Hurting and healing: What my church did after a mass shooting

“Shots fired and Michigan State’s campus is on lockdown.”

That horrifying text message came from my associate pastor at 8:38 p.m. Monday, Feb. 13. Our community spent the next three hours waiting — and praying — for the active shooter crisis to end. My kitchen table became a makeshift workspace and altar as I began responding to students on campus by text, sending out emails and praying for God’s mercy.

At 11:49 p.m., it finally ended. We learned, first from police scanners and then from the local media, that the shooter had taken his own life 3 miles from campus. Four people were dead —three students and the perpetrator — and five others injured.

But really, the end of the immediate crisis was only the start of the hurting and weeping, serving and ministering for our community.

Our congregation, St. Luke Lutheran Church, has two campuses. One is just east of Michigan State University, and the other is just west. MSU is at the center of our ministry, not just geographically, but also in our hearts.

Our congregation has many undergrad and graduate students, faculty, staff and alumni — including me. I spent four years at MSU as a graduate student in digital rhetoric while also serving my parish. I learned to love rhetoric and technology in its classrooms. My children and I spend summer days playing tag in the shadows of Beaumont Tower. My wife and I cherish our leisurely strolls through the flowers of Beal Botanical Garden. This place is an extension of our backyard.

One of the very first things that our ministry staff did — even as the police still searched for the killer — was to compile a list of all the MSU students, faculty and staff in our congregation. This enabled us to reach out personally by text and social media.

Though it was late in the evening, our leaders crafted a message that went out by email that night:

Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

“Jesus wept.” (John 11:35)

Sometimes there are no words, only tears. This is a moment where there are no words, but only tears. We weep for those who have died in the events at Michigan State University. We weep for those who were injured. We weep for those who were traumatized, distressed, and in harm’s way. We weep for the entire MSU community, their families, and all who are hurting this evening.

Jesus wept. However, Jesus did not only weep. In the midst of death and hurt and pain, Jesus brought life and peace, calm and healing. Jesus tells us …

  • Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.
  • The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.
  • I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live …
  • Peace, be still.

It concluded with an invitation to a prayer vigil the next morning.

Those first hours were chaotic, but we knew we needed to be strategic. Thinking in terms of concentric circles, we developed a ministry strategy that placed our closest existing relationships in the center (congregation members who study, teach or work at MSU).

The next ring included people we might encounter through the people in the inner ring. For example, a faculty member in our congregation knew an international student in need of help while the campus was closed for a few days.

Finally, the outermost ring was the MSU and Lansing community in general. These concentric circles helped us triage our time and efforts appropriately in the midst of harried days.

With our strategy for ministry in place, we first devoted our attention to caring for our closest existing relationships at MSU. We organized two events. The first was a lament prayer service the day after the shooting. One of our associate pastors put together a service that included Scripture readings and prayer litanies, as well as time for silent prayer.

A few days after the shooting, we invited all of our MSU students, faculty and staff to a time for engaging in conversation and processing what had happened. In order to keep it casual and welcoming, we included a communal meal.

We ate Jimmy John’s (they are college kids, after all) and hung out on couches. There was pain, frustration and sadness, but also a feeling of togetherness and a palpable hope that healing would one day come.

Two texts helped guide our ministry in the days following the shooting. More often than I’d like, I have used a stark word from the Gospel of John to minister to people in times of profound hurt: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). We also took a cue from the book of Job, where it talks about Job’s three friends who “sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great” (Job 2:13 NRSVUE).

We wanted to listen and weep. We steered away from commenting on what had happened; I’ve found that times of acute crisis call for listening and being present, not speculating and explaining. Instead, we leaned heavily on Scripture, prayer and simply gathering to hurt together.

Our prayers emphasized the healing hope that we have in Jesus, our wounded Savior.

The morning after the shooting, I received a call from the CEO of Lutheran Church Charities. They wanted to know whether we could host several of their Comfort Dog Ministry teams — trained dogs and their handlers experienced in caring for communities after tragedy. We agreed.

And a few hours later, six golden retrievers from around the country descended upon us. As a result of their extensive training, these creatures were incredibly serene and gentle — just what one would want in a time of crisis such as this.

In a situation like a mass shooting, a deluge of outside help can overwhelm a community. However, in this situation, we were able to expedite caring for our folks by connecting people in the community with outside resources.

I spoke with congregation members working at MSU to see whether they wanted a visit from the dogs — an offer that many gladly accepted. Additionally, we used congregational connections at the regional hospital to orchestrate visits there with the golden retrievers.

The dogs, accompanied by their handlers and some of our pastors, visited staff at the hospital, including in the laboratory where victims’ blood types had been processed with extreme speed and precision to prepare for blood transfusions.

It has now been a little over a month since the shooting at MSU. While we are still hurting and processing all that has happened, our congregation has started planning for the future. Sadly, as the recent school shooting in Nashville shows, it’s necessary.

Our staff is preparing scenario planning exercises to think through how we would minister to our community if something similar happened at one of our high schools. We have already begun working with our local school district to serve as a reunification site if the need arises.

Though we are thinking about the future, we are still hurting in the present. Ministering through this pain is something that is measured in months and years, not hours and days. We are lingering with our people, together, to hurt and to heal.

We preach about this in sermons. We pray about this in worship. And we continue to meet in small groups to process the pain.

As we grieve, however, we do not “grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Instead, we are hurting and healing with our eyes on Jesus.

Holy Monday was supposed to be a detail day.

We had worked hard during the previous months preparing Holy Week and Easter services and sermons. After more than a year of pandemic, we had planned a meaningful and safe Holy Week, with remote and in-person services, including some inside the sanctuary and some outdoors.

And so our staff team expected to spend Monday putting the finishing touches on everything and pushing the print button.

Instead, Holy Monday became a hot mess in a hurry.

Our plans began to fray as COVID-19 numbers increased rapidly here in Michigan. After months with low numbers of infections and a steady number of individuals receiving vaccinations, the pandemic went from smoldering to inferno.

While the pandemic ramped up in our state, it also ran roughshod over our plans when our worship director (also our primary organist) had to begin a 14-day quarantine. This left us without a key staff member and musician, days before a series of 10 Holy Week worship services.

Months of planning had to be shifted in a day. All we could do was leap into Holy Week and Easter and build a plan as we went.

We relied heavily on a COVID advisory team that we had assembled earlier in the pandemic. This team, composed of local medical professionals, educators and government employees, had already been very helpful in developing safe and appropriate ministry plans attuned with changing circumstances.

We’d been meeting in person since February at half capacity, with masks and distancing (and an online option). Our advisory team suggested that we drop that further, so we set the limit below half and created an overflow section.

Now that I’ve had a little time to reflect, I’ve identified three unconventional strategies that proved especially helpful for our team as we led our congregation through this messy situation.

Disappoint everyone. Counterintuitive as it sounds, we found that a good overall approach for returning to in-person church is to disappoint everyone. This is not an endorsement of poor planning, recklessness or insensitivity. Rather, it’s a wise recognition that every decision is going to disappoint people in some way.

Some people will think that your plans for returning to in-person events are too slow and cautious; others will consider those same plans too swift and reckless. Unfortunately, the best path forward is often between the two extremes — where both sides are disappointed.

Leaders often assume that a lack of complaints is a good sign. However, that’s not always the case. It is said that effective leadership is disappointing people at a rate at which they can tolerate or absorb; this is especially important when lives are at stake.

If your plans for the timeline of return, frequency of services, number of people allowed and precautions in place leave everyone slightly disappointed, then you may be on the right track.

Control everything. If anything, this pandemic has demonstrated how little control we have. Our team had no control over rising COVID-19 numbers, nor could we control the timing of our worship director’s quarantine.

Nevertheless, in situations that are largely out of our control, it is helpful to ask, “What can we control?” We often have more control over situations than we initially think.

When our Holy Week began with a team member starting a quarantine, we immediately sought ways that we could control the situation as it unfolded. Although our staff was already following the recommended procedures for preventing the spread of COVID-19, we came up with additional measures.

For example, we had all staff conduct meetings during Holy Week via video conferencing or phone to minimize the possibility of other staff members becoming infected or having to quarantine.

Additionally, we came up with a backup plan for what to do if one of the preachers could not attend services in person.

Did we really control everything? No. But we did as much as we could. And this gave us confidence that our plans were not totally out of our control.

As you formulate plans to return to in-person worship, consider the following: What can you control in this? What is outside your control but could be anticipated with a contingency plan?

Wait until the last minute. This is not a suggestion to be haphazard, slapdash or idle in planning. Rather, it’s an encouragement to wait as long as possible, after diligently making plans, to enact them.

The pandemic has proved that a lot can happen in the course of a few days. The situation in Michigan is changing practically by the minute right now.

The key is determining how long you can wait to decide or communicate something to your congregation without waiting too long.

For example, we thought that the governor might make an announcement during Holy Week. Not knowing what this announcement might entail — but knowing it might include new restrictions — we considered what plans might be affected if this were to happen.

Would we have to move all services online? Would we have to limit even further the number of people attending in person?

Once we had considered these possibilities and how we might adjust accordingly, we decided what would be the latest date that we could communicate our plans without any negative consequences.

While Holy Monday was a hot mess, the rest of Holy Week turned out to be a wonderful experience for our congregation. We were able to joyfully — and safely — proclaim, “Christ is risen!” And, adding to our thanksgiving, our worship director completed quarantine without a positive COVID test.

It took some unconventional, even contrarian thinking. But the strategies we adopted can continue to bring some much-needed stability amid the chaos of returning to in-person church.