My world changed August 25, 2017. God used a hurricane to alter my five-year plan and to recalibrate some of my thoughts about ministry. Like most of Rockport, Texas we evacuated to escape the force of category four Hurricane Harvey. The eye passed directly over our home. As my wife and I drove back into our little coastal town we sensed God was calling us to revise our plans.

Today, as I attempt to lead an association of churches through the COVID-19 crisis, I find myself in much the same place. More on that later. For now, I want to address five areas in which Hurricane Harvey forced me to change my perspective.

Leading to Limping

The church I returned to, hoping to lead through this crisis, had truly been traumatized. It was evident as I joined dozens of walking wounded at the county’s designated supply drop off that was once our church gym.

We were all experiencing the same struggle–damaged or destroyed homes, no power, no running water, long lines at stores. I discovered a renewed sense of community and a deeper sense of empathy and compassion for people as I limped alongside them.

Answer Man to Asking

Walking the church property to assess the damage was emotionally draining. Nothing prepared me for the impact of seeing the aftermath of a hurricane. I was relieved that most of our church buildings remained standing, but the damage was severe.

The scene was similar at our home. Part of the roof was gone and the interior was destroyed by rain and wind. The task of debris clean up was massive. Looking back, I didn’t anticipate the number of man-hours and crews needed to clear debris to prepare for rebuilding.

During the first days of cleanup, I stood in the yard of our home as volunteers carried out our damaged possessions. Most of the debris was destined for the growing trash pile overtaking our lawn. Seeing the contents of our house on display to the community was humbling.

Often volunteers would ask me, “Do you want to keep it, or should we put it on the pile”? That’s when I realized I was incapable of making the simplest decisions, whether a book was garbage or readable, whether a lamp was trash or treasure. I simply had no answers.

That experience reinforced a deeper truth, I did not have the answers. Whether standing in the yard of my demolished home or standing in our church parking lot trying to make sense of the convoys of vehicles dropping off supplies or the hundreds of broken people coming to get those supplies. I struggled to make decisions.

It’s one thing to admit you don’t have all the answers, but it’s humbling when you cannot come up with any answers. That’s where I found myself, answerless and dependent on God and others to get me through this.

Fortunately, I was blessed to have those relief workers step into my broken house and say, “Don’t worry. We’ve got this.” I had deacons step up when critical decisions had to be made about our church buildings and say, “Don’t worry pastor, we’ve got this” And most importantly, I sensed my Heavenly Father whisper in my ear daily, “Don’t worry, My child. I’ve got this.”

Helper to Helped

In the weeks our church operated the community distribution center, volunteers came from everywhere to help and minister to us. With many of our members homeless or trying to get their homes back to a livable state, we relied on strangers to unload relief supplies and run the operation. I spent my days introducing myself and thanking people from out of town who were ministering to our church and community from our church building.

The same was true at our home, friends from across the state, families, youth groups on Spring Break, a couple celebrating their anniversary, our insurance agent, a group of pastors who came from McAllen just to pray over me at my home, they all came to minister to us.

A church member and neighbor arranged some of that help. For two weekends, her son and daughter brought work crews of friends and co-workers from Austin and San Antonio to clear debris from our home. Just two weeks before the hurricane, I had officiated at the funeral of this church member’s husband. I had ministered to this family. Now they were ministering to me. The encourager and comforter receiving encouragement and comfort. The helper being helped.

Rescuer to Rescued

By the end of the first week our church was running a shipping and receiving operation that would rival Amazon, but without a plan and mostly staffed by strangers. I began my days with a quiet time in the cab of my pickup, a welcome oasis with air conditioning.

One morning, sitting in my truck, overwhelmed by a sense of responsibility to do well and rescue our community, I cried out to God, “Lord, please send someone to help me today”. I truly felt as if I would not survive another day unless God sent someone to help us navigate uncharted waters.

As I arrived at the church to “supervise” the chaos, I was approached by a man from a church in Fort Worth. His church had adopted our church through the recovery and he committed to staying as long as necessary. He explained that he had a background in crisis management, having led recovery efforts after Hurricane Katrina. He was probably the most experienced person I could have asked to show up that day and offer assistance. I welcomed him with open arms and explained to him that he was the answer to my morning prayer. Earlier that morning, I acknowledged I could not rescue everyone and God sent someone later that day to rescue me.           

Superman to Sabbath Keeper

God also used Harvey to remind me to pause and rest. The needs resulting from a hurricane present a sense of urgency, an endless list of things that must be done now. Adrenaline kicks in and you feel like superman to the rescue.

Experienced disaster relief workers warned me recovery would be a marathon, not a sprint. It didn’t take long to see the wisdom in those words. Adrenaline is only supposed to last for a short time. Eventually we physically, mentally, and emotionally run out of gas.

Our church tried to provide relief supplies to everyone who came, but after weeks of processing truckloads of donations, we made a difficult decision to take a break. It was difficult because, during a crisis, the needy don’t take a break. The stream of trucks and cars coming to Rockport with donations did not take a break.

But our bodies and souls began to cry out for a breaka sabbath. We recognized we could not continue at the relentless pace of the first weeks of recovery. We reduced the distribution center hours, closed on Sundays, and scheduled rotation of staff.

Yes, we took time off amid a disaster. We needed to spend quality time with our families to recharge and replenish. I recharged by spending quality time with the Lord and sitting on the porch of our borrowed apartment playing guitar and singing with my wife. We sat for long hours just enjoying each others’ company. We even took a few days and drove to a nearby town to spend the night. We rested.

Fast Forward to May of 2020

I experienced these transitions while leading one church after Hurricane Harvey. Today, my current role as a director of missions has me assisting 50 churches. The lessons of Harvey still apply.

Limping

We are all in this together. The evidence of shell shock may not be clear on the outside, but we are all struggling to adapt. We need to own this.

Asking

I don’t have all the answers. I’m asking others. I have spent hours attending webinars, reading publications, and offering advice. However, this coronavirus is a moving target. Just about the time, I think I have it figured out, something changes. Pastors are asking me for advice and I’m okay saying, “I don’t have the answer to that”

Helped

I am being ministered to once again, by the very people (pastors and church leaders) to whom I have been called to minister. After almost every conversation with these leaders, I admit that I have been encouraged and helped by them.

Rescued

I have been permitting myself to not rescue everyone. I depend on my Heavenly Father for that. He’s got this.

Sabbath-Keeper

I am taking care of myself during this crisis. I still sit on my porch and play my guitar. My reduced schedule allows for more quality time with the Lord. I am learning new, fresh ways to pray and meditate on Scripture. I take walks and bicycle rides with my wife. We are even learning to swing dance. I’m resting.

Conclusion

God wants to change our perspective to transform us. He leaves us reminders of this everywhere. One reminder stands at the entrance to that church I pastored during Harvey. A huge oak tree was broken off in the storm. While clearing debris a volunteer carved the remaining stump into the shape of a cross. It stands today as a reminder to everyone who enters that God transitions broken things and transforms them into something He can use.

Don’t waste this crisis. Allow God to use it to recalibrate your thinking and transform you into a more usable vessel.

Kevin Muilenburg
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