It is important to understand the unusual types of decisions people are forced to make in response to a crisis. These are not typically decisions people were making just weeks before the crisis hit. Not all of these are risk decisions; some are moral or ethical in nature, while others are both risk and moral/ethical decisions.
Because we live in a broken and fallen world, risk is a part of the daily life experience. Risk can be defined as “the potential for harm to one’s self, family, team, or community.” This harm could be physical, emotional, psychological, or spiritual. Because repeated exposure to risk can desensitize us to it, the concept of “risk threshold” is helpful.
Risk threshold is “the level of risk a person or group is able to accept while maintaining healthy coping skills and continuing in service.” Decisions about risk, as well as an individual’s ability to accept certain levels of risk, can be influenced by many factors. Therefore, leaders are urged not to criticize or judge others based on their decisions regarding present or potential risks. For those who come from a Christian perspective, we know that Jesus himself sometimes accepted great risks, while at other times he avoided danger (see, for example, John 8:59).
FACTORS THAT INFLUENCE RISK DECISIONS:
The level of risk that an individual can accept is influenced by many factors. It can and does change over a lifetime, both rising and falling with different seasons of life.
These factors can include, but are not limited to:
- The number and type(s) of past traumas that a person has experienced and how those were dealt with: Some people with past experiences of trauma might find themselves more averse to increased risks of any type. Others might find such a response only in situations similar to the past trauma, while still others will find their healing has also brought an increased risk tolerance in many or all areas.
- Relationships and season of life: Having significant responsibilities for others can lower a person’s risk tolerance. In the family setting, these can include children, aging parents, or a family member with a disability. Responsibility for team members, employees, students, or others can also lower one’s risk tolerance, as can a person’s own physical or mental condition.
- Personality: Some people are by nature risk takers, while others are more prone to avoid risk.
- Expectations concerning the place where one lives and works: Long residence in an area (and thus long exposure to particular conditions, such as crime) can sometimes make “natives” feel that the level of risk is lower than that perceived by newcomers. This can also work in reverse, however. For example, long-time residents who survived a strong hurricane might be more likely to evacuate than newer arrivals who have experienced only weaker storms or none at all.
- Ministry impact: If staying in an area will result in social isolation but effective ministry requires being in many social settings, then special consideration must be given to the risk of potential “social harm” caused by leaving when others do not or cannot, versus the potential for physical (or mental/emotional) harm caused by staying where ministry is precluded.
- Cultural factors & theological factors: A wide variety can be in play here, depending on the background and experience of the individuals involved as well as the setting. Again, it is important not to judge people for the decisions they make based on these factors.
MAKING A RISK-ACCEPTANCE PLAN:
We often hear about risk assessment – the process of identifying the nature, size, likelihood, and consequences of risks. And risk assessment is important in order to know what our threshold is regarding that risk. However, it is also important to understand how much risk I (and others for whom I am responsible, such as family or team members) can accept at this time, as well as what happens to change that. One way you can do this is by using a “traffic light” risk threshold plan.
You, or the person(s) you are helping with the evaluation, should discuss and document your plan for facing risk. If working with multiple people, such as a married couple or a team, have everyone write down their plans individually before sharing them in order to elicit honest responses. At this point you (or they) should be able to make an action plan for dealing with three levels of risk, including what the factors are that would indicate a new risk level has been reached and what steps should be taken in response to the new risk level.
Using the traffic light analogy, a “green” risk level is the natural or normal level of risk present in the place where you live and/or work. For some people, even the normal risk level will be somewhat elevated, based on local conditions. Considering the green risk level allows people to assess all known risks in their situations and think about what “normal” feels like.
When risks are above average, you have moved into the “yellow” risk level. You will know you have arrived at the yellow level when you feel nervous. This is a natural human response to a level of increased risk. It is important to note that, because we are talking about risk acceptance and not risk per se, that where the green level ends and the yellow begins will not be the same for everyone. The circumstances will be, but people’s reactions to them – and, at times, the likelihood an individual will suffer harm from those circumstances – can and will vary.
The “red” level of risk is reached when the risk is high and staying becomes dangerous, based on predetermined factors that were discussed earlier: availability of supplies, access to medical care, safety of vulnerable family or team members, transportation shutdown, and so on.
Ideally, this traffic light risk threshold plan will be developed before it is needed, with adjustments made for the situation if implementing it becomes necessary. But even during a crisis, developing and implementing such a plan is of value. Furthermore, ongoing revisions will be necessary as a crisis progresses and new information becomes available.
In summary, such a plan will allow an individual, family, or team to understand what each risk level comprises; how to know when the level has risen from green to yellow and then from yellow to red; and what steps need to be taken at each change in risk level. Again, seeking and being sensitive to the perspectives of others, especially spouses or key team leaders, is vital if you want to have an effective risk threshold plan. Writing down the plan rather than just talking it through will increase people’s understanding of it as well as the likelihood that they will review it and remember it.
THINKING THROUGH THE DECISION:
When going through this process, whether for oneself or guiding another person:
- How do you make decisions about risk? Do you do it as an individual? As part of a married couple? A family (including all members)? As one member of a team?
- If you are married, is your spouse in agreement with your decisions? To what degree?
- Are you personally aware of the factors influencing your risk threshold? Do you understand how these factors are influencing you?
- What do you believe about risk? What is your theological perspective on risk? For example, do you understand that Scripture shows both that there are times to remain in an area (e.g., Luke 13:31–33; Acts 20:22–25) and that there are times to leave or withdraw (Luke 4:24–30; Acts 17:1–15)?
- What are some ways you might know it is time to leave?
- What would confirm to you that you should stay?
- Are there ways to decrease your level of risk if you stay? What are they?
- How can you encourage one another and show sensitivity to your spouse (if married) or others in this area of risk decision-making and acceptance?
WHETHER TO STAY OR GO:
The question of whether to remain during an ongoing (or even potential) crisis is a crucial, but very individual, decision. In order to make that decision and to help others do so, the following questions can prove useful:
- What is your calling? What is necessary for you to fulfill that calling?
- Is accepting (this) risk necessary? If yes, what level of risk? Remember that risks and risk levels can change as a situation unfolds.
- What are the potential positive outcomes of accepting this risk? What are the potential negative outcomes?
- How does the situation impact your ministry or work? How does it impact your personal part of (or ability to do) the ministry or work, as opposed to the overall ministry or work? Is it reduced, limited, or even curtailed? Might it be?
- What is your rationale for staying? What is your rationale for leaving? Sharing the answers to these questions with a trusted friend or advisor can be especially helpful when making the decision to stay or relocate.
- What is your access to adequate medical care if you stay?
- Who in your family might be medically impacted if you stay?
- Are essential supplies available where you are? Will they remain available?
- What are your viable choices: Remain where you are, knowing you might be confined to your home for a substantial time? Relocate nearby? Relocate to another region? Relocate to another country?
- What travel limitations are currently in place? Knowing that the travel situation can change quickly and unpredictably, how do we help others make the best decisions concerning their location, what is available there, and whether/when to relocate?
- What do others recommend you do? This can include team members, local partners, national and international partners, your local church, partner churches, reputable non-governmental and governmental agencies, and extended family members.
- Who is affected by your risk decisions? This is an essential question to ask of anyone who is going through this risk discussion. Immediate family is an obvious answer, but extended family might also be affected if, say, the individual is a caregiver, provides financial support, or acts as a family elder with respect to decision-making. Likewise, anyone with whom you work might be affected, such as team members, partners, and churches. Some people will be able to think of others beyond this list whom they need to consider when making their decisions.
IF YOU STAY: TERMS TO CONSIDER:
A number of different terms are used to describe ways to keep people from catching a disease during an epidemic. Isolation refers to the separation of people who have a contagious disease from people who are not sick. Quarantine, in contrast, is the practice of separating people who have been exposed to a contagious disease but do not yet manifest symptoms of the disease, to see whether they become sick. Quarantine also involves restricting their freedom of movement so that they do not transmit the disease to uninfected individuals.
Sheltering in place means seeking safety in the place (usually a structure) you currently are rather than trying to evacuate. This term is more commonly heard related to incidents such as a hazardous chemical spill or a tornado. With respect to a disease outbreak, sheltering in place means not leaving your home except for essential matters (generally defined as things like obtaining food, medications, and necessary medical care; workers in occupations defined as essential are permitted to travel to and from their jobs as well). If permitted by local authorities, people who are sheltering in place can go outside for fresh air and exercise. Generally, people are requested, if not required, to practice social distancing (maintaining a separation of at least 6 feet, or 2 meters, from other people who are not members of their household) while outside, as well as while they are performing essential errands.
OTHER CHALLENGES TO CONSIDER:
- Lost or diminished connections with other people. This can be especially difficult for people who are already socially isolated. Some of them might have been relying heavily on social support networks that are now overloaded or unavailable to them.
- Collective suffering of entire communities. Making things worse, the places that used to offer safety and support to people, such as houses of worship and community centers, have become inaccessible. This happens during natural disasters as well.
- People with existing mental health conditions might experience worsening of their symptoms. In addition, people who previously had no mental health issues might develop depression or anxiety. Again, help might not be available due to overloaded or inaccessible mental health providers or systems.
- Economic decline can ensue and have effects at the national, local, or individual level. Even if needed goods and services are available, people might not be able to afford them or have a way to pay for them.
- Individuals confined to their homes might find that their diet and exercise are disrupted, leading to poor nutrition and wellness.
- Vulnerable adults and children might find themselves in unhealthy home situations but unable to access the social support they normally would have, such as through their schools or senior services.
- People with pre-existing medical conditions can be significantly impacted if exposed to a new infectious agent. Additionally, if the healthcare systems are overloaded by cases of the new infection, people with other medical conditions either will be left untreated or will be discouraged from coming to the hospital due to the risk of the contagious disease.
- During an outbreak of a highly contagious illness, hospitals are likely to restrict access to patients, potentially excluding family members from even those patients not suffering from the disease of concern. As a result, patients of all types are more likely to suffer, and even die, alone. The lack of anyone to advocate for them might mean that some patients receive substandard or even incorrect care.
- People who cannot or do not seek treatment at a hospital or other facility might find themselves on their own, either because they have no one to care for them or because they are deliberately shunned by non-infected family or neighbors. They too are at risk of suffering and dying alone.
HELPING OTHERS THROUGH THE CRISIS:
Awareness of challenges such as the ones mentioned above is vital for those who would offer pastoral care during a crisis, including guiding people through the risk decisions they need to make or helping them with the anxiety or fear they might be experiencing.
In order to help other through a crisis, helpers must themselves be prepared. This starts with knowing your own risk threshold. Don’t attempt to walk someone else through this process if you have not thought and worked through it yourself.
Be prayerful. Pray for the people you are serving. Pray for the members of your team. Pray for your family. Pray for yourself. Pray for discernment and guidance. There is power in prayer!
Be available to people, but also be realistic about how much availability you have.
Ask good questions and listen to the answers you receive. Don’t give advice; come alongside people and help walk them through what is going on. Really listen to their concerns and reflect those concerns back to them, so that they can see you were listening and so that they can hear what you heard.
Don’t judge the decisions people make about risk. This can be difficult, especially when you feel that the condition or situation is much more, or much less, risky than the other person does. Do, however, understand the moral and ethical dilemmas people face and the dissonance they might feel as they are forced to make critical decisions.
Foster resilience in others rather than encouraging them to depend upon you. Recognize their strengths and encourage those. Recognize your own strengths as well.
Follow up on team members and coworkers. Don’t just meet with them and then leave.
Avail yourself of good resources and factual, accurate information. Do not give medical advice, however, unless you are a medical professional.
Take care of yourself. Rest, reflect, and renew yourself in God’s Word every day. Do not neglect yourself, because you cannot care for others if you do not care for yourself.
Does experiencing trouble or calamity – or persecution, or hunger, or destitution, or danger, or even the threat of death – mean we are abandoned and that God no longer loves us? NO! Despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved (and loves) us (Romans 8:35–39).
Author: Stacey Conard
(SIM Emmaus Team; Board Certified Crisis Response Chaplain; Crisis Security Management Team/ Chaplain Liaison)
Shaum, S. E. (2012). Reflections On a Theology of Suffering. In Trauma & Resilience (pp. 1-23). Grand Rapids, MI: Condeo Press.
SIM Working Group, e. a. (2016). A Theological Reflection on Risk. SIM.
The above article is a transcribed and edited version of Great Commission Care’s presentation “A Pastoral Care Response: Guiding Through Risk Decisions,” available on the internet at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yQ2nsWvgx2Y.
The original presentation was prepared primarily for cross-cultural workers who are not in their home countries and for people who are supervising or advising them. As a result, some of the counsel is given from the perspective of people who must consider whether to leave the places in which they serve, an option not available to all movement leaders and workers. On the other hand, being aware of, evaluating, preparing for, and dealing with situations involving risk is something that any of us, regardless of cultural background and situation, can engage in. – Joseph Myers, Senior Editor