Resources for mentally and emotionally challenging times

It’s been quite a while since I wrote anything in my blog. Since I last wrote we have been afflicted by the COVID-19 pandemic and the extensive floods in southern Queensland and Northern NSW (and the Hawkesbury and other areas). Engagement with these have kept me concentrating on training and response to these events. My hope is to reengage with the blog into the future, particularly to pass on helpful material. The following has motivated me…

Occasionally someone will send through to me some links to excellent resources which I don’t want to keep to myself.

Last week Mel Perkins from the VicTas Synod of the Uniting Church sent me a webpage she had put together good resources gathered under the heading “Resources for mentally and emotionally challenging times.” They provide some connections to support services’ education material and some tips on a range of issues from coping with the social and relational effects of COVID, and caring for others who are doing it tough. They are available here.

Another very good resource recently launched in Victoria is designed to equip faith leaders to prevent and respond to family violence. This practice guide and tool kit is available here.

The Disaster Recovery Chaplain’s Prayer




On the last day of 2019 a major fire emergency is playing out across Victoria and NSW with relief and evacuation centres opening for many communities seeking shelter and others who are unable to travel.  In this, chaplains from the VCC-EM and NSW DRCN are working ceaselessly with evacuees in difficult and cramped conditions offering care and comfort.  They bring practical and emotional support to all, and do so recognising the importance of prayer.

This is a prayer I wrote some time ago for days and weeks such as these:


The Disaster Recovery Chaplain’s Prayer

Gracious God.

You brought light out of darkness.

You formed the beauty of creation from the waters of chaos.

You raised us from the very dust of the earth and brought life from death.

We thank you for your grace, your faithfulness, and your strength to restore.

Unite your people to bless all who suffer in darkness, chaos, grief and loss.
Grant us your guidance and strength,
to serve faithfully as people of hope.

For your sake, and that of all you love, we pray,



Post-Earthquake Trauma counselling and peace-building workshops in PNG

At 3:44am on the 26th of February 2018, Papua New Guinea experienced a 7.5 magnitude earthquake, with its epicentre in the Southern Highlands.  The initial quake and resultant landslips resulted in 160 deaths and many more injuries.  This was followed in the days and weeks that followed by a number of aftershocks which caused many more.  The quake caused widespread destruction of property and infrastructure including roads, houses, rupturing of tanks and pollution of fresh water from underground oil and gas leaking into streams from below. The human cost was immeasurable, apart from the loss of housing and shelter and water and food supplies, people were deeply shaken emotionally.  Aftershocks left people afraid to sleep in what was left of their homes and communities, already facing poverty, some division and lack of resources, with boiling social fragmentation and tension.

Even now the PNG highlands are very remote. After a plane flight from Port Moresby to Mount Hagen, it took nearly three hours by four-wheel drive on heavily damaged roads tracking through rainforests, mountains and villages to reach the township of Mendi.  On arriving there I was given a tour of the town.  It is a beautiful place with lush, tropical growth, banana plantations surrounding it and mountain tops hidden in mist.  Even so, signs of the earthquake were clear.  Some stripes on mountainsides showed where the earth had slipped, houses were sitting squat and bent on the ground where their piers had collapsed and the local hospital still had walls missing.  There were signs of human-caused damage as well.  I was shown where the police station and courthouse had been razed by arson and where a passenger plane was destroyed, all this in the riots in the town following the earthquake.


Plane burning during the riots earlier in the year – Photo courtesy of the ABC

Mendi was a fitting venue for UnitingWorld to organise joint training courses for pastors from the highlands provinces.  Across these, the church is at the forefront of social integration and care.  Following the earthquake the churches worked alongside government and not-for-profit agencies to help cater for basic needs and continue to be the prime provider of psycho social support and mediation in the context of conflict.

The earthquake struck in February (while I was working with UnitingWorld supporting our partners in Tonga following Cyclone Gita).  For some time access was very limited and first priority was given to basic human and social needs across PNG.  It took a number of months with many logistical challenges (including access, funding and people involved) to bring everything together for the workshop in September. This was actually good timing, as any earlier it would have been very difficult for these primary pastoral carers and leaders to get away from the needs of their people.


The workshop was attended by over 25 participants apart from the trainers with the week divided into two segments:

Disaster Recovery and Trauma Counselling – with input from myself and Lua Alu, a counsellor who works throughout PNG in areas of counselling in relation to stress, conflict and sexual violence.  I was able to bring a framework to the workshop with input on disaster dynamics, trauma and critical incidents and debriefing.

The second part of the week was on the area of peacebuilding and had input from the team (Tweedy, Hubert and ???) an extraordinarily gifted group of people with extensive first-hand experience in teaching fighting groups to lay down their weapons, find forgiveness and extend peace.

These two elements melded seamlessly, with the first giving an understanding of post-traumatic reactions, symptoms and care, and the second giving a platform on practical ways to move forward in reconciliation.

The workshop was a time of great refreshment for all involved.  They provided an opportunity for pastors to come away from situations of ongoing stress in the provision of pastoral care, and share with brothers and sisters in Christ, being equipped and affirmed, ready to return to the difficult ongoing work of supporting their people.


I personally came away very blessed by the kindness, hospitality and warmth of the locals to a stranger from Australia.  I learned a great deal as I taught and shared with these dedicated people.  As I prepared to leave many urged us to thank the people of UnitingWorld and the church in Australia for this time, and to ask them to remember them, recognising that – even now – they continue to face enormous challenges in caring for communities still fragile from the impact of the earthquake.


Tathra: a year on

On Sunday March 18th 2018, the township of Tathra was overwhelmed by a firestorm.  It was a day of extreme temperatures and powerful winds which brought the destruction of scores of homes along with holiday cabins and caravans.  Residents fled the town and were relocated to evacuation centres at Bermagui and Bega.


From that moment the Uniting Church was involved in many ways in the response and recovery of the community.

During the evacuation, NSW Disaster Recovery Chaplaincy Network (DRCN) chaplains were deployed to work alongside other agencies and care for these residents.  The DRCN is an ecumenical ministry of the Synod of NSW and ACT that I have the privilege of overseeing with the help of a great volunteer team. Over the next two weeks teams of chaplains supported people in the evacuation and recovery centres.  During the activation 20 chaplains gave a total of 516 face to face hours of care to the local residents.


The fires presented a health hazard with the presence of free asbestos from burned buildings and it was, initially, unsafe for residents to return to their homes.  This was a very stressful time for people who were not allowed to go back – not knowing what they had lost, or what could be saved.  Buses drove residents through the streets of the town, pausing at various points to show them what had happened.  On each bus were two chaplains who travelled with the deeply upset residents as they came to terms with what they saw.

As Red Cross volunteers commenced outreach through the community, chaplains were referred to people who were particularly distressed and made connections for them to local churches.

In the first week after the fires, I met with the local ministers passing on information and running workshops for the churches about what they should expect in the recovery process and ideas of ways to go forward.  I also conducted a chaplaincy training course with nearly all the ministers of the town, which helped them plan and work together.

Rev. Captain Stuart Haynes, an Anglican minister at Tathra was heavily involved in interacting with the community in the recovery but only part-time with his church.  The Canberra District Presbytery of the Uniting Church partnered with the Anglican Diocese to support his ministry and the Synod supported it financially (through the Moderator’s Disaster Relief Fund).  The Presbytery also supported Stuart directly with mentoring support from a local Uniting Church minister. This has allowed Stuart to continue some extraordinary work on behalf of all the churches of the valley.  Over the months that followed, Stuart ran events for both men and women intentionally bringing support and education to lower the risk of domestic violence (a factor which follows disasters in recovering communities).  The contribution of all the churches in the area has been substantial in the recovery process.


Last weekend marked the anniversary of the fires.  On the eve of the anniversary, the churches gathered together for a combined service of commemoration and healing.  I was invited to preach and brought a message based on Isaiah 43:18-21 “See, I am doing a new thing…”  It was a gathering in which people shared worship, prayer, thanksgiving, tears, laughter and hope.

Stephen Tathra Community Anniversary Service

The next morning began in the dark, with the churches of the town gathered at 7am on the headland overlooking the Pacific Ocean.  It had rained heavily overnight and the wind blew cold.  It was hard to imagine the conditions of the year before.  The people of the town moved through three stations, the last of them being “Regrowth and Hope”.  After prayers at the last station, the rain came down heavily as the people gathered in a shelter and sang “Amazing Grace”.

Tathra Headland Anniversary Service Crowd

There are still many vacant blocks in the town and there is still much healing to be done; but there is a wonderful sense of strong community cohesion and support in which the Church has played an important part.

Tathra Headland Anniversary Service Leaders

Prayers for those currently facing flooding, drought and fire

The words “Droughts and Flooding Rains” from Dorothea Mckellar’s poem could never be so poignant as at the present time, with monsoonal rains in North Eastern Queensland causing widespread evacuation, even as fires burn endangering communities in Tasmania and Victoria.  Between the two, the grip of drought is highlighted by the death of fish and rivers of the Murray Darling Basin.

Here are two prayers.  The first, by Rev. Garry Hardingham, Presbytery Minister and Chair of the North Queensland Presbytery – written for his ministry agents for worship last weekend as the near record rains came down. Many services were cancelled in the rain affected due to concern for the safety of parishioners travelling to worship.

The second prayer is an offering of mine, which prays for those watching the rain with concern and those who watch and pray for its arrival.


Prayer for those facing flooding

God of all comfort and compassion,
We pray for those in our community and our Presbytery
who are being or have been devastated by flood and rain.
We know that while the rain has come as a blessing to some,
particularly those in our outback areas,
for those whose properties are inundated or lives that have been threatened,
we pray for your protection and mercy.

Strengthen those who are isolated,
Who lay sleeplessly at night concerned for their own
and their neighbour’s safety.
Keep at bay the spread of disease
And show mercy and give strength
to our emergency services and SES volunteers.

Protect those who are trapped in floodwaters,
particularly those who are visitors to our region
and have no home in which to find comfort.

May our response to the suffering of others be generous and bring you praise.
For we ask this in Jesus’ name.


Written by Rev. Garry Hardingham – Presbytery Minister and Chair – Presbytery of North Queensland 2/2/2019


Our God, who brings the rain

Our God, who brings the rain,
we pray for those who watch and wait.
in the wet, as rivers swell and dams overflow
As streets run with water and homes are threatened.
As the people wonder what coming days will bring
and consider whether to stay or leave.

Lord, have mercy.
Bring wisdom and peace.
Bring grace and hope
And relief.

Our God who brings the rain,
We pray for those who watch and wait.
In the drought as rivers run dry and fish die
as earth shrinks and cracks
and stock stagger for lack of feed
and the people wonder what coming days will bring
and consider whether to stay or leave.

Lord have mercy.
Bring wisdom and peace.
Bring grace and hope
And relief.

Our God who brings the rain,
We pray that for those who watch and wait
In smoke-filled valleys
Where blackened trees smoulder
and broken people sift through charred possessions
And consider whether to stay or leave.
Lord, have mercy.

Bring wisdom and peace
Bring grace and hope
And relief.

In the name of Christ,

Rev. Dr. Stephen Robinson – Uniting Church National Disaster Recovery Officer (Written as monsoonal rain was causing flooding in North Queensland and drought and fire gripped much of the country.  Third stanza added by Matt Pulford)

Heatwave: Resources to prepare and assist

web-heatwaveAt the beginning of 2019 we face a near record heatwave forming up across Australia.  Later this week, Sydney CBD is expecting five consecutive days over 30 degrees and Sydney’s west will have a run of temperatures near or over 40 degrees. Similar and worse conditions will be felt in Adelaide, Perth and much of the inland with extremes in western New South Wales and northern South Australia.

If you live and work in a comfortable air-conditioned situation it is easy to regard such high temperatures as a meteorological curiosity, but the reality for many without it, times of high temperatures can mean sleeplessness, extreme discomfort and even a threat to life.  Heatwaves take more lives in Australia than any other disaster including our bushfires.

Some useful resources

The following are links to some important resources around ways to understand and approach heatwaves.

ABC News has an excellent article on what to do before, during and after a heat wave

Andrew Morris from Hope FM wrote an extensive article on practical tips to cope and survive a heat wave here.

The Bureau of Meteorology now forecasts heatwaves with easy to understand maps here 

There are a range of government plans to address heatwave which contain some helpful strategies.  Some examples are the Victorian Government Heatwave Plan which has some particularly useful material about care of people in aged care here the NSW Heatwave SubPlan  and the Queensland Heatwave Response Plan 

In February 2017 I wrote a blog (click here to read) to assist churches in providing pastoral care ahead of and during  heatwave. This has a number of recommendations relating to churches taking the threat of heatwaves and care of the most vulnerable people (elderly, infants and those with disabilities or health issues).  Please pass this on through church networks to get the word out in terms of practical pastoral care.

As it heats up this week, take time to think and plan ahead and take care of those most vulnerable in your neighbourhood and community.

Disaster Recovery Ministries of the Uniting Church Synod of NSW and ACT

In NSW and the ACT The Uniting Church is involved in a range of activities related to disaster recovery.  This short article gives an overview and the current status of these ministries.

The Synod Disaster Recovery Committee

This committee has been operating for many years and has the oversight of all the ministries that follow.  It was formalised by a minute of the Synod in 2002.  Prior to this it operated as a subcommittee of UnitingCare.  The recommendation to the Council of Synod was for it to become a committee of the Synod.  The Council agreed to this and set the Moderator as chair of the committee.  Names for initial members of the new committee were brought forward by the then General Secretary and Associate Secretary (including some then present members).

Since that time the Moderator continues to chair the committee.  New members of the committee have been invited by the Moderator after discussion with the committee.  Membership has been largely those involved in emergency services chaplaincy but, in recent years, this has been broadened and more of an effort to accommodate representation of genders and ethnic diversity.

The Disaster Recovery Coordinator (Currently Stephen Robinson)

This role was initially held by Rev. Alan Galt, until 2005 when Stephen Robinson (who had been on the committee since around 2002) took it on.  The Coordinator oversees much of the work, including training and resourcing and acts as Convenor of the Committee – and accountable to the committee. Initially Stephen Robinson was in this role in a voluntary capacity, until the Synod established the Disaster Recovery Chaplaincy Network (DRCN) in 2009.  At this point the Synod contributed 30% of Stephen’s stipend to his placement (Lugarno Peakhurst Uniting Church) and his work was split between establishing and training the DRCN and the work of the parish.   Stephen was ‘loaned’ by the Synod to the Synod of VicTas during the Black Saturday fires of 2011 and to Queensland following the floods of the same year.

By 2012, with the expansion of the work, Stephen Robinson was struggling to maintain two fulltime roles and in 2013 the Synod Disaster Recovery Committee conceived of the idea of a national disaster recovery role, based in the Assembly which could support the work of disaster recovery across all Synods, yet maintaining the growing work of the DRCN.  This was approved by the Assembly Standing Committee and funded from the Synod of NSW and ACT, the Assembly Disaster Relief Fund, with contributions from the Northern Synod, and WA, SA and Queensland.

At the present time Stephen holds multiple roles of:

  • National Disaster Recovery Officer
  • Synod Disaster Recovery Coordinator
  • DRCN Coordinator / Senior Chaplain
  • Peer Support Team Coordinator
  • Representative of the Synod/DRCN on the NSW State Welfare Services Committee

Moderator’s Disaster Relief Fund

The Disaster Recovery Committee oversees the management of the Synod Disaster Relief Fund.  This has gathered funds over time, with the fund always open to requests for funding and to donations.  It is visible on the Synod Website.  Donations to the Moderator’s Fund can be made at the following link

The committee has developed guidelines for the swift and reasonable release of funds to people in need.  (See accompanying documents).  The Synod’s part payment of the National Disaster Recovery Officer’s stipend also comes from this fund.

Special Disaster Appeals

From time to time a particular disaster or weather event requires focussed attention.  At these times the Moderator may launch an appeal.  An example of this was in 2018 with the Moderator’s Drought Appeal.  This allowed for the release of over $100,000 to Presbyteries to support drought-affected people in local communities.

Special Disaster Recovery Supply

Following disasters or traumatic events that affect a whole community, special “Presbytery Long Supply” may be arranged which allows a ministry agent to work in a district for up to a year, supporting the churches and / or the people of the area as they recover.  This work is funded from the Moderator’s Disaster Relief Fund.

Peer Support

The Synod has developed a Peer Support Team.  This operates on similar principles to the use of peer support in other institutions and response agencies.  This aKeep calm and ask for peer supportllows ministry agents to come alongside other ministry agents during a time of emergency, trauma or community hardship including disaster.  At present the Peers are: Eric Drury, Glen Renton, Julie Greig, Stephen Robinson, Susan Phalen, Will Pearson, Phillip Eldridge, Peter Oliver, Janice Freeston, Valamotu Palu and Christine Bayliss-Kelly.

Presbytery Contacts

This was established many years ago by Rev Alan Galt.  Each presbytery has a person (and hopefully an alternate) appointed to be the Disaster Contact person in the event of disaster.  These contacts meet and receive training on an annual basis in Sydney during the disaster training week.

Disaster Recovery Chaplaincy Network (DRCN)


This was established by the signing of an MoU between the Synod and the State Government.  At present it has nearly 300 chaplains across a range of denominations and faiths.  Initially an ‘add on’ to response the network is now a full Community Partner alongside Red Cross, Anglicare, Salvation Army and the Adventist Disaster and Relief Agency (ADRA) working under a Memorandum of Understanding with the State  Government. The DRCN is responsible for the provision of spiritual care and comfort within the Welfare Services Functional Area Supporting subplan of the Emergency Management Plan.  To see the full detail click this link.

The DRCN is now funded through a community partner grant year by year. This covers the cost of developing and running training courses for the chaplains and some administration costs.

Apart from Stephen Robinson, a one day a week admin person (currently Dawn Beeson)  is employed to maintain training. Rev. Susan Phalen is employed as Operations Manager  for a day a week, with her work expanding during activations.  Susan also conducts half the training courses for the DRCN.    The network now has four duty officers (Stephen Robinson, Susan Phalen, Will Pearson and Grant Atkins) supported by five logistics volunteers.  We have used or developed database, mapping and rostering software to maintain this.

When a chaplaincy presence is required by Disaster welfare, they contact the Duty Officer who deploys the teams with the assistance of the Logistics Volunteers.  Costs borne by the chaplains are reimbursed by the Synod, then charged back to the NSW government.
Stephen Robinson





An update on Chaplaincy Training in Tonga post-TC Gita


Life goes on in Tonga but the damage is extensive and will take a long time to be repaired.  It appears that the state of emergency continues as the roadblocks still keep traffic and people that don’t need to be there out of the CBD at night.  Many shops are still closed as a result of flooding, and people continue to repair their own houses, mostly with broken and re-used materials.

It will be some time before power is restored to many of the outlying communities and the internet at the college has only just been restored.

I have been working with a group of probationary ministers from the college who were sent out into the most heavily affected areas in the days after TC Gita hit the island.  The good work that was supported by UnitingWorld on Disaster preparedness and mapping has paid off in the way reporting and damage assessments were made possible directly after the cyclone’s passing.

On Tuesday afternoon we began with a debriefing process, learning what is happening, and working through how the ministers’ exposure to the difficult sights and stories affected them.  I taught them a good debriefing model which they used in pairs on each other as well – which taught them a skill for themselves for the future and allowed them to look after each other.

Yesterday and today was about the disaster recovery chaplaincy training.  This has been well received and very timely. The work begun in 2015 is bearing real fruit.  Those chaplaincy (or “takiama” teams are out and working – and seen as extremely valuable.  These teams will be working over the coming months in local support.

I brought with me 35 chaplaincy tabards made up, just in time, for the group to be identified.  They look very professional and fit into the style of emergency response of other services such as police, Red Cross and other agencies.

IMG_4815Today marked the last day of training with the group and tomorrow we will meet with the leadership to work through some administrative and policy tools which will be very helpful in continuing to roll out the network, then head to the airport.  We’ll be arriving back late on Friday night.  IMG_4818

I am already convinced that it has been well worthwhile, both in terms of encouragement for our partners, and sharing some important tools which will have value – not just in the emergency response – but in the long-term ministry of these ministers and the church into the future.

Connecting with the Tongan Disaster Recovery Chaplaincy Network post-TC Gita

Back in 2015 a small team of people sponsored by UnitingWorld in Australia were invited by the Tongan Free Wesleyan Church to assist them in establishing the Tongan Disaster Recovery Chaplaincy Network (TDRCN).  The training was modelled on the training and experience of the NSW DRCN in Australia, but adapted to the Tongan culture with advice and experience from our two Tongan ministers/chaplains.  (See the blog written at the time here.  Since then, the network has continued to prepare and receive further organisation and training.

Just under two weeks ago the chaplains were put to the test when Tropical Cyclone Gita struck Tonga as a Category 4 storm, causing extensive damage to the island nation, and bringing hardship and stress to the citizens.  Churches were heavily involved in caring for people, providing their buildings as shelters during the cyclone and lending  a hand and a listening ear, as the key providers of psychosocial and emotional care in its aftermath.

TC Gita

This week I am travelling back to Tonga at the invitation of the church, accompanied by Rev. Nau Ahovisi, to reconnect with the church.  A group of probationary ministers have been working in the relief effort, and the time we spend with them will be to allow them to process their experience and bring two days of fresh training around understanding the dynamics of response to people in trauma and hardship, and the process of recovery.  This, like the original training, will enable them to more effectively engage with people, giving the chaplains tools to listen and support disaster-affected people, while taking care of themselves and each other in the process, to avoid vicarious traumatisation. Gita Parliament House.

The churches are only one part of the recovery process in Tonga, but – as in many Pacific island nations – are central in the life of communities and play a unique role in social and spiritual connectedness.  As such, churches are vital in the recovery of the nation at such a time.  I’ll add further posts as the week progresses and I check in on the ministry of the Tongan Disaster Recovery Chaplaincy Network.

Peer Support in the Uniting Church

“Peer Support” covers a range of contexts, from anti bullying programs in schools through to bringing assistance from colleagues in the work place.  In the context of professions with potential for high levels of trauma such as emergency services, trained peer supporters often assist in highly structured psychological defusing processes following critical incidents.

Some churches, including the Uniting Church in Australia have recognised the importance of Peer Support to assist ministers and congregations as they are affected by, or seek to assist in, community tragedies or disasters.Keep calm and ask for peer support

In the Uniting Church the first Peer Support program was trialled and commenced in the Synod of NSW and the ACT in 2007.  My DMin project (which was published as the book “Ministry in Disaster Settings: Lessons from the Edge”) highlighted how leaders conducting ministry within disaster trauma-affected communities are vulnerable to vicarious traumatisation and required support structures beyond that which are normally available to them in everyday ministry.  In beginning this ministry, the Synod selected ministers with strong pastoral gifts and trained them, forming a peer support team.  Since that time, peers have come alongside ministers in a range of difficult circumstances; not only disasters and major community crises, but at points of grief and major loss within congregations.  In that context  peers were able to assist in guidance and provision of a range of good liturgical resources to help congregations process their loss and the challenge of going forward.

My national role has allowed the concept to be introduced to other Synods, and I have had the privilege of running peer support training in the Synods of Queensland, South Australia, West Australia and the Northern Synod.  Each of these now have a growing capacity to have trained peer supporters come beside ministry agents in difficult times.

Initially the role of peer support involved listening and education.  While these are basic to the role, we found that there needed to be some flexibility in what the peer brought according the circumstances.  Peers never take over; they support, encourage, equip (educate and resource), make connections and empower.  Peers have needed, on occasion, to take services where the minister was unable, or take on particular tasks of support – ultimately lending a hand where the need was most present.

Peers have also been helpful as another set of eyes and ears to help the ministry agent work through the issues, devise strategy, and see the bigger picture.  Peers have been able to meet with church councils and other groups to give whole leadership base a good picture of needs present and likely in the near future.  Peers have connected with leadership of presbyteries (such as Presbytery Chairpersons and Presbytery Ministers) to assist in meeting the needs of a parish as they sought to care for a disaster-affected community.

To find more about this important work within the Uniting Church and how to connect to it in your Synod, contact me on