5 ways to pivot what your church was doing before the disaster to help
By Jamie Aten
When disasters strike, the local church is one of the first groups of people on the ground helping. And long after disaster relief agencies and organizations leave, it’s still the local churches that most often play a critical role in helping their community make sure unmet needs are addressed.
However, our research at the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College discovered most churches aren’t sure where to start when catastrophe strikes. We’ve found the best place to start isn’t always something new.
Often the best place to begin is with what churches were already doing before disaster struck to demonstrate and share God’s love and hope in their communities. Following are five ways your church can help in the aftermath of disasters like Hurricane Florence without having to become a “mini” relief organization.
Start with Prayer
As Christians, we shouldn’t see prayer as a last result; instead, it should be our first response. Start by spending time reflecting in prayer about how God might use your church in the event of a disaster. Prayerfully consider how your church’s unique resources and current ministries might be used to help those in need.
Also, pray for guidance about how the most vulnerable in your congregation and community might be helped: that God would open your eyes to opportunities to serve. We have example after example throughout the Scriptures of the power of prayer.
We should pray with confidence that our prayers will be heard. As Christians we are called to pray for others, especially for those in need, and where there is disaster there is need.
Continue to Meet Together
It’s important for churches to remember that recovery takes place in community. Even if your church was significantly damaged, find ways to still gather to worship and fellowship.
After Hurricane Katrina, we heard pastors refer to the first Sunday after the storm as “Slab Sunday”—because that’s literally all that was left. But congregation members still showed up to those slabs for worship—to support each other, cry with each other, thank God for the ways He protected them, and to ask God for help and strength in recovery.
Gathering together reminds us we are not alone in times of crisis and provides comfort to those that are hurting. Coming together in community also reminds us of God’s love and faithfulness.
Pivot Existing Ministries
Adapt existing ministries and programs in order to meet disaster needs. For the local churches in affected areas, they need to think about what they already do well and what God called them to do in their communities before the disaster struck.
This is a time in which you can take those ministries and pivot them to serve the community as well as your congregation.
Build on your congregation’s strengths, and leverage the capacity of your congregation’s spiritual gifts. For example, if a church has a strong children’s ministry and has leaders in the congregation prepared to work with children, a place for them to start would be helping children who have been affected by Hurricane Florence.
You’ve already got the capacity. You’ve already got the people. You’ve already got the ministry in place to be effective. Now, you’re just reaching out in this unique situation.
Consider giving financially in the days following a disaster to help meet unmet needs. People love to make in-kind donations, but oftentimes there is a mismatch between what we give and what’s actually needed at the moment.
By giving a donation, it’s more likely the funding will go where it will help more people in a more efficient way.
If your congregation wants to make in-kind donations, contact an organization already providing assistance and ask what specific items they need collected.
Just make sure you know what is actually needed before you begin to collect resources. Otherwise, you’ll likely spend more time sorting and managing goods than doing actual good.
Once your church learns of needs for specific goods, like clothing or bottled water, then it’s totally appropriate to collect and distribute resources.
Come together as the full body of Christ by collaborating with other churches to help.
For example, let’s say your church has a long-standing ministry working with the elderly. The church down the street may have a soup kitchen and a meals-on-wheels ministry. The church on the other side of town might have a ministry for assisting special needs families.
By working together, churches will have more of an impact on the community than trying to go it alone.
To amplify impact, encourage church members to work through an established relief organization such as Send Relief that already knows how to help and is ready to use volunteers.
When you go through an organization that is part of the local, federal, and state emergency response, you can have more of an impact than going it alone.
You may also consider getting involved with a state chapter of the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (NVOAD). NVOAD consists of major disaster relief organizations, including many Christian organizations.
It’s a formal network that works closely with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in times of major disasters and helps activate and mobilize local efforts through NVOAD state chapters.
Local churches can make a huge impact in a community reeling from disaster by doing what most churches already do to care for their communities. Once you get your disaster ministry established, or if your church has more resources, you might consider building a more technical or specialized and focused disaster ministry (e.g., starting a Community Emergency Response Team). Overall, what your community needs most from your congregation right now is to be the church.
JAMIE ATEN (@drjamieaten) is the founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute and Blanchard Chair of Humanitarian & Disaster Leadership at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. His latest books include the Disaster Ministry Handbook and A Walking Disaster: What Katrina and Cancer Taught Me About Faith and Resilience (January 2019).