Something to Consider…

We recently asked church leaders about the following situation:

Churches often make important contributions to help communities recover from disasters. But their charitable acts do not make them immune. Events like floods, fire, severe storms, tornados, arson and earthquakes can strike churches with little or no warning.

Should your church have a disaster plan?

Churches are more accustomed to responding to a disaster, not being a victim of one. They may even have detailed plans in place so that they can respond quickly with crews of dedicated volunteers. But are they as well prepared and do they have the necessary plans in place for when a disaster strikes them?

Has anyone at your church thought through any of the following questions that will need to be answered if your church is the victim of a disaster?

As for the last question, here’s a list of community partners that your church should know before a disaster strikes:

Even better, your church should begin developing relationships with these key community partners now. The time to exchange ideas and business cards is not after a disaster has occurred, but well before. If your church chooses to put together a disaster plan, these contacts may prove to be very helpful as you go through that process.

Fortunately one community partner with expertise in dealing with disasters, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), has published a guide to assist churches in creating a disaster plan, or what they refer to as an emergency operations plan, or EOP.

For those who have a tendency to resist when they see the federal government wanting to help, FEMA’s guide states that it is intended to provide informal guidance to houses of worship and does not create any requirements beyond those already included in applicable law and regulations.

Basically FEMA’s disaster planning guide is meant to be helpful. We believe that churches will find it to be exactly that—helpful.


FEMA’s guide starts out by noting there are five areas involved in any thorough assessment of emergency preparedness:

A church’s EOP will want to take into account all five areas as they align with the three timeframes associated with an incident: before, during and after. Most of the work associated with prevention, protection and mitigation generally takes place before an incident. Response activities generally occur during an incident. Recovery activities can also take place during an incident, but most occur afterwards.

Planning Principles

FEMA’s guide lists five planning principles that it considers key to a church developing an EOP:

  1. Planning should be supported by leadership. Not only should a church’s top leadership support the planning and approval process, it should initiate it.
  2. All threats and hazards should be taken into account. It is better to include all threats, even those that appear to have a low probability of occurring, because further review may reveal safety needs before, during or after an incident.
  3. Threats and hazards that can occur off-site should be considered as well as on-site ones. And both should be viewed with a 24/7 perspective rather than one limited solely to when the most people will be in your building such as on Sunday mornings.
  4. Accessibility for all guests, attendees and staff of all ages should be considered, including those with disabilities, and reading and language limitations.
  5. A collaborative process should be used in creating a church’s EOP. While some state and local agencies may have templates available, their use should be evaluated based on whether or not they undermine the collaborative initiative and collectively shared plan that the church should pursue.

Planning Steps

Planning can be done in many ways. In fact FEMA says that the six steps that they recommend are flexible enough that they can be adapted to accommodate any church’s unique characteristics and situation.

  1. Form a collaborative planning team that includes all necessary stakeholders, including community partners such as first responders. Team members should be available to meet on a regular basis and willing to take on individual responsibilities to the team.
  2. Become knowledgeable of the threats and hazards the church could face; assess and prioritize those threats and hazards. Assessment should include a threat’s probability or frequency of occurrence, the extent of expected damage, time available to warn occupants, its duration, and its follow-on effects. It is recommended that the planning team address more than just the high-risk threats and hazards.
  3. Develop at least three goals for each threat or hazard that indicate the desired outcome, and specific, measureable actions (objectives) for each goal.
  4. Identify courses of action for accomplishing each of the objectives that address the what/who/when/where/why/ how for each threat or hazard.
  5. Write the plan and subject it to review and evaluation by leadership and community partners; resulting in its final approval and dissemination.
  6. Implement the plan through posting of information such as evacuation diagrams, training and drills. Update the plan based on new information or feedback from training and drills.
If your church becomes a victim of a disaster, its EOP can guide your leaders in protecting your church and maintaining its operations to the greatest extent possible.

We suspect that few, if any church members will be able to recall the last time their church held an emergency drill, if at all. Nonetheless, that’s exactly what FEMA recommends. Granted, there is a cost and time commitment involved in holding drills, but if they are done with the collaboration of outside agencies, your plan’s moving parts can be evaluated better. This will result in your church’s efforts most likely being synchronized more smoothly with the efforts of your community partners.

If your church becomes a victim of a disaster, its EOP can guide your leaders in protecting your church and maintaining its operations to the greatest extent possible. If operations are discontinued for a time, your church’s EOP can also provide guidance in what steps need to be taken in order for operations to resume at your church.

If you would like a copy of FEMA’s guide, CLICK HERE. If your church has a school, FEMA also offers a separate guide specifically designed for schools. It is available if you CLICK HERE.

Hopefully your church will never need to put its EOP into practice for real. But your congregants may not be so fortunate. Since you rely on them to be the helping hands that your church will send out to assist victims, your church may want to share some basic tips with them on how they personally can be better prepared.

FEMA suggests the following three steps individuals and families should take ahead of time to be prepared:

Serving Your Community

It is probably more likely that instead of your church being a victim of a disaster, a nearby community will be. Or perhaps other parts of your community will get hit while the church remains unscathed. In situations such as these your church likely will want to be at the forefront of serving victims.

Often people think that the best way that they can help when a disaster strikes is to just show up and do whatever is asked of them by the people in charge. That may be fine for individuals, but in severe disasters your church, working alongside govermental agencies in an organized and strategic manner may have a more significant impact on recovery efforts. Churches are well suited to provide what is known as Mass Care.

Mass Care includes:

In addition, other Mass Care opportunities can include hosting a volunteer reception center, or a multi-agency resource center or chain saw gangs.

Often in the wake of large disasters you will see people who have been forced out of their homes as well as an influx of out-of-town volunteers pouring in to your community to help. Both groups need somewhere temporary to stay. Does your church have the facilities to shelter these people? Do you have the necessary volunteers to staff a shelter? If your church can answer Yes to both of these questions, then you will want to prepare a shelter plan ahead of time. Those who are part of your church and who wish to staff a shelter should also take the Red Cross course on Shelter Management.

When communities are victims of disasters, it’s the churches in those communities that are in the best position to help in a variety of ways.

Perhaps your church has a great kitchen. In the aftermath of a large disaster people need to be fed. If your church wishes to help in this way you need to run your volunteers through the food handlers’ course offered by your local public health agency.

If your church has one or more large open rooms with easy access you may wish to offer your church as a distribution center for emergency supplies. When a large disaster occurs agencies move in and distribute large quantities of water, food, blankets, and other necessities to survivors. If your church chooses to help in this way you will need to have a facility that can handle a large volume of traffic and storage for bulk supplies. Volunteers will be needed to staff this project 24 hours a day — 12 hours of distributing supplies, and 12 hours of receiving incoming supplies.

Fellow volunteers streaming in from everywhere will need a central place to go to for work assignments as well as information on where they can bunk down when they’re not working. Perhaps your church can serve as your community’s Volunteer Reception Center. Another centralized facility that is needed in a large disaster is a place where various agency representatives can set up shop so that victims can sign up for assistance that those agencies offer.

When communities are victims of disasters, it’s the churches in those communities that are in the best position to help in a variety of ways. We hope that we’ve given your church’s leaders some ideas on how your church can prepare for a disaster, and if spared, how it can reach out and help your community when disaster strikes. Frankly, we can’t think of a better way your church can represent our Lord.

I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers, you did for me.
(Matt. 25:40 NIV)

Please Note: This information is provided with the understanding that Church Administrative Professionals is not rendering professional advice or service.

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Deborah Miller, cca

Charles Kneyse

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