Pastors, Pandemics, and Preparedness

By Jason Pudlo

Photo Credit: ABC News

During the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, houses of worship have been both vectors of contagion and victims of the virus. Responses to the pandemic have left congregations in perilous financial condition and threatened the celebration of important holy days. As communities of faith adapt to this new era of physical distancing and safer-at-home orders, I wondered, “how prepared for disaster were congregations before the pandemic?”

In late 2019, I worked with LifeWay Research to survey Protestant pastors about disaster risks and preparedness. Alongside more seasonal disasters like tornadoes, floods, and hurricanes, the study included several questions on pandemics. A quick analysis of the data shows that up to a quarter of Protestant congregations in the study did not prepare for any disaster. Additionally, many churches do not prepare for a disaster, even if they believe it is likely, due to issues of staffing and resources. Churches were especially unprepared for pandemics. Interestingly, stronger social networks seem to improve disaster preparedness.

Do congregations understand their risks?

To better understand the decisions made about disaster preparedness, the study asked pastors: “how likely is your congregation to experience a disaster?” This question encouraged pastors to report on their hazard and risk assessment. Hazards are natural or human-caused disasters that could happen to a congregation, while risk is the probability or likelihood of a hazard occurring.

I found that over two-thirds of pastors identified windstorms (68%) and winter storms (66%) as likely to affect their congregation. Just under half of Protestant pastors identified common spring weather hazards of tornadoes (47%) and flooding (47%) as likely to happen.

The results also suggest some regional specificity. For example, only 9% of congregations identified earthquakes as a likely hazard. However, of that 9%, over two-thirds (68%) reside on the west coast where earthquakes are common. More exploration of the data is needed to determine if churches have correctly identified their risks, but the initial results are promising.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, around 20% of Protestant pastors in the study identified pandemics or medical disasters as a risk to their congregation. It is not entirely clear from the data if the 10 year anniversary of the 2009 H1N1 “swine” flu pandemic had any impact on the responses of pastors or their concern about pandemics.

Do congregations plan for known risks?

I also wanted to know if congregations have prepared for the hazards they identified as high risk. For example, if a church identified a risk from flooding, do they have a flood plan? The survey indicates that while 47% of pastors identified a risk from flood, only 32% of those congregations had a plan for flooding.

Just over half of congregations that identified risks from hurricanes, winter storms, tornadoes, or flooding have planned for those hazards. Less than half congregations facing wildfire (43%) or earthquake (45%) have a plan to address those risks. As highlighted in the figure, only 10% of congregations concerned about pandemics or medical disasters have created a plan.

The lack of planning is extensive – a full 25% of congregations did not prepare for any kind of disaster. This pattern is not unique to churches though, and other studies have shown that individuals, households, and other nonprofit organizations prepare at lower rates than they identify risks.

What predicts congregational disaster planning?

The answer to this question is complicated and analysis is still ongoing. Nevertheless, the survey provides a few suggestions. In addition to measures of staffing, resources, or location, an interesting pattern emerged from the data. Churches with any kind of connection to the emergency management community or community service organizations were measurably more prepared than those with no connection.

For this part of the analysis, preparedness was defined using a score of up to 20 different preparedness actions. Networks were measured by the number and types of connections churches had to emergency managers and the community. Formal connections were defined by contracts or written agreements of some kind while informal connections could be any kind of non-contractual relationship. As highlighted in the figure, churches with stronger community connections had higher levels of preparedness compared to less connected churches. In other words, networked churches were prepared churches.

Returning back to the original question, “how prepared were congregations before the pandemic?”. The answer seems pretty clear, they were not ready. Even though roughly 20% of churches identified pandemics as a risk, only 10% of those risk-aware congregations had a plan in place. However, during this time of social distancing, it seems that building social networks may help congregations recover from challenges presented by COVID-19 and be prepared for the next disaster.

Survey Notes:

The online survey of Protestant church leaders was conducted August 12 – September 2, 2019 using the LifeWay Research Pastor Panel. The sample is 346 surveys. The sample provides 95 percent confidence that the sampling error does not exceed +5.3%. Margins of error are higher in sub-groups and for questions in which fewer church leaders answered.

About the Author:

Jason Pudlo (PhD, University of Oklahoma, Political Science) is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma. His research focuses on congregations, disasters, and resilience. His work has appeared in academic journals and he can be found on Twitter. He wishes to acknowledge grant support from the Louisville Institute.

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