Creating a Crisis Communication Plan for Your Church

This article was originally published in Church Law & Tax on June 5, 2018.

 Photo by Braden Hopkins on Unsplash

Photo by Braden Hopkins on Unsplash

No matter how much time you spend planning and perfecting your church’s disaster response plan, that plan won’t do you much good if you can’t communicate it to your church during the crisis. Crisis communication is an essential element of disaster ministry, one that requires planning and training so you’re ready to go when crisis hits.

Several years ago, I saw how firsthand how important it is for church leaders to be ready to communicate in a crisis. I was visiting a church when a bad storm with strong winds knocked out the power during the service. At first, the pastor tried to awkwardly keep preaching as the generator struggled to start. After a few minutes, he quickly ended his message and walked off the stage. Another pastor, obviously caught off guard, walked up and abruptly ended the service. No one addressed the blackout, and no one provided instructions on what to do next. Some people were scared and started to panic. Others hopped into their cars and drove off, only to return moments later because of the dangerous weather outside. Those who did manage to keep driving eventually returned as well, because of a downed tree in the road. It’s a small miracle no one got hurt.

A little bit of preparation now goes a long way in making sure everything goes more smoothly at your church when disaster hits. To begin creating an effective crisis communication plan for your church, your leadership team will need to walk through the following questions.

Who will implement the plan?

Identify a point person who will take ownership of the crisis communication plan. This person will be the “face” that people know they can look to for information when a disaster hits. You will also want to identify a few back-ups—when disaster strikes, it’s likely that members of your own congregation will be impacted as well. There’s no way to predict who that will be, so it’s important to identify and train at least a few people in case one or more of the appointed leaders are themselves impacted by the event and unable to fulfill their duties.

Who will need to be contacted?

You will need to gather contact information for not just your leaders and congregation, but also local emergency services (if you don’t already have that information on file). Doing your research now will save you valuable time and energy so that when disaster strikes, you are ready to point people to the services they need. These services include local emergency management, shelters, food banks, the American Red Cross, your local Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), and local Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD).

Identify the vulnerable members of your congregation, as well. These are the people who have distinctive needs or will require extra help in the case of an emergency: e.g., the elderly, children, people with serious or chronic medical conditions, differently abled persons, single parents with small children, immigrants and refugees. These are the people you want to be sure are contacted in the case of an event.

Keep secure electronic copies of your congregation members’ information. You might also consider a secure cloud storage system; if you evacuate to a location with internet access, or another church leader has access outside of the emergency zone, the information can be accessed remotely. If you rely on digital copies alone, however, you could end up stuck if power or internet service goes down. Store physical copies somewhere secure and safe from potential damage.

Update these lists on a regular basis, and make sure multiple people know where the information is located and how to access it—but also make sure that confidential information is protected and can only be accessed by authorized users.

What will be communicated?

You can’t know exactly what disaster or crisis you’re going to face, but you can prepare messages ahead of time that can be adapted for possible scenarios. When disaster hits, it will be much more difficult to think clearly and comprehensively about what people need to know. By preparing basic information now, you can add relevant specifics when the time comes and get important information to your people much more quickly than if you have to start from scratch.

Here are a few basic guidelines as you script different types of messages:

  • Craft these messages around the information developed during the risk assessment process, which is ideally your first step into disaster preparedness.
  • Share what you do or don’t know at the time of the communication.
  • Provide information about the seriousness of a potential threat or damage.
  • Stick to the facts. Don’t be tempted to share hearsay, rumors, or what you cannot verify.
  • Include information about possible resources for assistance.
  • Discuss when and where services will or won’t take place because of the crisis.
  • Share what the church leadership and congregation is doing to address the crisis.
  • Note how and when church leadership will remain in communication.

How will people be contacted?

There’s no need to reinvent the wheel on this one. Think about the ways your church already communicates effectively, and pivot those systems to deliver crisis information. How do you communicate with your church currently? Plan to use those systems that are already in place (e.g., mass texts or calls, mass emails, social media, website, cloud documents). People already know to look there for information and will do so instinctively.

However, you also need to plan for what you will do if technology goes down. Often during extreme weather events, cell phone towers go out or get overloaded. You may not have access to your email accounts or website. After Hurricane Katrina, I came across a church that had spray painted messages—like “Service Sunday 10:00”—on large particle board and debris. They used what they could to communicate crucial information.

How will we prepare people now?

The church leadership team should prepare their own personal individual and family communication plan and how they will communicate with one another in the midst of a crisis. Not only will this improve your church leadership’s crisis communication capabilities, but it also models the importance of crisis communication planning to others. Lastly, be sure to encourage your church attendees to also develop their own emergency communication plans (Ready.gov is a great resource you can point them to).

Once you have answered all these questions as a leadership team, it’s time to communicate your strategy to your congregation so they know what to expect if an event occurs.

Dr. Jamie D. Aten is a disaster psychologist and the founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College in Illinois. His latest books include the Disaster Ministry Handbook and Spiritually Oriented Psychotherapy for Trauma. You can follow Jamie on Twitter at @drjamieaten or visit his website jamieaten.com.

Helping Teenagers & Children Cope after the Florida Shooting

This article was originally published in Psychology Today February 22, 2018.

 Source: Chad Madden/Unsplash

Source: Chad Madden/Unsplash

Last week, a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida left 17 teenagers dead and another 14 injured at the hands of another student. 

Those surviving these tragic events and their loved ones will forever be changed by this senseless act of violence. Scores more will be indirectly impacted even if they don't know anyone harmed or don’t live anywhere near the shooting as news travels through media and relationships into their homes and communities. At the Humanitarian Disaster Institute(link is external), we have conducted studies with mass shooting survivors all over the country and have found that there are many practical ways to come alongside victims and help them process, grieve, and heal well in the aftermath of tragedy.

Whether teenagers and children experience mass acts of violence personally, have seen it on television, or heard it discussed by peers or adults, they may become frightened, confused, and insecure. For this reason, it’s important for parents and caregivers to be informed, recognize the signs of reactions to stress, and learn how to best help teenagers and children cope with their emotional response.

Recognizing the Signs

For many teenagers and children, responses to mass violence are normal reactions to abnormal events. But some reactions may point to the need for further help. Signs to watch for include major changes in sleep patterns (including trouble falling asleep, frequent nightmares, or sleeping too much); shifts in temperament; and even jumpiness and increased anxiety or changes in play. These indicate that additional support is needed.

The risk of enduring psychological distress increases given the circumstances. Teenagers and children at a higher risk include those who experience direct exposure to mass trauma—including being evacuated to observing the injury or death of others, experiencing injury themselves or fearing for their lives. Those grieving the loss of family or friends, those still experiencing on-going stressors such as temporary living situations, or children losing touch with friends, teachers and social networks are also at a greater risk for experiencing long-term consequences.

Steps for Emotionally Reassuring Children

Provide as safe and calm an environment as possible. Remember, their reactions are often influenced by the behavior, thoughts, and feelings of the adults around them. Never treat your teenager or child like a peer, expecting them to process your emotions as well as their own. Instead, seek the wisecounsel of friends or professional counselors so that you can appropriately support the children in your care. Take steps to re-establish your daily routine for work, school, play, meals and rest. Involve teenagers and children by giving them specific tasks or chores to help them feel they are helping to restore family and community life and be sure to praise and recognize responsible behavior.

Do not push children and adolescents to share their thoughts and feelings about the incident. Be patient; it’s okay if it takes them some time to discuss what they are going through. If a younger child has difficulty expressing feelings, coloring, drawing a picture, telling a story, or playing with stuffed animals together can be great conversation starters. It’s also important to reinforce good memories by making time to do something positive together. While you wait for them to open up, let them know that you and others will be there to listen when they are ready to talk.

Monitor and limit their exposure to the media. News coverage related to a disaster may elicit fear and confusion and arouse anxiety in teenagers and children. This is particularly true for large-scale acts of violence has occurred. Especially for younger children, repeated images of an event may cause them to believe the event is recurring over and over. If teenagers and children are allowed to watch television or use the Internet, parents should be with them to encourage communication and provide explanations. Parents should also monitor their child’s social media, as it may be a source for further exposure to incorrect information and angry, fear-inducing comments.

Spend extra time with your teenagers and children. Hug them and be there for them, especially at bedtime. Your presence, even if you don’t know what to say, can help teenagers and children feel more safe and secure. Helping your teenager and child feel loved is one of the most powerful ways you can help. If you’ve tried to create a reassuring environment by following the steps above, but your teenager or child continues to exhibit stress that worsens over time or interferes with daily behavior, talk to their primary care physician, a mental health provider specializing in child trauma, or a trusted member of the clergy.

Dr. Jamie D. Aten is Founder and Executive Director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute(link is external) at Wheaton College where he is helping to launch a new MA in Humanitarian and Disaster Leadership(link is external). He is the co-author of the Disaster Ministry Handbook and co-editor of Spiritually Oriented Psychotherapy for Trauma. Follow him on twitter @drjamieaten.

 

 

What Churches Need to Know About the New FEMA Disaster Aid Process

This article was originally published in Church Law & Tax February 27, 2018

 A breakdown of the options churches now have access to for disaster protection and relief.

A breakdown of the options churches now have access to for disaster protection and relief.

In January, FEMA announced a shift in policy that would allow houses of worship access to federal funds to rebuild after disasters. The recently passed Bipartisan Budget Agreement assured funding for this new policy. After a string of hurricanes devastated communities across the United States last year, causing $306 billion in damage, churches damaged by such natural disasters can now access federal funding as they look to repair and rebuild.

Because access to these FEMA resources is new for most churches, we’re laying out what churches need to know in order to use this new benefit.

National Flood Insurance Program

The foundation of disaster aid is insurance. Most homeowner and commercial insurance policies exclude flood coverage, but houses of worship can purchase commercial policies through the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) if they are part of a participating community. This is not a new benefit for houses of worship, but it’s important that churches understand the importance of this first line of defense. Started in 1958, the NFIP is the largest federal insurance program, covering 5 million properties. It has 22,308 participating communities and has paid out over $9 billion in claims to date. These policies are available in both high- and low-risk areas, even if you’ve had prior flood damage. The NFIP website lists all participating communities, and the policies can be purchased through local insurance agents. It’s important to note that an NFIP policy has to be purchased at least 30 days before an event in order to be able to make a claim after.

Access to these funds does not require a presidential declaration of disaster—only two or more acres or properties that have experienced flood damage. Coverage limits depend on the policy, but they can go up to $250,000 toward building repair and $100,000 toward building contents.

SBA Disaster Loans

After disaster damage has occurred, churches now have the option to turn to the Small Business Administration (SBA) Disaster Assistance program for federal aid. This program is the primary form of federal assistance for privately owned property damage, providing loans to churches and faith-based non-profits. These funds are only available following a presidential declaration of disaster.

While 80 percent of these loans go to individuals for primary residence repairs, churches, non-profits, and religiously affiliated schools can apply for Business Physical Disaster Loans. These loans offer up to $2 million for real estate repairs, and can also be used to repair and replace furniture, fixtures, etc. The interest rate offered to nonprofits is fixed at 2.5 percent, and collateral is required for loans over $25,000. The SBA will not decline a loan for lack of collateral, but it will ask for whatever collateral is available.

Because of the policy change, SBA is accepting disaster loan applications for physical damage past the filing deadline from houses of worship for disasters declared from August 23, 2017 through January 1, 2018. Applications can be submitted online here.

Public Assistance Program

Houses of worship and private, faith-based nonprofits are now also eligible for FEMA’s Public Assistance (PA) Program if their facilities are damaged in a storm that receives a presidential declaration of disaster. This program provides supplemental federal disaster grant assistance for debris removal, life-saving emergency protective measures, and the repair, replacement, or restoration of disaster-damaged facilities of private, non-profit organizations.

Applying for this type of assistance requires submitting an application to the state through the new Grants Manager portal within 30 days of the presidential declaration of disaster. This application package includes a Request for Public Assistance form, evidence of federal tax-exempt status, pre-disaster evidence of incorporation/charter/bylaws, and a Data Universal Number Systems number established with the government, in addition to supporting documentation establishing ownership of the building, proof of use, and proof of insurance.

What’s essential to note, however, is that unless they are providing critical services (emergency, medical, utility, irrigation/water supply, custodial care, or educational), most non-profits and houses of worship will need to first go through the SBA Disaster Loan application process before they are eligible for the PA program. FEMA will not consider applications until the SBA decision is rendered.

If eligibility is granted, churches will need to submit a list of sites damaged, “before and after” pictures, and any information about historic structures. FEMA and the state will then coordinate a Recovery Scoping Meeting to determine reimbursable damages.

What to Do Now

Familiarizing yourself with your options now can help alleviate stress and confusion when you actually need those options. To make that process smother after disaster hits, churches can also prepare in other ways: taking and recording all inventory, storing all policy information in a safe place, and keeping copies of policy numbers and contact information in locations that are easy to find and access.

I reached out to Marcus Coleman, acting director of the Department of Homeland Security Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, for his take on how churches can best prepare now. He offered these four essential pieces of advice for building a culture of preparedness:

1. Get connected with your local first responders and emergency management agency. Local emergency managers can share information about potential risks for your area, including whether your church is in a flood zone. First responders can be helpful in helping you think through creating an emergency operations plan. You can also visit www.fema.gov/faith-resources to get started.

2. Document and insure your property. Not all insurance policies are the same. Coverage amounts, deductibles, and payment caps can vary significantly. Consult with your insurance professional to be sure your policy is right for you. We encourage everyone to document and insure your property. In this webinar recording, FEMA and the SBA discuss potential sources on financial assistance for non-profits and houses of worship, including an update on the recent FEMA policy change.

3. Get trained. Use free resources designed for faith leaders to prepare for natural and man-made emergencies—including active shooter incidents. Training includes “You Are The Help Until Help Arrives” and Community Emergency Response Team training.

4. Get organized. FEMA andDHS have developed a suite of resources to help your organization get organized for man-mad and natural disasters. Visit www.fema.gov/faith-resources to learn more.

For more on how churches can work together with FEMA, see our interview with former FEMA administrator W. Craig Fugate.

I'm a Christian, Disaster Expert, Psychologist, Researcher, Father, and Friend, We Need Gun Action Now

This article was originally published in Sojourners on February 23, 2018. 

 Picture above: Bob Ossler, chaplain with the Cape Coral volunteer fire department, places seventeen crosses for the victims of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on a fence a short distance from the school in Parkland, Fla. Image via Reuters/Jonathan Drake

Picture above: Bob Ossler, chaplain with the Cape Coral volunteer fire department, places seventeen crosses for the victims of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on a fence a short distance from the school in Parkland, Fla. Image via Reuters/Jonathan Drake

If the church is going to bear witness of Christ’s love in the aftermath of the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., we must not just proclaim the good news but also demonstrate the hope to which we hold.

I have tried in the past to steer clear of controversial topics in my work and ministry. But gun violence is one issue on which my feelings have grown too strong to stay quiet.

This week, I joined other evangelical Christians who believe it is time for the church to take stand, to couple our thoughts and prayers for the victims and survivors of gun violence with action. I became a founding signer of the Petition for Prayers & Action for Gun Safety in America, which started as a vision of Rev. Dr. Rob Schenk and began percolating in the evangelical community after the devastating mass shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, in November. Signed by other evangelical leaders, including Lynne Hybels and Max Lucado, this petition upholds the power and importance of prayer in response to this crisis. It also acknowledges that as Christians, we are called to do what we can to help work toward a solution.

As a Christian, a husband and father, a friend, a disaster ministry expert, a researcher, and a psychologist — I believe we need to take action to stop gun violence in our country. Here’s why:

As a Christian: We have a biblical mandate to demonstrate love for our neighbor and to protect life. I have read too many obituaries of innocent people whose lives were cut short by gun violence. We owe it to the victims and survivors of mass shootings, and to each other, to do what we can to try and prevent this from happening again, and prioritizing that in our policies. As Christians, loving our neighbors well right now also means being willing to have difficult conversations with each other about gun issues. White evangelical Christians are less likely than the American public to support stricter gun laws in America. There are many reasons we may have different opinions about how best to protect lives and prevent mass shootings from happening, but we can’t keep doing the same thing and expecting different results. As a starting point, this chart lays out some proposed policies, ranked by experts for their likelihood to reduce mass shootings, or reduce the number of people killed in them.

READ: I've Dedicated My Career to Disaster Ministry. Here Are 3 Ways Churches Can Be Prepared

As a husband and father: I was volunteering at my daughter's elementary school Valentine's Day party hundreds of miles away from the Parkland school shooting when my cell phone started flooding with text messages alerting me to the unfolding situation in Florida. My heart broke as I thought about the tears being shed in Parkland while I was surrounded by so much innocence and joy. I can’t pretend to understand what parents of this situation are going through. But I do know that as a father of three school-age daughters, I want to do everything I can to keep them safe. As the risk of school shootings continues to grow, I can’t sit back and do nothing while more and more children are killed in their schools.

As a friend: In July 2016, a friend and fellow researcher was attending a protest in downtown Dallas when the sound of gunshots created chaos in the crowd. He was able to run away and get to safety without being injured, but five lives were lost that night. Hearing his story of what he experienced that night drove home the reality that many people across our country have similarly lived through mass gun violence, or have waited for a loved one at a mass shooting scene to respond with an “I’m safe” text. That night, even though I knew he was safe, it took hours for me to shake the worry and anxiety I felt. It’s human nature to want to avoid thinking about bad things happening to us or our loved ones. Yet we must face the reality that right now, our loved ones are not immune to being affected by mass gun violence, and we must take action accordingly.

Over and over again, we see that events like these cause significant, and sometimes long-lasting, spiritual and emotional trauma.

As a disaster ministry expert: I have dedicated my career to helping churches and communities prepare for disasters, including mass shootings. I've also provided trauma support for mass shooting survivors, and after the shooting at an elementary school in Newton helped create tools and resources to help communities heal after mass shootings. Disaster ministry focuses on preparedness, and in the context of natural disasters that means knowing what to do and how to care when the worst happens. But when it comes to human-caused disasters like mass shooting, it’s also about doing what we can to prevent the worst from happening at all.

As a researcher: I collaborated on the first in-depth studies ever conducted on the psychology of religion and mass shootings, and since then have been part of similar studies with survivors of mass shootings all over the country. Over and over again, we see that these events often cause significant, and sometimes long-lasting, spiritual and emotional trauma. Other research has shown that survivors may experience other struggles as well, like increased rates of fear, stress, PTSD, anxiety, substance abuse, and “prolonged and complicated grief.” This impacts not only those who were present during the shooting, but the entire community. It also impacts survivors of past events, who may be triggered by reminders of their own trauma. This “ripple effect” has increasingly devastating implications for the long-term mental health of too many people.

As a psychologist: We need to be cautious how we as Christians discuss mental health and mass shootings. Research shows that mass shootings by people with serious mental illness represent less than 1 percent of all yearly gun-related homicides, and that the overall contribution of people with serious mental illness to violent crimes is only about 3 percent. When we over-focus our conversations around gun laws and mental illness, we perpetuate the myth that people who struggle with mental health issues are dangerous and violent. There is a long and complicated history of limiting access to guns for the mentally ill, and it’s a conversation that requires great nuance and care, not generalizations and stigmatization.

Christians, keep praying. But also join us in doing what we can to try to prevent future mass shootings from happening again to more people.