By Jason Pudlo
Churches and communities of faith across the country face remarkable challenges in response to the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak. Yet, congregations have historically risen to the challenge.
During the 1918 flu pandemic in the United States, churches closed to help flatten the curve and stories still circulate about the heroic work of ministers and nuns during the worst of the crisis.
In response to the 2009 flu pandemic, many churches modified communion practices to reduce transmission of the illness.
While churches often respond to disaster, how ready are houses of worship for a crisis before it happens? What can churches do to improve their readiness?
To help answer these questions, I worked with LifeWay Research in late 2019 to survey Protestant pastors on preparedness and readiness for disasters that could affect their congregation.
The study also included several questions on pandemics which seems especially relevant as churches across the country respond to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Identifying Risks to Congregations
To better understand the decisions pastors and congregations make about disaster preparedness, pastors were asked: “How likely is your congregation to experience a disaster?”
Options included storms, earthquakes, industrial accidents, along with pandemics and medical disasters.
Close to two-thirds of pastors identified windstorms (68%) and winter storms (66%) as likely to impact their congregation. Just under half of pastors identified tornadoes (47%) and flooding (47%) as likely to happen.
Related to the COVID-19 outbreak, 20% of pastors saw pandemics as a risk faced by their congregation.
Planning for Identified Risks
Pastors were then asked about their disaster planning to discover if congregations have made a plan for the hazards they identified as high risk.
For example, if a church said a tornado was likely, do they have a tornado plan? Among the 47% of congregations that identified a risk from tornadoes, around 56% of those congregations had a tornado disaster plan.
Over half of congregations which identified hurricanes, winter storms, tornadoes, or flooding as likely hazards created a plan for those risks. Other disasters did not provoke such preparation.
Around 43% of congregations facing wildfire risks have a plan to address that disaster. Only 10% of congregations concerned about pandemics or medical disasters have created a plan.
While seasonal flu outbreaks and virus pandemics regularly affect the United States, many congregations are not concerned about them nor have they planned accordingly.
Many factors affect why churches do not make disaster plans.
The top reason churches gave for not planning were limited staff and volunteer time (67%), costs (47%), and lack of guidance or information (37%).
Optimistically, few congregations reported that they did not see the benefit of planning (17%). So what can churches do to improve disaster planning?
Improving Church Disaster Planning
Two key ideas from this study seem to improve church disaster planning.
First, develop and improve the church’s social network.
Disaster research has shown that both informal and formal networking by communities helps to improve preparedness and the ability to respond to a disaster.
Follow-up interviews with clergy from this survey revealed that the churches with stronger networks also had better disaster plans and partners to rely on in case of crisis.
For congregations, this means talking with church members, to other churches, and others in the community about their disaster plans.
While a sit-down conversation with a pastor a few towns over may not be possible right now, a virtual visit to talk about the upcoming spring storm season will help to create the social connections needed for effective disaster response.
Second, create or update disaster plans. Any plan is better than no plan.
Document and discuss the lessons the church has learned from COVID-19. What worked well? What did not work? Who emerged as a reliable leader?
Documenting these observations and processes could be useful during the next flood, hurricane, or blizzard.
They can also use specially made resources for congregations from denominational disaster response ministries, government resources from FEMA, and university-supported research groups like the Humanitarian Disaster Institute.
People often say “never let a good crisis go to waste.” While I contend there are no good crises, the COVID-19 outbreak does present the church with a chance to be better prepared for the next disaster.
Understanding the state of current disaster planning, carefully curating social connections, and documenting successful strategies will help churches be ready to help their congregants and community.
JASON PUDLO (@jasonpudlo) is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He studies congregations, disaster, and resiliency and has published in several academic journals.
The online survey of Protestant church leaders was conducted Aug. 12 – Sept. 2, 2019. Grant support was provided by the Louisville Institute. Invitations were emailed to the LifeWay Research Pastor Panel followed by two reminders.
The probability sample of Protestant churches was created by phone recruiting by LifeWay Research using random samples from all Protestant churches.
Pastors who agree to be contacted by email for future surveys make up this LifeWay Research Pastor Panel. The sample is 346 surveys. The sample provides 95 percent confidence that the sampling error does not exceed plus or minus 5.3%.
Margins of error are higher in sub-groups and for questions in which fewer church leaders answered.