The storms of life

Image

In case you have not noticed, things are not calming down. Whether you have a strong belief in climate change, the end-times prophecies or you are just the average American citizen with a front window and the Weather Channel, you cannot deny that things seem to be falling apart.

Over the last several months it seems that nature has been holding a contest to see which natural phenomenon can break the next and biggest record. As I created a program for high-schoolers last week, I spent a great deal of time trying to decide which pictures to use of hail three feet deep, Colorado highways destroyed and flood photos. After all, they had only given me a 90 minute time slot in which to cover 2013’s larger disasters!

As I write this, storms are brewing and despite what the calendar reflects, we are watching for the development of tornadoes in the Plains states again while pulling out the winter clothes.

While we can admit that storms have become a part of our everyday life, and a majority of us would agree that these storms have become more ferocious, there seems to still be some misunderstandings as to who they will affect.  The fact is, they will affect us all, from the faith-filled to the heathen, from the Protestant to the Catholic.  Scripture says that God is no respecter of persons and it appears that neither is nature.

With this in mind, I am going to bring up a point I have attempted to make before; if there is something threatening your church, congregation, parish or synagogue, wouldn’t you monitor it, generate new protocols or at least prepare a sermon or message on it to create awareness?  If the answer is yes, then we need to acknowledge that climate change is just outside our doors and needs to be addresses by leadership.  The time to begin to change the way we run our ministries is now.

I have dedicated this blog sit to supplying insights, guidance and challenges to the faith-based community, so if you have not followed along before now, please go back and read the 3 part Blind Faith Series before continuing.

It has always concerned and amazed me that thousands of preachers around the country seem to have no problem in preaching a message of salvation from an unseen force yet the same preachers will hesitate to preach on a threat that can be seen from the window of their parsonage! The lessons of a faith-based walk follow so closely the lessons of climate change readiness it almost seems infantile in its simplicity!

Need some sermon plan ideas? Then here they are…

We need to recognize and publicly acknowledge that storms are happening everywhere and that their intensity is increasing. This poses not only a threat to our facilities and congregations during services or events, but also is endangering the communities in which our parishioners live and those we are attempting to reach.

All of us experience storms in our lives. While we can prepare to live through these storms, we can neglect preparedness to experience the consequences or even to die from our error.

Not all storms look alike. We will not always see them coming and so, we cannot assume how each “attack” will look or behave.  This means we must be ready in season and out of season for what may come.

A storm may be that one event that reveals what we really are, what we really believe and what we have done so far with our lives.  It may be that the next storm will be the one that tests us to the very limits of our faith and our dedication.

Storms have an uncanny ability to reveal weakness and lack of planning, training and knowledge.

Storms often bring the opportunity to serve others affected by the same storm or a different one.

Storms may be the most powerful educational force in the universe as we can not only learn from them, but can be strengthened by them.

A natural disaster is defined as an “event” that brings a threat or risk to life, health, property or environment.  A spiritual storm can be defined as an “event” that brings about a trial, misfortune or tragedy.

Are we elevating our personal walks by preparing for life’s storms? As faith-based organizations, are we raising the standard by writing plans, establishing protocols and maintaining campaigns and outreaches so we can stand against our new climate challenges?


Continue reading

If any of you lacks wisdom…

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but I have found that often times, it takes a thousand words to draw a picture. Here are those words…

Two years ago, a smaller church in an average Midwest town was hosting its annual Vacation Bible School. Children from all over the neighborhood were in attendance and the excitement level was high throughout the local community. The church had a great reputation as a source for spiritual education in the neighborhood and parents looked forward to that special week when their children would have the opportunity to take part in mid-summer games, worship and learning.

The leaders were also excited; a group of energetic and passionate teachers anticipating what God was going to do throughout the week with these young minds and hearts.

The week was splendid with record attendance and a church filled with the joyous (and sometimes chaotic) sounds of children discovering biblical truths and enjoying the summer sun…

Then the clouds covered that sun…

Approximately two days in advance, the Storm Prediction Center began to forecast severe weather for the community, and while one leader kept an eye on the developing story, VBS ran as scheduled and little was mentioned as to what was in store for the end of the week.  On Friday morning, the forecast was now evident on television and radio, but the vague time frame of “late afternoon” caused little concern as Vacation Bible School would be over for yet another year by 4 P.M.

The skies darkened quickly around 2:45 and one leader listened to a pocket weather radio as the National Weather Service warned of severe storms approaching.

An hour later, our tracking center got the call…

“Is this weather going to hit our area before the end of the day?”

We quickly pulled up the area on our ThreatNet system and saw that severe weather was not only approaching, but was already in their area with reports of 2” hail and winds in excess of 60 MPH.

“Should we do something? We are supposed to release the children and send them home shortly!”

The question sent chills down my back.  We wanted nothing of the liability of a decision like this over our organization without prior arrangements, so we asked to speak to the person in charge.

“I am the volunteer in charge” came the reply.

“What is the church’s procedure for a severe weather situation like this?” we asked.

We were told that none of the volunteers coordinating the VBS had any knowledge of a written or verbal plan for such a scenario and that the Pastor was not available.

Of course we wanted to know more, and after a few questions, found that the volunteers had never been outfitted with a plan, church procedures nor any real authority to make a decision like the one that faced these few volunteers at this moment.

We advised that they call their local emergency management office or fire department.

When the volunteer called the local fire department, they too were concerned, telling the volunteer about the large hail, high winds and informed her that funnel clouds had been seen in the area.  The recommendation was to keep the children safely in the church until the storm passed.

Once off the phone, the volunteer returned to the room where the children were being kept only to find that another volunteer had already released the children…

It is not a pretty picture.

How many could have been lost or injured? Who would have consoled the grieving parents?

Why was there no plan? Why were these volunteers thrust into a situation without guidance?  Unfortunately, it is a common problem in churches around the country.

While Proverbs 22:3 says “A prudent man foresees the difficulties ahead and prepares for them”, the church will too often overlook perhaps some of the simplest of things as they strive over the daily grind of operations.

Churches are primarily run by volunteers and while we know that there are large churches with wonderfully well-staffed offices, the average church has but a few employees and the rest of the “staff” consists of parishioners who have “signed up” to help the church in its daily efforts. From ushers to nursery workers, from Sunday school teachers to worship leaders, from youth group leaders to trustees, the church is run by folks with other jobs, their own families and very little time to consider trainings, workshops and certainly classes… but at what cost?

If the church is to be a life-saving entity in the community, it must first make the commitment to that community to NOT be a threat to life and safety.  This can be done by simple classes, time spent on a plan, the posting of procedures, the training in protocols and even the installment of regular drills within the church during services and events.

With summer upon us and the threat of severe weather coming from every side of the country now (hurricanes are churning…), now is the time to create these procedures, to train our volunteers and to make sure we have a plan.

Where do we start?

Let’s start with cost. Do not set a budget for this. Each church is different, each church is in a different stage of growth and local outreach. To confine the effort for finance will do nothing but constrict the outcome and effectiveness. Some churches may need to print materials, some may have to purchase weather radios, some may have o create new signage… until you begin, there is no way of knowing what the effort will cost you, but is this so different that the walk we began as believers? Were we not instructed by the Apostle Paul to NOT consider what the cost was, in fact, isn’t our ministry something that we know may cost us everything?

With that said, the effort does not need to be expensive, but I assure you that NOT planning could cost you more than you have. Imagine the parents and relatives and attorneys representing the case of a lost child following our Vacation Bible School fiasco…

Proverbs 4:6-7 states: “Do not forsake wisdom, and she will protect you; love her, and she will watch over you. Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding.”

So let’s get understanding. Familiarize yourself with how a plan is written. There are many churches that have posted their policies and procedures on the web, so look them over, see what applies, ask yourself way they chose to address certain issues the way they did and glean from their experience and effort.

Investigate your local emergency management office. Sit with your local EMA and ask questions. Learn about the threats that could attack your congregation or outreaches… do you need to plan for an earthquake? Tornadoes? Flooding? Landslides?

Involve your people.  Start a Safety Ministry Team that will take on the responsibility of assessing the church’s needs and the threats. Use giftings within the body such as firefighters, law enforcement officers, corporate administrators, nurses, doctors, etc.

Get that team trained. Local trainings are constantly being made available across the country but few churches take part in them. Make sure that your Safety Ministry Team is trained in areas such as evacuation, missing children, basic fire suppression, how to shelter-in-place.  Where can you get this done? Check on the availability of a CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) course in your area.  These courses are free to the public and will give your leadership a GREAT headstart and foundation for planning.

Look into forming a Medical Response Team. This is easy. Purchase EMT/Responder bags for the church and place them in strategic locations in the building. Locate and recruit the medically trained in your congregation. Do you have a nurse? An EMT? This team can take on the responsibility of making sure that basic first aid classes are held, that leadership understands the use of an AED, that outreach events have at least one medically trained person in attendance, etc.

Utilize your local American Heart Association office to provide trainings on CPR and AED use each year as a church-wide event.

Start writing and training. You will want the leader from your Safety Ministry Team, the leader from your Medical Team, a Trustee, your Head Usher, your Sunday School Superintendent, the leader of Vacation Bible School and others to partake in this endeavor together.  Make sure you include some of the following:

Response procedures for severe weather during an indoor service

Response procedures for outdoor events on the grounds

Response procedures for events off-site (camping trips for example)

Contact procedures for children

Evacuation procedures for fire and other threats

Shelter-in-place procedures for threats such as bomb threats, shooters, hazardous materials spills, etc

Procedures for monitoring a weather radio

Procedures for alerting everyone in the building of an emergency

Training requirements for anyone working in a ministry on behalf of the church

These are just some beginning tips for you to consider as you embark on this journey. Your plan will never be complete, it should be in a constant state of change and re-writing. Involve new people, have regular trainings, print procedures in your bulletin and post them in classrooms, restrooms and gathering places.

To have a family of people that worships together, plays together and grows together is a blessing, but in order to maintain that blessing we have to remember we are charged to “Keep watch over all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers…” Acts 20:28.


Blind Faith Part Three

Prov 1:32
For the simple are killed by their turning away, and the complacency of fools destroys them.

In this series we have gone back to my roots that were planted deeply in an evangelical family and an evangelical church that was originally attended by old Uncle Art who has been gone many years now; a spiritual history that goes back over 100 years.

The idea that calamity is avoidable if one prays hard enough or if one is “covered” by the grace of God seems to be the fodder for those religious zealots that jumped on New Orleans after Katrina claiming that the disaster had been the judgement of God for sins of the Big Easy.

While I am not going to discount the ability of God to direct a wind, a flood or fire since biblically this seems to be one of His methods of operation, we have to take a more realistic view of disasters and admit that sometimes disasters happen to good people as well… even GOD’S people.

(If you are only now joining me, you need to back the church bus up and go read Part One and Part Two of this series!)

The church had no basement. When the storm had passed, the roof could not be found, the walls had collapsed, and there were two cars in the church's auditorium

At 5:41, May 22, 2011 a tornado ripped the city of Joplin apart. It did not hit just the Sonic, just the High School or just the Home Depot. Just before 5PM as services began at Harmony Heights Baptist Church, Pastor Charlie Burnett stood at the pulpit and informed 53 parishioners that the threat of a storm and even the possibility of a tornado was very real.  Rev. Burnett reminded the congregation of the safe, concrete block rooms with no windows in the church were where everyone was to go should they have to dismiss due to the weather.

Shortly after service began, the tornado sirens sounded for a short period, but then went silent.  The Pastor again spoke to the necessity of everyone heeding a dismissal to the safe rooms should it be necessary and service continued for almost one more half hour.  The sirens, one of which was nearly on church property sounded again and the 53 believers were dismissed to the safest rooms of the church.  Within minutes, 3 were dead, 41 were injured, and the church was no longer a building but a pile of rubble covered in debris from the Joplin High School across the street.

In a recent call with Pastor Burnett, I revisited May 22nd with the man of God in a tearful conversation about the church’s plans to begin rebuilding in February of this year. The plan is to include a Safe Room built to FEMA specs in the new building.

While this story rings of tragedy, I consider this a success story. Imagine how different the scenario would have been had this church not had a leader that was not only AWARE, but had a plan. This account brings to light that every plan will have its faults only to be revealed by the power of the disaster, but that to have had no plan would have ended in absolute obliteration of this church’s faithful members.  I remember well the church after the tornado, and there was no sanctuary; without a plan, without leadership and foresight, there would no longer be a congregation.

The importance of tornado drills is driven into children at schools across this nation each and every year. Most states have tornado drills that coincide with State or County-wide drills during severe weather awareness weeks.

Fire drills are also a subject of focus each year as safety educators pummel schools each October with fire prevention materials, messages and programs. As I travel and speak at schools, there is rarely a student, no matter the age, that cannot tell me where and when they are to go in the event of a fire or tornado, and most can even describe the procedure for a terrorist attack, gun or bomb threat!

Now again let’s go to the church; a place of gathering for every age group from the newborn to the elderly. Most church buildings consist of a labyrinth of hallways connecting classrooms and closets, storage rooms and meeting rooms. Where do we go? Who knows? Is there a plan to move the handicapped? Do we move the toddlers to another room? Nobody usually knows, and if someone DOES know, the plan has not been shared with the parishioners.

Pastor Burnett lost three of his people May 22nd, but the salvation of 50 will forever be that church’s testimony because of one thing: in my conversation with Pastor Burnett my ears caught one statement over any other:

“I instructed my congregation as to the procedure for moving to the safe room as I have done many times before.”

The success of school drills is based on two things: regularity and repetition. When we, as a church, are responsible for such a vast number of people and such a wide range of ages and needs, it is imperative that we not only have procedures and plans in place, but that we DRILL and INSTRUCT on a regular basis so that when the day comes, we can show ourselves to be “workman who need not be ashamed.”

While it is true that famine was prophesied for Egypt, it is also a fact that God led Joseph to prepare for it, and, as a result, he saved his family and the nations in the region.

Proverbs 22:3 tells us that a prudent person will foresee disaster and prepare for it, while a naive will go blindly on and suffer the consequences.  Good advice not only for religious folks, but for everyone.

Make no mistake. To take the time and sometimes to spend the modest costs of preparing the church is not a lack of faith! Those in leadership regularly speak to the shelter God provides “under His wings”, yet too often fail to see the responsibility (and even moral obligation) to prepare and plan to secure the safety and lives of God’s people.

Hebrews 11:7 describes true faith like this: “By faith Noah, being warned of God of things not seen as yet, moved with fear and prepared an ark to the saving of his house.”

Church, no matter what your denomination, it is nearly impossible to not hear the message that we are in the last days. If this is not true, we must preserve the church, its people and its message.  If we ARE in the last days, you might do well to remember that Jesus Himself referred to these times saying they would be like the days of Noah (Matt 24).


Blind Faith Part Two

The story of Noah immediately comes to mind when one thinks about preparedness and the church. In our last installment of this article, we looked at the scenario of the church with no plan, yet one of the oldest of Bible stories, taught well and often in almost every church in America is a lesson in preparedness coupled with faith!

It has long struck me odd that we allow ourselves to miss the simple lessons. For many years I sat in the Sunday School classroom being inundated with Bible stories displayed out using a large felt board and paper cut-outs. I remember well the story of a man and his family instructed by God to put together provisions for a disaster. This family began to build a shelter, and then finally, entered that shelter to find that the disaster indeed was coming and they were now the only humans on the planet that had a plan.

Lost. The lesson has been lost.

From the lining of cribs around the world to the walls of children’s nurseries, the greatest of preparedness stories shows an ark, a flood and SURVIVORS but the lesson is lost, and therefore, we will someday see those who tell the story lost as well.

It is, to say the least, a poor testimony for the church to walk forward into a new year without a plan. 1 Timothy 5:8 speaks to this as it states “…if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than unbeliever!”

I do not normally quote scripture and “preach” so much in an article, but when considering the topic…when in Rome…

Does the church deny that disasters happen? Are we caught up in some spiritual euphoria so we do not think they occur? Of course not! Churches around the nation have made preparations to turn over their buildings and assets to the Red Cross in the event of a disaster, so there is no issue of denial, there is only an issue of diverted responsibility as we fail to have plans for before and DURING the disaster! We know what is right, we know that every other entity in our community has worked to create disaster plans, protocols and procedures for their employees and members. We know that tornado drills save lives and that the government has repeatedly told us to be ready, yet we place ourselves in the crosshairs of every disaster because… well I don’t KNOW why we do it.

What I know is that if we are going to preach from the book, we should probably read it first, and we might start with the story of Noah, and then perhaps skip ahead to the book of James where it says: “Whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is a sin.”

Sit back in your pew and get out a notepad. It is time to for revival.

Let’s first take a look at the church the way it exists in the real world. We can toss out faith, God, belief, doctrine and theology for a moment or two (not really throw it out, let’s just change focus)…

...something we preach well but live poorly...

The church is a business. Most are corporations.  Taxable status aside, the church is a workplace, and therefore we need to recognize it as such and treat it as such.  It does not take one long to find the requirements, recommendations and directives concerning a workplace. According to OSHA, a workplace is required to have written plans like Procedures for reporting a fire or other emergency, procedures for accounting for all employees after an evacuation, procedures for leadership (employees) for performing medical duties or rescue activities and more. A business is to have and maintain an alarm system for notifying employees (volunteers and leadership?), it must designate and train employees to assist in a safe and orderly manner the evacuation of others.

Want me to continue?

While these standards exist, we have chosen to not recognize the wisdom and direction of authority, something we preach well but live poorly.

See OSHA CFR1910.

To not write a book and keep this at more of an article, I will not belabor CFR1910 issues to death here, but will instead, share a story.

Two years ago, while monitoring weather from our tracking center, we received a call from one of our volunteers. The situation was serious. A severe weather system had been moving in for hours during the church’s annual Vacation Bible School which had attracted a couple hundred young children.  As the programs for the day had come to a close, the skies had begun to darken. The area had been in a tornado watch for quite some time.

We received a phone call from one of the volunteers overseeing the programs.  The woman was familiar with our organization from attending events in her area.

“It’s time to let the children go home,” she said. “The skies look horrible and there is considerable lightning; how serious is this?  Should we let them go?”

A quick check of the situation in her area from our tracking center showed that less than 15 miles from the church’s location there was 2” hail and rotation had been spotted in numerous areas of the region.  It is the policy of our tracking center to not advise but simply inform so we told the volunteer the gravity of the situation and asked her what the procedures or policies were at the church in this instance.

“As far as I know there are none! If there are any, we don’t know them! We are volunteers!” she exclaimed. “We have all these kids here and have to make a decision!”

We advised her to contact leadership at the church and if nothing else, the fire department. As the it turned out, there was no policies or procedures at the church for this situation and while the volunteer contacted the local fire department and was advised to take the children to cover, another volunteer, tired of waiting for the answer, allowed the children to exit the building for home. 3 minutes later the winds increased to 50MPH, hail was measured at 3” and two tornadoes were spotted just blocks from the church.

Miracles happen every day and it is no surprise that they happen in the church ; after all, that is where I would expect them to be most prevalent, but do we count on them to save us from our responsibility?

The small group huddled next to the upright piano and prayed for a miracle

Clearing debris on the site of a church shortly after the Joplin tornado, I was able to interview the pastor who had taken shelter with his worship team in the basement. Underneath the creaking structure with hard hats and lights, we took a quick a look at where they had “weathered” the storm.  Just less than a dozen had been in the sanctuary rehearsing for the upcoming service when the pastor “just felt like something was not right”. Stopping the music, the small group could now hear the tornado as it shredded the neighborhood to the south of the church. They headed for a corner of the basement and clung to each other next to an old upright piano and a pile of old song books.

As I looked around that piano, I knew that their survival was not the result of a plan. It was a miracle.

Webster’s Dictionary defines an emergency as a condition requiring prompt action.  The American Red Cross defines it much more clearly:

An emergency is an unplanned event that can cause deaths or significant injuries to employees, customers or the public; or that can shut down business, disrupt operations, cause physical damage, or threaten facility’s financial standing or public image.

If we continue to look at the church like a business or corporation, we can clearly see that there is a moral, financial and often legal obligation to have a plan.

Whether you have 2 employees or 60 at your church, you have a pool of volunteers that oversee your nurseries, Sunday schools, vacation Bible schools, Bible studies, youth group activities, special events, concerts, worship and pageant practices, kid’s clubs, midweek activities and more. At even a small church this pool could be 50 to 80 people!  That’s a lot of “employees” in charge of even more people!

It has been my experience that the parishioners of most churches are in the hands of these volunteers more than they are in the hands of an actual church employee most of the time!

From a tornadic event to a shooter entering the building, from a fire in the boiler room to an injury in the nursery, we need to face the fact that emergencies and disasters happen to churches just like any other entity.

A church (and therefore its employees and volunteers) must be ready and trained to respond to emergencies in the church. How should the church plan? Just like any other responsible organization or business, the church should take seriously their responsibility to ensure that the health, safety and welfare of their congregation is first and foremost.  The people that fill the pews each week have come to the church out of trust and that trust should be rewarded with trustworthiness. Did Noah load the ark with only his family and animals? Of course he did not! The ark was loaded for months with provisions for those that would be aboard when the disaster finally struck, and for 40 days and 40 nights, those animals and people were provided for.

Emergency management needs to become a role of the church, and when it becomes the church’s priority, there will be a plan.

Planning, however cannot be the only component in this new venture. Training, conducting drills, testing equipment and coordinating with the community are going to be crucial if we are to take this seriously.

Churches have to stop ignoring the seriousness of emergency management while praying for miracles. 

Now, let’s fold back into the mix the ministry aspect of the church. We have established that the church is a business, but honestly, the church is in the business of ministry of ministering to people. What greater ministry is there than to become a life-saving force in their lives?

Next in the “Blind Faith” series we will look at drills, training volunteers and establishing protocols and procedures. Also coming up…nurseries, children’s activities and youth events.

It wasn’t raining when Noah built the ark…

To begin your planning, you can access OSHA’s 3088 “How to plan for workplace emergencies and evacuations”, visit http://www.osha.gov/Publications/osha3088.pdf


Blind Faith Part One


I have for many years challenged churches to hold tornado drills. Few have ever taken me up on the challenge. In this three part series, I want to look at why we don’t, why we should, and the need to start taking a closer look at disaster planning in the church.

I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use. ~Galileo

According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life (survey results 2009), the national average of church attendees in each state is 39%. Of 307,000,000+, that is 11,973,000 people each week filling the pews, classrooms and nurseries of churches across this country.

Keep in mind, this is the average. States like Mississippi, Nebraska, North and South Carolina, Tennessee and others see over 50% of their population actively involved in the local church.

What does this have to do with emergency management? Actually, quite a lot.

We first, in order to understand the importance and impact of these statistics on the world of emergency management, have to remind ourselves as to the actual definition of emergency management itself.

Emergency management is the interdisciplinary field dealing with the strategic organizational management processes used to protect critical assets of an organization from hazard risks that can cause events like disasters or catastrophes and to ensure the continuance of the organization within their planned lifetime.

The church, not the building down the street with the cross on top, but the CHURCH as a whole is the largest adult demographic in the United States. While the number of K-12 students in the United States surpasses the numbers of church, the number of Americans that claim an affiliation with the church rises an additional 40% over the number that attend church on a regular basis giving the church over 25 Million members.

Because of this fact, we have to admit that the church’s greatest and most critical asset is its people, for without those people, there would be no church.

If we now take the definition of the church and overlay it upon the definition of emergency management, we see that there is a greater need for emergency management in the church than in any other organization or agency nationwide simply because its critical assets outnumber the critical assets of ANY other organization or agency!

Some perspective:

There are 3.2 Million Girl Scouts in the United States.

There are 49.4 Million students in our schools systems.

There are 1.2 Million WalMart employees.

There are at least 12 Million people sitting in churches around this country as I write this (it is Sunday).

I recently was asked to oversee a tornado drill in a Central Illinois public school for the purpose of critiquing the methods, process and speed in which the children were brought to a safe location.  During the drill, three students slowed process in one hallway due to handicaps, and a substitute teacher, for a moment, was a bit confused, but the drill went well and the school’s plan was more than impressive.

For years I have wondered about the same drill if it were held in a church.

Let’s just focus on an average church with 400 in attendance.

The average family is 4 people. 2 of them children.

We have 200 people in the sanctuary. We have 160 children of various ages ranging K-8 in classrooms throughout the building.  We have 40 children under the age of 4 in a nursery; 10 of them are bottle-fed infants.

In each classroom there are two volunteers (not church employees) and 3 more volunteers staff the nursery.

It is a stormy Sunday morning and the echos of hymns are still echoing throughout the building as the preacher steps to the pulpit to bring the good news for the day…

A distant rumble of thunder, followed by another drown out his gentle greeting to the congregation.  Before he can open his Bible, a siren begins to wail outside, then another…

Luckily an usher, standing by the rear door sees the tornado just blocks away because there is no weather radio in the church. As a tree branch slams into the entry doors, the usher charges into the rear of the sanctuary.  Faith has no hold of hearts now as windows begin to break. Parishioners scramble over pews heading the rear of the building.  Downstairs the classrooms just moments ago filled with children’s worship songs are filled with screams. Children fill the hallways as the volunteers each attempt to find a safe place to hide. As children break loose and head toward the sanctuary, the hoard of panicked adults is now clambering down the same stairs over the sea of children.

30 minutes later…

The rain is lightly falling and rays of sun shoot through strings of clouds stretched across a Sunday sky.  Nobody speaks as the churchyard fills with sheet-covered bodies. Empty expressions are on the face of responders as they pass each other… faith failed…how could God allow this to happen in His own house?

God didn’t. God’s people did.

Stay tuned for Blind Faith Part Two


Becoming Nehemiah Compliant

 

“But we’re trying to help, for Christ’s sake!” 

Tapping the potential of faith-based organizations in the wake of disaster

 

Over the course of the years, I have had the opportunity to witness quite a few churches operate in the wake of a disaster. Before getting too far into this article, I want to say that there are many faith-based organizations that have done a tremendous job of responding to disasters, but those are not the ones I am addressing here.

I remember some of my early programs included discussions about what I called “chaotic response”. These references were regarding the groups of youth or volunteers from different churches that, with hearts of gold, would deploy themselves into disaster zones only to become a part of the problem and not the solution. One of my favorite anecdotes was that of a church that, with broken gas lines hissing all over town, took it upon themselves to set up a large number of BBQ grills in a parking lot to feed the storm victims…

The government is much more politically correct when describing this activity; they call it “spontaneous response”. I still refer “chaotic”.

I will never forget one experience I had this summer. As my team worked debris removal in the heart of Joplin’s “ground zero”, we were encountering every type of debris imaginable from hospital waste to broken glass, from shredded sheet metal to twisted power cables.  We had several pieces of heavy equipment operating in a few acres of space and over 60 workers. Our team, no strangers to deployments, were geared from head to toe with hard hats, steel toed boots, long pants, safety glasses and masks.

It was in the midst of this that a large white bus pulled up…

There was window paint decorating the bus that exclaimed in no uncertain terms what had brought the bus to this place for on each window was emblazoned messages like “To Joplin with love” and “God’s Army”. As the bus came to a stop, the doors were flung open and I had my first view of what was to come.  The youth leader was the first out of the bus…

He was a large man, in his mid-to-late-twenties with a goatee and what looked like a middle-aged version of a Mohawk. The Hawaiian shirt was a great look for him, but the pale-purple sandals really caught my eye.

There is an old saying, “As the leader goes, so go the people”. Never a more true statement here. The entire bus was packed with young people, all in shorts, light t-shirts and baseball caps. They were all wearing running shoes or crocks and in one hand, they each had sun-screen; in the other, yard rakes.

I wanted to alert the field hospital immediately just to let them know they were about to have a run!

What is the difference between a “Missions Trip” and a “Deployment”?  The answer is almost obvious.

Missions trips take place every year and can range from puppet shows on the street to trips overseas to spread the gospel or a message of hope.  Deployment is a military word and refers to the transfer of soldiers to an area where the purpose is to overcome an obstacle or enemy.

While many churches and faith-based organizations will schedule missions trips to disaster-struck areas in order to rebuild homes or churches, teams deployed into disaster zones need to be properly deployed and need to be deployed with a knowledge base of training that allows them to be of use where they are needed the most.

Simple understanding of the phases of disaster, basic research, and trained people can make all the difference.

Now, I am not saying this group should not have come to Joplin. What I am saying is that too often I see faith-based organizations step into situations where they have no business being simply because they have allowed the “separation of church and state” to overshadow common sense. As I visit churches, I find that the separation of church and state has become almost a “comfort zone” in which we exist; a world where churches operate on their rules while the government operates on its rules.  We have to be willing to embrace the concept that this separation cannot apply to deploying. There is a National Response Plan that includes us all as American’s, church-going or not.

This particular group was geared to work in a food tent, to be distributing water or to be assisting at the City’s base of operations. There was no way this group should have been in that “ground zero” area.

Aside from the liability they immediately became the minute they stepped off their bus, they were immediately not operating within the confines of any authority; a poor witness for a faith-based organization.

While large denominations, for the most part, have phenomenal training programs, it is still the local churches and the independent churches that hit the ground the most, and it is in lack of training that representatives of God can quickly bring hell to a town.

I am not discounting the value of missions by any means.  Many of our members are involved in missions and we wholeheartedly endorse the concept of missions, but we believe that the ministry performed by certain teams comes through the professionalism, the efficiency, and the timing of the response.

The Southern Baptist Convention’s Disaster Relief organization states “When humanity is judged, one of the decisive factors will be how well we responded to the needs of our neighbors.”  It is this belief and philosophy that has made the Convention’s work some of the finest ever seen in the wake of disasters.

“But Eddy, if I start requiring all kinds of training for my people in order to go we’ll lose volunteers!”

“My people don’t have time to train AND respond so we take what we can get!”

I believe there is a biblical basis for requiring your church members to train and prepare to respond rather than becoming “chaotic response”.

It is in the Bible’s book of Nehemiah that we find our original blueprint for this avenue of ministry we call disaster response.

Although the current books of Ezra and Nehemiah were originally one book, and were originally just chapters called “Ezra I and Ezra II”, the chapters were eventually split into two separate books.  The book of Ezra now contains a portion of the history of how Jerusalem came to ruins, but in Nehemiah, now that since 1560 is its own book, reads like the story of a deployment.

Nehemiah was a spiritual leader who had the gifting and wisdom to seek practical solutions.  We find in the beginning of the account that Nehemiah was involved in government.  He worked for the government.  When Nehemiah saw the ruins of Jerusalem, he chose to act.  It says in Chapter One that he wept at the first report.

Let me point out that this is where the church excels.  Nehemiah’s heart was broken and he wept.  I believe that what makes churches so valuable and gives them more potential than any other type of organization is that the infusion of faith into the human spirit ignites passion and it is that passion that can be the catalyst for large movements.

Nehemiah approached the king and discussed the current situation with the king, very much like our C4LDRT (Chasing4Life Disaster Response Team) leadership has briefings with government agencies now.

The king, in Chapter 2 asks Nehemiah what his goals are in order to hold Nehemiah to a form of accountability, and Nehemiah presents his missions statement and purpose, adding that he would like permission to respond to the disaster.

This is a key element in how we should respond.  Never self-deploy, and never enter the gates of a city without permission.

The account continues with even more insight for us as Nehemiah requests of the king a few things; the first is the permission.  The second request is that the king give him certificates so that upon deployment, Nehemiah will have the ability to operate freely in the disaster zone.

In the same manner as Nehemiah, the church needs to require of its members that they be constantly educating themselves and acquiring certificates of training from entities such as FEMA and DHS.  Simple online courses offered for free from DHS and FEMA not to mention dozens of others can be a great source of education and understanding for any faith-based organization’s volunteers. If a church expects to deploy alongside fire departments, there should be no difference in understanding between the two entities or they will not be able to function together.

Nehemiah gets his certificates, and has another request for the king; grant funding.

While the scripture only briefly touches on this, the story says that Nehemiah was “granted” what he asked for, and this included even security provided for by the king’s soldiers.  My point here is that once Nehemiah was NIMS compliant, he suddenly became a respected entity. It was obvious that the king no longer was seeing Nehemiah as just another “Bible-thumper”, and Nehemiah was having doors opened for him!

You can see the precedent set for churches in disaster here; there is a great value to be placed on pre-arranged relationships and “permissions”.

It is only at this point that Nehemiah can deploy, and as the story progresses, we see that he enters the city, begins to work, and inspires those around him who marvel at his efficiency, professionalism and authority.

As the year comes to a close, we have to look ahead. 2012, (Mayan calendar considered or not), we are sure to see more disasters that will require massive amounts of volunteers. The faith-based population is the largest population in the United States and therefore, could be the largest work-force in the wake of disaster, but we have a responsibility to ready ourselves, get trained, become educated and follow in the footsteps of Nehemiah.

If you are in church leadership, I encourage you to seek out training opportunities such as CERT for your people. Meet with local authorities to determine what you might do to create NIMS compliant response teams within your fellowship. Make your next bake sale or fundraiser a source for purchasing hard hats.  From the little things to the big things, you can become a part of a system that needs you, but needs you to do it right.

As for those of you in governmental positions, I have another word today…

Seek out faith-based leaders in your community and include them.  The passion and numbers of the faith-based community is a source we do not tap into often enough and if we intend on becoming more efficient and effective, we need to utilize this vast and tremendous resource.

Coming up… why don’t churches have tornado drills? We’ll be looking at more faith-based emergency management issues.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.