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.


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.


Hurricane Harvey Is Here. Time for Christians to Show What We’ve Learned Since Katrina.

This article was originally published in Christianity Today on August 25, 2017.

Image: Joe Raedle / Getty

Image: Joe Raedle / Getty

Advice for US churches on Category 4 storm from a disaster researcher who survived 2005.

If current projections hold true, Hurricane Harvey will be the strongest hurricane to strike the United States since Katrina, Rita, and Wilma hit in 2005.

A decade ago, maybe your church volunteered, planned a short-term mission trip, gave money, or helped rebuild Gulf Coast communities beaten down by one of America’s most deadly and destructive disaster seasons.

Harvey, which hit the Texas coast as a Category 4 hurricane, offers Christians a chance to be even more helpful—to show God’s grace and mercy to a disaster-filled world. But it means we have to be willing to learn from experiences like Katrina.

I’ve learned a lot myself, both personally and professionally. Katrina walloped my community six days after I moved to South Mississippi. Within weeks, I was on the ground researching how faith helps peoples’ resilience and how the church can best respond. Today, I run the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College, the nation’s first social science research center devoted to the study of faith and disasters.

For churches in the path of Hurricane Harvey, there are still some “just-in-time” preparedness strategies you can implement before the storm makes landfall. For Christians far away, there’s a lot more you can do than wait and watch Twitter like it’s an unfolding disaster movie.

Below are some of the most important research-based ways your church can prepare and care, as well as spiritual survival tips for locals and responders alike.

What Churches in Harvey’s Crosshairs Should Do Right Now

You may have never thought about your church’s role in preparing for a disaster in your own community. Even if you have, you still may not know how to prepare as you watch this unexpected hurricane rapidly approaching. Taking these small actions now can go a long way toward preventing harm and saving lives. Following these tips will better position your congregation to be able to help each other and others in your community after the storm passes.

1) Utilize Crisis Communication Strategies

Disasters often disrupt the ways we communicate. Power goes out and cell phone towers go down, making most modern forms of staying in touch with one another difficult. Thus, communicating during a disaster can be tough.

First things first: If you have time, grab the most up-to-date congregation contact list you have. If you don’t have a contact list, you might send an invitation to your fellow church members to share via a Google Docs survey (or another service your congregation already uses) where they can fill in this information. If you go this route, you can also ask them if they plan to evacuate, where they’re going, and for alternative contact information.

If you have time prior to the disaster, reach out to your congregation using your normal and most common means of communication to let them know how they might be able to stay in touch with the church, leadership, and each other.

Common crisis communication strategies include: using a call-down procedure (e.g., activate “prayer chain”), text messaging, text broadcasting, social media notifications, alternate call-in number (e.g., instruct members to call in to a “sister” church in another region who is willing to take messages), to name a few.

Don’t just let your congregation know how you’ll be communicating, but also let them know how to use the ways you’ll be communicating.

2) Echo Evacuation Messaging

Encourage your congregation and community to follow evacuation notifications being issues by the authorities. Several states have already begun evacuation messaging. Though many people are heeding these notifications, not all are.

Are there members of your congregation who may not be reachable by local officials, or who may be hesitant to follow the direction of local officials? If your church is located in a community where a sense of mistrust of governmental officials or authorities exists, you sharing the same evacuation message can make a big difference. Research has shown that vulnerable communities, like minority ones, may be less likely to heed official warnings.

Sometimes who conveys the message is just as important as the message itself. Hearing the evacuation message from you as a church leader can make a big difference in calling people to action. Remember a trusted message comes from a trusted messenger.

As best as you can, try to facilitate transportation to those that need it. For example, maybe you can help connect those who need assistance with relatives or people in your congregation that might offer transportation. Or maybe you have a church bus that could transport people with limited mobility. If you are aware of local, state, or federal resources for evacuation transportation you can communicate these resources too.

3) Minimize Risk

Some disasters are so big that the following steps may be futile. However, if your church building largely survives the winds headed your way, these steps can help reduce some forms of property damage.

If you have time to take action to protect your church property, here’s 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.

You may also think about retrieving important documents or possessions. Similarly, identify resources that may be helpful to retrieve so that you are more likely to have them available to facilitate worship or other key ministerial activities or rites once the disaster passes.

The window of time is closing in to be able to implement these “just-in-time” preparedness tips for a lot of communities, and has already passed for others. To be clear, don’t attempt these preparedness steps if they go against the evacuation notices your community may have received or put you or others at risk. Still, it’s my hope that these strategies may yet be helpful for those who have a window of opportunity.

How Churches Far from Harvey’s Path Can Immediately Help

The Bible beckons us to use our time, talents, and treasure to help those in need (Acts 10:4), and where there is a disaster, there is need. Scripture is rich with examples, such as Nehemiah, of how God has brought about hope, redemption, and recovery through the people of God in times of disaster. Your church might feel compelled to help, yet may not know where to begin. Here are some specific ways your church can get ready to serve when the time comes.

1) Prepare to Mobilize Volunteers

Across almost every disaster I have responded to, I have heard church leaders say something like this: “The biggest blessing since the disaster has been the volunteers. And the biggest challenge since the disaster has been the volunteers.”

Volunteers can be a wonderful resource in the recovery process if local leaders are prepared to manage them, and far from helpful if they are not.

Start by surveying or asking congregation members about their willingness to volunteer in response to Hurricane Harvey. Look for congregation members who are motivated to demonstrate God’s love and not motivated by self-serving reasons (e.g., to be in on the action); are prepared to be flexible, adapt, and improvise to do the best with what is available; are humbly willing to listen and learn from survivors; and are capable of working as part of a team.

I also urge you not to self-deploy. Spontaneous unaffiliated volunteers can bring chaos to a disaster recovery site, and even hinder those authorized to offer special aid. I relate to wanting to pick up and “parachute” into a location where a disaster has occurred. As a result of studying numerous disasters, however, I have found that doing so frequently causes a great deal of stress to those in need of help. Rather than hopping in the car and driving off to where disaster has struck, restrain yourself until volunteer opportunities have been clearly identified.

Then, if you do go, prepare to be self-sufficient. Communities in the midst of recovery need to concentrate resources on survivors, not on meeting your needs. Give your volunteers detailed instructions about what to bring and what to expect before deploying. The most common needs of volunteers typically fall into the categories of housing, food, and transportation. You are likely to divert resources away from survivors and those who need aid the most if you aren’t able arrange or care for your own needs.

Keep in mind that everyone in your church can play a role in helping, even if they lack disaster experience, resources, or ability to deploy.

Case in point: After Hurricane Katrina, there was a group of elderly women who belonged to a church sewing circle that I learned about. At first they felt discouraged, like they weren’t able to help as much as others. But then they had the idea to have survivors send them belongings and materials that survived the storm. They then sewed these items into what came to be known as “Katrina Quilts.” I know survivors, still to this day, who consider their quilts as a daily reminder of God’s goodness in their lives.

2) Coordinate Responses

I have found that disaster response efforts are more likely to succeed if churches come together with one another and with other organizations. The needs left behind after a disaster (e.g., rebuilding, mental health, spiritual struggles) can be overwhelming, and in most cases are larger than any one church can handle.

Churches need to respond together as the fully body of Christ.

Start by looking for existing efforts already underway. Check out congregations and faith-based and community organizations already doing good work in communities, like an active ministerial association that might be helping to take the lead in preparing for Hurricane Harvey.

You might also consider joining a state chapter of the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD). This consists of major disaster relief organizations, including many Christian organizations. It is a formal network that works closely with FEMA in times of major disasters, and helps activate and mobilize local efforts through VOAD state chapters. Getting connected to a local VOAD chapter is great way to join a community’s response to disastrous events.

In the event of a major disaster, it is common for Christian disaster relief organizations (e.g., Send Relief, Convoy of Hope, Samaritan’s Purse, Mennonite Disaster Service) to deploy to communities significantly affected to provide aid and organizational support. Many of these service groups have identified community needs and have built the expertise to provide solutions. Thus, you might also consider working with or through one of these groups. The take-home message here is to help through the organized response already underway.

3) Provide for Survivors’ Holistic Needs

Your church should strive to provide care to the “whole person,” including physical, emotional, social, and spiritual needs, which are all interconnected. This means whenever you address any one of these groups of needs, you are actually attending to all four simultaneously.

Keep your assistance simple, direct, and practical.

Throughout the scriptures, we see numerous examples of times when Christ and his disciples attended to spiritual and practical needs, such as offering hope and food in tandem. Remember the miracle of the loaves and fishes?

Focus on the tangible and immediate to get through the crisis, like fostering safety, comfort, and belonging. This may mean helping survivors find a place to stay or getting something to eat when they are hungry. It may even mean offering a seemingly small gesture like offering something to drink. Though it may not feel as though you are doing much, experienced Christian disaster volunteers and professionals know this sort of “water bottle ministry” is integral.

It’s okay to directly ask how you can help. Empower survivors to voice their needs and collaborate to prioritize which needs to focus on first. If survivors aren’t sure how you can help, you might try approaches that were useful for them before Hurricane Harvey. As much as possible, try and connect survivors to sustainable and vetted resources. Lastly, consider giving financially to a reputable Christian relief organization that is providing aid.

Spiritual Truths to Keep in Mind

Disasters like this can be a great test of personal faith, pushing survivors beyond our usual limits. Here are some spiritual truths that are important to dealing with and recovering from disasters like this one.

1) Don’t Try to Do This Alone

We all need community, and God gave us the gift of his church for a reason. In fact, the science bears this out: In a study I conducted with colleagues after the 2015 South Carolina floods, we found that people who had positive spiritual support were more likely to demonstrate disaster resilience. When we try to do it all on our own, and give the impression that everything is fine, we are closing ourselves off to the gifts God wants to give us through others. When we seek spiritual community, we can experience God’s presence, provision, and love in tangible ways. We can choose to allow pain to isolate from others, or to bring us together.

2) Accept What You Have Control Over, and What You Don’t

In another study I led after Hurricane Katrina, we found that people who demonstrated high levels of “spiritual surrender” tended to recover better. This didn’t make sense to me at the time—the idea of “surrender” seemed too passive to be an effective response. But now my own experiences of disaster have showed me just how powerful this idea is. When we truly understand and accept what we have control over and what we don’t, we are demonstrating willful obedience to God.

3) Seek Positive Meaning in Your Loss

Disasters like this one lead us to ask the hard questions, like why bad things happen. In interviews with disaster survivors, my colleagues and I have found that two people going through the same type of loss can interpret their experiences very differently. One may believe that God is punishing them, while the other believes God saved them. Our research found that the person who attributes negative meaning is likely to struggle more than the person who attributes positive meaning to their loss. Finding meaning in our loss allows us to move forward.

4) Trust That God Can Redeem Your Pain

When you’re in the midst of something hard, it can feel like nothing good could ever possibly come out of the pain you’re experiencing. But the foundation of our faith is God’s promise to ultimately redeem all things, and he often offers us glimpses of that here on earth. When I was helping gender-based violence survivors in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, I learned of a group of people whose homes had been destroyed by a volcano. They returned to the area and built new homes out of the ash and lava rock left behind. This was a poignant picture of how God can even use our brokenness to help us put the pieces of our lives back together again.

For those staring down Hurricane Harvey, know that the rest of us are praying for you now. And if the storm makes landfall, we will be with you through the disaster recovery process too.


Dr. Jamie D. Aten 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. Follow him on Twitter @drjamieaten and jamieaten.com.

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 jamieaten.com.