Often the church is one of the first forces on the ground in a disaster zone assessing the damage, listening to the needs of the community affected, and organizing relief efforts. The church can be a powerful unified force in the wake of a disaster. Before FEMA or other government agencies respond, the church is on the move.
The key lies in strategic decisions made by individual leaders in the early hours and days following a disaster.
Disaster strikes. Now how do you respond?
First of all, be ok with the thought, “I don’t know…but I’m going to figure it out.”
Welcome to disaster relief.
- Communicate Early and Often
Be proactive in your communication efforts with your church members…as in within a few hours of the disaster. Don’t wait until you have everything nailed down and all the questions answered. Initial conversation can be as simple as letting your people know that your team is starting to assess how your church can help those stricken by disaster. Give your people immediate action steps, including “Pray” and the option to “Give” financially to support relief efforts via your team, partner churches in the affected area, or other Christian relief organizations who will mobilize into the area. Feel free to also challenge your people to consider the “Go” option to volunteer to be part of relief teams that might be mobilized in the days to come. You may not have “the exacts,” but you can still start to cultivate interest and compile an email list.
Now let me be blatantly honest. Resist the urge to immediately start collecting canned goods, bottled water and especially clothing. While the hearts of those who give mean well, those items can often pose a logistical problem during a time of disaster response either due to transportation, storage or the relevance of donated items to actual needs of residents. Every disaster is different. Listen to the true needs of the locals and then make the call for donated items if need be.
- Mobilize Your Recon Team
If a disaster strikes within your pre-determined response zone, immediately make arrangements to get one or two of your key leaders on the ground in the affected area. These leaders need to be savvy “think on your feet” type leaders who can assess and solve problems quickly.
There are three phases to disaster relief: Rescue, Relief and Recovery. Rescue efforts usually last one to three days immediately following a disaster, followed by the relief phase. Rescue efforts are typically led by first responders and professionals. The key to an effective recon team is to be on the ground by at least the final day of the rescue phase so you can quickly determine the next steps needed and to be ready to mobilize your first relief team to hit the ground as the relief phase starts. The relief phase is the optimal response time for the church following a disaster for it is in this phase that the church can offer the most practical help through specific services rendered to the community.
- Local Church Connections Are THE Key
Connections with local leaders and churches are the key to truly effective disaster relief efforts. Leverage your contacts, the contacts of your contacts, and social media outlets to find out who is moving and shaking in the disaster area. Get on the ground and ask a lot of questions. Find out where the hub of activity is and go there.
The natural local leaders and leading churches will quickly rise to the surface because they are helping their neighbors. They are working to assist co-workers, families whose kids go to school with their kids, etc. Find local churches already making moves to organize relief efforts and fan their flame by finding ways for your team to come alongside the relief initiatives of the local church.
Partnership is the key. When your team is on the ground you primarily represent not your church, but the local church. As your team works, their language even changes to “I am NAME from CHURCH, and we are partnered here with LOCAL CHURCH to help you.”
Remember this: In approximately four to six short weeks, no matter the size of the disaster, your church, regional churches and other national relief organizations will have pulled out of the affected area while only the local church will remain. This is a natural progression. Knowing this, set the local church up to succeed. I might even suggest that we set them up to be the hero at the end of the day. This strategic partnership and positioning gives the local church a far greater voice of influence in their community.
- Mobilize Your Team
As your recon team does their work on the ground and relays assessment info back to you, begin to build your response team and mobilize them to hit the ground as swiftly as the local church in the disaster zone is capable of utilizing them. Contingent upon additional travel details such as food and lodging, which should be arranged in advance by your recon team, you should have the necessary components to get a team out the door.
Don’t let the grass grow; just go. Your help, your presence and your encouragement are needed.
- Tell the Stories
This brings it all back to where we started: communication. Tell the stories of the teams on the ground, even if they are still there! Use social media to post photos of your team and those they are helping. This will help cultivate the heart of your church because they will see their peers being the real life, real time hands and feet of Jesus. Celebrate the wins. Your team will impact the lives of people with the Gospel, so share in those incredible moments.
Before the Disaster
Take some time with your team to develop your own disaster relief systems and protocol. Establish the necessary components for a rapid response before a disaster hits and have them ready to be put into action at a moment’s notice. Systems help minimize the chaos associated with disaster relief. Note I said “minimize” and not “eliminate.” Welcome to disaster relief.
Despite the chaos and all the preparation, it is forever worth it the very moment a local resident walks up with tears of joy in his eyes and says, “If it were not for you (the church), I do not know what we residents would do. Thank you.”
Caleb Magnino has responded to numerous disasters, including Haiti, Hurricane Sandy, the fertilizer plant explosion in the town of West, Texas and others.