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A Pastor's Guide to Crisis Management
in the Rural or Smaller Church

How can pastors of smaller churches be better equipped to help people in crises?

By Nancy A. Walker

Someone bullies a child. A teen attempts suicide. A man learns he is dying. A woman has a panic attack in the congregation. A spouse’s mental illness ruins a marriage. A marriage has domestic abuse issues. A husband is incarcerated for stealing. A home is chaotic due to a pornography addiction. A home is experiencing challenges due to chemical addictions. A teen is bulimic. A mother finds her daughter cutting. A husband is diagnosed as clinically depressed. A woman is raped.

These are common situations today. They are also common situations in our churches. Churches are becoming critical-care facilities. But are churches equipped to handle such situations? Megachurches handle situations like these by incorporating professional counselors, support classes, and counseling centers.1 Small, rural churches, however, often do not have the same resources or access as larger churches. The pastor in a small, rural church is often the person ministering in these situations. While the above challenges are commonplace in both large and smaller churches, many pastors of smaller, rural churches are not prepared to handle the day-to-day crises and pastoral care issues that confront them. How, then, can pastors of smaller churches be better equipped to help people in crises?

The Pastor’s Role: Supplying Hope to the Hurting Church

The pastor’s initial task in any crisis is to pave a way for the individual(s) to see and experience hope. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word translated “hope” is tiqvah. It means “a longing or an expectation.” The primary root is qavah, which means “to wait for.” In Psalm 62:5, David experienced respite as he waited for the Lord to act on his behalf. When conditions for hope are met, individuals feel hopeful. The pastor’s role is to supply such hope.

In Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ, Dallas Willard states: “Most of the conditions we commonly speak of as feelings are in reality not feelings at all; but the feeling tones or sensations that accompany those conditions are so powerful that the conditions themselves become identified with the associated sensations. We must choose and act with regard to the conditions, good or bad, and allow the feelings to take care of themselves, as they certainly will.”2

Initially, pastors can offer hope to those in crisis regardless of the person’s situation. Hebrews 6:19,20 notes that hope is the anchor for the soul. Hope enables action, which evokes feeling. The individual can then begin the journey to healing and growth.

Hope comes as the individual chooses to walk through the healing process. In crises, the first defense line of the soul that necessitates care id feelings. As a pastor guides the individual through his emotions, transformation into Christ’s image during suffering can occur. Although suffering may challenge the intention of hope, pastors can apply a mind, body, and spirit approach to the care of the individual. This basic approach begins with the individual’s thought process.

Mind, Body, Spirit Connection: How Does This Work in Pastoral Care?

Pastors are in a unique position when counseling individuals to weave together the mind, body, and spirit. The emotions of a person in crisis often result in distorted thinking, confusion, and possibly delusion. Pastors can evaluate a crisis situation by looking for distortion of thought and asking questions that explore core beliefs and values. By sorting out the thoughts of the individual, pastors can aid the individual’s thinking to be in line with Philippians 4:8,9. The Lord’s command to change one’s thinking process is key in healing the mind and the heart. The next step is to act out this new thinking process.

As an individual’s thoughts and behaviors change, his heart undergoes transformation. In turn, positive habits and spiritual fruit form as healing is under way. The physical body also becomes healthier. There may be instances, however, when pastoral counseling alone cannot change thought patterns that create a heart change and consequently a behavior change. In such cases, mental health care and even emergency mental health care may be relevant.

Critical Care in Pastoral Counseling: Involuntary and Voluntary Commitment — How To Utilize Emergency Medical Personnel

You may need to voluntarily or involuntarily aid an individual to seek critical care. A voluntary commitment is where anyone 14 or older experiencing a mental health crisis feels an inpatient stay is necessary for safety. Someone may refer this individual or take him to an emergency room for assessment to verify if he needs treatment. If needed, the individual signs a form agreeing to treatment. The individual agrees to a 72-hour stay. In most states, a parent or legal guardian can voluntarily admit individuals under 14.

Care providers enact an involuntary commitment of someone to emergency care due to danger or threatened injury to self or others, including attempted/threatened suicide or homicide. Care providers can use this process in cases of hallucination or delusion. Due to the involuntary nature, family, crisis professionals, police, or EMS may need to assist. The court requires the petitioner to sign and appear in any hearing on behalf of the committed individual.

A police officer can enact an involuntary commitment without a petitioner. Once enacted, police/ambulance take the individual to an emergency room where doctors evaluate him for involuntary psychiatric inpatient treatment. Doctors cannot keep the individual in the hospital for more than 120 hours unless the hospital files a petition for extended involuntary treatment.

Check your state regulations on voluntary and involuntary care, including age limitations. In most states, the above regulations and procedures apply.

How To Prepare for Unexpected Situations: Treatment Referral Networks and Emergency Plans

The following steps apply in the smaller church.

Proactive preparation tips:

  1. Have scriptural handouts (depression, anxiety, family) to give to those under your care. A good reference is “Quick Scripture Reference for Counseling” by Kruis.
  2. Have a reliable suicide-assessment tool with a written plan to follow if someone threatens suicide. Know how to use voluntary/involuntary commitment.
  3. Familiarize yourself with psychosis, delusion, and hallucination so you can recognize their signs.
  4. Make contacts to refer individuals to mental health professionals, hospitals, nursing homes, or residential treatment facilities. Community contact and networking are essential for well-rounded care.
  5. Have emergency numbers and referrals accessible. Establish a treatment referral network with professionals to assist you. Set up advance meetings instituting plans with each professional in your network. Establish professional boundaries with agreed upon cojoint pro-bono and professional care.
  6. Professionals are often willing to offer pro-bono services to churches and ministries.
  7. Make a public policy explaining how you will provide care to suicidal/violent individuals.
  8. Plan for alternative care for suicide or traumatic situations (in-person care, counseling, hospitalization, hotlines, classes, support groups, professional groups). Make a local/national contact list of organizations, nonprofits, and hotlines.
  9. Keep written, confidential documentation of your counsel of individuals in case of incarceration, hospitalization, church and individual safety, ethics, and for legal circumstances.
  10. While under pastoral care, have the individual sign a consent form noting confidentiality with exception of certain situations. Have consent-to-pastoral-care forms available to all individuals.
  11. Understand and maintain confidentiality limits within reason of the crisis and your church board policy.
  12. Read your state’s policy on abuse. Have a plan to report and document abuse.

Before an emergency occurs:

  1. Establish contact with a counselor/psychologist in locality of the individual you are counseling in case he needs in-person mental health care.
  2. Obtain accurate information including name, location, and permanent address of the individual.
  3. Obtain backup contact methods, including contacts of several people the individual knows and trusts.
  4. Obtain contact information of emergency services in locality of the individual. If the individual calls you, you can call for emergency aid, if there is a need.
  5. Create an agreed-upon emergency plan with at-risk individuals. This can include family members with confidentiality.
  6. Refer individuals to community/church classes, support groups, and nonprofit organizations to come alongside the individual while under your counsel.


“Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12). Perseverance, instilling hope, and wise counsel assist individuals on their earthly race to cross that heavenly finish line. The Lord empowers. The pastor evangelizes, disciples, encourages, counsels, directs. Whether you are a pastor of one or many, may you take the above information and implement it to assist your church and community in the continued growth, development, and healing of individuals in crisis. Restoring hope, instilling healing through mind, body, and spirit counsel, and implementing mental health care for our churches increasingly ministers to an ever-changing society. Churchesare in the business of critical care for the soul.

Richard L. Dresselhaus

NANCY A. WALKER, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is a Ph.D, candidate, Capella University, a clinician at the Compassion Connection Counseling Center, Inc., a professional mental health, nonprofit counseling ministry, and owner of Capstone Developmental services, LLC, a private developmental coaching and psychological consulting practice.


  1. Scott Thumma, Overview of Megachurches in the United States. (Hartford, Conn.: Hartford Institute for Religious Research, 2006).
  2. Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ. (Colorado Springs: Nav Press, 2002), 123.

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