Monday, September 16, 2013

Tents After the Storm

Last week, Bishop Mike Rinehart of the Gulf Coast Synod of the Evangelical Church in America led our quarterly HIDRA roundtable conversation. Each conversation always takes on a life of its own, but this one was primarily focused on how to be ready to do ministry when our usual means of doing ministry are compromised. (You can find the outline of his presentation, along with some of his suggested resources here).

One story he told stuck with me. It was about driving through Baton Rouge after Hurricane Gustav and noticing that the churches seemed to fit into one of three categories. (I'm paraphrasing here, so I apologize now for any misrepresentations). First, there were those that had empty parking lots and locked up doors--the assumption being that members of these communities were busy taking care of their own households. The second category was those churches that had some activity going on at their location--primarily dealing with whatever the needs of that building might be. And the third category were those churches that had tents set up in the parking lots handing out water or food or electricity--finding ways to meet the immediate needs of the community in which they found themselves.

Each of these categories is a legitimate place to be, but the Bishop challenged us to think about how our faith community can move from being in the first category to being poised to be in the third. How can we be prepared to set up the tents after the storm? It takes some intentional planning ahead of time, but if we're serious about being places of sanctuary and hospitality, shouldn't we do precisely that?

Who, in your setting, is thinking about these things? Who COULD be thinking about these ideas? What are some of the more creative ways you have seen faith communities "set up tents" after a disaster?

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

When No News is NOT Good News

I have spent this morning watching the news unfold around yet another episode of school violence. I have been particularly paying attention to HOW the story is unfolding. What is the news media saying? What's happening in social media? What are the perceptions of the parents waiting for news? The first news conference played just a few minutes ago...about three hours after the event itself. The school district spokesperson said that as soon as the incident happened, they had two priorities: 1) restoring safety to the school and protecting the students and 2) preserving the integrity of the investigation. Only after those two priorities had been accomplished did they begin to communicate to the families.

I was impressed by a couple of things I heard this morning. At one point, one parent noted how well previous lock-downs had been handled by this school. What I heard in her voice was confidence in the leadership of the school--and that seemed to have a bit of a calming effect on her. The second impressive comment was from the school administrator, who was able to very clearly articulate the priorities noted above. Many people may disagree with those priorities, especially those parents who were craving information about their children, but the priorities were clear and were followed according to plan--did you catch that? According to PLAN. 

So why this post on a blog about faith communities and disaster? No organization is immune from these kinds of situations. Handling communications and in some cases, the media, are key. In the absence of information, people will fill in the gaps--with varying degrees of accuracy. When people are worried about loved ones, no amount of information will ever be enough--but no information creates fear and panic. How do you set and manage priorities around communication and message management?

When people are afraid, often the first reaction is to point fingers and criticize those charged with managing the event. So scratch that off your list right now--you will not avoid criticism in the short run. But how do you balance the need to communicate with the need to get a handle on what is going on? Just a couple of thoughts:

1) Have a plan. Who can speak for your organization? How do you reach your constituency in a hurry?
2) Share your plan. The woman who was confident in the leadership of the school because she knew their plan for lock-down was able to be calm and confident. Do your constituents know your plan? What can you do to develop trust---before you need it?
3) Come to grips with social media--it's here to stay. We can either fight it or learn to use it and get out in front.

I'm sure there are other things about communication and media management that others have learned--perhaps the hard way.  I would love to hear about it!