How to Train Disaster Volunteers in Your Church

This article was originally published in Church Law & Tax on July 21, 2017.

Five steps for building and preparing a disaster ministry team.

Having a disaster ministry is the best way your church can prepare for future events and care for those impacted by disasters in your community. I have previously written about how to start a disaster ministry at your church, but setting up the ministry is just the beginning: you need to train volunteers to keep the ministry running and be ready to assist when disaster hits.

Below are some key principles to keep in mind as you build a volunteer disaster ministry and prepare volunteers to serve in moments of crisis that are so important to demonstrating God’s love for the most vulnerable.

Communicate the Vision

The process of volunteer development begins before you ever start recruiting. Having a robust theology of disasters—understanding why disaster response and survivor care matters to God and to your church—and communicating it clearly to your church is the foundation of all you will do in this ministry. Successful volunteers will understand why this ministry is important and how it connects to their faith. Volunteers need a sense of purpose and ownership to remain motivated in their service and to grow spiritually through it.

Once the groundwork has been laid, find opportunities to keep communicating the vision on a regular basis. When disasters hit locally or appear in the news, connect them to the work you’re doing in your own disaster ministry. Once your ministry has a few disaster responses under its belt, invite responders and survivors to share their testimonies of how they saw God at work in the midst of catastrophe. These are great ways to help people understand the importance of this kind of ministry and demonstrate what your church is preparing for. By keeping your church and your volunteers excited and engaged, you’ll help keep the dust from collecting on your plan.

Build a Leadership Team

As you begin to build the volunteer ministry, identify a “champion”—someone to help others stay motivated in their commitment to a safety plan in the church. This person should have a strong commitment to disaster ministry and will be the point person for all your volunteers. They should be someone your church can count on: a self-starter, someone others respect, someone with strong leadership skills as well as a passion for serving others in times of crisis and a giftedness in that area. This person should be specifically recruited, approved, and empowered by senior leadership in your church.

Then you will want to assemble a team of 6-10 volunteers to form the disaster ministry team. This group will be in charge of assessing your church’s disaster risks and setting ministries in place to prepare for and respond to those risks. They should be representative of all the ministries and operations of your church. If your church is small, one way to achieve this could be to bring together a group of already-active leaders from across your existing ministries. Disasters impact every area of your church, and a diverse team will most effectively understand how your existing ministries can be used in this context. Additionally, you never know who will be impacted personally by a disaster, so a leadership team approach ensures that even if one or more leaders are directly affected, there will be others ready to lead.

Connect Gifts with Needs

Spend time as a leadership team developing the expectations you have for volunteers. What will their distinct roles be? How will they know what is expected of them—and if they have done well? Clarity on the front end helps get the right people in the right roles and offers them a path to success in those roles.

When people hear “disaster ministry,” they may assume they need to learn a whole new set of skills—or that because they aren’t an emergency response professional, they don’t have much to offer. This couldn’t be further from the truth! Just as one of the best ways to start a disaster ministry in your church is to take a look at what your church already does well and consider how you can pivot this ministry to a disaster context, the same is true for volunteers. Help them identify what they already know to be their ministry gifting and calling—what they already do well—and then think through how that can be adapted or used in a disaster situation. Do they have an interest in children’s ministry? Financial assistance? Facility management? Food preparation? Visiting with shut-ins? All of those interests and gifts can be used in disaster contexts, and they draw from ministries that probably already exist in your church and can easily be employed when disaster hits.

Additionally, it is helpful to seek out any “first responders” you have in your church: medically trained people like doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and law enforcement officials like police, firefighters, and EMS professionals. Their expertise can be instrumental in helping train others, and their skills will be vital in a disaster response situation.

Prepare the Heart

Preparing action plans and skills is important, but so is preparing the heart. Humility is one of the most important qualities a volunteer can bring to disaster ministry. Scripture is clear that humility is essential to service. Jesus instructs his disciples that “[a]nyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35). He also preaches it publicly, saying, “The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Matthew 23:11 - 12).

Humble helpers are able to listen well and accept their own limitations. They don’t assume they know the best way to help, but they are able to pay attention to what is going on in the situation and listen to the survivors, offering help that actually helps.

Practice, Practice, Practice

As with any new task, practice is important in figuring out what works and learning and mastering the required skills. Fortunately, you don’t have to wait for a disaster to give volunteers the practice they need to be prepared in a real-life situation. Encourage your leadership team to volunteer with established response organizations (e.g., Samaritan’s Purse) or with ministries that serve the vulnerable in your community (e.g. homeless ministries) to learn the ropes and gain practical experience they can then bring to your ministry. Connect with local emergency management or CERT teams who can help you set up practice response drills for volunteers. Take advantage of the many regular webinars and online courses in disaster emergency management skills offered by FEMA. Offer first aid classes to gain basic emergency medical skills. Begin engaging and connecting with your community through service projects: these not only help volunteers practice skills, but they build relationships that may lead to more collaboration when a disaster hits.

Further Reading

For specific, technical tools and resources to build training and evaluation plans, FEMA has put together this helpful guide. The Humanitarian Disaster Institute also has a collection of tip sheets covering a range of skills and practices for volunteers. For more on building a disaster ministry and training volunteers, see the Disaster Ministry Handbook, which I co-wrote, or consider joining us next June at our 2018 Disaster Minister Conference.


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