Sandy Hook shootings a reminder of the needs of 'God's first responders'

Published: Sunday, Oct. 4 2015 10:55 p.m. MDT

“Nine-one-one; what is your emergency?” This simple sentence, which gets directly to the point, can be an opening to the most heartwarming and heartbreaking stories of our time.

Depending on the nature of the call, it is an exchange with the potential to go far beyond a request for local law enforcement and medical help. In extreme cases, it can lead to the scrambling of fighter jets and a chain reaction of well-rehearsed escalations to ensure the safety of an entire population.

America’s 911 system is funded primarily through subscriber fees on telephone services. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, while revenues for 911 services have shifted in recent years as landline use has decreased in favor of mobile phones, it is fair to say that the system will remain secure. We rightfully expect 911 dispatchers to be calm, knowledgeable, efficient and effective. Thankfully, they usually are.

In the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings, however, a different group of leaders has taken center stage alongside those we are accustomed to seeing in a crisis-oriented news story: the clergy. Serving as “God’s first responders,” members of this ancient profession are called upon to help us make sense of something older still, a crime that both scripture and the anthropological record assure us is as old as the species itself: homicide.

Despite the necessary supportive role they play, however, these faith-based responders are themselves in need of better support, especially when it comes to pay and benefits commensurate with the time they spend on their work.

In the northeastern United States, religion plays a less visible role than might be typical in other regions of the country. Generally, matters of faith are considered private and references to a higher power are seldom part of public discourse.

More than 150 miles away from the site of the shooting, in what is known as “Far Northeast Philadelphia,” St. Luke’s United Church of Christ serves a modest membership of less than 100 people. St. Luke’s earth-tone, mid-century modern structure is often missed on the busy thoroughfare that serves as a major artery to the interstate and downtown.

Within hours of the Sandy Hook story breaking, Rev. Trent Williams, pastor at St. Luke’s, found himself in an unfamiliar position: in front of a news crew. Like many clergy in the days since the shooting, Williams opened his church for a prayer vigil to provide comfort and support to people in a state of shock.

Outside was a van from one of the major network affiliates. Inside, blinded by the floodlight of the camera, a local reporter began asking Williams what his message was, how to speak with children about the tragedy, and even how to “make sense of the senseless.”

A man who seldom speaks to audiences larger than 100 people was suddenly called upon to give spiritual and practical guidance to a media market of 4.5 million in an unscripted sound bite instead of his usual prepared sermon.

According to the Census Bureau, median annual family income in Newtown, Conn., is more than $100,000. This puts the local population in a position to financially support the clergy. In most communities, these often-unassuming figures who frequently require as many years of formal education as a practicing attorney or physician (four years of college followed by three years in seminary) find themselves forced to make difficult choices.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, median salary for a pastor is a little more than $44,000, which covers the full range of experience levels. Absent from these data are factors regarding taxation. Clergy who work in decentralized religious traditions are typically considered independent contractors, meaning they must pay self-employment tax on top of their other tax obligations.

Benefits such as health care and retirement can vary greatly. While some are provided housing and other allowances that make this a more livable wage, it is very common for clergy to be classified and paid as half time or part time, with obligations that could never be met in a 40-hour, let alone a 20-hour, work week.

“We had a saying in seminary that 'half time is full time and full time is all the time,’” says Williams with a laugh that suggests he finds the reality of this inside joke only partially amusing.

His father, Ken Williams, beams with pride when he talks about his son and the life of service he has chosen to lead. Just the same, the elder Williams openly admits that the day his son came home and announced he felt called to the ministry, he was conflicted.

“He said he got the call and I said, ‘uh-oh.’” Expressed through an accent indicative of a man who has spent his entire life in central Texas as well as his unique brand of humor, one cannot help but miss the practical worries of a father who knows all too well the challenges of making ends meet to support a family.

Carol Howard Merritt, a frequent speaker and author, questions the model openly. “Our economic model is breaking down," she writes on her blog. "It has become more difficult for a church with 50 households to support one pastor. Even when a minister is willing to live frugally, the cost of education and medical benefits keeps getting higher. So, many people jump to bivocational ministry (working two jobs) as the answer.”

According to a New York Times article published in 2010, “Members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans. In the last decade, their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen.”

In a first-world and increasingly secular nation, many believe that functions historically within the realm of the clergy have been replaced by higher education, science, psychology and even literacy, and the role of the clergy in a modern world is mostly a ceremonial one.

Tragic events such as the Sandy Hook nightmare, however, suggest otherwise. Even those with the means to access professionals in the mental health system find they need support most such experts are both unable and unqualified to provide.

As a member of this network of the faithful, Williams has particular advice for parents on what to emphasize with their children in the aftermath of the shooting: “They are loved by their parents, their family, their friends, and they are held in the arms of God no matter what happens.”

It's as succinct a response as one would expect from a 911 dispatcher, but with a very different frame of reference. The question is, how and who should secure the funding to ensure those who respond to a call from a higher power are available, qualified and competent to answer ours?

John J. Brady is the Chief Operating Officer of HigherNext, Inc. With 20 years in the education sector, he writes on matters of higher education, transitions into college and career, non-profit management and standardized testing. JB@highernext.com

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company