By Jason W. Bland
“You have to get to her, pastor!” Frantic members of my church begged for help as floodwaters rose around their homes and families. In the midst of a “thousand-year flood,” the 911 operators had told them to stop calling.
The relentless rising of waters throughout southeastern Louisiana in August 2016 left more than half a million people homeless. With some of our church members in shelters, some missing, and some on the roofs of their homes for more than a day awaiting rescue, I’ve never felt more helpless. But God used this circumstance to remind me, my church, and our community that we are stronger together.
Since the flood, Florida Boulevard Baptist Church (FBBC) and our partner church, United Believers Baptist Church, have distributed supplies, hosted mission teams, provided food and shelter, and served as command base for disaster relief teams from Florida, Oklahoma, Colorado, Utah/Nebraska, New Mexico, the North American Mission Board (NAMB), and more.
In the process, I’ve learned many lessons I wish I’d had in my ministry toolkit prior to August. Here are 10 lessons I needed most urgently, shared in the hope they can help other churches prepare for ministry in the midst of disaster.
1. Remember you are not alone. When calls for help begin flooding in, don’t feel defeated if you cannot come to the callers’ direct aid. Listen to their need, pray for them immediately, and work with them to find solutions. You don’t need to have the answer—as a follower of Christ, you know the One with all the answers.
Daniel did not have Nebuchadnezzar’s answer, but God did, and when Daniel prayed it was given to him. God is with you in the disaster. Once I remembered I was not alone, I was of much more help to others.
2. Have a multi-layered communication plan. From my first Sunday at FBBC I began running a slide at the end of the service with my cell phone number. Sometimes I have regretted that, but not during the flood or its aftermath.
I carry a bag with my iPad, quick charger, and solar charger so I’m prepared to use my phone and tablet heavily without power. We lost power for a period and I needed both devices for nearly 48 hours continuously.
Some of my pastor friends refuse to use Facebook, and I understand their perspective. However, when many in my congregation lost use of their cell phones because AT&T had gone underwater, they still had Facebook Messenger. We coordinated two water rescues of senior adults by using Messenger.
In a major disaster, you need teamwork. Connect with relief agencies and let them know your condition and willingness to help. Within 24 hours of the flood cutting us off, we had contacted our state convention’s disaster relief coordinator, American Red Cross, and Samaritan’s Purse.
3. Remain calm and preach patience. Help will come. Our Southern Baptist disaster relief (SBDR) teams are second to none and have responded to more than 1,000 sites just from FBBC over the past several months, but it didn’t all happen in a day.
I had to learn that while the need is now, there will never be enough “now” help. Scores of Southern Baptist volunteers begin loading equipment into their vehicles the moment a disaster occurs.
They will come, because they love to serve Christ by serving people, but it will take time.
4. Be visible. After a disaster, visibility is both wise and essential. My yellow hat and badge with the Southern Baptist disaster relief logo may have saved my life when I drove through a neighborhood after the flood.
Signs warning, “You loot—we shoot,” were everywhere, and 8-foot-high hedges of ruined belongings flanked the streets.
When I got out of my truck, a wary woman with a gun approached me from across the street. I’m thankful I was easily identified as part of a volunteer organization that was there to help.
We quickly obtained large magnets for all staff vehicles and got shirts printed for our workers to keep us safe. It also was a great way to share Christ with our community.
5. Be a good steward. In your church’s disaster plan, it’s a great idea to detail a process for expending relief funds that will be donated to the church. It’s also a good idea to plan for collecting funds and thanking donors.
Think about how to handle the mountains of supplies headed your direction within a few weeks of the disaster. Although we spent months distributing supplies to more than 1,000 families in our community, I regret we didn’t have a better strategy to access, use, and deliver them.
6. Embrace teamwork. Form and resource a disaster relief team at your church, and be sure everyone you can possibly recruit attends regular training. I’ve served as pastor for many churches of different sizes, and I promise none is too small or too large to benefit from disaster relief training and ministry.
As disaster relief volunteers have filled our facilities, we have been reminded daily what cooperation means. I discovered that as a Southern Baptist my team begins with my church, then expands to become part of a coordinated effort with our association and our state convention.
I have seen churches choose to work independently, but the decision to work with others was one of the best decisions we made as a church.
Looking back on what has been and is still being accomplished, it’s clear God has been with us and we have been far stronger together. Most exciting are the 32 new believers who have come to Christ through disaster relief chaplain ministry in our community.
7. Be prepared as an organization. My sincere gratitude goes to the leaders before me who, in our governing documents, gave the pastor authority to make decisions in a crisis.
This flexibility went a long way toward speeding our reactions and enhancing our response. Congregational meetings with a two-week announcement time would not have been feasible.
Having a risk assessment of your church is another great advantage in being prepared for a swift response. Be sure you have an up-to-date assessment that people have read.
8. Trust your team. Disasters make problems in the church larger and strengths stronger. We shouldn’t need a disaster to remind us to care for relationships within our church family, but when a disaster occurs there is no substitute for a team that has mutual trust. Our best response has come when we have worked together.
9. Accept unusual circumstances and partnerships. Some partners are easy to work with and a relief to have with you. Others are a challenge, but both types serve the needs of the community.
We have hosted the American Red Cross, The Salvation Army, volunteers from Southern Baptist, Lutheran, and nondenominational churches, NAMB mobile command, university student groups, individuals, and a host of church groups that filled vans and trailers.
Do not overplan. Supplies will come, but never when you are told they will or in the amounts you expect. Teams will come, but never at the time and in the strength they hoped to bring.
They will go home while there is still great need, but they will come back. Refrain from letting the air out of their tires, no matter how much you want to keep them.
10. Take care of yourself because the disaster is only the beginning. No matter what you do, you will be second-guessed and criticized. In truth, I still weep over the areas I needed to do better.
I thank God for members and mentors who have been a constant encouragement, a director of missions who has stood with us, and a convention that cares for and about us.
The stress and circumstances of a disaster result in increased disease, depression, and death. As you minister to others, do not neglect the care of those who minister to you. Remember, we are stronger together.
JASON W. BLAND is pastor of Florida Boulevard Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.