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Case Study: How one church is applying disaster response protocols to love each other better

Story by Patrick Scriven

RENTON, Wash. — Like many churches in the Seattle area, Fairwood Community United Methodist Church had to adjust worship plans last weekend. With King County discouraging large group gatherings and encouraging persons vulnerable to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) to stay home through the end of March, it would have been easy to focus on what they couldn’t do.

Instead, in addition to moving some worship elements online, Fairwood Community UMC continued the work of applying disaster response practices to their planning for whatever might come next. Training developed by UMCOR called Connecting Neighbors helped to inform these efforts.

According to lay member Jim Truitt, the need to accelerate the church’s response got real when an active family shared that they were under self-quarantine, concerned that they might have COVID-19. 

Truitt, who also serves as Disaster Response Coordinator for the Greater Northwest Area, shared some of what they are doing to implement Connecting Neighbors curriculum in the church’s response. Both Truitt and Associate Pastor Carrie Bland have received training in the program, which is offered in both the Oregon-Idaho and Pacific Northwest Conferences.

Responding to the immediate concern, the church has been in contact with the family under quarantine, offering support and meals as requested. Truitt shared that they “performed a contact search of everyone the family has been in contact with since exhibiting symptoms,” notifying those they identified and sharing the news with the congregation with a letter. They also cleaned every room of the church that the family visited. 

As encouraged by public health officials and United Methodist Bishop Elaine Stanovsky, the church has adopted new hygiene protocols for those entering and using their facility. Truitt shares that they are utilizing “the expertise of the infection control and medical personnel” in the congregation to define these protocols and to respond safely to requests for help.

Fairwood Community UMC is also compiling a list of its at-risk parishioners. That list includes members who are immunocompromised, are 60+ years old, have chosen not to venture out, live alone, and those we know who have traveled out of the country recently. They are using a phone tree to do wellness checks with those identified and have tasked their Congregational Care Committee to coordinate meals and needed transportation.

“For our congregation, it is becoming a pretty long list,” offered Rev. Bland. Because so many members meet one or more of the at-risk criteria, they are working to divide the list into groupings representing different levels of potential risk and need. 

Bland shared that the Congregational Care Committee has been at work for two years now, activating previously to support members during moments like last year’s “Snowpocalypse.” To adapt to the challenges posed by sheer numbers and the reality that some members don’t use or have access to email, they are looking at creating a “buddy system” to engage more members in care for one another.

Fairwood Community UMC is relying on Truitt to monitor emerging information about COVID-19 from trusted sources like the CDC, WHO, and their state and county health departments. He reviews any COVID-19-related communication the church issues, supporting church leadership, and ensuring that the church is following agreed-upon protocols. 

“A lot that comes out about the Coronavirus is physical,” shared Bland. “How are we as a society addressing the spiritual and emotional components of this situation?” 

For Bland, making sure that a holistic approach to health is addressed is one role she sees for the church in this situation, one it is well-positioned to take on. 

“We hope the congregation will realize there are great ways to care for each other in times like these that might carry forward.”

Patrick Scriven serves as Director of Communications and Young People’s Ministry for the Pacific Northwest Conference of The United Methodist Church.

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