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Leading through a Disaster

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Leading is hard; leading through a disaster is even harder. The tornado in Joplin devastated the city, leaving behind it a trail of broken houses and lives. In a previous post, we told you about the work a few Acts 29 churches were doing in response to this. On the frontlines was Mystery Church, led by Steev Inge. He's taken some time to recount the impact of the catastrophe and talk about the challenges and lessons of leading through a disaster.

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by Steev Inge

Five months ago on May 22, 2011 over a third of our community was destroyed in a devastating F5 tornado. The week that followed was a whirlwind of chaos, strain and stress. Some days it seems like just a dream — like nothing ever happened. Other days remain a nightmare. In some ways, months removed, nothing has changed, but in many ways everything changed. Our vision for planting, our prayers and approach to ministry and mission have all been challenged or tweaked.

This post is what I hope is the beginning of several posts to be of help to others in the future. My hope is none of you will ever have to experience anything of this magnitude. One thing I have learned for sure is you never think it will be you or your city and you are never quite ready when it arrives.

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Here are a few things we’ve put together as some initial thoughts on what to do and not to do during the beginning stages of rescue and recovery in the event of a catastrophe.

1. Relationships Matter

What does your relationship with your city, organizations and other churches look like today? We say we are living intentionally and missionally in our city, but the reality of how well we are doing and what favor we have in our community is revealed in the first hours and days of a disaster. 

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"...the reality of how well we are doing
and what favor we have in our community is
revealed in the first hours and days of a disaster."

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How are you cultivating relationships in the city? Are you serving and influencing culture? Do you have good relationships with other churches? Are you just trying to build a great church or are you honestly seeking the good of your city through the active participation in it. The fruit of involvement in the life of your city springs forth fully in times of loss and pain, often not before. There were many things we gave ourselves to over the last years and wondered why we continued to pour into them when it seemed to be doing little to nothing, but over the last months the seed that had been sown in the lives and leadership of our city began to grow. I cannot tell you how much has happened and how much grace and favor we have witnessed, all because we were faithful to love and serve the people and organizations at work in our city before the storm. Pray for them. Go to them. Love them. Serve them today.

2. Flock First

God has put certain people in your care. They are your priority. The storm that hit our city happened at 5:45pm Sunday evening. Myself, our other elder, an intern and many from our congregation labored well into the following morning looking for survivors and assisting the injured. The most important thing we did during this time though was find our sheep. Our community group leaders are close to one another and like yours care for those in their groups. We immediately begin trying to reach our leaders and urging them to locate the folks in their groups. Even with little to no cell service we managed to drive, walk, tweet, Facebook and call until nearly every regular participant in our church was located.

Joplin – I survived thank you Jesus

For this to happen you have to know your sheep. Community is crucial to spiritual growth. It is also the primary way we care physically for people. Emphasize to your church the importance of connection and community — not just knowing your bible but being known. Because the bulk of the people who attend our church are in community, the majority of people were located quickly. Needs were being meet almost immediately and the peace of knowing people where alive and accounted for was immeasurable by all.

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"Focusing on the flock first actually made us
more effective at helping others later,
and everyone was involved in the good work."

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There will be many in need. We do not deny them, but it's easy to begin the hard and busy work and neglect the calling we have first to our sheep. After locating or connecting with our people, we began to locate and connect with the people we were engaged with missionally — teachers at a school we work with, artists we knew from downtown and organizations we serve within our city. Focusing on the flock first actually made us more effective at helping others later, and everyone was involved in the good work.

3. Stay Focused

Everything hits the fan in a disaster. It’s easy to be overwhelmed and with 'Type A' tendencies — it's tempting to want to do everything (and think we can). You can’t. Your people can’t and your church can’t do it all. And here is what we can confidently say now: You don’t have to. Most of us don’t have the resources or the man-power to do most of what will present itself in the initial days and weeks following a catastrophe. Not even the largest organizations in our city could. The city itself couldn’t.

Phone calls, volunteers, donations…it all started pouring in. There was so much need out there and so much coming into here that it was overwhelming. Initially I thought, “if we don’t do it no one will." That was pride talking.

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There are other people around you too. This is where the relationships with people outside our church began to be key. Working together accomplished a lot more. We were not set up to warehouse the immeasurable goods being donated. We did not have enough people to volunteer at every station. We realized quickly that to try to meet every need would create an internal disaster as great as the external one. Almost weekly a church here throws in the towel. Seventy percent of pastors leave their church in the wake of sizable disasters within three years — their people, resources and themselves exhausted. You can’t make every meeting, you wont make everyone happy and you certainly can't meet every need.

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"Initially I thought, 'if we don’t do it no one will.'
That was pride talking."

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Be a specialist not a generalist. What are you good at now? Where does your church excel now? Figure out how who you are can best contribute to what’s needed and get after it not everything. For us we have been good at making connections, gathering people and serving needs. We simply translated our competencies to the people and places that would benefit the most. Give the donations to the organizations that know how to distribute them, get people who can lead into places that need leadership or bring systems to places requiring structure. Do what you do best. It’s no time to start a new ministry or reinvent things. You will bear more fruit by being more faithful, and in the process, you will not wreck the primary work God has called you to. Be a help and ask for help. Connect and contribute. It will go a long way.

4. Trust Jesus

Shouldn’t that be first? Exactly. Just like you see relational fruit in the devastation you also find out very quickly how you are doing with your first love. I entered into May 22 already exhausted. I had been neglecting to Sabbath, burning the candle at both ends and was just plain dry in my soul. In the first week I was able to dig down deep and draw from reserves, but in the coming weeks and months the condition of my heart and state of my walk with and reliance on Christ quickly emerged.

I’m guessing many of you can relate. I’m pretty good at seemingly doing pretty well without God. Throw me into an emergency and I kind of thrive. The stress, the adrenaline and intensity can make you feel “alive," but you won’t be for long. If your identity is not regularly coming from Christ, you are a target of the enemy in the midst of turmoil. If you are not walking in the fear of the Lord and the comfort of the Holy Spirit now, sin will get the best of you in the sifting of calamity. If you are not prayerfully dependent today you will neglect and reject it even more in the intensity of overwhelming to do’s.

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"If your identity is not regularly coming from Christ,
you are a target of the enemy in the midst of turmoil."

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The good news is that He will never leave you nor forsake you. Not today, not tomorrow, not in the aftermath of an F5 tornado, not in my times of denial and doubt, but I will easily wander from Him. The Father was not surprised by our situation; we were. Grace is not removed and his purpose will prevail, but apart from Him I can do nothing. This has been my greatest lesson, and five months removed, the forgetfulness of gospel dependency and the deception of personal strength quietly creeps back in at any given moment.

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Pray now. Be in the Word now. Love and equip your people now. Walk with Jesus constantly. And when the day comes, when your disaster drops, you and your church will be ready to glorify him and seek the good of others in the strength, wisdom, patience and joy of the Lord.

My hope is that in some way this is beneficial and applicable to you. Myself and our church are forever grateful as we labor together in this fallen and broken world for the glory and fame of Jesus Christ!

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