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In face of human tragedy, what's a pastor to say?

To stem losses in church membership, spiritual leaders search for better ways to explain awful events such as 9/11 and the Virginia Tech massacre.

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Warm waves lapped a Cape Cod beach just a few blocks away, but pastor Liz Magill spent much of a July day in a dining hall among the staples of her unusual week off: a laptop computer and a group discussion about suffering.

"This is supposed to be a vacation," laughed Ms. Magill, pastor of Worcester Fellowship, a ministry among homeless people in Worcester, Mass. "I'm going to go home exhausted."

In her uncommon reprieve, Magill had plenty of company – about 80 preachers, lay people, and theologians from at least five denominations. Together, they grappled with a problem facing modern American churches: People in the pews want to know why, if God is loving, the innocent suffer – and they aren't always happy with the answers from the pulpit.

The occasion was the annual Craigville Colloquy, a theological conference of Christians. Attendance this year was unusually high, organizers said, because the collective effect of tragic events – from 9/11 to hurricane Katrina to April's massacre at Virginia Tech – has made the issue more urgent in the faith community.

"It's getting harder to give answers that do in fact satisfy," says Richard Coleman, a United Church of Christ minister from Pembroke, Mass. Events are producing "a whole rash of dying, killing, and suffering that for us just doesn't add up. That makes the old question more intense because we want someone's life, when it ends in death, to have some meaning" and not simply succumb to the inexplicable.

The explanation for suffering has become a thorn in the side of many 21st-century congregations, and pastors acknowledge the challenge. "We chose this topic because this [struggle to explain suffering] is a reason why people are leaving our churches," says the Rev. Llewellyn Smith, one of the colloquy organizers.

Rejection of suffering as beneficial

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