Effective Communication after a Crisis

Planning communication for a potential traumatic incident

Communicating with members of your congregation or ministry will be critical to your ability to deal with a traumatic incident and its aftermath.

Perhaps you will never have to confront such a situation, but church leaders must be intentional in helping members fully understand how they intend to protect members, guests, and their families should such an incident happen on the church’s premises.

Effective communication will be key to gathering the congregation, staff, and ministry worker support you will need to help prevent or deal with a traumatic incident at your church.

Pre-Incident Communication

The time to begin communicating is before you experience a traumatic incident. While it may be impossible to foresee every traumatic event that your ministry may face, it’s far better to have a communication plan in place before a threat develops than to have to “make it up as you go” in the midst of a threat. Take time to develop an incident response plan.

Once you have the incident response strategy in place, develop a schedule for ongoing communication. Keep the members of your organization updated with any changes in the program—even if they are not directly involved.

Regular communication also will help you maintain a high level of sensitivity to potential traumatic incidents. That awareness can be a catalyst in providing a safe environment at all times.

Communication During the Incident

By its very nature, a sudden life-threatening situation involving large groups of people will tend to create some degree of chaos. By planning out a communication approach in advance, however, the level of chaos can be minimized.

If a threatening situation should develop, determine in advance how you will communicate to people throughout the building and grounds. If your building doesn’t currently have a public address system that reaches all rooms within your facility and outdoor areas, consider having one installed.

Determine in advance who will make announcements to evacuate the building or to lock down a children’s wing. Also determine who will contact law enforcement authorities as soon as a threat is recognized. Make sure you have back-ups in place in case the primary communicator isn’t present or is unable to carry out his or her duties.

Post-Incident Communication

The following framework will help you create an effective communication plan to initiate after a traumatic incident has occurred.

1. Who is your audience? Identify potential groups that need to receive your communication.

Be specific. There are a number of different groups in your congregation. You are best served when you have a clear understanding of each audience so you can customize your communications to their needs. Consider all audiences that have access to your facilities and participate in your church’s programs and activities.

Potential audiences include:

  • Church leaders (elders, church board, trustees, administrators).
  • Ministerial staff.
  • Non-ministerial staff, including administrative, janitorial, and volunteer staff.
  • Children’s and youth ministers.
  • Church school and pre-school teachers and staff members.
  • Paid and volunteer ministry supervisors, program coordinators, and workers.
  • Parents, guardians.
  • Members and regularly attending non-members.
  • Vendors (janitorial, cafeteria, security).
  • The media.

2. What do I tell them? Develop informational messages customized for each audience. Most of your communication/education efforts will include the same information, but what you emphasize or provide in greater detail will depend on the potential audience.

Those who will be working in any emergency capacity—your emergency response team, for example—will need specific, detailed information so they can function effectively when the need arises. The congregation, in general, needs to know about the program, its benefits, and as much information as necessary to keep themselves safe.

While developing your communication/education plan, you also may want to consult with your attorney. By doing so, you will be able to identify any state or local legal requirements that you will need to address in your communications.

General information to provide:

  • Background information about the potential for a traumatic incident.

  • Purpose of the program.

  • Benefits of the program.

  • Procedures to be followed and other protections the program provides for groups in the church, especially children, the elderly, and those with disabilities.

3. How do I tell them? Use a variety of communication/education channels. Each church or related ministry usually has several established avenues of communicating with their organization.

Use as many as possible to inform your congregation, staff, and ministry workers about how it will be implemented and maintained in your church. Develop other communication methods, as needed.

Consider these possible communication methods:

  • In-person, small group presentations—to church leadership, staff, ministry workers, parents.
  • Letter to members of the congregation, ministry workers, parents.
  • Special meetings with parents and ministry workers.
  • Pulpit announcements/presentations.
  • Congregational meetings.
  • Specially developed brochures, flyers.
  • Church bulletin.
  • Church newsletter.
  • Church website.
  • Posters, strategically placed.

Communication is a critical element in any traumatic incident response. Accordingly, be sure to plan in advance what will be conveyed before, during, and after the unexpected occurs.