you going to do when something bad happens to you?”

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Clayton L. Smith

I will never forget his question; sometimes it has haunted me. But it saved me when I really needed it. When disaster struck, it was not a natural disaster. It was a very personal disaster. In 1984 my wife of thirteen years died after a sudden and short thirty-hour illness. In spite of the crisis medical attention she received in two hospitals, she could not be saved. What do we do after such a devastating loss? What was I going to do?

With no warning, I became a single-parent pastor with two small children. I was facing the loss of the love of my life and caring for my small children, while still providing leadership and care to my church flock. I wondered if I would be able to survive when I felt like the worst thing in the world had happened to me, and I struggled.

“[W]hat are you going to do when something bad happens to you?”

That chaplain’s challenging question came back to me. I told myself that I was not going to let this personal loss destroy me, my family, or my ministry. And I did survive, thanks to the grace of God and the support of my local church. Family and friends would not let me go it alone. From this loss, I wanted to learn to be a better father, friend, and pastor. I began growing through my grief and personal disaster.

My loss was also a loss for our church. If I had been unable to go on, the church and its ministries would have suffered. But, amazingly, the church survived and even thrived. People in the church and community felt a call to action to support me and my young family. They showed resilience and determination to keep me and the church going. Six years later, our denomination recognized the church with a national award for church growth (1990 Circuit Rider Publishing House Award - Schweitzer UMC, Springfield, Missouri). Because I chose not to go it alone, and our church offered such a supportive faith community, I can look back and say, we grew through disaster together.

The Church and Trauma Recovery

Is your church willing to make a commitment to be better prepared to be agents of recovery and not just participants in a clean-up effort when a disaster touches your community? Are you ready to be healers and encouragers to those whose disasters have not just torn up their homes but their hearts and souls as well? If you are ready, offering a study of Growing Through Disaster is a wonderful first step.

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In the aftermath of my wife’s death, I started a Crisis Support Group for people dealing with trauma and loss. People in the community were in need, just as I was, and providing help for others was healing for me. In the thirty-five years since that time, I have given leadership to support groups in a number of other faith communities and have led relief and work teams to five disaster areas. I look back over these years and see how my hope helped my family heal. My second marriage was to a very compassionate woman, and we had two more wonderful children. I now have two grandchildren! I believe I have been twice blessed in marriage and have an amazing family.

As a first responder, I have observed many faith communities impacted by natural disaster. Each time I left one of these communities, I wished there was something more we could leave them with, a helpful tool or some way to provide further help. If you are a responder providing relief and aid, perhaps you too have felt this.

Growing through Disaster is just such a tool. First responders, relief teams, and community leaders can have this book in their back pockets, so to speak, ready to offer in the aftermath of any disaster. It will help people who are dealing with personal and spiritual trauma, grief, and financial loss. It is for individuals and for groups.

Support groups are particularly effective for helping people and communities after disaster or times of loss. When the time is right, faith communities can facilitate and host these groups. Together with others from the community, people will experience personal and spiritual healing. They’ll take important steps toward long-term financial recovery. Individuals and families will begin to find wholeness, and all will see hope and a way to go on, together. The book includes six small group sessions and a plan for a special healing service to conclude the group sessions.

I’ve come to realize over the years how many lessons I learned from my own disaster recovery. That journey and the experiences I’ve had in thirty-five years as a pastor laid the foundation for this book. Now I hope to help you with the personal disaster you are facing.

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If you are dealing with a disaster in your personal life or community, we wrote this book for you. It may be difficult to imagine, but you will be able to help yourself. And then you will begin to help others—people in your family and faith community. You may feel weak, but you will grow stronger.

Click here to learn more about Growing Through Disaster: Tools for Financial and Trauma Recovery in Your Faith Community.

© 2019 Abingdon Press Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Clayton L. Smith, now retired, served as the Executive Pastor of Stewardship and Generosity at Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas. He served as a Senior Pastor in the United Methodist Church for more than 25 years and an Ordained Elder for more than 40 years. He and his wife, Lori, live in Stilwell, Kansas.