So what does the church need from you the most as a disaster volunteer? Two simple words- “Be Flexible!” On paper it sounds simple enough, yet in action it can be quite difficult. During almost every orientation that I have given I have made this statement, “Let one word describe you today, FLEXIBLE!” Time and again I have seen a majority of the heads nodding in agreement, yet in action many of the same people fall short. I have often wondered what the problem was and why it was so difficult for people to be flexible. Through conversations with people about how they felt they had done with being flexible, I have found an interesting pattern. Many of the people I talked to felt they had done a great job being flexible, yet I knew from observation that this was not true. So why is it that our definition varies? Some of the reasons I believe we define things different are life experiences, upbringing and family values, how much change we have made in our lives, and the ruler we use to measure success in our life. I know this is not an overly detailed list, but I think it is a good place to start a self-evaluation to see how we define things. In the next blog post I will talk more about the definition of flexible and whether we fit it or not. Regardless of our definition, if we are to become an extraordinary volunteer, then we need to understand why the church needs us to be flexible. If we can understand why, then we can shape our thoughts away from us and turn them toward the needs of the church. Once we look toward the needs of the church we can become the most extraordinary volunteer the world has ever seen.
So why does the church need me to be flexible?
- The church is the one responsible for their work. To put it bluntly, how the church handles disaster response is none of your business. The truth is that it’s not your response, and it’s not your responsibility. If a church is heading up relief efforts in a community, even if it’s your own community, you’re there to help them fulfill what they their role is. Your ideas, experiences, or opinions may mean a great deal to you, but in reality they have little to do with a specific church’s response. Many people have experience working with disaster relief, but none of us have the responsibility the local church has in caring for its own community. Just as a family is the responsibility of the husband, the community is the responsibility of the local church, and the church is the responsibility of the pastor. The pastor’s responsibility includes the church’s role in disaster response. I have always found it best to keep my opinions and experiences to myself until I have a platform in which to share them in a respectful and helpful way. Please be sensitive to this process, as the church is being bombarded daily with individuals, churches, ministries, and organizations wanting to pull them in many different directions. Trust me when I say, the last thing the local church needs is a group of individuals that knows too much about the “way things should be done” to do it the way they are asked. Your best work will only shine when you flow inside the guidelines of the local church you are serving.
- Changes happen by the minute. The reality of disaster is that changes happen by the minute, not by the hour or by the day. One minute they will have word that one thing is going one way, then a minute later they get word it has changed. The reasons for this are long and complicated, but to put it as simply as I can, there are a ton of well-meaning individuals in charge of a ton of different things, with a ton of different ideas about how things should run. Many times organization is lacking during the early stages, and until it settles, there is only one guarantee in a disaster- things are going to change. With that change you are put in the unique situation of responding in an appropriate way. Again, it is not your responsibility to make sure things run the way you think they should, but rather to support the local church as they work through and find a process that works best for them.
- Without you the efforts will fall dead. What do I mean by this? You are so much more important to the relief efforts than you know. You are quite literally the glue that holds it all together, especially during the early stages. Without you the local church can only have a small impact in the community. There is a strength in numbers, and you being there puts multiplication to the work of the local church. They need you to be there for them as support as they push through this disaster. They need you to be a direct representative for their church to the hurting community they live in. You have an incredible opportunity to share the love of Jesus Christ to hurting people by being a part of the work of the local church. The best way to represent the local church is to work within the system they have designed.
- Many of the staff at a local church already have too much to deal with. Never forget that God put the local church where it is so it could react to this specific disaster. They were planted and rooted in the community to serve hurting people. This is their neighborhood and their community. This also means that some, if not most, of the staff will live in an affected areas. They may have just had their lives turned upside down by losing everything. They will have church members, friends, and family that were hit hard, and some will have lost their lives because of what happened. Outside of their disaster work, churches still have programs to run, ministry obligations to fulfill, Sunday services to plan, hospital visits to perform, and even disaster related funerals to prepare. As few as three days after a disaster, many of the church staff feel burned out and are in need of a break. Compassion fatigue starts setting in, and many suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder due to what they have experienced. The last thing they need is to have to deal with someone who is complaining, or who is giving their unsolicited opinion about how things are or should be running. The main reason you are there is to help the community, but you are also there to support the church staff and help lift them up as their community goes through it darkest hours.
- You’re going home and they are not. One quick reality I learned while on overseas short-term missions is that the long-term missionaries to that country do things for a specific reason. I remember being on a mission trip to Haiti where some people from our group started voicing their opinions about how much the mission we were working with paid its local staff. Everyone complaining felt that the local staff deserved to make what we would make in the U.S. for the same job. On the surface it is a noble cause, but upon deeper inspection, you can see why they paid the going local wage. In the long run it would hurt the people more to make an American wage than it would otherwise. It’s like giving a kid in an impoverished country a brand new bike when all the kids around him have old used bikes. He now becomes a target for bullies and thieves until one of them becomes the new owner of the bike. A noble gesture that ends up hurting more than helping. Please keep in mind that when you are done, you are going home. Any messes that you make will have to be cleaned up by the local church after you leave. In some instances churches have had to spend months fixing issues left behind by well-meaning volunteers who didn’t follow the guidelines set forth by the local church.
These are a few of the many reasons why it is important to be a flexible volunteer during disaster relief work. I know your heart is in the right place, and I sincerely hope that this will help you the next time you are out serving a community in need. Always remember that your work as a volunteer is important. What you experience will impact your life as much as it does the people you are serving. Also remember that you are there to serve. True service is love driven, and because it is love driven I would recommend reading 1 Corinthians 13:4-8. Pay particular attention to where it says, “love…does not seek its own”. You are not there for your own glory, but instead to glorify God and lift up the name of Jesus. The work you do does not and will not go unnoticed, so let your light shine, and let it shine brightly through the local church by your willingness to be flexible.