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Critical Incident Stress Management:
Ministry on the front lines

By Kirk Noonan

The prognosis for the victim was bleak. But to help give the 28-year-old man a fighting chance at life Gary Evans, an Assemblies of God chaplain, did what he was trained to do: He escorted the neighbor who had called 911 back to her house; then, when the victim’s wife arrived at the scene hysterical with fear, Evans, 53, worked to calm her down.

“We aim to effectively manage survivor fallout to enable the police officers, firefighters and other emergency medical personnel to do their jobs,” says Evans, who serves as a chaplain with the Woolwich, N.J., Fire Department. “When we come to the scene we come focused on the task at hand.”

Such a responsibility may seem simplistic at first glance, but in reality is a complex system that can keep emergency medical service personnel and survivors from unnecessary psychological, physical, spiritual and emotional suffering.

The task is representative of an equally unique and intense training known as Critical Incident Stress Management, which many believe is an excellent way for Assemblies of God chaplains, ministers and laypeople to reach their communities with Christ’s message of love and hope.

Tragedy aftermath: Chaplain Dan Schafer (right) ministered at Ground Zero utilizing his CISM training.

“Within the Assemblies of God very few people are certified in Critical Incident Stress Management,” says Alvin Worthley, director of chaplains for the A/G. “It is our desire that every district have a crisis response team available to assist our churches impacted by a crisis event and to assist our communities when disaster strikes.”

Experts say CISM training is essential for those who desire to help others during emergency situations. With CISM certification individuals come into crisis situations in an official capacity but have the opportunity to minister as well to those affected by everything from car accidents to terrorist attacks, from gang warfare to natural disasters.

Shortly after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Dan Schafer, an A/G chaplain and a national CISM trainer, was selected as the mobilizer and coordinator of chaplains for the New Jersey and New York Port Authority.

Schafer says without CISM certification he would not have been considered for the position at Ground Zero in New York City.

But Schafer notes that CISM certification is not only valuable and usable during major catastrophes. Most people who are CISM certified, he says, serve on the local level.

“It’s all the same, whether it is a large- or small-scale incident,” says Schafer, 60. “Either way, we’re dealing with the most intense emotions a person will ever have.”

Much of a CISM volunteer’s work is aimed at emergency services personnel who are confronted daily with graphic and sometimes horrific scenes of violence, injury and death. Such exposure can lead to feelings that, if not resolved, could lead to post-traumatic stress disorder.

Because a person’s emotions and reactions cannot be forecasted when confronted with a crisis situation, Schafer implores anyone interested in ministering to rescue workers, emergency medical staff and survivors of crisis situations to get CISM training.

“I’ve been punched, kicked, thrown out of people’s houses and cursed at,” he says. “Sometimes people lose it emotionally. That’s why you need the training. We’re trained to know how to respond in such situations. If you don’t have training in this you make yourself a fool.”

One of a certified CISM volunteer’s main duties is to enable rescuers and survivors to ventilate and validate their feelings.

“We’re there to validate feelings and lend support to help people cope,” says Schafer, noting that CISM workers minister to a person’s body, mind and soul. “But we’re also there for the person to be able to ventilate their anger, disbelief and frustration.”

Recently, Schafer was on the scene at an Atlantic City casino’s parking garage that collapsed while under construction. While rescuers searched for survivors, families of those trapped began to arrive.

Schafer spent the day with the father of one of the trapped workers. The man did not know if his son was dead or alive. During those tense hours, Schafer’s main goal was to offer an emotional and spiritual presence. To do so, he says, he used very few words.

“You can’t go into pastor mode,” he says. “Silence is key. When you’re working in crisis intervention you’re dealing with people during the worst time in their lives. It’s imperative to say the right thing at the right time.”

Knowing when to speak and when to listen and what to say and not say are all covered in the CISM training courses available throughout the United States.

Prime candidates for such training are those who have a desire to help emergency service personnel and survivors of crisis situations. Characteristics of a good volunteer candidate include an ability to communicate effectively, high levels of patience and flexibility, an outgoing personality, confidentiality, and a willingness to serve others.

So why would anyone volunteer for such a demanding ministry? Such a service can minimize the harmful effects of stress that threaten emergency service personnel and survivors of crisis situations. It also provides unprecedented ministry opportunities. But most importantly, souls are in the balance.

“I don’t always love the circumstances I find myself in, but this is cutting-edge ministry,” says Evans, also a national trainer of CISM specializing in pastoral crisis intervention and individual crisis intervention/peer support.

Though Evans successfully stabilized the situation where the 28-year-old man was struggling for his life, the man did die — one of the sad realities with which CISM workers must cope. Some would say Evans’ efforts were for naught. But shortly after the crisis ended the man’s family asked Evans to conduct the funeral.

“I was able to share the gospel with more than 200 people at his funeral,” says Evans. “My CISM training has opened a lot of doors for ministry. It’s ministry on the front lines.”

Kirk Noonan is associate editor of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel.

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