By Jamie Aten
Hurricane Katrina made landfall 15 years ago this Saturday, tragically killing more than 1,000 people.
Survivors faced decimated homes, church buildings, and communities that had scattered across the South. More than 1 million people fled the Category 5 hurricane and its aftermath, many of them for good.
Hindsight is 20/20, they say, but it can also be useful for us in 2020. COVID-19 has claimed 177,000 American lives so far and is still spreading in many locations. What felt like a bad dream in March is now the new normal in August.
Pastors across the world are wondering how to conduct ‘socially distant ministry’ as families, school classrooms and small groups remain physically separated.
For pastors who lived through Hurricane Katrina, this feels more familiar.
“Nothing is the same anymore, everything is different,” reflected one church leader after Katrina. “Where I live is different. The people I talk to everyday are different. I think I am even different.”
Together with researchers from the University of Southern Mississippi, I interviewed 35 church leaders from the Mississippi Gulf Coast and greater New Orleans area.
These ministers also learned hard truths about shepherding a scattered flock in 2005 and after; rebuilding their communities took as much time as rebuilding the infrastructure of New Orleans.
Churches are creating a new ministry playbook in a time period that will be studied by historians from now on. We can look to the post-Katrina period for guidance about leading in a crisis.
Here are five truths we gleaned that those pastors can pass on to us today:
1. The church isn’t a building.
Around 24% of leaders interviewed after Katrina stated that their missions had become much more outreach-focused than their ministries before the storm.
That is, they reported placing greater investment into programs that served the greater community, rather than in programs that primarily or only served members of their own body.
Overall, they described a shift from developing more inward-focused ministries, to more outreach-focused programs.
2. Personal relationships have and will continue to change.
Close to 29% of interviewees reported strained relationships after Katrina. These included marital strain and distant friendships, both emotionally and in terms of physical proximity as a result of evacuation and relocation.
Similarly, quarantine this year has often strained marriages, separated family units, and caused symptoms that closely mimic depression and anxiety.
Even with all the technology available in 2020, isolation even has a way of testing friendships.
People are asking themselves questions like, Should I check in? Why haven’t they checked in with me yet?
3. Leaders should use all available technology to reach out.
When quarantine started, churches had to quickly pivot and decide: How do we engage with our people through a screen?
Over half of pastors surveyed in March said this was a “significant obstacle” in their online gathering, and 59% listed it as something they needed resources to figure out—more than any other issue cited.
Several church leaders in Mississippi interviewed after Katrina reported that the task of listening to people became a rediscovered skill when they had no physical resources to offer.
Approximately 74% of those respondents also indicated receiving support by friendships within their denomination.
The takeaway: COVID pastors can probably relax about getting people to use chat features during an online service and focus instead on all the ways technology allows for individual contact—both for giving and receiving emotional support.
4. Creativity is crucial.
Biloxi church leaders mentioned innovative, socially-focused outreach ministries that helped during recovery, such as working with credit unions in both Mississippi and Louisiana to help offer bridge loans for those with housing crises.
For COVID-affected communities, such assistance might be most useful as a holdover between jobs; more than 20 million people have used unemployment benefits this year, and up to 40 million may have seen their employment affected by the virus.
5. Pastoral time is best maximized by finding and utilizing volunteer coordinators.
Places of worship and ministry volunteers continue to be the most effective form of outreach and financial assistance. Unpaid volunteers are not only cheaper—they’re more motivated.
As a result, more assistance flows straight to people who need it, rather than through overhead costs.
In Biloxi, church leaders reported that a significant amount of their time after the hurricane went to managing volunteers, who were crucial to the recovery process, but inadvertently placed additional demands on their time.
Utilizing trained volunteer coordinators allows pastors to spend more time focusing on church members’ needs, which will also allow them to maintain greater balance during a time of crisis.
Where can churches look for such coordinators? Check with the Red Cross, area nonprofits, or use the Disaster Ministry Handbook to raise up a well-equipped team at your own church.
Of course, in the Mississippi Gulf Coast and New Orleans, church leaders affected by Katrina could rely on a wide number of unaffected churches for support. COVID, on the other hand, poses a danger for everyone.
It poses a strange paradox. All of us are going through the same thing at the same time, so church leaders might be tempted to stay in isolation under the assumption that already scarce resources aren’t available for them.
But the converse is also true: Since we’re all experiencing the pandemic together, empathy is even easier to find. Besides the faith we share, a pastor in Chicago has even more reason to reach out to a priest in South Bend.
David Kinnamon, president of Barna Research Group, told Christianity Today in March after a major pastoral survey that realism was setting in—and that the health of a church is measured by more than how full the pews are.
“One of the long-lasting impacts of this crisis is that leaders will have to use better tools to stay connected with their people,” he said.
JAMIE ATEN, Ph.D. (@drjamieaten), is the founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute and Blanchard Chair of Humanitarian & Disaster Leadership at Wheaton College (Wheaton, IL). His most recent book is A Walking Disaster: What Surviving Katrina and Cancer Taught Me About Faith and Resilience (Templeton Press).