I've Dedicated My Career to Disaster Ministry. Here are Three Ways Churches Can be Prepared

This article was originally published in Sojourners November 14, 2017

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COMMENTARY

By Jamie D. Aten 11-14-2017

The horrible tragedy at First Baptist Church in Texas has sent ripples of fear through churches across the United States. Along with grief and concern over gun violence, the attack also resurfaced an idea: Should we increase security at — or even arm members of — our own churches?

I’ve dedicated my career to helping churches prepare for disasters, including mass shootings. And I believe that responding to the Texas church mass shooting with an arms race does more to protect fear than it does to protect our churches.

As founder of the country’s first faith-based academic disaster research center, I’ve written extensively on "disaster ministry” and collaborated on the first in-depth studies ever conducted on the psychology of religion and mass shootings. I've also provided psychosocial support for humanitarian aid workers serving in armed conflicts, and created tools and resources that have helped communities like Newtown, Conn., heal after mass shootings.

 

From this perspective, here are three suggestions I want to offer the U.S. church now:

1. Any changes in church preparedness and security are only part of the equation to making our churches more safe.

I’m encouraged by how seriously some churches are thinking about security issues and taking safety steps. These include training their congregations how to seek shelter and evacuate dangerous situations. (FEMA has active shooter courses and other resources that can serve as useful guides.) Other churches are training church teams to recognize potential threats. Security experts also recommend that churches reach out to local emergency managers and law enforcement for guidance. These types of solutions recognize the reality of the risk without compromising the nature of what a church is created to be: an open and welcoming community while also being wise.

But in the aftermath of the Texas church shooting, I’ve struggled in discussions about church preparedness tools. Increasing church security will help save additional lives — but as long as a mass shooter is able to approach our church doors with an assault rifle or similarly modified weapon, we will have failed to fully prepare.

Everyone wants to believe that in active shooter situations, they’d be the “good guy with a gun.” This myth protects our fear more than it protects our churches.

Preparedness isn’t just about being ready to respond when the worst happens. It’s about doing what we can to try to reduce the likelihood of the worst from happening at all. There are a number of measures that experts and public opinion agree would address the underlying causes that lead to recurring gun violence. These include tighter background checks and restrictions on gun sales, expanded mental health treatment, and bans on certain high-capacity and semiautomatic weapons.

Until sensible gun laws like these are passed, I’m afraid our preparedness efforts will more often than not resemble trying to fight a house fire with a garden hose. 

 

2. We have to change our affinity for gun culture.

I recently appeared on Moody Radio’s "Equipped with Chris Brooks" program to discuss how people can help in the wake of the Sutherland Springs church shooting. Numerous callers expressed a desire to arm members of the congregation. And in an interview with Fox News, Dallas evangelical pastor Robert Jeffress said his church members — of which he estimates “a quarter to a half…are concealed-carry” — would prevent a mass shooting from occurring in his church.

READ: Should Christians Own Guns?

There are a variety of factors that contribute to such a view, wrote Sarah Pulliam Bailey ofThe Washington Post, including political affiliation, high rates of personal gun ownership, and an understanding of gun violence as a result of human sin. Everyone wants to believe that in active shooter situations, they’d be the “good guy with a gun” who takes down the shooter. (This may be particularly true of Christians — a 2013 Public Religion Research Institute survey showed that 59 percent of white evangelicals oppose stricter gun laws — seven points higher than the nation as a whole.) But this myth protects our own fear more than it does our churches. Shooters often walk into these situations wearing vests or carrying much heavier artillery. And untrained bystanders shooting guns can create more chaos and confusion.

“How do we balance the relative risk against the very nature and the purpose of a house of worship?," former FEMA head W. Craig Fugate asked me recently. "We can make our house of worship secure, but does that compromise our primary mission? …To what degree must we deal with this at the front door of a house of worship, versus looking at this more holistically across the community?”

3. If we truly want to mitigate and prevent harm, we have to be willing to have difficult conversations with each other about gun issues.

Over the years I’ve side-stepped heated topics like gun laws because I thought staying away from hot-button issues would allow me to reach more people with a message of preparedness. But I’ve come to realize that silence only makes schism wider between Christians, in public and in our pews. It’s not disrespectful to the memory of the victims and the suffering community to do what we can to prevent this from happening to more people and more communities. It’s what we owe them and each other.

"We can make our house of worship secure, but does that compromise our primary mission?"

It’s time we come together to support reform of sensible gun laws that would minimize access to the kinds of firearms that make attacks of this scale possible. In an international comparison of mass shootings, the New York Times reported that the very presence of guns appears to directly lead to more gun violence. “A New Yorker is just as likely to be robbed as a Londoner, for instance,” Max Fisher and Josh Keller wrote, “but the New Yorker is 54 times more likely to be killed in the process.”

 

In this moment, we must help our churches better prepare for mass shootings. But if we really want to prioritize church security, we have to address our gun problem, too. It is good to be ready for the worst. It is better — and shows more love of our neighbor — to do all that we can to prevent the worst from happening at all.

Jamie D. Aten

Dr. Jamie D. Aten is a disaster psychologist and disaster ministry expert. He is 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. In 2016, he received the FEMA Community Preparedness Champion award at the White House. You can follow Jamie on Twitter at @drjamieaten, or see his work at jamieaten.com.

How Churches and FEMA Can Work Together

This article was originally published in Christianity Today November 13, 2017

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The former head of the agency on churches’ important role in disaster response.

Interview with W. Craig Fugate by Jamie Aten

Over the course of his eight-year tenure as head administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), W. Craig Fugate led FEMA’s responses to numerous major disasters: the Joplin and Moore tornadoes, Hurricane Sandy, Hurricane Matthew, and the 2016 Louisiana flooding. I spoke with him about how church leaders can come alongside government agencies and serve their community together amidst disasters, from mass shootings to wildfires to hurricanes.

How would you recommend churches and congregations go about improving collaboration with FEMA?

Pick up the phone and call your local emergency manager. They’re good folks, but they tend to be more focused on their government functions, and they may not know there’s an interest in participating.

I grew up in north Florida, so I learned a long time ago that some of my fastest, most capable responses—particularly in the rural areas—were our churches. Where I’m from, churches always respond when there’s a crisis in the community. I learned early on that if you give churches a seat at the table, and include them in your plans, it gives everybody a better ability to coordinate. It’s better to work as a team than to work as individual pieces and hope we each get to where we need to go.

You helped usher in the “whole community” approach to emergency management. What does that entail?

It’s a recognition that the bigger the disaster, the more likely the first assistance is really coming from your neighbors. What I have found is that the more widespread the impact of a disaster, the more that the government by itself is going to fail. You really have to take a step back and look at the community on a day-to-day basis—who’s providing the services and really meeting the needs of people before a disaster—and then after disaster strikes, recognize that the government’s not going to be able to step into those roles. In fact, it’s actually counterproductive [to think that]. It’ll be government, plus volunteer organizations in the faith-based community, plus the business community, plus the people who will naturally be helping their neighbors and looking for a way to support their community. If that’s how a community works day to day, why do we expect it to change when there’s a disaster? We need to really focus on how to build those relationships ahead of time.

I’ll tell you the most important thing we need to do: Recognize that the public’s part of the team. And we’ve seen this in the churches. Church members don’t have to be told to go help somebody in the congregation. We’re not individuals; we’re part of a bigger family. Even if we’re not physically related, we still come to each other’s assistance when we’re needed.

What’s one thing you wish every church leader of a local congregation knew?

You never know when a disaster is going to strike, but you don’t have to be somebody you’re not. What I mean by this is that sometimes we set the bar so high that church leaders think they have to have specialized training or that it’s just not practical for them to engage.

I like to go back to an early event where I saw the role of churches as a first responder. We had an ice storm hit much of north Florida back in the early ‘90s, and it caused the interstate system to ice over. Thousands of motorists were being stranded. The government resources in Florida couldn’t drive on ice; they couldn’t get to these people. But all up and down the interstates, churches started recognizing what was happening, and farmers got their tractors, hooked up wagons, threw on some hay, went out on the interstate, and started picking up stranded motorists. They took them to the closest church and opened up the fellowship hall, making hot coffee and soup. That didn’t require any training.

Think of the things churches do every day—sponsor daycare services, provide counseling services, work with food banks, or get out with the elderly and support Meals on Wheels. There are so many different things churches excel at in their communities, and those are pretty much the same things people are going to need in a disaster.

Sometimes I hear from pastors who want to get involved in the disaster response activities on the community level and are turned away. What advice would you have for someone in that case?

That goes back to building relationships before disaster so you’re known by the local officials, so you’re known by the folks who run the shelters. Go become a Red Cross-trained volunteer so you go in there as a counselor, and you can reach out to your flock and anybody else who needs that attention. We tend to put on our uniforms and identify ourselves by our faith. But survivors are just looking for a helpful word, a hot meal, a roof over their head, and somebody to talk to.

What would a holistic approach to preparedness look like for a church that is concerned about mass shootings?

Having the pastors and the ushers and the other lay people trained in what to do if there is an active shooter may be our first best step. Just like when the fire alarm goes off, know what the evacuation routes are. Teach the people who are watching the kids and the daycare center during the services how to lock and secure their locations.

We’re not going to be able to lock churches down, but we should know what to do if an active shooter situation occurs. And the steps are: If you can run, run. If you can’t, hide. And if you can’t hide, you’ve got to fight back any way you can. Most of these events are carried out in very short periods of time. The shootings are usually over before any outside help gets there, and it’s the initial response that can mean the difference.

The Department of Homeland Security and FEMA have put together some active shooter courses online—take a look at those, get back to FEMA and with any tweaks or additional items that would be appropriate for houses of worship, and then get that out to the community.

In coordination with interagency partners, the DHS Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) established a website for faith-based organizations that serves as a “one-stop shop” for information on available Federal tools, resources, and assistance.

To contact the active shooter preparedness team or to get more information on Active Shooter Preparedness workshops, please send an email to ASworkshop@hq.dhs.gov.

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.

3 Disasters That Only Compound the Devastation

This article was originally published in Christianity Today on September 9, 2017.

"The biggest threat facing churches isn’t a disaster event—it’s how we think about disasters."

"The biggest threat facing churches isn’t a disaster event—it’s how we think about disasters."

Before I became a disaster psychologist, I was a youth pastor. My first job in ministry was at a small, rural church near the Indiana-Illinois state line. It didn’t take me long to realize I was in over my head. Nothing had prepared me for some of the serious struggles the youth in our community were facing. After a couple of years, I decided to go on to graduate school in psychology to better prepare for life’s disasters, like the trauma and grief I had seen in the lives of some of my students.

After I graduated, our family moved to South Mississippi for my first college teaching gig. Our first Sunday there, we attended a church service down the road from our house. I still vividly remember the pastor solemnly walking to the pulpit, and in a slow Southern drawl saying, “If you remember Camille, you’ll know what I’m about to say.”

The pastor went on to describe how the killer storm Hurricane Camille had devastated Mississippi in the late 1960s. He then warned about a rapidly approaching hurricane that some thought might be even worse: Hurricane Katrina.

I remembered all the post-9/11 public service ads that stressed how one common household item was crucial to everyone’s preparedness kit. As soon as I got home, I started rummaging through our drawers and unopened boxes to look for this lifesaving resource. Then I found it. The holy grail of preparedness, or so I thought: duct tape!

I was standing in the living room looking out our window, gripping that duct tape. I knew a threat was rapidly approaching, but all I could think was, Now what?

Once again, I was in over my head. Nothing had prepared me for the devastation that was about to rip through our community. Within weeks of Katrina’s landfall, I began reaching out to pastors to study how churches were responding. Twelve years later, with trips across the globe and too many disasters to list, I’m still studying disasters. During this time I’ve also weathered my own personal disaster of facing cancer, too.

Pastors I work with often ask me, “What’s the biggest disaster threat facing the church today?” Here’s what I’ve concluded: The biggest threat facing the church isn’t a disaster event—it’s how people in the church think about disasters. The way you and your church think about disasters will determine what actions you will take to prepare and care in a disaster-filled world.

I don’t say this to minimize the threat or impact of recent disasters. I’ve never seen a storm like Hurricane Irma, one of the most powerful Atlantic Ocean hurricanes to be tracked, which poses immediate danger. Recently Hurricane Harvey struck the United States, becoming one of the costliest natural disasters in our country’s history. Countless other disasters like the wildfires in Montana and the flooding in South Asia are happening. These all pose real threats.

Yet, when I consider disasters within a broader context—within the grand scheme of past and possible events—it’s how we think about disasters that keeps me up at night. Too many pastors and congregations have bought into ideas about disasters that just aren’t true. Embracing these myths puts more people in harm’s way, risks diminishing our Christian witness, and threatens our ability to act as the hands and feet of Christ.

Myth 1: “The odds of a disaster impacting my church or community are slim.”

Disasters are actually happening more and more. You may have thought you were just imagining it, but you aren’t.

A couple of years after Hurricane Katrina, I spoke to a group of pastors in the Mississippi Delta about the importance of preparing for disasters. They assured me hurricanes wouldn’t travel so far north, so they weren’t sure why I was there. I had just started to respond when the noise of a passing train forced me to pause. After it passed, I asked the pastors what was on the train. They told me it regularly transported chemicals and oil from the coast to points further north. They had never noticed the risk on the rails in their own backyard. Sadly, a few years later a flood devastated their community.

Since the 1980s there has been a roughly 400-percent increase in natural disasters globally. Granted, not all of these events are Katrina-sized disasters, but a disaster is still a disaster. Unnatural disasters like terrorist attacks, mass shootings, and technical disaster (e.g., chemical spills) are also on the rise.

Despite these statistics, the fact is, we tend to be bad at estimating risk. So bad, in fact, that experts describe our response as the “ostrich effect.” Just as the name implies, research has shown that people tend to mistakingly ignore real potential threats.

On the other hand, some people overestimate specific threats, and live in fear of large-scale disasters like a tornado or terrorist attack, despite the fact that more people in the United States die annually from heat waves and snowstorms.

Disasters are happening in places that may not have been at risk traditionally. We can no longer rely on the heuristic that previous disasters are a good indicator of the sorts of disasters a community may face in the future. This rule of thumb isn’t as reliable as it once was. Changes in extreme weather pattens, sea-level rise, social tensions, global unrest, economic disparities, population growth, and shifts where people live are just a few reasons why.

But even the most unprepared churches need not give up hope when disaster hits. When a massive flood submerged the building his church was planning to remodel and launch as a new campus under five feet of water last summer in Baton Rouge, Healing Place Church campus pastor Ryan Frith described the experience as “shocking” and “surreal.” “Never would we have imagined a flood like this happening,” he said. “Nobody on our team had done disaster relief before or had even worked in a warehouse.” But after the water receded, they were able to turn their church campus into a distribution center, cooking meals and handing out fresh groceries. For a month and a half, they were able to reach thousands of people a day through all of the activity on the property. “We truly got to see God take all things and work them together for good. Our plan was to start having church, but God’s plan was for us to first be the church.”

Myth 2: “Disasters don’t discriminate.”

There is some truth to this. No matter who you are, or how much money you have, disasters can impact anyone. However, disasters do not affect all people equally. They disproportionally impact the socially and economically vulnerable.

Disasters are one of the biggest moral and biblical justice issues facing the church and society.

Disasters often magnify injustices by putting a spotlight on disparities already present in a community. I was involved with a program to help traumatized children after the 2010 Haiti earthquake. I had helped in Haiti years before. But it wasn’t until after the disaster that I learned of a far less visible disaster—Restavek—a Haitian cultural form of modern-day child slavery. The earthquake made this unthinkable practice even more prevalent. The earthquake had left many children and youth orphaned, and others with families that were no longer able to care for them. Human traffickers rushed to exploit the situation.

The poor, medically fragile, very old, young, and minorities suffer more than others. For example, some immigrants and refugees may live in fear of deportation, and as a result, might not ask for the help they need to rebound. Elderly people in high crime areas live in fear of being harmed and may not open their door to people they don’t know, even if those people are trying to help them survive a heat wave. People living in poverty may not have the resources to evacuate and get to safety when that means paying for extra gas and a hotel.

People become vulnerable for a wide variety of circumstances, ranging from age to job status. The most vulnerable and underserved also tend to live in less prepared areas and lack the resources to rebuild what disasters destroy. Thus, it normally takes them longer to recover than people with more resources and social connections. According to the Conservation of Resources stress model, disasters cause “spirals of loss.” It takes more resources, time, money, energy, and social support to recover, and for the most vulnerable, this is a debt from which they may never be free. However, our team’s most recent study found even when disasters lead to loss of basic survival resources (e.g., food), drawing on spiritual resources helps protect survivors’ psychological resources (e.g., hope, optimism).

When a low-income apartment building close to Wheaton Bible Church in Wheaton, Illinois, burned down on a Sunday morning six years ago, pastor of community life Chris McElwee was able to pivot an existing ministry in the complex and mobilize the church immediately. As the fire was being put out, they started helping the residents deal with immediate and future needs. “Our church already had a presence in the community through an afterschool program we started, and through the case management and ESL programs we provided to this complex. I think the key to us doing so well in this crisis was the relationships we had with the stake holders before the crisis hit. We had already established trust with the community. Relationships are the key. Knowing everyone ahead of time sped up the way we could respond.”

And this experience created future ministry opportunities, as well. “We continue to serve the community even though the fire is a distant memory,” McElwee says. “Responding well certainly deepened our relationships and let the community know we are a credible resource.”

If the church is to pursue disaster justice we must do better at living out the teachings of . We need to do more than just respond to disasters; we must also tackle the underlying injustices that put the vulnerable at greater risk.

Myth 3: “There’s not enough time—or this isn’t the right time—for my church to start thinking about disaster ministry.”

There’s actually no better time than this very moment to start thinking about disaster ministry. Once a disaster strikes, it’s much more difficult to plan a response. Even if you are staring down the crosshairs of Hurricane Irma or recently weathered Hurricane Harvey, I want to encourage you to take action now.

In a recent Humanitarian Disaster Institute study, our team found most pastors and churches weren’t ready when Hurricane Katrina struck, but that they still made a significant positive impact in helping their congregations and communities recover. We also found that when time is running out, churches can still play a vital role in helping their congregations and communities prepare, like utilizing crisis communication strategies, echoing evacuation messaging, and taking steps to minimize risk. Maybe your church has been caught off guard by recent disasters. Rather than focus on what wasn’t done, prayerfully attend to what can still be done, no matter where you are in the disaster life cycle (i.e., preparedness, immediate response, long-term recovery). Your church is actually more prepared for disaster ministry than you may realize.

Don’t think of disaster ministry as an “extra.” It’s a part of the church’s DNA.

A great way to begin, even if you are reading these amidst being evacuated from your community, is to start by thinking of ways to pivot the ministries that God has already blessed in your church. If you have a strong children’s ministry, begin there. Does your church already deliver meals to the elderly? Then that’s where your church should start.

If a disaster strikes in your community, people are going to come to youand your church for help, even if it’s leveled. There are several reasons people you may have never met before are going to seek out your church. Disasters cause people to ask a lot of big questions about God. The church is the place where survivors can find true hope, meaning, and long-term spiritual care.

There may also be people in your church who feel called to building your church’s disaster ministry into something bigger, given the green light and some space. Sharon Davis, executive director of Oakdale Community Development Corporation (OCDC) at Oakdale Covenant Church in Chicago, attended our Disaster Ministry Conference and immediately went to her pastor about starting a disaster ministry. He gave her the go-ahead and helped her assemble a team that immediately got to work figuring out the specific risks in their community and how their church was equipped to speak into them. They found that the church’s large population of dementia patients from nearby retirement communities had very unique health and safety risks that they needed to be better trained on and prepared for. Now Oakdale has even stronger relationships with this community, having demonstrated concern for their needs and a willingness to help in a tangible way.

By building relationships and ministries that already exsist in your church, whether you realize it or not, you're building disaster resilience.

Conclusion

Though disasters may reveal inconsistencies in our thoughts and injustices in the communities we call home, disaster ministry reveals God’s love, mercy, and grace. God has called his people to care for those in need, and where there are disasters, there is an immediate and pressing need. His commandment to bring good news and healing to those suffer is clear. As Christians we are created in the image of a loving, merciful, and gracious God, whose Son taught us to open our hearts and to use our talents in service of the kingdom. If we start thinking about disasters differently, it just might help you and your church to more effectively reduce harm during a disaster, save lives, and extend your ministry to those who need help the most.

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. In 2016 he received the FEMA Community Preparedness Champion award at the White House. You can follow Jamie on Twitter at @drjamieaten or jamieaten.com.

 

Bracing for Impact: How to Prepare Your Church For a Natural Disaster

This article was originally published in Facts & Trends on September 6, 2017.

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“I looked up two days before Hurricane Katrina and I said, ‘all right team, talking to my church board, what’s our hurricane plan?’ And they looked at me and said, ‘What hurricane plan?” — pastor, Biloxi, Mississippi

Major disasters present unique challenges to pastors and churches, according to new research from the Humanitarian Disaster Institute (HDI) at Wheaton College.

The study of pastors and churches directly affected by Hurricane Katrina can help churches develop strategies for improving disaster ministry preparedness and response.

Though no two disasters are exactly alike, applying these findings from Hurricane Katrina can help pastors and churches impacted by Hurricane Harvey or who are potentially facing Hurricane Irma lay a foundation for resilience.

Preparedness Levels

The majority of churches in the study were not prepared for disaster. Of the pastors surveyed:

  • 59 percent reported their churches did not have a formal disaster preparedness plan in place prior to Hurricane Katrina.
  • 24 percent had only “bare necessity” plans in place that consisted of attempting to protect physical property the day before Hurricane Katrina made landfall.
  • 24 percent described having comprehensive preparedness plans in place focused on protecting church property (e.g., church records and data, sacraments) and church member communication (e.g., phone “tree,” evacuation recommendations).

Preparedness Challenges

The pastors also reported many challenges to preparedness. Among the findings:

  • 55 percent discussed communication challenges and difficulties collecting information (e.g., emergency contact information, evacuation plans) from their congregation members as the storm approached.
  • 53 percent noted they and their congregation members had underestimated the potential threat of Hurricane Katrina.
  • 47 percent said they felt rushed and disorganized trying to help their churches prepare.

Types of Support Provided

HDI also surveyed church attendees about the type of support they received from their churches in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Among the findings:

  • 78 percent received spiritual and emotional support from their pastor.
  • 73 percent had a pastor or another church member pray with them.
  • 72 percent obtained social support from other church members.
  • 47 percent partook in crisis counseling made available through their church.
  • 43 percent were encouraged to evacuate by their pastor or church.
  • 39 percent had physical health related needs met by their church (e.g., first aid, medical supplies).
  • 33 percent had help rebuilding or repairing their home.
  • 31 percent received financial donations/gifts from via their church.

Preparedness Strategies

Despite the fact that most pastors and churches were not well prepared and encountered numerous challenges in getting ready, they still played a significant role in helping their congregations and communities by implementing the following strategies.

1. Prepare and model preparedness. The pastors in this study reported significant individual resource losses (e.g., loss of shelter, food, and water). They were not immune from the powerful impact of Hurricane Katrina.

The pastors recommended other pastors should prayerfully seek wisdom and talk with their church leadership about if they should stay or leave. They suggest that other pastors take warnings to evacuate seriously and avoid putting themselves and others in dangerous situations.

If pastors are hurt or cause someone else to get hurt because evacuation warnings were ignored, they are less likely to be positioned to serve others. According to the pastors interviewed, staying in harm’s way is more likely to diminish ministry opportunities and effectiveness.

Evacuation doesn’t mean pastors have to travel to the other side of the country to be safe. Consider reaching out to local emergency management officials to identify a safe evacuation location that still positions church leadership to be able to return and respond as quickly as possible.

2. Facilitate church member preparedness activities while there is still time. One way this can be done is to encourage members to develop individual or family disaster plans and supplies.

Churches should provide disaster survival information: safety, first-aid, personal hygiene, important documents, emergency money funds, food and water, supplies, and evacuation routes and options. Lots of helpful information can be found at Ready.gov to help church members prepare.

3. Do what can be done to protect the church property. If you have time to minimize property damage to your church building, here are a few tips: board up windows, reinforce doors, secure heavy electronics (e.g., televisions and computers), anchor bookshelves and large cabinets, strap water heaters to walls, secure or remove items that could become projectiles in high winds, and consider raising water heaters and other appliances to avoid flood damage.

Though some disasters render such steps futile, taking steps to prepare the church building can make a big difference in offsetting damage if the building withstands structural damage.

4. Utilize existing communication approaches to share information and evacuation messaging ahead of the disaster. Use the same communication tools church leadership and membership use to communicate in non-emergency situations such as: e-mail lists, social media, church website postings, call lists, and prayer chains.

Another approach is to develop a call-center at another church outside the affected region (because long distance and cell phone use often come back before local calling options) that will volunteer to take messages and convey information to others.

Keep in mind not everyone is technologically savvy or may not have access to technology. In such cases, try to reach out to someone close to that person to check on them, or get in touch with them if it’s possible to do so without putting others in harm’s way.

Be sure to also make it clear ahead of the disaster how church leadership will communicate with church members after the disaster strikes and communication infrastructures are disrupted. For example, though not available at the time of the study, a recent technological advance is checking in as safe via Facebook.

5. Collect or update leadership and membership contact and emergency contact information. It is common practice for churches to have basic contact information for members and attendees (home address, email, cell phone number).

If not already obtained, gather emergency contact information, like where and how to contact them if they evacuate. Don’t just store this information on the desktop left behind in the church building; using an online platform like Google Docs, MailChimp, or Constant Contact surveys is a quick and secure way to gather this information.

Again, this only works prior to the disaster or after power and infrastructure start to bounce back, so pastors and churches need to act before the disaster strikes.

6. Get ready to pivot existing ministries to focus on disaster needs. Days before a disaster strikes is not the time to develop a whole new ministry out of thin air. Instead, consider adapting existing ministries and programs in order to meet disaster needs.

For example, a church might decide to expand a food pantry program to provide meals for disaster survivors. Start collecting resources you may need to carry out prioritized ministries in the wake of the disaster.

Realize that your church building may not be secure, so it would also be wise to reach out to other churches who might be able to supply resources that could be damaged by the storm that are essential to your disaster ministry.

7. Reach out to other pastors, churches, and relief groups now about coordinating responses. Join with other local churches to discuss how to prepare for and respond to a major disaster together. Build upon existing relationships and networks in which the church is already active.

Relationships should also be developed with local, regional, and national disaster and emergency agencies and groups (e.g., Send Relief, Red Cross, state emergency management agency, NVOAD state chapter).

These steps can help your church best prepare for the worst situations.

JAMIE D. ATEN (@drjamieaten) is founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College, Illinois, and author of the Disaster Ministry Handbook. In 2016, he received the FEMA Community Preparedness Champion award at the White House. Read more at jamieaten.com.

Methodology: In-depth interviews often lasting multiple hours each were conducted with 27 pastors from South Mississippi and New Orleans who led churches directly affected by Hurricane Katrina.

Church attendees at these pastors’ congregations also completed quantitative surveys to determine support provided in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.