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When disaster hits, be ready to transform

As climate change leads to more natural disasters, congregations need to be prepared for a severity and breadth of need that they might not have faced before. Here in the New York area, Hurricane Sandy taught many lessons to those in its path, starting with “share what you have” and “respect and thank first-responders.”


For the Multichannel Church, key lessons for any community disaster are these:


Look outward

Your instinct will be to prepare Sunday worship to be a time of reaffirming normalcy and togetherness. But do more. Remember to serve people who can’t be with you and people outside your door. An invitation to Sunday service is nice, but an offer of free water, food, batteries and cell-charging is even more welcome. Instead of channeling disaster concern into what you were going to do anyway, change course and show your flexibility.


Refresh your ties to the larger community

Send church members to fire houses and EMT centers with thank-yous — plates of cookies, dry clothing. Publicly thank those who risk their lives for others. Offer to help damaged schools get stabilized. Collect food and clothing. Invite storm refugees to seek shelter in your church.


In other words, find out what the needs are, and take action on them. This will be especially important for young adults and youth, who want to see religious institutions do more for others and be less concerned for their institutional interests. One congregation in Manhattan’s Lower East Side drew care-minded folks from around the region to help it deliver food and clothing to elderly people stranded on upper floors of flooded buildings.


Communicate concern

deeper than fund-raising

Use your blog, e-letter and social media outlets to gather information about needs and to mobilize response. Let people see you as a community that cares. Counteract the public’s usual perception of churches as closed and self-serving. Don’t just be an easy conduit for funds to national relief agencies. But invite people to put their lives on the line with a congregation that is putting its life on the line.


Stay with it

Emergencies bring forth many expressions of concern, but not many people stay around to help when the adrenaline rush wears off. Faith communities can demonstrate steadfastness by staying with the need situation long after others have moved on. Doing so will stretch your human resources, and that will be good. It will get people thinking outside themselves.


In such actions, you can demonstrate the rich fabric of your church. You aren’t a one-act play — where everything funnels into Sunday worship. You can show compassion that extends beyond your core membership. You can show creativity that requires fresh ideas and young hands. tom-ehrich-new.jpg


TOM EHRICH is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is a founder of the Church Wellness Project His Web site is