Leadership During a Crisis

In 2 Corinthians 1:3–5, we read about God using our own experiences to enable us to minister and comfort others As a Dallas police officer while completing his studies at DTS, Dr. Roger Poupart gained an understanding of what first responders face in critical incidents. Throughout his ministry career, he has drawn on these experiences to serve in chaplain roles at critical incidents.

November 5, 2017: one of the worst church shootings in American history. Twenty-six people were killed and another twenty-two wounded at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, TX. About an hour after the tragedy, I arrived as the on-scene chaplain. What does spiritual leadership look like in a situation like that? After a briefing at the command post, I walked a few blocks down a closed-off street to the community center, where over 140 family members awaited news. I stepped into chaos: people crying and in shock, some people shouting for information, and journalists trying to get interviews. I asked the state troopers to remove the media, and then I took the community clergy outside to give them a quick training session about how to help.

I reminded the clergy that as we step into a challenging situation, we can hold tight to wisdom from Scripture. The book of Job shows us the value of a ministry of presence; Job valued the nearness of his friends. But when they began to preach their theology of why Job was suffering, he wished they would go away. Proverbs 25:11 cautions us to speak words “in right circumstances” (NASB1995). Although we’re often tempted to fill the silence or offer answers, Romans 12:15 teaches us that it’s sometimes best simply to “weep with those who weep.”

After returning with the clergy, I relayed updated information to the families. Then I said, “I know you have other questions, including ‘Why?’ But rather than try to answer that right now, I want you to think about  ‘Who.’ Who were your loved ones worshiping in church? Jesus Christ. In this tragic situation, know that when their eyes closed here on earth, they saw their Savior—as God tells us in 2 Corinthians 5:8, ‘to be absent from the body, is to be present with the Lord.’” Next, I shared from 1 Thessalonians 4:13, that we are to grieve, but not as the unbeliever with no hope. And then I prayed for God’s healing for the wounded and traumatized, that His peace that passes all understanding would surround us all. The room resounded with “Amens” and “Hallelujahs.” The tears continued, but many faces also started smiling. 

A few hours later, Governor Greg Abbott arrived, expecting to see chaos. He waved me over, and I knelt by his wheelchair. In amazement, he asked, “Why is there such peace in this room?” I told him what I had shared from God’s Word and  about the countless prayers for God’s peace that were being prayed all over the nation. He folded up his prepared remarks and asked,   “What should I say?” I replied, “Governor, you’re a man who believes in Jesus, so share about your faith and what God has brought you through.” He spoke movingly, telling the story of his own experience of paralysis when a tree fell on him; he’d thought his life was over, but God faithfully carried him through.

A ministry of presence is vital—someone standing in for God as His flesh-and-blood representative by holding a hand, offering a hug, and sharing words of hope from God’s Word. This ministry of presence is founded on prayer. When called to a critical incident, I pray on the way, asking God to guide me and give me the strength and wisdom I’ll need. I also pray with those who are involved at the scene—like at the Wedgewood Fire in San Antonio, an active rescue situation at a high-rise senior-living community. There were five confirmed fatalities and over a hundred people trapped, and a region-wide mutual aid call had gone out. I entered the mobile command center and asked the chief if I could pray for him and his staff. He said yes, and I asked God for wisdom as they deployed units, for safety for the firefighters as they battled the blaze and searched smoke-filled rooms, and for strength and comfort in dealing with everyone affected. Behind the badges at every mass casualty scene are people who are struggling with what they see; no one has ever turned down my offer of prayer in those situations.

 The why questions come in the aftermath of the initial tragedy. I’ve heard them at the kitchen table with the widow and daughter of a police officer killed in the Dallas parade shooting. And as I stood with investigators at the mobile morgue at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, TX, where nineteen students and two teachers were killed. The questions came up late at night in Sutherland Springs, as I talked with federal crisis counselors who had just flown in from dealing with the Las Vegas shooting massacre in which almost sixty people were killed and more than four hundred wounded. The ministry of presence enables others to share their honest questions and be comforted. In those times, I ask God for wisdom and discernment to hear the deeper questions behind the spoken questions. I tell the grieving people that we won’t understand everything here on earth; God’s ways and thoughts are not like ours (Isa 55:8–9), and yet He is compassionate and close to the brokenhearted. Jesus was a man who  “was despised and forsaken of men, A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isa 53:3 NASB1995). God experienced our pain firsthand as He watched His own Son, Jesus, die a violent death on the cross. Sharing all this, I bring the why questions back to who it was that loved us so much: “God demonstrates his own love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). And then I invite people to accept God’s gift of eternal life.

You may never find yourself in the midst of a mass casualty incident, but you will have many opportunities for leadership through a ministry of presence with people who are hurting. In tragic moments, all believers can empathize with others’ suffering because of our personal experiences. We can powerfully recall God’s presence and His faithfulness. First, pray. Ask God for wisdom in what to say, if anything—and that He will nudge you when you’ve said enough. Then reach out and share God’s light and love in this broken world as we await the day when God will make all things new.

About the Contributors

Roger Poupart

Dr. Poupart is currently in his seventeenth year as pastor of Wayside Chapel in San Antonio, TX. He has taught in pastoral institutes and seminaries in Mexico, Ecuador, Ukraine, Russia, Romania, Uganda, Rwanda, India, China, and Kazakhstan. He serves as a chaplain and board member for the Bexar County Sheriff’s Department and has led the chaplaincy efforts at numerous large-scale critical incidents. He is a member of the DTS Board of Incorporate Members. Roger has been married to Kim for thirty-five years, and they have been blessed with three children.