Lesson 5 – Response

Response: Your Call to Service

The religious community normally begins its work in disaster response during the relief/remedy stage after the emphasis on public safety – getting people out of harm’s way – gives way to public welfare, restoration of services, and creating safe, secure, and sanitary conditions.


A congregation with a healthy every-day service ministry need look no further than its regular programs to begin helping its members and people in the community. (FEMA photo)

In the early stages of a disaster, local government agencies – following an Emergency Operations Plan (EOP) and coordinated by an Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in large disasters — are the major players. They issue public warnings, evacuate people to temporary shelters, and protect life and property. At this time, members of your congregation should focus on themselves and their property and stay out of the way of police, fire, search and rescue, and medical personnel. They should secure themselves and their families, evacuate if necessary, and take other protective measures.

In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, trained members of the congregation should be prepared to administer first-aid after checking the situation and calling for assistance. If they are not directly affected by the disaster, they should look for constructive ways to assist. If congregational resources, for example, include people with knowledge and skills to assist in emergencies, call authorities to volunteer and receive site assignments.

In the relief/remedy stage, a congregation with a healthy every-day service ministry need look no further than its regular programs to begin helping its members and people in the wider community. In general, the religious community brings to disasters work with which it is very familiar:

  • Spiritual care that renews hope of distressed people
  • Coordination of volunteers & management of donations
  • Direct assistance to people – particularly those who are most vulnerable and have special needs – in rebuilding their lives
  •  Among other things, a congregation may want to draw on its know-how and resources to:
    • Offer temporary shelter (in homes and church buildings), food and personal care items
    • Organize volunteer work groups to help survivors clean up debris—and later to assist in repair and rebuilding
    • Offer housing options and food for out-of-town volunteers
    • Contribute money and material goods as requested
Congregations have special knowledge of vulnerable populations, such as children, that they can bring to disaster response in their communities. (Photo by Jay Marcom)

Congregations have special knowledge of vulnerable populations, such as children, that they can bring to disaster response in their communities. (Photo by Jay Marcom)

Because members of the religious community have special knowledge of certain vulnerable population groups, understand spiritual-emotional care, and are recognized for leadership, advocacy, and reconciling roles in their communities, they may take on special ministries:

  • Offering emotional-spiritual care to children and youth
  • Providing assistance to disabled persons
  • Meeting needs stemming from technology-caused disasters, public violence, or public health emergencies

Laying Groundwork for Cooperation

The relief/remedy stage following a disaster is also the time to start building relationships that will be the foundation of a strong recovery process and nurturing community among survivors and otherwise disparate community groups. Disasters reveal the opportunity for cooperative work among groups that formerly may have had little contact and less initiative to cooperate. A response that is respectful and inclusive of all affected persons can create a fertile common ground for further cooperation and collaboration as the long term recovery continues:

  • Coordinate your work other congregations and community groups.
  • Bring together people to plan celebrations of successes and accomplishments – even small ones – in responding to the disaster. Assemble as diverse a group as possible, providing opportunities for the contributions of every segment of the community to be recognized during the celebration.
  • Invite disaster-affected persons to participate in small group discussions, Bible studies and social gatherings. Relationships that begin in a shared experience in a disaster can develop into lifelong friendships and shared dreams for the future.

Helping Other Congregations

Your congregation can make an important contribution in building relationships as well and in healing trauma wounds in its community by assisting another worshiping community whose sacred space is affected by disaster.

For a displaced congregation, finding an alternative site for worship and developing a plan for continuing the church’s normal program can be daunting. At the same time, a damaged church building – particularly a sanctuary – can have a significant impact on the wider community if it served as center of community life or has great sentimental and symbolic power. As a public building, a damaged church may remind people who pass it by each day not only of the congregation in need, but losses they suffered in the disaster as well.

A congregation can help another church, mosque or synagogue by making space available in its building for worship and other meetings, weddings, funerals and gatherings, and offices.

Organize – Train – Coordinate

The opportunities to respond are many, but the level of your response will depend on your congregation size and resources. It may be better for numerous congregations to work together under the leadership of the Presbytery’s Disaster Response Team, to provide a good response while sharing the burden and expense.

The quality of the congregation’s response depends on:

  • Organizing to serve effectively. Assess first. Determine the needs and who – if anyone – is addressing them. What are the service gaps? Can your congregation help fill them? Before starting their work, the people in your congregation who want to participate in the response need to know what to expect when they begin to serve and understand their capacities and limitations. Congregational staff and member volunteers should meet and discuss the disaster ministry they want to undertake, define their mission, establish desired and realistic outcomes, and delineate the specifics of their activities.
  • Training. Depending on the disaster ministry the congregation chooses to undertake, its staff and volunteers may need “Just-In-Time” training. Spiritual-emotional care, case work, and child care, for example, require specialized knowledge and skills. NOTE:  “Just-In-Time” training is usually brief, to the point training that is given to workers after they have been given an assignment and “just in time” for them to start work.
  • Coordination. Look before you leap into the work. Consult with other people and organizations. Remember the cornerstone of effective emergency management is partnership. Survey members of the congregation and neighborhood residents. Either directly or through your judicatory, connect with state and/or local chapters of Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) or Community Organizations Active in Disaster (COAD) where you can share information with emergency management officials and other human service organizations that will participate in the response. Look for other people and organizations to help you.

Special Considerations

It would be nice to think that as caring Christians and intelligent people we would instinctively know the right action to take for ever situation in a disaster response. But as they say, “Heaven’s in the details.” There are four areas that need to be considered.  They include:

  1. Spiritual Care:  Connecting Survivors to Personal Resources
  2. Managing Volunteers & Donations
  3. Direct Assistance to Survivors
  4. Special Case Disasters

It is advisable to read over the following summaries for the first three areas and then click on the links for a more detailed set of recommendations and procedures for dealing with the topic.

The fourth area, Special Case Disasters is covered in Lesson 6 of this training.

In addition, as with all the lessons in this training. the material in the Church World Service’s “Prepare to Care” booklet will give expanded insights.

1. Spiritual Care: Connecting Survivors to Personal Resources

Disaster workers, caregivers, and survivors need spiritual helpers to whom they can talk about what they saw, toughed, smelled, heard and felt - people who will listen to anger, hurt, frustration, and pain, and provide support (CWS staff photo)

Disaster workers, caregivers, and survivors need spiritual helpers to whom they can talk about what they saw, toughed, smelled, heard and felt – people who will listen to anger, hurt, frustration, and pain, and provide support (CWS staff photo)

Spiritual care is, of course, basic to the work of the religious community. Following a disaster, your congregation will face varying needs at different levels within its membership and throughout its wider community. Members of the congregation will require spiritual support as they go through phases and transitions. This special ministry of a congregation following a disaster is about helping disaster-affected people by being with them — listening, laughing, occasionally crying with them, watching out for the people who are in a particular pinch, eating together, letting them teach you their history, loving their children, running a little interference for them, telling their story, helping to restore community and congregational life. In the final analysis, it is about helping people draw on their own emotional and spiritual resources in the midst of their pain.

Emotional Care vs. Spiritual Care


Emotional-spiritual care offers survivors safety and security, an opportunity to ventilate, and reassurance. (FEMA photo)

Listening to acknowledge and recognize the validity of what someone is trying to share – whether in tears or words — is basic emotional care. Through listening, you can determine if someone would be better served by mental health, physical, or spiritual services and facilitate access to those services. Spiritual care, however, goes beyond emotional care. It devotes presence, attention, and respectful assistance to helping people discern what is the meaning in their life now — in a new environment of destruction and pain and how they will seek to live out that meaning as recovery unfolds.

Click here for More on Spiritual Care

2. Managing Volunteers & Donations

Managing volunteers and donations is fundamental to the everyday work of congregations and is an important contribution they can make in disaster ministry.


Volunteers are fundamental to the everyday work of pretty much every congregation – greeting, serving as lector, hosting coffee hour, etc. The nature and quality of the disaster work taken on by faith groups, in the final analysis, depends on volunteers. You can draw on volunteers for all kinds of tasks: family advocacy, heavy lifting, washing dishes, filling out forms, telephoning, listening, cooking, typing, keeping lists, sitting and talking, writing to people, leading work groups, legal assistance, plumbing, roofing, electrical repairs, carpentry, driving, warehousing, bookkeeping, computer work, babysitting, advertising, and public relations, child care. . . The list is endless.

Six keys to effective management of volunteers:

  • Job descriptions. They do not need to be highly detailed, but should provide a brief description of tasks along with the optimum and minimum amounts of time needed to accomplish them.


    (Mennonite Disaster Services photo)

  • Match volunteer qualifications and background to job needs and the people with whom they will work. For example, develop a list of volunteer needs of service providers involved in the interfaith community, including job descriptions, skills and tools needed, and location. Keep this needs list current.
  • Clearly state policies for volunteers, work groups, and service providers who will use the volunteers. Volunteers need information, protection, a sense of order, and a clear sense of purpose if they are to be effective in disaster recovery. They must clearly understand who has responsibilities for housing, meals, transportation, and insurance coverage.
  • Training and orientation. Volunteer builders, family advocates, and spiritual caregivers will need special training. Orient them to (1) the history of the area and its population and (2) the disaster and its effects on survivors.
  • Work commitments. Remind volunteers they have to do jobs that need to be done, not necessarily the jobs they want to do. Ask volunteers to make a covenant to work and live effectively with you and the community. Let volunteers know that the most important thing they do may be bringing hope and energy through their presence — even if they never lay a brick!
  • Retain by recognition.  All of the above are well and good, but focusing more on the needs of the organization, such as documentation of volunteer numbers and hours, are unrelated to retention of volunteers, even though they help the program to realize other benefits. If you want to keep volunteers working for you, invest in recognizing volunteers –
    • provide a culture that is welcoming to volunteers
    • allocate sufficient resources to support them
    • enlist volunteers in recruiting and training other volunteers

Click here for More on Managing Volunteers


Disaster survivors need essential items to reclaim their homes and lives. Your congregation can help assure this assistance by seeking donations that are truly needed. Too often, disaster-affected communities receive a flood of unusable donations such as used clothing. The result is a second disaster!

Cash is always preferred over material donations. Cash can purchase goods and services for survivors in their own community or country, often boosting a local economy that has been hurt by the disaster. Response organizations at the disaster site can acquire exactly what they need right away based on assessments. Finally, cash can purchase items difficult to obtain or ship.

Be specific when requesting donations. Spread the word about appropriate donations via your church bulletin or newsletter and bulletin boards. Display items on a table, through a slide show, or in photos.

Church World Service Kits & Emergency Clean-up Buckets 

When a disaster is not local but is significantly wide spread, congregations can assemble kits and emergency clean-up buckets or donate their cash value to Church World Service,  and contribute cash to the CWS Blankets Program to respond to the kinds of material donations requests often received following disasters.


(CWS staff photo)

Such kits are packages of supplies related to educational, personal hygiene, clean-up, and infant care needs. Assembling these kits is an activity that can be done following any disaster, whether it affects a local congregation or neighborhood or an area on the other side of the country or the world.  It is a way to provide comfort to those directly affected by the disaster and fulfillment to those who feel the need to do something constructive to help in the response.

  •  Baby Kits help young mothers care for their newborn babies.
  • Emergency Clean-up Buckets enable people to begin the overwhelming job of cleaning up after a flood, hurricane, tornado, or other disaster in the United States.
  • Hygiene Kits can mean the difference between sickness and health for struggling families.
  • School Kits give children in impoverished schools, refugee camps, or other difficult settings some of the basic tools for learning.

Click here for More on Donations

3. Direct Assistance to Survivors

Congregations, of course, stand ready to serve all persons affected by disaster regardless of race, national origin, creed, color, gender, or sexual orientation. There are those who can recover from the disaster through their own resources and established programs and those who can’t recover without additional assistance beyond established programs.

In its response to disaster, congregations will naturally focus on the second group. The faith community is especially aware of and sensitive to special needs of persons who are particularly vulnerable to the impact of disaster. In fact, it has a particular calling to seek out, assist, and advocate on their behalf.


Age and gender are two factors that affect the vulnerability of people to disasters. Focus on survivors who cannot recover without additional help beyond what established programs provide. (FEMA photo)

Within this context, the faith community provides direct assistance in disasters through informal and formal pastoral care that empowers survivors to move beyond their current condition towards realizing the best possible recovery.

Congregations can offer a ministry of accompaniment that involves little or no paperwork, record-keeping, or formal counseling:

  • Assisting survivors in salvaging personal property
  • Referring survivors to resources – American Red Cross, The Salvation Army, Federal Emergency Management Agency, other care-giving agencies
  • Encouraging members of the congregation and community residents affected by the disaster to apply for the assistance to which they are entitled from government and other care-giving agencies. This may include helping them through the application process, assisting them in completing forms, and advocating on their behalf.

In addition to the assistance that congregations can provide directly, assistance may be available through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA). Support provided by these agencies is discussed in Lesson 9 – Getting Help From “Above.”

 If you have not done so already, go back in this lesson and click on the links to find out more about the specifics of what you need to think about in developing your disaster plan.

Lesson 6 deals with response to Special Case Disasters.


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