The church is not its building. Even so, buildings matter, and losing a building is a huge blow for a congregation.
Evergreen Presbyterian Church learned this lesson in 2013 when its building went into foreclosure and another church purchased the property. To make matters worse, Evergreen — located in Sevierville, Tennessee — lost its building the week of Christmas, leaving the church homeless for its Christmas Eve service.
Wes White knew this chapter of Evergreen’s history when he became the church’s senior pastor in January 2015. Though White was not with the congregation during the foreclosure, he could tell the loss had deeply hurt his flock. As he shepherded the congregation toward a new future, he learned he needed to help Evergreen heal from its past.
Going Back Before Going Forward
Like most congregations, Evergreen’s members told their new pastor stories about the church’s good old days. And, like most new pastors, White listened politely and reminded church members that there were many good things going on in the present, too.
But as part of his doctor of ministry coursework, White studied counseling methods and the grieving process. His research taught him that people don’t just grieve the loss of people; they can also grieve the loss of things — such as a church building. But the grief process isn’t always natural. Members of Evergreen needed someone to teach them how to mourn.
“[Individuals] get stuck because they have never learned to say goodbye,” White said. “In grief you have to go back before you can go forward.” But saying goodbye is a messy process. Which meant the new pastor needed to join his congregation in the past.
White realized he had not helped the situation by urging members to look to the future. All their talk about the past wasn’t idle chatter; it was a symptom of trauma.
“I really did not appreciate the trauma of the previous couple of years,” White wrote in a blog post. “I did not see the hurt. I often took calls for the good old days personally rather than as sadness and grief over what had been lost.”
Seeing God’s Faithfulness in Past and Present
Now when members talk about things they miss about Evergreen’s old building — such as the Christmas tree sale on the church property — rather than bringing them back to the present, White asks them to share more about what they miss. He also tries to connect with the church’s history when he can. He wants members to understand that Evergreen has a story, so he incorporates traditions of the past, even if it isn’t always convenient. The Christmas Eve candlelight service has now returned, even if it isn’t quite the same.
And White now gives members more opportunities to celebrate the church’s past. In November 2018, Evergreen celebrated its 32nd birthday. Members shared testimonies of how God had worked under the three previous pastors. The tone, White said, was one of celebrating how God has been faithful to Evergreen in the past and continues to be faithful now.
Evergreen now gathers at the conference center in the River Plantation RV Resort on the main route to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
White said that about 40 percent of Evergreen’s current members came to the church since the foreclosure, a sign that the church is moving forward.
In anticipation of the worship service celebrating Evergreen’s 32 years, White wrote a reflection on his blog. He concluded that the congregation had experienced great loss, but through the sorrow and the healing, God had been faithful.
“We can have confidence that God has led us in our suffering, healed us after suffering, and will continue to do so. He is our faithful Creator.”
Helpful Tips for Dealing with Trauma
1. Expect it. Trauma is everywhere. It is only a matter of time before people in the church experience it.
2. Prepare for it.
3. Look for it. Don’t dismiss the “difficult people” as troublemakers.
4. Press in. When asked, most people will share their stories of trauma if they feel cared for and valued.
5. Develop a collaborative plan.
6. Don’t refer out! Draw the professional helpers in to be part of the team.
7. Follow up. Healing from trauma is possible. It often takes a long time.
From the Biblical Counseling Coalition.