Practical Steps and Tools for Starting a Disaster Ministry

This piece was originally published on LinkedIn's Pulse on March 9, 2016.

“We’ve found an alarming trend. Most church leaders realize there are threats, but few do anything ahead of time to actually prepare.”

My family and I moved to South Mississippi just six days before Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. We had moved from the Chicago area and did not have phone service or a decent television signal, so we were unaware of the ever-so-rapidly and dangerously increasing storm that was headed our way.

First Warning

We attended a large church just down the road from our home. After the warm welcome and greetings that followed the bellowing choir’s opening praise song, the pastor walked solemnly to the podium. In a slow southern drawl, he began his message by saying, “If you remember Camille, you know what I’m about to say.”

 My wife looked at me and asked, “Who is Camille?” I replied jokingly, “She must be in the Old Testament.” We quickly learned about Hurricane Camille (which hit the Gulf Coast almost 30 years earlier), and were soon introduced to her counterpart—one of the worst natural disasters to ever strike our nation—Hurricane Katrina.

As soon as the service ended, I begin nervously introducing myself to those in the pews around us. I wanted to know if this was something to be worried about. How do you prepare for a hurricane?

 To my questions, I received answers like, “At worst, it’s going to be like camping for day or two.” In spite of people’s reassurances, something did not feel right. After church, we went straight to my office where we would have Internet access. In my mind’s eye I can still see my wife sitting at my desk, pulling up the national weather station live radar while my daughter sat on my lap. As she pulled up the radar, I can remember thinking, “We must be zoomed in on the image,” but we weren’t. I had never seen anything like it before. From my office, we headed home to get ready for the fast-approaching storm.

Nowhere Near Ready

I soon found myself standing in our living room trying to remember all the things I had ever heard about preparedness and disasters. Then I remembered all those post-911 public service ads that seemed to be everywhere at the time. So I ran to the kitchen, swung open the “junk” drawer (you know, the one with 20 pens that don’t work, and everything else you don’t know what to do with). Eureka. I found it. “I am ready,” I thought to myself. I reached into the back of the drawer and pulled out a brand new roll of duct tape. I quickly moved my way through the house, duct tape in hand. I remembered that almost everything I had watched, read, or heard about preparedness after 9/11 always said, “have duct tape.”

 There I was, standing in the middle of the living room looking out our window knowing a threat was rapidly approaching. And all I could think was, “Now what?” Though I had a resource that was supposedly able to help me, I had no idea what to do with it.

My story is not unique. Most people do not know how to effectively prepare for or respond to disasters. Moreover, in conducting research around the globe through Wheaton College’s Humanitarian Disaster Institute (HDI), we have found that there is a great deal of variability regarding how ready churches are for disasters. Some churches in high-risk areas are relatively prepared, while others have done little or no preparation at all. We’ve found an alarming trend. Most church leaders realize there are threats, but few do anything ahead of time to actually prepare.

Practical Preparation and the Disaster Ministry Handbook

There is good news. There are numerous practical steps congregations can take to prepare for and recover from disasters. This is one of many reasons my colleague David Boan and I wrote the Disaster Ministry Handbook -which just launched this week.

This Handbook will help your congregation’s leadership team establish a disaster mission plan and set preparedness goals. We help you navigate the entire disaster life cycle, from disaster planning through long-term recovery. The Handbook gives congregations and denominations or associations the critical concepts and components of effective emergency planning and response. You'll also find lots of practical examples, stories, tools, and resources to help you put what you are learning into practice.

We hope to equip all of our readers with far more than duct tape, so every member of every church will be prepared to answer the question, “Now what?"


Dr. Jamie D. Aten is founder and co-director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute and Rech Endowed Chair of Psychology at Wheaton College in Wheaton, IL. Follow on twitter @drjamieaten