Your church is a sanctuary. It’s a building where your community can find solace, compassion, and relief from the harsh, outside world.
At least, that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
Unfortunately, reality doesn’t always follow our expectations. While it won’t do us any good to play Chicken Little and recap the struggles experienced the world over in 2017, we have to be prepared for the new (and repeat) emergencies that will inevitably occur.
And—just like the principal of a school or manager of an office—as a church leader you’re responsible for the safety of those who come to your church, and that starts with having a church emergency plan in place.
Over the past year, I’ve written about everything from how to livestream your services to finding a church technology job and building your church social media strategy. On this blog, we typically write about the ways technology can make your life as a church leader easier.
This post is a little different, but no less important.
While we’ll look at some ways that technology can help you prepare for an emergency, the primary goal of this post is to help you prepare for an emergency situation at your church. After researching and reviewing several church emergency plans, I found that the most important thing is to prepare ahead of time and have some type of plan, no matter how minimal.
As the saying goes: “Pray for the best, prepare for the worst.”
What is a church emergency plan?
Just like church management software helps you navigate your routine, daily operations, a church emergency plan helps you navigate situations when something goes wrong.
Emergencies are unpredictable. You could experience a fire, a shooting, or a tornado. Unless you have a precog on staff who can predict exactly what dangers are headed your way, there’s no way to prepare for every potential situation.
Below, I’ll lay out five steps for you to put into practice in your emergency plan. While they may seem a bit general, these widely applicable tips can be used in a broad range of circumstances.
For a list of response plans for specific emergencies—everything from bomb threats to hostage situations—check out the emergency action plan developed by First United Methodist Church of Santa Rosa, Calif.
Church emergency plan: your five-step guide
1. Stay calm
No matter what happens, panic is never helpful. As a church leader, you can’t control how others behave in an emergency, but you are responsible for staying calm yourself and restoring order when chaos ensues.
When I was a teenager I worked as a lifeguard, and one lesson we learned during training that remains with me today is that you can’t rescue a drowning person if you’re drowning yourself. When everyone else is running around in a panic, one clear, calm voice can make all the difference.
As Dr. Gail Gross wrote in a Huffington Post article, “you are at a great disadvantage whenever you approach any emergency emotionally, rather than logically.”
Gross goes on to recommend using muscle relaxation, breathing, visualization, and stretching exercises to practice staying clam in stressful situations.
Bonus tip: Consider taking classes in first aid, CPR, and other emergency preparedness techniques so that you’re comfortable and well-prepared when an emergency develops. FEMA offers a great list of related resources.
2. Trust your instincts
Keep your eyes open, though
You know your church, you know your congregation. If something doesn’t feel right or seems off, it probably means something is wrong. Trust your gut.
If you see a suspicious package that looks out of place or if someone is behaving unusually, look into it. You are the one who needs to take charge and speak up; don’t wait for someone else to make a move.
As science writer Alaina G. Levine wrote in a Physics Today article, “your gut…always wants what’s best for you. So whether your gut gently moans, happily or sadly cries, or howls in excruciating pain, listen to it. And when it pushes you to do something, act on it.”
Bonus tip: Designate a second-in-command from among your church leadership team to train with you and act as an understudy in emergency situations. By having a second pair of eyes and ears, you increase your chances of catching an emergency before it becomes a disaster.
3. Call for help
Don’t be a hero
You’re a church leader. You deliver sermons, organize small groups, and deploy volunteers. You don’t predict the weather, make arrests, or put out actual fires. There are professionals in every community trained for these situations, and the sooner you get them involved, the better.
Don’t wait for the situation to improve. As soon as you’ve determined that your church is in imminent danger, call 9-1-1 and explain what is happening in as much detail as possible. If you wait for your situation to become a “real” emergency, you’ll waste crucial time that you can’t recover later.
According to 911.org, “If you are ever in doubt of whether a situation is an emergency you should call 9-1-1. It’s better to be safe and let the 9-1-1 call taker determine if you need emergency assistance.”
Bonus tip: Have a hard-wired phone (or several) on-site. Landlines don’t rely on a cellular network to call for help, and they have their own dedicated power source through the wiring, making them vital in the event of an extended power outage.
4. Get to safety
The thumbs up means everything is fine
Safety could mean moving outside in the case of a fire, or to the church basement in the event of a tornado. The key is preparation and communicating your plan ahead of time so that if such a situation occurs, you and your congregation know where to go. Post maps prominently throughout your church, and ensure that exits and hallways are clearly marked.
There’s a reason we’ve all experienced fire drills, and you should have them at church, too. Remember: people first, stuff later. You can always rebuild your space and replace your things. You can’t replace a person.
In most cases, common sense will dictate what exactly getting to safety means. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’sguide to Workplace Emergencies and Evacuations:
“Protecting the health and safety of everyone in the facility should be the first priority. In the event of a fire, an immediate evacuation to a predetermined area away from the facility is the best way to protect employees. On the other hand, evacuating employees may not be the best response to an emergency such as a toxic gas release at a facility across town from your business.”
Bonus tip: Stock your church basement with drinking water, canned food, and first aid supplies so that it can be used as a shelter in an extreme weather event. If you’re really serious about things, consult the 1967 Department of Defense guide on converting your basement into a full-on fallout shelter.
5. Put technology to work
You have technology, use it!
We live in an unprecedented age of technological advancement. The entire world is connected at all times, and everyone carries emergency response devices in their hands.
Tap into that network. Use the member directory in your church management system to keep an updated list of all members and establish a protocol under which information can be shared quickly and clearly.
Don’t forget to set up a child check-in system to ensure that the most vulnerable members of your congregation are safe and accounted for at all times. This system also allows you to quickly share information with registered parents/guardians in any emergency situation.
In the wake of a natural disaster, information can be as valuable as food, first aid, and fresh water.
As geologist Trevor Nace points out in Forbes, “Immediate information on the most damaged areas of a city or locations of where people remain stranded saves lives.”
Bonus tip: Some volunteer management systems include optional background checks. By screening volunteers ahead of time, you can prevent situations or emergencies that arise out of allowing untrustworthy individuals into positions of authority.
What’s your plan?
These five tips will help you outline a basic church emergency plan, but it’s important to remember that your plan will never be complete. The world is constantly changing, and you should always be learning and adapting. One great way to keep up on the latest in church technology and leadership is to follow our blog.
Do you already have a church emergency plan in place? Have you ever had to use it? If so, I’d love to hear your advice in the comments.