United Methodist Committee on Relief

Disaster Recovery is Much More than Cleanup

Clergy and other church leaders lay hands on Bill Ohler during a disaster response meeting at ChristClergy and other church leaders lay hands on Bill Ohler during a disaster response meeting at Christ's Community United Methodist Church in Joplin, Missouri. Ohler is a trustee at St. James United Methodist Church, which was destroyed by the 2011 tornado. 

This article appears in Interpreter Magazine, March/April 2014 edition. The issue is dedicated to the work and ministry of UMCOR.

By Barbara Dunlap-Berg*

Disasters topped many headlines in 2013. “UMCOR responds to explosion in West, Texas.” “UMCOR reaches out after Texas tornadoes.” “Oklahoma climbs back after multiple tornadoes.” “Coloradans come to term with floods.” “One year after Sandy, Northeast continues recovery.”

The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) trains people at every level — local church, district and conference — to respond to disasters. United Methodist Volunteers in Mission deploy Early Response Teams in times of need in the United States. UMCOR also helps annual conferences draft and test their Conference Disaster Response Plans.

However, disaster recovery is much, much more than immediate response and cleanup. Even when news coverage moves to back-page stories and disappears from websites, survivors grapple with loss. Caregivers struggle with emotions, both on a helping level and on a personal level.

“Our spiritual lives are intricately woven in our experience,” said the Rev. Tom Hazelwood, former U.S. disaster response executive for UMCOR. “Spiritual and emotional care training through UMCOR helps individuals, congregations and communities navigate the winding path to new wholeness, while respecting the uniqueness of each person’s journey.”

When disaster strikes, local congregations usually provide the first response. Survivors may experience profound uncertainty, an inability to cope, a crisis of faith or a loss of hope. For many, emotional and spiritual healing is as necessary as physical rebuilding. After a disaster, the church reaches out to people within the community to extend a listening ear, a word of comfort and a caring presence.

Christ’s Hands and Feet in a Hurting World

Clergy and other church leaders lay hands on Bill Ohler during a disaster response meeting at Christ
The Rev. Debra Ball-Kilbourne (left) blesses quilts that were given for families who were affected by flooding in the Minot, N.D., area. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose

UMCOR equips United Methodists to prepare for, respond to and recover from disasters so that they can be the hands and feet of Christ in a hurting world. UMCOR assists with training, leadership and coordination within The United Methodist Church and in cooperation with other faith-based and secular responders. Experienced, skilled and compassionate UMCOR trainers highlight spiritual care gifts found among members within local churches.

The Rev. Debra Ball-Kilbourne understands. Her church — Faith United Methodist in Minot, N.D. — was ravaged by floods in 2011. An UMCOR case-management trainer, she coordinates the Resource Agency Flood Team for the Dakotas Conference.

Case management, she said, is “a very long commitment. We’re talking six months, a year, two years. You have to be there.

“We attempt to keep the applicant in the driver’s seat in determining a recovery plan,” Ball-Kilbourne added, “but helping him or her reach decisions in a reasonable length of time and with due consideration of what is within the applicant’s financial means. It takes creativity on behalf of the case manager.”

In the process, disaster survivors discover new coping skills.

“If one comes through devastation of any kind in a healthy state,” Ball-Kilbourne said, “he or she has needed to call on resilience formed in the past and have added to that resilience with wisdom gained in the adventure.”

Congregations Prepare for the Worst

Many people naturally turn to the church in times of crisis. Church members who are prepared can help to mitigate the emotional and spiritual impact of a disaster, making their church a place of hospitality and sanctuary.

For congregations wanting to be prepared to reach out in times of disaster, UMCOR offers Connecting Neighbors Leadership Training. The disaster-readiness program equips volunteer trainers with the information and tools they need to guide the church as it prepares to respond to disaster in the community.

Attendees learn how to identify types of disasters likely to affect the community, assess the immediate needs of their neighbors and the church’s resources to meet those needs, connect the church to outside resources and to the community’s emergency plans, develop a system of communication and more.

“The goal of Connecting Neighbors is to inspire churches to ministry at all levels,” said UMCOR consultant Christy Smith. “But you can only respond out of strength. If you’re prepared rather than reeling from the disaster, you’ll be in a better position to reach out and help.”

UMCOR also trains “care teams,” faith-based groups that work with their annual conference disaster committee to help survivors connect with emotional, spiritual and basic life resources.

Basic Care Team Training (seven hours) provides response training on spiritual and emotional care needs of affected individuals, communities or congregations and strategies for responders’ self-care.

  • Advanced Care Team Leader Training (four hours) offers necessary leadership tools and skills during and after deployment.
  • Advanced Congregational Care Team Training (three hours) provides practical ideas and a packaged program to use within congregations that have experienced disaster within their communities.
  • Other options for spiritual and emotional care training include:

  • “The Ministry with Caring” workshop (six hours) helps participants recognize signs of stress and burnout after a disaster.
  • “Calming after the Storm” workshop (four hours) offers practical information and ideas to help people facing emotional and spiritual challenges after a disaster.
  • To get involved, contact your United Methodist annual conference disaster-response coordinator or director of connectional ministries.

    Barbara Dunlap-Berg is associate editor of Interpreter and Interpreter Online.