5 Steps to Developing a Disaster Plan

Whether the problem is severe weather, pandemic illness, or security threats, Christian ministries—like any other service organization or business—need to have a plan to achieve operational resiliency. How will you respond to the unexpected? Will you be ready to act?

Disaster plans include information about how to continue the “business” of ministry. For instance, it organizes where you’ll meet if your church is closed, how you’ll access church records, and how to respond to emergency situations.

Here are five steps to help you get started on a disaster plan today.

Step 1: Form a Team

A knowledgeable team can create a robust response plan. Look for these key professionals in your organization:

  • Law enforcement
  • Medical
  • Fire and other first responders
  • IT
  • Public relations
  • Facilities management
  • Business leaders

Your team will be responsible for working with ministry leaders to make sure the plan is well drafted, thoroughly implemented, and regularly reviewed and revised as needed.

Step 2: Assess Risks

Once the team is in place, it’s time to perform a risk assessment—determining which hazards could affect the ministry. Understanding the worst-case scenarios can lead to ideas for responding effectively.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)1 recommends looking into:

  • Potential threats. These could include fire, natural disasters like floods and tornadoes, violent acts, utility outages, and data losses.
  • The probability of each threat affecting the ministry. How likely is it that a given disaster will occur? Local emergency management agencies may be able to provide information on the most common threats in your area. Risk management practices also can affect the probability of some disasters. For example, routine inspection and repair of plumbing and wiring can reduce the likelihood of a flood or fire.
  • The potential magnitude of each threat. What could happen if each type of disaster affected your ministry? People could be injured, property could be damaged or destroyed, ministry operations could be disrupted, or the ministry’s reputation could be tarnished. Consider how the timing of a disaster could affect a disaster’s magnitude. For example, a tornado that arrives on a busy Sunday morning would put far more people at risk than one that strikes during a time when the church is empty.

Also, your risk assessment may uncover trouble spots, such as overloaded electrical outlets, that can be fixed with relative ease. Alleviating these hazards may help prevent disasters before they happen.

Use Brotherhood Mutual’s sample risk management plan checklist to help you get started.

Step 3: Create a Response Plan

Using the information found in the risk assessment, the team can begin developing a disaster response plan. The goals in creating a response plan are to:

  • Minimize disruption, losses, and injuries caused by a disaster.
  • Restore the ministry’s normal operations as efficiently as possible.

Divide the project into small, manageable segments that can be developed into a larger plan. Start with a response plan for one hazard, such as fire, and repeat the process for each hazard.

Ideally, a disaster plan will include:

  • Evacuation plans. Where will people gather after evacuating? All gathering points should be a safe distance from the building, and it’s best to designate an alternate shelter where people can gather in case of inclement weather. Decide how you will verify that everyone has evacuated the building. Determine check-out procedures that nursery workers should use if parents want to take their children home from the gathering point.
  • Severe weather plans. Which areas of the building are best for taking shelter? Or, if the building is large enough, designate more than one shelter area. Generally, the best places to take shelter from a tornado are basements or an interior part of the building, away from windows.
  • Lockdown plans. How will you alert everyone in the building of a lockdown situation? Put someone in charge of locking doors and decide how you will signal the end of the lockdown.
  • Response plans to other local threats. If your area is vulnerable to unique threats like earthquakes, blizzards, or chemical spills, it’s a good idea to include response plans for these threats in your written plan.
  • First-aid plans. Decide who will oversee providing first aid until first responders arrive. Outline the materials that should be included in the ministry’s emergency/first-aid kits, where the kits are located, and how often the kits should be checked for expired items. Use this checklist to get started.
  • Infectious disease plans. Even isolated outbreaks of infectious disease can create disruption for ministries. Your plans should include how you’ll continue worship, steps you’ll take to clean and disinfect, how you’ll communicate with your congregation, how you’ll communicate with local health department officials, and more. If you don’t have a plan, the CDC has a resource to help you get started: Guidance for Community and Faith Organizations
  • Data contingency plans. If your building is inaccessible for an extended period, can employees access the data they need to run the ministry’s business? How will you recover data if a hard drive or server crashes? Use this checklist to get started.
  • Locations of utility shutoff points. Include the locations of water and natural gas shutoff valves, as well as the main electrical breaker and any backup power sources.
  • Chain of command. Designate the people who will be in charge during each type of response—and who will take charge if the primary contact is unavailable.
  • Communication plans. In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, it helps to have 24-hour contact information for first responders, ministry leaders, utility companies, plumbers and other contractors, insurance agents and carriers, and other key contacts. Also, consider how you will notify employees, volunteers, and the congregation if the ministry must postpone or cancel activities. Remember, phones and electricity may not be working.
  • Financial contingency plans. Will the ministry continue paying employees’ salaries if a disaster interrupts normal ministry operations for an extended amount of time? Does the ministry have adequate insurance coverage to deal with the potential disaster threats identified by your team? Does the ministry have an online giving platform? Ask a locally licensed attorney to approve the plan before putting it into practice to help ensure that it complies with all applicable laws.

Step 4: Train Employees and Volunteers

A response plan is most effective when employees and volunteers are trained to follow it. Look for ways to incorporate response training into orientation for new personnel and retrain employees and volunteers often. It’s a good idea to:

  • Provide copies of the plan to employees and volunteers.
  • Post evacuation routes, maps of shelter areas, and other key information around the building for quick reference.
  • Organize “what-if” tabletop training sessions to help employees and volunteers visualize what they would do in disaster situations.
  • Perform response drills when feasible.

Keep attendees informed about the response procedures that apply to them. Employees and volunteers may take the lead during a disaster situation, but an informed congregation may be less likely to panic if they have been briefed on what to do.

Step 5: Evaluate and Refresh

A response plan should be a dynamic document. Evaluate the plan on an annual basis, fine-tuning it as needed, and obtain approvals from the ministry’s attorney before finalizing any changes. Once changes are approved, re-train employees and volunteers to follow the updated plan.

For more information about developing disaster response plan, visit:

Ready.gov - This website helps organizations prepare for the worst and get back to business as quickly as possible following a disaster. There’s information about continuity of operations planning and even a sample business emergency plan that churches and related ministries can use to get the planning process started. There’s also information that can help ministries educate employees and volunteers.

FEMA.gov – This website includes information designed specifically for faith communities. Learn more at: https://www.fema.gov/emergency-managers/individuals-communities/faith-preparedness

DisasterSafety.org – This website contains helpful information by Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety. Get started today by visiting https://disastersafety.org/business-protection/ofb-ez/

RedCross.org - The American Red Cross provides a wealth of information to help businesses and other organizations like churches prepare for disasters and emergencies. The American Red Cross also offers training that can help workplaces be ready to respond.

Ministry-Specific Resources

In addition to government and national resources like Ready.gov and the American Red Cross, there are several ministry-specific resources available to help you address your disaster planning efforts. Here are a few:

Hope Crisis Response Network: This not-for-profit organization helps communities address all stages of a disaster—the event itself, relief and recovery efforts, and hazard mitigation.

Brotherhood Mutual Resources: Download our Ministry Continuity Worksheet or Disaster Recovery Planning Checklist to share with your ministry leaders.

1 Guide for Developing High-Quality Emergency Operation Plans for Houses of Worship by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, https://www.fema.gov/sites/default/files/2020-03/fema_faith-communities_developing-emergency-operations_0.pdf

Related Resources

Updated November 2020