It was Wednesday morning on an overcast early September day in Caldwell, a community of about thirty-five thousand located southwest of Yorkshire, a midwestern metropolitan area of nearly a million people. When the alarm went off at 6:30 a.m., Lloyd Albright, pastor of Emanuel Congregation, stretched and mentally reviewed the day’s “to-do” list. After his wife left for work, he completed his morning routines. He then switched on the morning TV news and started rounding up the things he’d need in the office.

The “crawl” across the bottom of the TV screen warned of high winds with driving rains. It looked as if Yorkshire was going to get the worst of a nasty storm, and Emanuel was only sixty-five miles southwest of the city. All too often, flooding followed such storms in the region.

Lloyd forgot about his plans for the day and began wondering whether he should activate the disaster plans he and the six-member Emanuel Disaster Prepare and Respond (DPR) team had spent a year putting together. What should he do first? Call his wife, who was by now already an hour into her day as an assistant principal? Call Emanuel’s DPR team captain? Call the ever-reliable church administrator who had probably arrived at the church office at least an hour ago? His decision was made for him: the phone rang.

“Pastor, we’ve got a problem.” It was the church property manager. “Evelyn just talked to me. Monica called to say she heard there’s going to be massive flooding in our area, and she doesn’t think it’s safe to open the school today. What do you think we should do?” Monica Latrell had directed Emanuel’s preschool for five years, and people had come to rely on her good judgment.

“How hard is it raining there?” the pastor asked. Although the Albrights lived only five miles from the church, sometimes it rained at the church but not in their neighborhood.

“Some. It’s not bad yet.”

Lloyd replied, “I’ll be in as soon as I can. Call Monica back and tell her not to come in. Ask her to activate the parents’ phone and e-mail tree. Put up the ‘School Closed Due to Bad Weather’ sign. Then, would you please pull up the website weather reports for me while I get in the car and head over? Try to get a reading on where this storm is and what we can expect.”

The rain fell harder as Lloyd drove toward Emanuel. A news alert on the radio caught his attention. “We interrupt this program to bring you this urgent news bulletin from the National Weather Service. Water levels in the Green River are rising rapidly. County engineers warn that there could be a breach in the levees in Green County.” That stunning news was repeated a few more times before the announcer added that the mayor was meeting with public-safety officials to decide whether an evacuation was necessary. “Residents along State Route 49 who live within five miles of the Green River are advised that they may be asked to evacuate,” he said.

The Emanuel DPR team had suggested that the church become a shelter in times of crisis. The church council had not yet approved the recommendation though, wanting to study the likely impact on the facilities. Nor had the congregation yet been through the Red Cross congregational shelter training program. One factor weighing on them in the decision to open a shelter was the Red Cross policy that the congregation would have to train enough volunteers to have two or more people at the shelter around the clock. It was a big commitment.

Putting the DPR plan together had been a long and challenging project. Some church members thought it an inappropriate use of time and energy. Team members often heard comments like, “That’s the government’s job. That’s why we pay taxes.” Or “Doesn’t the Red Cross take care of that?” or “We have enough to do managing our own households. We don’t have time to mess with disaster plans for our congregation.”

But thanks to patient and persistent leadership within the congregation and coaching from the local disaster-response providers, this dedicated team of six had crafted a comprehensive yet relatively short summary of what they would need to do for each of two plans: a disaster that caused damage to Emanuel’s buildings or to the homes of members or one that happened in their county or state but not in their own community.

“Now the rubber hits the road,” Lloyd thought as he pulled into his parking spot.


Research with survivors of many types of calamities—including natural disasters, wars, domestic violence, severe illness, major accidents, and job-related losses—indicates variables that compassionate people can influence. Though an individual’s attitude, beliefs, and values are key factors in recovery, so too is the climate or culture in which the individual lives. Social scientists doing research on how children develop resiliency—that is, the ability to overcome obstacles and appropriately develop their potential—have identified certain factors that maximize a child’s likelihood of success. These factors or life circumstances are known as “assets.” In this context an asset is a personal circumstance or characteristic that enables an individual to limit self-destructive behaviors and pursue proactive ones. 

Social scientists have tracked the impact of both the presence and absence of assets. They find a strong correlation between assets and overall functioning. That is, the more assets an individual has, the fewer negative behaviors he or she engages in—such as addictions, stealing, casual sexual encounters, violence, and the like. The reverse correlation also holds true. The fewer assets an individual has, the more likely he or she is to engage in negative behaviors.

Whole families, congregations, and communities also function along a continuum of health based on similar asset principles that contribute to their resilience. For example, a community with effective, cohesive leadership in place before a disaster will be much more likely to recover fully and more quickly than a community struggling with corrupt, indecisive, or divisive leadership. Congregations and communities can strengthen existing assets and instill new assets through education, strong leadership, cooperative efforts, and creative thinking.

One important component of good disaster-preparedness work is to make an inventory of a congregation’s strengths and to develop ways to rely on these strengths in a disaster. These same strategies can be applied in times of difficulty. For example, perhaps one of a congregation’s passions and strengths is to gather frequently for fellowship. This practice should be resumed as soon as possible after a disaster (or other community hardship, such as the widespread unemployment facing many communities today) to provide a place for people to support one another. If a congregation is known for its outstanding worship services, then worship could be a source of comfort and encouragement as people seek to be in touch with God in their time of sorrow and struggle. A congregation that has a well-developed and effective youth-ministry program can help stabilize the social structures for youth who have lost their schools or other important social outlets as a result of disaster. Likewise, church can become a stable community for those who have lost their jobs—and therefore their work community—in these difficult economic times.

People naturally turn to their congregations for support and encouragement during both individual and community-wide challenges. Knowing this, congregational leaders can increase their effectiveness in a time of need by thinking about their congregation’s “assets” or strengths during times of calm.

For instance, take time at a congregational meeting or council retreat or education forum to have members list the top three strengths of your congregation. Combine individual responses into a congregational list. How might these strengths be helpful in a disaster recovery?

Disasters and other wide-ranging hardships leave behind many issues—far too many for any one congregation to handle. By taking time to identify what your congregation does best, you also help avoid the trap of trying to do too much for too many for too long. Partnerships are the key to community long-term recovery. Think of the process as a kind of potluck supper. When each congregation adds what it has to offer to the community recovery effort, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. How can your congregation partner with other congregations in your community? What strengths does your congregation have to offer your community in a time of crisis?

Comment on this article on the Alban Roundtable blog


Adapted from A Ready Hope: Effective Disaster Ministry for Congregations by Kathryn M. Haueisen and Carol H. Flores, copyright © 2009 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.


AL386_SM A Ready Hope:
Effective Disaster Ministry for Congregations

by Kathryn M. Haueisen and
Carol H. Flores

A Ready Hope is an initiation for people of faith who are new to the ministry of disaster preparedness and response. Authors Haueisen and Flores provide an overview of existing disaster-response networks, detail the predictable phases of disaster recovery at both the individual and community level, lift up helpful and unhelpful ways that congregational leaders and members can be involved in disaster response efforts, and prepare congregations to respond appropriately to a disaster in their community. 

AL195_SM Congregational Trauma:
Caring, Coping, and Learning

by Jill M. Hudson

All congregations experience stress. Dealing with the out-of-the-ordinary event or tragedy—a fire, a sexual misconduct scandal, or the untimely death of a pastor, for instance—requires a completely different order of congregational coping skills. This book addresses those needs comprehensively, covering care strategies, how to adapt worship, assessment tools for measuring healing, how the judicatory can help, how to handle the media, and how tragedy can give rise to learning.

AL284_SM The Power of Asset Mapping:
How Your Congregation Can Act on Its Gifts

by Luther K. Snow

Asset mapping isn’t a new system or theory. It’s a way of thinking, a doorway into an “open-sum” perspective rooted in the Bible and common experience. The Power of Asset Mapping, by long-time community developer Luther K. Snow, shows congregational leaders how to help a group recognize its assets and the abundance of God’s gifts and to act on them in ministry and mission.

AL379_SM All for God’s Glory:
Redeeming Church Scutwork

by Louis B. Weeks

Nobody likes scutwork, the unwanted dregs of the working day. However, it is through focused attention to the details of scutwork that pastors are able to build solid relationships within the congregation, and without the trust that comes from these relationships, no true pastoral care and leadership is possible. All for God’s Glory explores ways in which churches are engaged and can engage in practices of administration that deepen care and build a healthy congregational community.

AL315_SM A Generous Presence:
Spritual Leadership and the Art of Coaching
by Rochelle Melander

Rochelle Melander brings the lessons and insights of the coaching world to ministers and other spiritual leaders in a way that is uplifting and relevant for their work. The tools provided in this book will help leaders understand themselves and enable them to strengthen their definitions for healthy living, raise their awareness about their own life and relationship skills, and improve their skills in relating to individuals and groups.


Copyright © 2009, the Alban Institute. All rights reserved. We encourage you to share articles from the Al
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