Faith Communities Shouldn’t Be Part of the Storm

Lakewood Church, Houston, TX

By Katherine Kerr, APR

Since Lakewood Church Pastor Joel Osteen’s jaw-dropping response to Hurricane Harvey by initially not opening up his megachurch to Houstonians seeking refuge from the storm, he has been all the talk on religion news and mainstream media websites.

As a public relations practitioner who has taught crisis communications training to various faith communities, I have been asked what could have and should have been done differently.

Commandment #1: “As a faith-based organization, you WILL be held to a higher standard than other organizations.”

That is because faith organizations profess to operate under a high moral code that we teach and preach and, to avoid being hypocrites, should adhere to. Always. It might not be fair, but we are not promised fairness in the secular or religious realms.

If you claim to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ who commanded his followers to take care of the hungry, the sick, the poor, the incarcerated, then you better do exactly that. Every day and especially during and after a major disaster.

Always lying in wait are the “Gotchas,” the people (and often the media) who are just waiting for a teacher, a preacher, a scout leader or a law officer to screw up. These are the folks who gleefully leap up, point fingers and shriek, “Hypocrites! Can’t be trusted! They’re all in it for the glory/power/money, etc.”

So, knowing that the Gotchas are lurking, I cannot understand how Pastor Osteen, who has taken lobs for years for his humongous worship center, multi-million dollar mansion and astronomical net worth, did not see this coming.

Pastor Osteen has singularly created his own eye of a hurricane that will continue to strike over and again. Or at least until he “gets” that the optics during a disaster are just as important as the optics on Christmas and Easter when we all want to feel warm and fuzzy and dazzled by over-the-top production values.

An amendment to Commandment #1 is to quickly, humbly and genuinely admit when you make a mistake. Acknowledge the error in judgement or action; don’t try to spin it. And, then, say what you are doing now to rectify the situation and what you will do in the future to make sure the crisis doesn’t reoccur.

Commandment #2 is “Have a plan.” God has a plan. As a faith leader, you should too.

“Leaving it up to God,” is lazy and an insult to God, who has blessed us with brains and resources and expects us to use them. You’ve heard the oft-told joke about the foolish man who clung to a tree while waters rose above him and he kept waiting for God to take care of him. Several people’s attempts to rescue him were rebuffed because he expected God to make an appearance. The fool did not see God in them.

Yet how often do we hear and say that God is within each of us and that we are His hands and feet? He has granted us powers, albeit limited, to fulfill our work here on Earth. So get to it!

Every faith community should plan for natural and human disasters of all types. Pastors, governing boards and lay leaders should at least once a year spend time playing “what if” and work through various scenarios. Take a page from current events and ask, “what if this happens to us?”

  • “If our community floods and our facility is operational, can we be a shelter?”
  • “If our community floods and our facility is not operational, what process can we implement to help those who might show up at our door?”
  • “How do we help our members, our neighbors?”
  • “Are we prepared to house people overnight? Feed people? Collect and distribute food, clothing, etc. How would we manage it?”

The plans should not have specific names assigned to them, but rather positions with responsibilities. If your plan says the head pastor will make the call in a disaster, that doesn’t take into account that the head pastor might not be accessible when a call needs to be made. If her own house has been swept away like Dorothy’s in the Wizard of Oz, who is next in line?

Third Commandment: “Have a communications plan and execute it.”

First, leadership should come together and determine what the message is for every audience and every channel. The message should be consistent. The level of detail might differ from what you share with your governing board compared to the local media, but the basics should be the same. And, you should always be truthful.

That plan should cover every possible channel your organization uses including a phone tree, your website, social media, newsletters and media outreach. You should prioritize your audiences and channels and designate and equip people to carry out the communications with specific deadlines.

You shouldn’t be telling your members that if their homes are flooded they can come hang out at your church and then turn away the neighbor-who-is-not-a-member across the street. That is bad form. And, it is hypocritical.

Folks will remember longer the bad stuff you did or failed to do than the fact that you opened your doors in their time of need. Do you want to be the Joel Osteen of your community trying to rehabilitate your reputation?

Fourth Commandment: “Evaluate what you did before, during and after the disaster and improve your plan for the next time.”

It’s tempting to think that whatever you’ve just been through will never happen again. Tell that to congregations who live in hurricane zones, tornado alleys and wildfire regions. Make notes during the disaster and convene a debrief when the worst has passed. Have a plan for when, not if, the next crisis occurs.

Good luck and God bless.

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