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FBC Birmingham members rally around staff member in death of his wifecomment (0)

August 1, 2013

By Neisha Fuson and Jennifer Davis Rash

FBC Birmingham members rally around staff member in death of his wife

Charles T. Carter was already preaching a summer sermon series on the Psalms at First Baptist Church, Birmingham, when the words of Psalm 73:16–17 became a stronghold for the congregation. They faced a tragedy never imagined possible.

Karen Shahan — wife of Richard Shahan, children and families pastor — was murdered in their home, just across the parking lot from the church. She was found late morning July 23 by church officials after not showing up for a previously scheduled appointment and work. The investigation was still in process at press time.

“We have to take this tragedy and see it against the framework of our Christian faith,” said Carter, who has been interim pastor of First, Birmingham, since October 2012. 

Carter also served with the Shahans in the late 1980s and 1990s at Shades Mountain Baptist Church, Vestavia Hills. The Shahans have been at First, Birmingham, since 2009.

Richard Shahan is known as one of the best in Southern Baptist life when it comes to children’s ministry, Carter noted. “He is a master when it comes to children’s programs.”

In fact, the astute quality and successful results of the recent Vacation Bible School at First, Birmingham, still linger in the church’s fellowship hall, figuratively and literally.

“We had 139 kids and 54 adults involved,” Carter said, noting there were 25 professions of faith. 

Richard Shahan wrote the curriculum based on the choices Daniel made and designed the set and costumes. “It was masterful.”

“And Karen was so supportive of Richard in his ministry,” Carter added. “She was shy and quiet and preferred to fade into the background, but she was extremely supportive of him.”

Karen Shahan, 52, made her profession of faith as a teenager at First Southern Baptist Church, Del City, Okla. “She was a humble, sincere person,” Carter said.

Karen Shahan also was known for her soprano voice in the choir.

“She was a fine, fine Christian lady and a faithful member of the choir,” said Don Campbell, who served as minister of music and worship (1993–2009) and later pastor of senior adults and pastoral care (2010–2012) at First, Birmingham. 

“[Karen] was always positive, always supportive and encouraging,” said Campbell, who now serves as minister of worship at The Baptist Church at McAdory, McCalla.

Campbell said Karen Shahan “worked a lot behind the scenes. … She was always so positive and so gracious in opening her home to staff and others.”

Her death has been a shock to the First, Birmingham, congregation, Carter said, but the congregation has pulled together to help.

Two church staff members immediately drove to Kentucky to pick up Richard and drive him back home when Karen was found, Carter noted. Richard had been in Franklin, Tenn., and Fort Campbell, Ky., visiting his and Karen’s sons, Kyle and Colin. Kyle lives in Franklin, and Colin is in the Army serving at Fort Campbell. Colin and his wife, Elizabeth, have two children.

A church ministry assistant helped Colin navigate the red tape involved in getting a military pass to be off post for an extended period of time.

Church officials also cleaned up the Shahan house once it was released by police and helped with several funeral-related duties, Carter added, noting the church is paying for all funeral expenses as another way to help the family during this time.

Mark Wakefield, associate in the office of global missions and serving as the state chaplaincy strategist for the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions (SBOM), said helping the grieving family in practical ways such as what Carter described is how a church can best handle a tragedy such as this.

Church members “have shown up and cut grass or washed dishes or made beds without expecting the family to spend time with them,” he said. “Most of the time people say, ‘Let me know if you need anything.’ But people in crisis are not emotionally able to make decisions in that way. Look for ways you can see that needs be taken care of … without having to ask.” 

Wakefield also suggested that churches prepare themselves for potential tragedies ahead of time by doing a small group study on how to minister to people in crisis. Learning how to minister to others helps people understand what is “normal for people to experience and feel” during a tragedy, he explained, noting that if a church can be trained in crisis management before a tragedy happens, then the members can minister to each other in the midst of their own grief. 

It also is important to stay in touch with the family after the first week of a tragedy because that is when emotional support decreases significantly, Wakefield said. 

“Plan to stay in touch with the family a week later, two weeks later, a month later.”

When it comes to a sudden death or even suicide, family members often ask, “I wonder if they had to suffer. I wonder how long they had to suffer.”

People are often let down by the idea that they “couldn’t protect (their family member) or couldn’t keep them from the hurt,” Wakefield said. Church members and leaders need to remind themselves and the hurting family that “no person in Christ dies by himself or herself. No matter what the situation the Lord is faithful to take care of that person even when you couldn’t be there.” 

Some other practical tips Wakefield suggested for a church in the midst of a tragedy are:

  • Designate one person to be the spokesperson to media from the church. If the church is not comfortable with anyone in the church holding that position, ask for help. Having a designated person helps limit the misinformation that can be shared in the midst of a crisis situation.
  • Make sure the designated spokesperson has a prepared statement providing facts and a stated plan. This is designed to “satisfy the media’s curiosity” and “provide assurance that [the church] is doing the things that need to be done to take care of the family and the church.”
  • Ask for help. Don’t be afraid to reach out to local resources, such as a local hospice group, which often have well-trained bereavement specialists. The Alabama Baptist Children’s Homes & Family Ministries and its counseling arm, Pathways Professional Counseling, are great resources as well, Wakefield said. 

For pastors who have recently faced a tragedy in the church family, Wakefield suggested that the “obvious hurt” be addressed as soon as possible from the pulpit. “The hurt affects the whole church. … [Pastors] need to meet that head on with a message of encouragement and hope.” 

During the Wednesday morning and evening prayer services the day after Karen Shahan was found, Carter read the words of Psalm 73 — “… When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me till I entered the sanctuary of God. …” 

“We have to avoid thinking that God did this or that this was the will of God,” Carter told The Alabama Baptist. “We may not find answers to this tragedy in the Scripture, but we find something better — His presence. That’s what we have to hold on to, and that’s what Richard will have to hold on to.”

The following Sunday Carter preached from Psalm 46:1 and Romans 8:28.

“With an unshakeable faith in God and confidence in His Word, let us seek to ascertain some eternal truths from this tragedy,” Carter said as he outlined six truths:

1. The depravity of human nature (Rom. 3:10, 23).

2. The availability of help (Ps. 46:1).

3. The brevity of life (James 4:14b).

4. The priority of real values (Matt. 6:33, Mark 8:36).

5. The sovereignty of God (Rom. 8:28).

6. The certainty of hope (Ps. 42:5b, Titus 2:13).

“With all our pain and trauma, may God help us to glean some biblical truths that will bring glory to Him and be a proper tribute to Karen Shahan.”

Carter presided over Karen Shahan’s funeral July 27. Former First, Birmingham, pastor Stan Lewis assisted.

For more information on how your church can be prepared for or how to handle a tragedy, contact Wakefield at 1-800-264-1225, ext. 267, or the office of LeaderCare at ext. 203. To contact Pathways Professional Counseling, call 205-945-0037.      

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