“The people I met that very first night. Their faces still haunt me; burnt, covered in ash. A local family. Going up the mountain the next week. Seeing the devastation, the blue and white police tape, the melted bitumen and cars, and knowing people died in those cars haunts me.”
Six years on from the tragedy of the Black Saturday Victorian bushfires, a church minister recalls memories experienced directly after the disaster. The quote is one of many in a research project commissioned and released in mid-April by Yarra Institute for Religion and Social Policy in partnership with Creative Ministries Network, an agency of UnitingCare. Working with Disaster – Clergy & Bushfires focuses on interviews with 11 clergy conducted by community consultant Dr Lisa Jacobson. The interviews have been published in a free booklet launched at the synod of Victoria and Tasmania offices by Craig Lapsley, Victoria’s first Emergency Management Commissioner.
In launching the booklet, Commissioner Lapsley commended the continuing work of churches in the affected areas, highlighting their roles as trusted support networks.
The booklet is useful for lay and clergy, particularly those based in disaster-prone areas. The honest feedback of the clergy, representing a range of denominations, is a poignant reminder of the personal impact those caring for others experience in their roles as Christian and community leaders.
“One man had just lost his whole family in a car which had exploded on the road in front of him. I mean, how does someone deal with a thing like that? I had to convey the news to that man that his entire family was dead, and I’d never done that before, ever.”
Several clergy had received little or no trauma training and worked intuitively. They had experienced caring for people facing difficult loss and death but nothing that prepared them for the trauma of Black Saturday’s aftermath. Some reported feeling torn between many roles, ranging from the practical to counselling to serving on the numerous bushfire recovery boards. All described stress and burnout, including four who experienced moderate stress and two impacted by high levels of mental and physical stress.
A series of recommendations for clergy dealing with disaster was compiled as a result of the interviews. These include long-term support, understanding the personal impact on clergy, trauma training, empathic clergy supervision and extra assistance in administration and sermons.
If you would like a copy of the booklet, write to Yarra Institute for Religion and Social Policy, PO Box 505, Box Hill, 3128, firstname.lastname@example.org or visit their website at www.yarrainstitute.org.au.