Congregational Planning for Flu Pandemic

4/30/2009

Dear Fellow Clergy in the North Alabama Conference:

Below is a good discussion about pastoral and congregational preparedness related to the possibility of a Flu Pandemic.  It is from our friends in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  We’ve added some editorial notes to remind you of resources we North Alabama United Methodists have for your use. - those are marked "NAC Note" in the article. 

Of course, I pray daily that this illness will not come to that.  However, I thought that our pastors would be interested in some steps that they might take to prepare themselves and our congregations for that sad eventuality.  We shall follow the directives of our Public Health officials in this matter but as always we shall be seeking to be Christ’s Body in the world in this time as in all others. 

Let us be in prayer for the victims of this illness and also let us be prepared!
Will Willimon


 
Congregational Planning for Flu Pandemic

This resource is a guide for your congregation in preparing for a potential pandemic. The basic actions for preparing a congregation for a flu pandemic are simply the basic actions of any disaster preparedness.  We believe that every congregation should make at least basic preparation for this potential.  There may be factors unique to your community that this resource can’t foresee, but it will help you in making preparations around, communication, worship, pastoral care, leadership and community outreach.

Communication
In the event of pandemic, it would be important to be able to communicate rapidly with your congregation. It may be that people could be discouraged by public health officials from gathering in groups, such as at church. Many of the usual ways we communicate, i.e. telephone and e-mail, may be over-taxed and unreliable. Therefore the best way to guarantee the fullest communication is to identify and practice as many different ways to communicate as possible. Even though you may develop many different ways of communicating in order to prepare for a pandemic, you will find that these ways can be applied now to enhance your congregational life in many ways. You may wish to identify members of your congregation that have particular expertise in information technology. They could be helpful in preparing your congregation to use many different ways of communicating. Enhanced means of communication should minimally involve telephone, e-mail, Web page, Internet groups, and podcasting.

Telephone
Discuss with a representative of your phone provider what the available options are in your community for teleconferencing. Conference calls permit large groups of people to communicate at the same time from their homes and businesses. Your local phone provider may offer options you can consider for conference lines and group calls. Additionally, you may make a search of the World Wide Web to identify free conference call facilities. There are also local and national companies that provide conference calling services. Usually you only pay for the services when you actually use them, but if you wish to pursue this option you should arrange for an account with such companies ahead of time because they will be swamped with new requests if a pandemic happens.

Automated calling services are also available. To find some of the options available commercially, just enter “voice broadcasting service” in a Web search engine and you’ll find a number of vendors.

Many congregations have prayer chains over the phone. You can expand this concept to create a congregational calling tree to be of use for inquiring after the well-being of your members and sharing information.

E-mail
While there are still people without an e-mail address, most people today have an e-mail address. E-mail is the most popular form of communication after the telephone. Request that congregational members provide an e-mail address and ask their permission to use it to share important information.

Create e-mail lists of all your members so that you can send messages to everyone simultaneously. Many congregations send a version of their newsletters electronically and save postage costs.

Assure members that you will use their e-mail addresses only according to the ways they agree for them to be used. Remember that the “polite” way of addressing group e-mail is to include the list of recipients in the “Blind Copy” field, so that the list of addresses doesn’t print out to be longer than the content of your message. Your information technology savvy members can assist the congregation in drafting a privacy policy.

NAC Note: The North Alabama Conference and Districts will use email to contact pastors and congregations of any important information regarding a pandemic.  Please continue to check your email regularly so you don’t miss important information.

Web Page
If your congregation doesn’t already have a Webpage, you really should! People increasingly turn to the Web for information. You can provide up to date information through the Web that people can access from anywhere. You can also update the information from anywhere.

NAC Note: Don’t forget as a North Alabama Conference United Methodist Church, you have a profile page of your church information free through the North Alabama Conference website. SO even the smallest churches already have an internet presence. Remmeber You can update this page with information if needed by logging in to the Church Login on the home page of the Conference site.  Click here for a video of instructions on how to update your informaiton.

Internet Group
Internet groups are similar to Web pages, but have many more capabilities. An Internet group goes beyond a Web page by not merely sharing information but also permitting a group of people to communicate with each other in important ways including live-time electronic chatting, file sharing, and messaging.

If you have a commercial Web page, your current Internet service provider may offer elements of Internet Groups that could enhance your current Web page to include these functions. Again Lutherans Online Web pages include many of the same functions that Internet Groups can serve.

Congregations should have all of the above communication channels identified and frequently practiced so that in any emergency, you can reach as many people as possible as quickly as possible. Outside of an emergency, it is still a good idea to create the capability to communicate your congregation’s programs in numerous ways.

NAC Note: Some North Alabama congregations have created groups through social networking sites such as Facebook or Twitter. These free tools can also help you get the word out to your congregation. This month’s print Interpreter magazine has a helpful article about these technologies (including quotes from a North Alabama pastor).

Podcasting
Podcasting is a method of publishing files to the Internet, allowing users to subscribe to a feed and receive new files automatically by subscription, usually at no cost. It first became popular in late 2004, used largely for audio files.

NAC Note: Bishop Willimon has a regular podcast as do several North Alabama United Methodist Congregations.  If you make a digital recording of your sermons you can podcast too! Here is an online resource from about.com (not church related, but good technical information) http://radio.about.com/od/podcastin1/a/aa030805a.htm

Worship
In the event of a pandemic, some communities may face periods of quarantine. People may be asked to stay in their homes. Public health officials may discourage public gatherings like worship. Your members however will yearn for the solace and comfort that worship provides in times of fear and crisis. Therefore, you may need to identify and practice ways to provide people with an experience of communal worship that can be done remotely and electronically. All of the channels of communication created for the pandemic can be used to communicate an experience of worship.

Perhaps you could plan for people to attend the worship service over a conference call. Perhaps you can videotape a copy and provide it over your Web site. People can gather in live-time Internet chat rooms created for your congregation to provide each other support. Copies of worship bulletins can be e-mailed or downloaded from your Web site or Internet group so people can feel connected to the congregation. You can envision the channels of communication most suited to enable your congregation to have an experience of worship if they couldn’t gather publicly during a period of quarantine.

It will probably not be possible to gather everyone in a congregation in one single electronic format. By using all of the channels of communication available to you, you can reach as many people as possible with the sense of hope and comfort worship can bring.

NAC Note: Don’t forget the North Alabama Conference Videoshare site.  This is a way North Alabama Conference congregations can share short videos online on a monitored site.  That way your video will only be in the company of other appropriate videos – no shocking surprises like with other free video upload site!  While, normally churches are not allowed to use VideoShare to post full worship services, in the event of  public quarantine due to a pandemic, that resource would be opened up for such use. 

Pastoral Care
Like worship, Pastoral Care provides us with a great sense of hope and comfort when facing a difficult time. A time of pandemic could unfortunately bring significant illness and death into our lives. People would need pastoral care more than ever during this time.

Obviously the best way to provide pastoral care is through quiet and comforting personal presence. However, it is possible to provide pastoral care through the same electronic channels of communication that you would need to use to provide worship. It may be necessary to provide pastoral care through these electronic communication channels both because of the need to stay in quarantine and also because of the greater numbers of people who will need the care at that time. It may be impractical or even impossible to attend to the pastoral care needs of the entire congregation in person.

The following resource, Light Our Way, provides helpful background for providing spiritual care in times of disaster and emergency. 


Leadership
The potential of pandemic requires certain contingencies be considered in leadership issues. Congregations and Synods together should prepare succession plans for leadership on the congregational and synod levels in the event that leaders are ill with flu or are unavailable for lengthy periods of time. This may involve clarifying who is to function in certain roles if the people in those roles cannot do so. Some form of succession should be determined for every rostered leader.

The shape of these succession plans can be different from place to place. They minimally detail:

  • The conditions under which succession occurs, or not; e.g. incapacitation of a leader.
  • The method of notification
  • The level of authority assumed by successors

Succession plans should also be three deep, that is, they should detail not just one person who succeeds another, but someone to succeed that individual as well. On a congregational level, this may include which area pastors assume responsibility for which congregations if a pastor is incapacitated.

Basic decision should be made about which congregational services are essential and should be maintained throughout a time of emergency and which congregational services can be suspended until after the emergency has passed.

On the congregational level, lay leaders should be identified to assume responsibility over various functions in the event that professional staff was unavailable. Office, maintenance, computer, and communication functions should each have lay leaders designated to assume responsibility over them in an emergency setting.

Community Outreach
While pandemic may require that members of the congregation stay in their homes for a period of quarantine, the congregation and its facilities may also be of great benefit to the wider community. Hospitals, clinics, public health agencies, and disaster response organizations may be able to benefit by being able to use your facility to serve the community. Your congregation may be able to serve as an immunization site for your community. Your congregation may be able to serve as a spill over facility for a hospital. Your congregation may be able to serve as a disaster service center.

Prepare a description of your facilities, i.e. a list of rooms, offices, kitchens, bathrooms, and other details of your building. Communicate with local emergency management officials in your community and offer your facility to be of use in a time of emergency.
 

Links for Pandemic Preparedness Planning
www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic
The above sites contain up to date information on planning for many sectors including government, business, and home.

Additionally the sites provides a planning information and checklists for faith-based organizations at: www.pandemicflu.gov/plan/faithcomchecklist.html


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