In times of crisis a church can become a vital resource for its community, serving as a meeting place for families, a shelter, and a source of comfort. At such times the church’s leadership is probably focused on giving help, and not on how providing emergency shelter can create additional risk for the church. That is why church leaders should give thought to these questions before emergencies arise.
The first step for any church that intends to offer emergency services is to adopt a formal plan. Formalizing a plan gives church leaders an opportunity to examine all the details that might otherwise escape attention in day-to-day affairs. Such details might include:
- Identifying who will be responsible for overseeing the church during an emergency.
- Will the church provide emergency supplies, like blankets, water, and food? If so, how much budget will the church set aside for this? How often will they need to be inventoried and inspected?
- Identify officials and organizations within the community that will be critical resources in an emergency. This might include local police and fire departments, local hospitals, and state and federal emergency agencies.
- Determine who will have the authority to open the church as an emergency shelter.
- Development of a training program for church staff and volunteers, ideally with recurring trainings to keep ideas fresh and identify potential problems.
If the church hasn’t done so, it should contact local officials to notify them that it is willing to act as an emergency shelter. Coordinating with local emergency services can give the church access to supplies and personnel.
Among the planning steps should be an examination of the church’s insurance policy. When acting as a public shelter the church may have unexpected problems arise, like drug use or sexual assault. The church is potentially liable for anything that happens on its property, so it needs to be prepared to defend itself against lawsuits brought by people who are seeking shelter.
The Church Law Center of California provides legal services to churches and secular nonprofits. We can help your church develop a comprehensive plan for responding to emergencies in a way that protects the church’s interests while allowing it to serve its broader community purpose. Call us today at (949) 689-0437 or through our contact page.