A church crisis requires a communication plan

By Liz Applegate, Special Contributor…

It’s a horrible thought—the worst has happened at a church across town. Someone was killed during a crime on the church property. The church suffered a fire. Or the nightmare of having a child molested.

It’s with a heavy heart that I have to write about these situations. It’s with a heavy heart that I just heard about an accused crime at a church in my town.

And I wonder how this family will suffer. And I wonder how the pain will extend to the staff and congregation. Because believe me, it will.

Liz Applegate

Crisis communication is never easy—and it’s even less easy when you pretend that it would never happen in “my” church.

Honestly, I hope that it never does. But in reality, we live in a world where tragedy happens daily—in our communities, our cities and yes, even in our churches.

I can say from experience that it is hard to think of what you should be doing during these times—when you are struggling to manage your own feelings let alone of those around you. And friends, this is why I have a request to you as a church communicator.

Make a crisis communication plan.

It isn’t pleasant, it is not fun and it is much easier to bury your head in the sand and pretend (and hope and pray) that tragedy never lands on your church grounds. But if it does—you will have a plan in place.

Here are tips for crisis communication:

1. Be transparent. It’s better that your congregation hear about the news from your senior pastor or a person appointed than it would be to hear it on the evening news.

2. As well as to your congregation, be transparent to the media. Let the media know your steps for correcting possible problems that led to the situation.

3. Know that different scenarios require different forms of action. An outbreak of the chicken pox in a Sunday school class room that was part of a parade into the Sanctuary last Sunday requires a different form of action than a fire with an unknown cause that cancels Sunday morning services.

4. Make a plan for any possible scenario you can think of—from the most common to the most extreme. Write down the steps and create documents that can easily be edited. Include written form letters and press releases with fill in the blank areas to cover #1 & #2 above.

5. Form a binder with all of the instructions needed and have two—one in the office and one at home—for every person on staff. This ensures that the necessary steps are followed and support is there for one another. Include phone numbers for everyone on staff—home & mobile.

6. Review the binder yearly and with new staff. Staff changes; situations change. Be proactive.

7. Separate information with emergency exits and lock-down procedures should be given to church leaders and Sunday school leaders. Information should be reviewed at leadership meetings and especially after a leadership change.

8. Don’t expect others to react as you would if tragedy strikes. Respect what you don’t understand.

9. Some members of your congregation will not understand what is going on behind the scenes. Expect this. They are reacting out of their own fears. Respect what you don’t understand.

10. Expect your plans to not go exactly as planned if they are ever needed. Be flexible but work within an existing plan.

A final word that I offer is to take time for you to grieve if tragedy does ever strike. It’s important to cry and feel your feelings. Communicating for your church is a huge responsibility and the weight falls on your shoulders. Communication is also one of the most criticized areas of church leadership, since it is at the forefront of unhappy information. Feel your feelings—but know that God has given you a gift for this ministry.

And God always entrusts those he knows are equipped for the job.

Ms. Applegate is a member of First United Methodist Church in Plano, Texas. She blogs about digital communications for churches at www.eLIZabethapplegate.com.


Liz Applegate

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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[…] 22, 2013. I was a consultant for faith-based organizations at the time and a special contributor to The United Methodist Reporter.  Though this article is aimed at churches all organizations should have a crisis plan in place in […]

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