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How to communicate with church members in the wake of tragedy

 

By Jeremy Steele

As Hurricane Michael was devastating Florida’s Panhandle, a colleague received an obviously prescheduled email promoting a last‑minute Panama City Beach vacation deal.

Whether it’s a natural disaster, political crisis or other tragedy, your communications matter before, during and after the event. An ill‑considered or ill‑timed response could not only be dangerous, but also costly in terms of reputation.

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LET’S DO IT!

Step 1: Review all automatic and scheduled posts on the horizon.
Moments of tragedy change your audience’s perspective on your posts. Whether it’s posting a devotional about Noah after a flooding event or sharing The United Methodist Church’s stance on science after a politician demeans scientists, when you say things can be as important as what you are saying. Depending on what has happened, your posts can seem overly political or downright insensitive.  

Whether you’re scheduling social media updates in advance via Hootsuite or using another service like Buffer, looking through what’s scheduled to post is important. Take a moment to read over the upcoming posts through the lens of what’s happened in the news. Some of the posts may merely need a new title while others are best to reschedule at a later date.

Step 2: Post a prayer, using imagery
Whatever has happened, our first response as people of faith should be to pray. Posting a prayer from a church account will remind people that we can reach out to God at any time. 

A picture is worth a 1,000 words. Using an image (a candle, praying hands) with a call to prayer using Adobe Spark or one of these other 11 apps helps bring the right attention and reverence to your post.

Often in these times, words fail us. Recently, I heard someone admit to struggling in leading a prayer with his young children. “How do I pray that the hurricane shifts, missing their grandmother but knowing that possibly puts others in danger?”

Offer a guiding prayer in your post to help when emotions run high and vocabulary runs low. If you need a place to start, the Book of Worship has prayers already written for many moments of tragedy.

Step 3:  Offer a tangible response
Once the tragedy has had a little time to breathe, it’s time to move your people to practical action. For that, foster connections you have within your community to be involved in the solution. Of course, the specific response depends on the tragedy, but The United Methodist Church has many groups that will already be on the ground helping.  

In the case of natural disaster, the United Methodist Committee on Relief is a premier, trusted relief organization, with 100% donations funneled through them going directly to the affected areas. UMCOR is also the first place you should check in organizing and deploying a local relief team.

On the justice and politics side of things, the General Board of Church and Society of The United Methodist Church has numerous resources available at UMCjustice.org. Whether it’s civil rights, economic justice, environmental justice, health and wellness, peace with justice, or women and children, Church and Society should be your first stop in helping your people be active in the social and political world.

Step 4: Plan a relevant message for your next worship service
This is quite possibly the most delicate of all the communication options we’ve discussed so far. 

Each person walks into your church with a slightly different perspective, fueled perhaps by varying news consumption. What you say will be heard through many filters, but it’s important that these things are addressed. In the age of social media, anything said from the pulpit can be immediately shared with the world. With that in mind, take a moment to process your response in worship.

Overall Orientation: Be knowledgeable about what has happened, and consider what your community needs most.

Are they grieving and need someone to mourn with them? Are they angry and need help channeling that into advocacy/action? Are they concerned and need guidance in pooling resources to help? 

To help you be as clear as possible, state the goal of your communication in a sentence. For example, “I want to help our church know that they can provide relief by donating to UMCOR.”

Writing a Response: Armed with that focus, write drafts of a statement. Try different lengths and different tones. Review what you say considering different points of view.

If appropriate, find people who are from different sides of the political aisle. Ask them to review and comment on your statement. 

Responding to tragedy is important, but it must be done with tact and sensitivity. When done well, your communication can help your members to process the current events spiritually and channel their energy into appropriate action.

 

Jeremy Steele

— Jeremy Steele is the teaching pastor at Christ UMC in Mobile, Alabama, as well as a writer and speaker. You can find a list of all his books, articles and resources for churches, including his most recent book All the Best Questions, at his website: JeremyWords.com.