By Jamie Aten, Ph.D.
Here’s how to prepare your church for a public health crisis like the coronavirus.
As the Center for Disease Control (CDC) warns the public to start preparing for a possible coronavirus pandemic outbreak in the U.S., it’s important for churches to consider how they will prepare and respond in their congregations and their communities.
But faith communities often face a number of barriers to emergency preparedness, including a lack of staff, funds, volunteers, time, and resources.
Here are a few simple things churches can do now to help prepare for any potential public health crisis, drawn from our research at the Humanitarian Disaster Institute (HDI) at Wheaton College (Ill.).
With the latest news reports from Asia and Europe, it’s important we take this virus seriously while also helping people avoid panic.
In the case of the Ebola virus several years ago, you may have noticed that the virus reaching U.S. soil triggered widespread panic among Americans who had previously seemed mostly unconcerned about the thousands of cases reported in Africa.
We discovered documented evidence of why this happened, something social psychologists refer to as “terror management theory” (TMT).
Basically, human beings go to great lengths to avoid facing mortality as a way to manage anxiety. We all do this, often unconsciously, as a way to stop our fears from overwhelming us.
People are also generally bad at assessing risk—and this will only grow as reports of coronavirus linger in the news over the days, weeks, and months ahead.
As we continue to keep an eye on the spread of coronavirus, it’s important to respond to this public health crisis as an opportunity to replace panic with preparedness.
Build a Preparedness Plan
Our team at HDI wrote “Preparing Your Church for Coronavirus” in partnership with the Cook County Department of Public Health & Chicago Department of Public Health to be a resource for churches.
We know from our research that most congregations are not prepared for public health crisis—whether it’s coronavirus or the flu—even though many people turn to local congregations for answers and assistance during such crises.
Knowing what to do when faced with a crisis can be a significant ministry to both our congregations and our communities.
We hope this guide will help church leaders make important preparations in case the coronavirus virus, or any other public health situation, affects the community.
Here are a few first steps:
1. Prepare a team for ministry.
Identify leaders in your congregation who can form a team, and/or partner with other houses of worship in your area, to prepare for a disaster as well as implement a plan in the event a pandemic hits your community.
It’s ideal to create this team before a disaster hits.
2. Become familiar with public health.
Ask your team if there are people in your faith community especially exposed or vulnerable. Are there faith practices that might lead to exposure?
Reach out to your local public health officials and public health agencies for guidance on best practices and how to best navigate the current outbreak.
3. Create an emergency plan.
Assemble your team to identify risks, threats, leadership roles, communication strategies, policies, and procedures.
We advise a written plan. Remember, effective congregational emergency planning begins with the top leadership.
4. Engage in prevention.
Stop avoidable emergencies when possible and consider how to offer education to your church members. Educate people about the signs, symptoms, and warnings of coronavirus. Share tips for staying safe.
Don’t reinvent the wheel. Look to the CDC and other local agencies for accurate, trustworthy information, resources, and guidelines, and heed their advice.
5. Consider a mitigation plan (cancellations).
What would it take for you to cancel services or evening activities to keep everyone safe? How would your church provide resources? Who makes the decisions and communicates the news?
Think this through ahead of time so you have structure in place and are ready to respond when and if the time arrives.
A measured approach driven by preparedness and not panic will help your church be ready for whatever comes, informed to mitigate actual risk, and primed to respond well as you seek to demonstrate the love of Christ to those who may be impacted.
JAMIE D. ATEN, PhD (@drjamieaten), is founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute (HDI) and Blanchard Chair of Humanitarian & Disaster Leadership at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. He is a disaster psychologist and disaster ministry expert.
His latest book is A Walking Disaster: What Katrina and Cancer Taught Me About Faith and Resilience. In 2016, he received the FEMA Community Preparedness Champion award at the White House.