Merriam-Webster defines a disaster as “a sudden, calamitous event bringing great damage, loss, or destruction.” It could be a natural disaster such as a fire, flood, or tornado. It could be a man-made disaster such as a mass shooting, bombing, or other attack. It could be a 20-car pileup on the interstate. Disasters come in many shapes and sizes.

Whenever a natural disaster or other emergency strikes a community, emergency management personnel spring into action. In our world of 24-hour news cycles, news coverage of the event and the initial recovery efforts only lasts a short time. However, the actual recovery efforts take much longer, rolling out in several different phases which can last for weeks, months, or even years, long after the cameras are gone.

While different organizations categorize these phases in different ways, there are generally at least 4 different phases in the aftermath of a disaster:

  1. Rescue – This phase is the shortest of all of the phases, but it’s also the most urgent. During this initial phase, emergency personnel are involved in a search and rescue operation, looking for survivors of the disaster. The only thing on the minds of those involved in the disaster during this phase is survival. Literally, this first phase is often a life-or-death situation.
  2. Relief – During the immediate aftermath of a disaster, basic necessities must be met. Disaster victims will need food, water, shelter, prescriptions, and possibly medical treatment. Meeting those needs is the primary goal during this phase.
  3. Recovery – In this phase, temporary solutions are in place to meet the basic necessities of disaster victims. Temporary shelters are in use, and victims know where to go to find a good meal or a hot shower. While visual reminders of the disaster are still all around, people acclimate to a “new normal.” Employees go back to work. Children go back to school, although it may be in a temporary location. While things are far from the way they were before the disaster, familiarity begins to return in this phase.
  4. Restoration – During this final phase, the community rebuilds. New homes are built to replace those lost in the disaster. School buildings are repaired and reopened. In addition, community leaders make adjustments from lessons learned during the disaster. While the community will never be quite the same again, life will return to stability. Ultimately, the goal in this final phase is not to get the community back to where it was before the disaster, but to make it better than it was before.

How This Analogy Applies to Churches

The COVID-19 pandemic has been described in many ways, and disaster is certainly an apt descriptor for what churches have experienced since March 2020. Since the last global pandemic was a century ago, there was no playbook for current ministry leaders to reference while leading their church or ministry through this disaster. Leaders had to do the best they could with limited information. 

Eight months later, the pandemic continues to have a major impact on churches and other ministry organizations, and there’s still a lot of unknowns for what the next few months may hold. That’s why I think the disaster recovery phases can be a helpful analogy for ministry leaders. Understanding how these four phases relate to our current experience can help leaders identify where their church or ministry is currently located on the road to recovery and restoration. The table below shows how these phases apply to the ministry of a local church:

PhasePrimary GoalChurch Connection
RescueSurvivalTransition to online services and alternate giving methods
ReliefBasic necessitiesRegathering for in-person worship and/or small groups; keeping members connected
RecoveryTemporary solutionsOther ministries return with modifications
RestorationPermanent adjustmentsLong-term adjustments and improvements are made

Phase #1: Rescue

During the initial onset of the pandemic, churches were just trying to survive. With restrictions on in-person gatherings in effect, church leaders had to pivot quickly to moving their worship services online. Because of their financial obligations, churches also had to develop alternate giving methods very quickly. This phase was extremely taxing on pastors and church leaders as they had to learn some survival methods on the fly. 

Unfortunately for some churches, they have remained in survival mode for months. This could be due to their financial situation, or it could be due to an older congregation that is particularly vulnerable to the virus. Other churches may be trying to survive this season without a pastor. Regardless of the circumstances, churches still in the Rescue Phase are just trying to stay afloat until circumstances improve.

Phase #2: Relief

Once churches established an online presence and alternate giving methods, church leaders began to brainstorm how best to provide “basic spiritual necessities” once their church was able to regather in-person once again. For most churches, that meant providing some form of worship experience, small group option, and ways to keep church members connected to one another.

While this has proven to be easier said than done, most churches returned to in-person worship services within 2-3 months while occasionally backtracking to online only or drive-in services whenever case counts increased or someone in the church contracted the virus. Small groups have been more of a challenge with many churches opting for online groups via Zoom or another video conferencing platform. At the time of this post, many churches remain in the Relief Phase.

Phase #3: Recovery

Once the basic spiritual necessities are met, churches can move on to provide temporary solutions in other areas. For most churches, the Recovery Phase involves the slow, but gradual return of other ministries with appropriate modifications. Perhaps the church begins to provide a limited amount of childcare during its gatherings. Perhaps other age-specific ministries begin to meet on or off-campus. Perhaps the church engages in a popular, yet modified evangelistic effort.

The Recovery Phase is a long and slow return to familiarity. While things are far from normal, churches begin to offer temporary solutions to some of their most important ministry programs and events.

Phase #4: Restoration

During this final phase, churches will move forward with the pandemic in the rearview mirror. For many churches, this will require significant and strategic rebuilding efforts. Hopefully, church leaders will not simply lead their church to look or function exactly the same way it did before the pandemic. For many churches, God has provided them the opportunity through this disaster to make some long overdue changes. Maybe some ministries don’t need to come back. Maybe some ministries need to look drastically different from now on. Maybe some new ministry strategies need to be developed and implemented.

During the Restoration Phase, church leaders shouldn’t strive to make the church exactly like it was before the pandemic. They should aim to make it better.

The Need for Patience

In a natural disaster, the Rescue Phase usually lasts for a day or two at the most. The Rescue Phase for churches during the pandemic lasted weeks. In a natural disaster, the Relief Phase usually lasts a few weeks. For churches during the pandemic, the Relief Phase has lasted for at least six months – and most churches continue to operate in this phase. For some churches, they have toggled back and forth between the Rescue and Relief Phases on more than one occasion as cases have surged.

The good news is that there does seem to be a light at the end of the tunnel. However, the impact of the pandemic will remain with us for a long time. If the duration of the disaster itself has lasted this long, how much longer should we expect the Recovery and Restoration Phases to last? I believe it will likely take years for churches to fully recover and rebuild. Unfortunately, some churches and ministries may never do so.

If that is indeed the case, church leaders and church members alike must be patient. You must trust that God is the one who builds His church, and He is also the one who will rebuild His church after this disaster. And He will do so on His timetable, not ours. 

Understanding the four phases of disaster recovery will not make things move any faster in your church. But it can help you to realize where your church or organization is in the process and how much further you may have to go. 

Regardless of how far along your church is on the path of recovery, the good news is that you’re not walking this road alone. The Lord will be with you, every step of the way!

Photo by Pablo Heimplatz on Unsplash

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