During a Sunday worship service, a gunman walked unnoticed into a church in a small town in the Midwest. Inside the sanctuary, he shot and killed the pastor. For weeks, TV crews, photographers and reporters camped out in the small town as the church leaders and congregation struggled to deal with their loss and personal trauma of the tragedy.
Faulty wiring ignited a fire that burned down a 100-year-old church in the suburbs of a large metropolitan area. No one was injured, but the congregation was left without a permanent facility where they could worship and carry out their ministry.
The respected pastor of an urban megachurch confessed to an extramarital affair and stepped down from his leadership role, leaving the congregation and church leaders to face the consequences of his moral failure.
No church leader likes to think that a crisis will touch their church, but the reality is that any church of any size and location is vulnerable to tragedy and conflict. Yet few churches have a plan in place that will allow them to take immediate action if (or when) something occurs.
Without a pre-determined plan:
- Operational response breaks down.
- Staff, volunteers, members, attendees and affiliate churches are left wondering what’s happening, which can lead to confusion, anger, inaccurate assumptions and negative reactions.
- The church or organization could be perceived as inept, negligent, deceived or even heretical.
Not every crisis is of the magnitude of a disturbed gunman, facility loss or the moral failure of a senior pastor, but creating a strategic crisis communication plan for your church can help you and your leaders take immediate steps to minimize the damage. Here are seven steps to crisis communication planning for your church:
1) Be proactive. Don’t wait for a crisis to take action.
2) Establish a Crisis Communication team comprised of your key leaders: senior pastor, executive pastor, one or more elders, communications director, operations director, IT, and legal counsel. The team can be as large or as small as you’d like, as long as it includes your key decision-makers.
3) Create a contact information sheet for the team with phone numbers (home, office, cell), email and Skype addresses. Don’t waste valuable time trying to find contact info for the team.
4) Determine in advance what initial steps must be taken. Generally, these first steps are consistent regardless of the crisis and form a framework (or template) for crafting your crisis response.
5) Decide who your key spokesperson should be. Obviously, someone in a leadership capacity should communicate with the congregation, but don’t stop there. By sharing information with your staff and key volunteers, you turn them into a well-equipped army of ambassadors armed with accurate information.
6) Determine what outside resources are necessary. In the event where your church building is compromised, you’ll need alternate arrangements. Check out availability of outside facilities and determine how you’ll communicate your plans to the congregation—Web, email from the church, phone calls, etc. Don’t hesitate to tap into external media to help you communicate.
7) When controversy accompanies a crisis, don’t ignore it, hoping and praying it will go away. We all know that we live in a media-driven society where people can post any opinion on the Internet and others will see and believe it. A lack of response on your part can amplify the damage this can cause. Even in cases where you’re in wait-and-see mode, value people by offering a prepared with a dignified, truthful response—no matter what.
Locking down the first steps of developing a crisis communications plan will allow your church to move forward quickly with a well thought-out plan that senior leaders have already agreed to before crisis strikes. And by getting in front of a crisis, your church will be well-positioned to continue to carry out the work God has called you to.
Susan DeLay is the managing editor and director of media relations at Willow Creek Community Church in the Chicago area. She also writes “DeLayed Reaction,” a weekly newspaper column. Brian McAuliffe is director of Willow Creek Community church’s Risk Management team.