By Arlyn Norris
“I just don’t know what to do.”
That’s what people often say when they find themselves plunged into a crisis situation. In order for ministers to help individuals and families deal effectively with a crisis they are facing, we need to help them evaluate the crisis, mobilize resources and develop a plan of action. That is the ultimate goal of crisis counseling.
It is important to boil down the problem to its basic elements. These are essential phases in helping someone handle a crisis. We need to help them come to a point where they can deal effectively with the crisis in order to arrive at a resolution.
The action that a person takes may be to simply make a decision, accept a loss, learn a new skill or find a new job. Taking decisive action that has been thought through carefully is what can lead to personal growth.
Once a pastor or other church minister has established a relationship, facilitated the expression of feelings, and helped a person boil down and define the problem, the next task is to establish goals. Since crisis counseling only aims at alleviating symptoms and helping the individual to return to at least their previous level of functioning, setting goals is often a relatively simple task.
The aim in crisis counseling is to shift the focus from negative to positive, from problems to goals. Once some overall goals are established, it is important to develop some easy-to-achieve objectives that will move the individual toward problem-solving.
If possible, it is good, before the first contact ends, to help the person choose at least one specific action that he or she can take. It needs to be something simple, such as making an appointment with a doctor for a physical or attending an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Having something they can do in order to start moving toward a resolution can give people a sense of hope.
Take an inventory of resources
Frequently, people in crisis have difficulty recognizing both the internal and external resources available to help them deal with a crisis. A pastor can ask individuals what has helped them cope with a crisis in the past. What have they learned from previous experience that they could put to use in the present situation?
External resources can also be helpful to a person in crisis. These include family, friends, church and community groups. Often people in crisis pull away from those relationships that could give them needed support. There may also be other people and groups that can provide needed help.
It may be necessary to help mobilize people who can provide care for someone in trouble. Often an individual in crisis may be reluctant to ask others for help or to believe that others would be willing to provide assistance. The counselor may need to offer encouragement in this regard.
Once goals are developed and resources are identified, the minister and the individual or family in crisis can brainstorm alternative ways to deal with the crisis. These alternatives will be geared to achieving the goals that have been established. This process needs to begin with the person, but often the minister will need to suggest actions the person has never considered. Being outside the crisis often enables us to see alternatives that the person in crisis won’t see.
When a list of alternatives has been formulated, it’s time to weigh each course of action. At this point, it might be helpful to have a prayer asking for God’s guidance. Actions that are irrelevant or unworkable need to be crossed off the list. Each action is evaluated in terms of it potential effectiveness. After the person has considered the effectiveness of an alternative, the minister might want to offer information from his or her own experience or the experience of others who have faced similar circumstances.
Once the list of alternatives is reviewed, it is important for the person to choose one or two things that will be tried. It is good to press for a commitment to begin doing what has been chosen before the next visit takes place.
Commit to action
After a commitment to a course of action is made, it is crucial that the individual or family follows through on that commitment. This is vital to prevent increased dependency on the helper. Action counters the sense of immobilization that people in crisis often experience.
A pastor needs to be ready to confront with patience and firmness the resistance that often occurs at this point. Excuses such as “forgetting” or “not having time” are commonly offered. When such resistance is encountered, it must be identified and addressed as soon as it appears. People often need to be reminded that they are free to do something about their problem or not. The counselor can provide assistance in achieving goals, but he or she can’t do it for them.
Rather than being kept to the end, evaluation that reviews and refines goals and action plans is an ongoing process. In the final sessions of crisis counseling it can be very helpful to review what has been learned from dealing with the crisis. Individuals and families can be encouraged to put to use newly discovered strengths and coping skills when future crises occur.
It is important to follow up on a person or family in crisis. This has the effect of deepening the relationship between the minister and those in crisis and reaffirms the helper’s concern for them. Such follow-up can provide an opportunity to deal with the fallout from a crisis. The crisis event may reveal problems that need long-term counseling. Many pastors will use that as an occasion to refer people to someone who offers this type of long-term counseling.
There are three aspects of a situation that may prompt a pastor or other minister to refer someone in crisis right away. They include:
Time — The care giver may not have adequate time to deal with a particular person’s crisis. For instance, if someone in crisis comes to us the day before we are leaving on vacation, we may need to hand them off to someone who can help them while we are gone. Waiting until we return may not provide the immediate response that is required.
Skill — We may find ourselves confronted with a situational crisis that goes beyond our level of skill and experience. For instance, dealing with a meth-addict requires an approach that most pastors won’t be able to effectively offer.
Emotional objectivity — We need to honestly access our own emotional objectivity. Our personal experiences may get in the way of our being able to provide that objectivity. If that’s the case, it is best for us to refer the individual or family to someone who can be more objective.
When making a referral, there are several things to remember:
Not everyone will accept the suggestion of referral.
Referrals need to be offered in a tactful and concrete way.
When uncertain where to refer, contact a mental-health professional, a local crisis line or a referral agency.
Suggest several referral sources if possible.
Except in an emergency, don’t make a referral call on behalf of the person in crisis. It is important that the individual initiates the call.
Remember that referral isn’t the first step. First, establish the relationship, listen carefully and then gently and slowly nudge the person toward doing something, including contacting a suggested referral resource.
After referring, follow up.
Helping individuals who find themselves overwhelmed by a personal crisis can be a challenging but rewarding effort. Having a framework to deal with a crisis can give us the confidence to offer help and can make successfully negotiating a path through a crisis more likely. When that happens, individuals and families can emerge from a crisis stronger that they were before. That’s the hope and the promise of crisis counseling.