CISM Lessons Learned: Crisis of Faith and the Importance of Spiritual Resilience

CISM Lessons Learned: Crisis of Faith and the Importance of Spiritual Resilience

By: Harvey J. Burnett, Jr.

School of Social & Behavioral Sciences, Andrews University

Clinical Director, Berrien County CISM Team

Author Note

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Harvey J. Burnett, Jr., School of Social & Behavioral Sciences, Andrews University, 8488 E. Campus Circle Drive, Berrien Springs, MI 49104.  Email: [email protected] 

Unfortunately, in this world today, adverse incidents exist and can have an impact on those directly exposed, as well as on the trained professionals who respond to provide disaster mental health services (e.g., Burnett, 2017; Burnett & Wahl, 2015; Ozer et al., 2003). In response to these traumatizing events, many people turn to their religious beliefs and spiritual practices to cope, often seeking a new sense of personal meaning and purpose in life (Peres et al., 2007). As a matter of fact, spirituality is an important aspect of most cultures often providing a feeling of relational connection with the sacred, answering questions to further one’s understanding of life, and supplying one with meaning and purpose (Moreira-Almeida & Koenig, 2006). However, what happens when someone experiences a traumatic event that causes them to have a crisis of faith? How should CISM responders handle such experiences while providing crisis intervention services in addition to maintaining their own spiritual wellbeing after such exposure? This article will attempt to provide some guidance on this relevant issue facing CISM providers.

The Hurricane Maria Response Experience

On September 20, 2017, the Category 4 hurricane known as Maria struck the United States island territory of Puerto Rico which resulted in the death of over 3,000 people and billions of dollars in damage. As a result of the traumatic impact that Maria had on a world denominational church community on the island, a disaster mental health response was requested from its affiliated flagship university in the United States mainland to provide crisis intervention services to their impacted churches, schools, and the local communities. In mid-March 2018, a disaster mental health response team answered the call and responded to provide the needed services.

As the clinical director of the response team, I recall a specific experience that was the catalyst for the penning of this article. It was during a psychoeducational intervention among a group of teachers in a classroom that had not too long ago had their power restored. A veteran teacher shared how strongly she believed in the advent hope of her faith, however, “When the hurricane hit I did not focus on that!” She went on to share that ever since Maria subsided she felt guilty that she focused on her fear and not on her faith. The teacher added that she felt that she had betrayed God by not concentrating on a major fundamental belief of her religion that asserts adversities such as disasters, pain, and suffering will cease to exist at the second coming of Jesus Christ and comfort can be found in adhering to this promise in troubling situations. Additionally, she noted that this was the first time that she had ever shared this reaction with anyone. Throughout her disclosure, her eyes were filled with tears and her facial expression was sad but rigid, and her voice was filled with pain as she spoke. 

While she disclosed her experiences to this powerful catastrophic event, I took note of my own reactions to her story. I recalled that my heart became heavy with sadness as she shared her pain, not because of a normal loss of focus on the fundamentals of one’s faith, but rather, I could relate to her because this has happened to me before too. I could also empathize with the pain of her feelings of guilt that she had disappointed God in a fragment of a moment in time where her fear of Hurricane Maria was the focus and not her faith in what she know religiously. What was even scarier was the voice in my head saying, “What do I say? How can I intervene without downplaying the importance of her faith or making the normalcy of her reactions a further reason for her to continue condemning herself based on feelings of guilt?” “What interventions should I employ that will help her become more spiritually resilient that do not involve hitting her with a litany of doctrinal fundamentals that would push her into a deeper crisis of faith?” Lastly, “Oh my, what do I need to do for my own spiritual wellness when we are done here?” 

CISM Lessons Learned

Based on the experience that I shared, there are several lessons learned that may be helpful for CISM teams who provide crisis intervention services to individuals affected spiritually by traumatic incidents, especially to those who are of the same faith background as the responder. First, spiritual reactions of distress should be expected and need to be “viewed as a normal reaction to a traumatic event” (Webb, 2004, p. 217). This does not mean that everyone to whom we provide CISM services will voice spiritual distress but rather we should be prepared that such transcendent associated stress reactions may surface. As CISM responders we tend to focus a little more on the expected physical, cognitive, emotional, and behavioral reactions and less on spiritual expressions of distress. These common stress reaction areas seem more concrete, identifiable, and intervention-focused compared to the spiritual distress symptoms which are broader, diverse, and lack consensus in understanding the sacred, especially if the responder has no religious or theological background or the team does not have a CISM-trained chaplain present. In the experience that I shared, I did expect to hear spiritual reactions to Maria and was prepared to normalize them as common reactions to the catastrophic event. However, I did not prepare myself to hear spiritual reactions of self-condemnation for not maintaining their faith during the event itself. Therefore, expect people to express a juxtaposition of their fundamental tenants of faith with their behaviors during an adverse event that is contrary to their religious beliefs.

Second, it is essential that CISM responders effectively listen while providing various crisis intervention services in order to accurately assess the individual’s spiritual expressions of distress. Webb (2004) warned that expressions of spiritual distress can evoke a sense of “helplessness and despair” in a CISM responder, causing the internal elevation of intervention questions that were similar to my experience. To some degree this is normal. However, if a responder is uncomfortable with spiritual stress reactions feelings of anxiety and despair can arise and overwhelm the responder. This could result in the responder either ignoring the disclosed symptoms or intervening by shifting their role to one that is more familiar, such as utilizing a “fix-it mentality” if the CISM responder is an emergency first responder, reverting to a therapeutic approach among mental health professionals, or providing a more theological response among the clergy (Webb, 2004). The key lesson here is to remain patient and listen in order to identify ways to support and connect with the person in a spiritual crisis.

Third, be able to differentiate between a crisis of faith and a spiritual cry of distress. According to Webb (2004, p. 218), a crisis of faith occurs when “one’s normal, established relationship with God and accompanying theological worldview is violated and seemly rendered helpless and/or useless in making sense of relationships with God and others” while a spiritual cry of distress is more of an initial emotional outburst of distress shortly after exposure to the traumatic event. More specifically, a crisis of faith reaction is more likely to occur after one has recovered from cognitive impairment and tends to exhibit a reflective statement of a spiritual struggle with either the divine, interpersonal relationships, and/or intrapersonal relationships (Pargament & Cummings, 2010). In the case of the teacher according to Pargament and Cummings (2010), she was exhibiting a basic irrational tendency to blame herself (condemnation). 

Fifth, Webb (2004) suggested that the intervention goal for a crisis of faith is to promote a sense of hope and renew a spirit of thankfulness in one’s relationship with the divine while minimizing shock and distress symptoms, along with providing a concrete connection of the sacred’s love and presence are warranted for a spiritual cry of distress. In my case with the teacher, it was clear that she was exhibiting a crisis of faith based on the timing of our response to Puerto Rico. I would like to also note here that I also have a Master’s Degree in Divinity and served as an elder in my own local church. So, instead of giving in to the temptation to flood her with a host of the religious and theological jargon common within our shared denominational fundamental beliefs, I focused on identifying the root of her guilt (i.e., that she felt that she had betrayed God by not staying faithful to the tenants of her faith during the hurricane) and then normalizing her spiritual crisis reaction (i.e., that such reactions can happen to anyone regardless of their level of faith) as part of our human experience. I then shared with her the unfathomable grace, compassion, and love that God has for her by promoting resiliency in what she already knew, reminding her that God understands what happened with her during the hurricane and does not condemn her, but rather continues to love and accept her, bids her to share her struggle with him, and to let go of the guilt since he is not holding anything against her. After implementing this intervention, the teacher’s countenance become hopeful – as though a weight was lifted off of her shoulders.

A final lesson learned centers on the importance of CISM responders maintaining their own spiritual wellness and resiliency post-providing crisis intervention services. In general, resilience is a person’s ability to maintain healthy levels of psychological and physical functioning after exposure to a traumatic event utilizing multiple pathways (Bonnano, 2004). Spirituality has been considered an important component of resilience that can be developed, strengthened, and maintained (Everly, 2017). Therefore, it is important that CISM responders participate in a Post Action Staff Support (PASS) intervention to help minimize the potential vicarious effects of the disaster experience. Since we had several teams dispersed to provide interventions at different locations in Puerto Rico we conducted a PASS every evening when all teams returned to our respite center. This provided a perfect opportunity to reiterate the importance of maintaining their spiritual wellness as well as to address any concerns of spiritual distress being expressed among team members. Second, CISM responders are strongly encouraged to take time to engage in their own personal spiritual wellness activities to boost their own spiritual resiliency. In fact, recent research by Burnett and colleagues (2022) identified several spiritual wellness themes that CISM-trained responders utilize to build their own spiritual resiliency, such as prayer, reading spiritual literature, meditation, attending religious services, being thankful, showing gratitude, and spending time in nature. For me, it was taking time to pray and listen to spiritually encouraging music that were the spiritual wellness routines that I practiced in order to boost my spiritual resiliency throughout the seven days that our team was in Puerto Rico.


As stated earlier, many people cope with exposure to traumatic events through their religious and spiritual practices. Research has shown that religiousness can help people adjust to adverse experiences, provide a source of strength, help find meaning, and is linked to positive outcomes (Pargament & Cummings, 2010). However, traumatic events can also affect those exposed negatively through expressions of spiritual distress or having a crisis of faith. It is important that CISM responders be prepared for such spiritual reactions while proving crisis intervention services, as well as personally implementing resilience activities that will strengthen their spiritual wellness. This will help to reduce the potential vicarious effects that the traumatic experience may have on them spiritually.


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Author Note

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Harvey J. Burnett, Jr., School of Social & Behavioral Sciences, Andrews University, 8488 E. Campus Circle Drive, Berrien Springs, MI 49104.  Email: [email protected]