I am a disaster psychologist, author, and speaker. I help others cultivate faith and resilience amidst personal, mass, and humanitarian disasters.
I don’t just study disasters—I have lived disasters. I am a Hurricane Katrina and a late stage cancer survivor in remission. I channel these experiences into helping others live more resiliently and into helping churches minister more effectively.
I am the founder and co-director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute (HDI) at Wheaton College (IL). HDI is first social science research center in the country devoted to the study of faith and disasters. I also hold the Rech Endowed Chair of Psychology at Wheaton College (IL) where I teach clinical psychology doctoral students. Several years ago I launched the Disaster Ministry Conference, a national event that equips lay leaders and churches to serve amid disasters, which I still direct.
I did my Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology at Indiana State University. Before I became a psychologist I worked as a youth minister and served in campus ministry.
I live in Wheaton, Illinois a suburb outside the city of Chicago with my wife Kelly who is a nurse midwife. We have three young daughters who got their red hair from me. We reside in the middle of suburbia with our dog Buddy in a farmhouse built over 100 years ago. I enjoy going to the city, especially to watch the Cubs. Yet, having grown up in a small rural farming community I try to get out to the country and cornfields whenever I can.
To date I’ve written over 100 publications, including peer-reviewed articles, book chapters, resources, reports, magazine articles, and op-ed pieces. My publications have appeared in outlets like The Washington Post, Christianity Today, Psychology Today, and Preaching Today. I’ve also published in some of the top scholarly journals in the field of psychology. My most recent books include Disaster Ministry Handbook and Spiritually Oriented Psychotherapy for Trauma. I’m also the co-editor of 6 other scholarly books. Overall, my work on faith and disaster resilience has been supported by over $5 million in research grants. I received the Margaret Gorman Early Career Award from the American Psychological Association (Division 36) for my research on the psychology of religion/spirituality and disasters.
My Disaster Experience
I didn’t set out to study disasters. I took a teaching job at the University of Southern Mississippi to study rural health disparities right out of graduate school. Then just six days after moving to South Mississippi Hurricane Katrina struck my community. I saw first hand the important role that faith and churches play times of disaster. Within weeks I was studying faith and disaster resilience and supporting church recovery efforts.
Since Hurricane Katrina I’ve gone onto research, train, or mobilize church leaders after numerous disasters around the globe in 10 different countries, including:
Hurricanes Rita and Gustav
H1N1 pandemic and Ebola crisis
Mississippi Delta and Tuscaloosa Tornadoes
Civil unrest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, and Rwanda
Kenyan and Syrian refugee crises
Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill
Upper Big Branch Mining Explosion
Japan Tsunami and Earthquake
Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines
Umpqua Community College mass shooting
South Carolina Flood
My Cancer Experience
Somewhere in the mix of all those mass disasters I encountered a personal disaster. I was diagnosed with late stage cancer at the age of 35. I underwent a yearlong cancer battle that included surgeries and multiple forms of treatments (e.g., chemotherapy). I’m grateful to be in remission.
In many ways I saw what I had spent years studying in disaster zones play out in my own life spiritually and emotionally. This was by far the scariest and most difficult time of my life. My cancer has been in remission ever since. This personal tragedy taught me more about suffering and adversity than I liked. However, this painful experience taught me spiritual and psychological lessons I don’t think I would have ever been able to learn from just my research. I’ve tried to follow Rick Warren’s advice, “Never waste your pain.”