The Okotoks Evangelical-Free Church (OEFC) is the largest church in the town of Okotoks, Alberta, Canada, near the metropolitan city of Calgary. One year after choosing Fellowship One church management software (ChMS) in order to support an aggressive growth strategy, highly leverage their small groups, and use advanced data tracking for research purposes, the church and the entire region faced a flood, the largest natural disaster in the province’s history. 28 emergency operations centers were activated to help more than 100,000 people displaced throughout the region.
Learn how Fellowship One proved invaluable in providing assistance to other churches and the devastated community:
- Quick assessment of all members’ whereabouts
- Mobilization of volunteers and cross-matching with community and congregational needs
- Centralized, reliable information dispatch to minimize chaos of rumors and hearsay
- Community outreach and assistance that left positive impact for Christ
Michael Elsdon, Community Life Pastor and Fellowship One “Ninja,” recalls that the flood was a freak event, resulting from 36 hours of torrential rains falling on the still-frozen mountains surrounding the area. 100% ground saturation meant that the seven river systems and all tributaries in the area were overwhelmed to overflowing before warnings could be sent out. Nearby High River, where 20 families from the Okotoks church live, and many other church members work, was the hardest hit. The Highwood River began flooding as it flowed through town and then, in midafternoon, its banks burst downstream of the town. This created a new waterway that flowed back into the town, flooding it from two directions at the same time.
Hearing rumors about rising water and a mandatory evacuation of all of High River and areas of Okotoks, leaders in the church knew they needed to get in touch with their members immediately. One email went out letting the congregation know of the situation (before news outlets had broken the story) and within hours, lists of beds and resources were created, all members were accounted for, and every possible spare room for those evacuated had been identified.
With thousands of people displaced, downtown Calgary underwater, and utter chaos in the area, Elsdon became a one-man mobile unit, with everything he needed at his fingertips. Within a few days, Fellowship One had been utilized to track down and locate every displaced church attendee from the High River area. The church leveraged its database to communicate with its members and begin to assess the needs of the people.
When a community need was identified (from providing money, food, and basic items to church families hosting up to four extra families, to finding a guitar player to calm hundreds of restless citizens evacuated to a rec center), Elsdon was able to access his F1 database and message delivery system from wherever he happened to be. The church put a link on its home page to enable people to create F1 accounts to stay up to date and in the system. Even people from outside the church community utilized this resource.
3 Ways the F1 Solution Minimized Community Chaos
1. Centralized Hub of Clean Information That Outperformed Community's Social Media.
- Facebook and other social media channels quickly became overloaded with inaccurate and conflicting messages.
- Disorganized community requests for specific supplies resulted in massive amounts of odd or irrelevant items (such as bras and dog kennels).
- An incorrect Red Cross number was published through social media, causing a health care company in Texas to receive hundreds of calls.
- Community volunteers were plentiful, but without specific instructions and directions, they were often frustrated and underutilized.
Elsdon was aware than any incorrect information would immediately result in loss of respect for the church’s role and usefulness. By having one centralized source of communication that only flowed one-way, OEFC was able to provide a reliable stream of information in one or two emails a day to the 800 members in its database. From there, messages were passed on through social media, benefiting the entire community.
2. Online Tools to Organize and Mobile Volunteers
Other organizations (Samaritan’s Purse, Red Cross, Mennonite Disaster Service, Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, etc.) arrived to assist with disaster recovery. Elsdon, with his hand-held F1 hub, was able to provide valuable assistance to them by creating an online registration form in F1 to galvanize the church’s volunteer force through OEFC’s F1 database. This not only streamlined the process, but also allowed the church to keep tabs on where its people were involved in the clean-up efforts."The ability to click and communicate from anywhere is what made F1 so valuable to us."Michael Elsdon
A local store owner’s suppliers donated many pallets of clothing and other items. She reached out to the Okotoks church for help in setting up a free “store” with the merchandise. Her take on the well-organized, joint effort: “If this is church, I’ll never think of church the same way again.” While this event was publicized through the local media, F1 was also used to allow flood-hit church members to get an inside track on an opportunity to receive brand new clothes and shoes.
The High River region is home to thousands of temporary Filipino workers and immigrants, many of whom lived in badly flooded basement suites. This demographic was seriously overlooked, so OEFC temporarily adopted a small Filipino church plant in High River and worked to assist them and their Lead Pastor, who opened his home to 30 people on the day of the flood. OEFC not only helped with furniture donations and basic household essentials, but also it used its benevolent funds and donations solicited from the food bank to help the church plant offer an outreach project for its friends and neighbors in need.
Disaster Recovery Recommendations
Clearly, the wisdom of Michael Elsdon and OEFC leadership played a vital role in the success the church experienced with Fellowship One during this catastrophe. They collected their own set of retrospective lessons learned, including:
Strive For 100% Participation In The Database Before Emergencies
Due to too many emails or failure to target emails to only the necessary people, members unsubscribing means they don’t receive critical emails in times of emergency. Members must understand the need to stay connected through the F1 system, and staff must minimize “spam” that leads to a high unsubscribe rate.
Help The Community, But Put Your Members' Needs First
"It's essential to establish relationships with other organizations and ministerial members early in the disaster phase and communicate well with everyone involved, but make sure you prioritize your resources and volunteers to your own house first," says Elsdon.
Assign And Train One Full Time Person To THe Disaster Response On Behalf Of The Couch
All requests, projects, responses, and information must flow across that one desk. A systems thinker who understands delegation and teamwork is an absolute must to ensure that the church does as much as possible in a fluid environment where needs and resources change and shift on a very regular basis. It is also essential that that person knows how to say no to many requests.
Avoid "Secondary Disaster": Don't Become A Drop-Off Point
Elsdon references the secondary disaster in every disaster...the mountains of donations that are unusable and must be disposed of. Nobody needs Christmas decorations and old couches at a time like this. The only efficient way to receive donations is to communicate a specific, manned drop-off period (i.e. from 2-4pm on Saturday) of specific items only: toilet paper, bottled water, medical supplies, etc.
Elsdon states that outside support will arrive and stay to help for about three weeks, but the church is one of the only organizations that will be there to help for the long haul. Prior to the flood, OEFC leadership had been contemplating how to instill service as a major backbone of the church’s DNA. The crisis brought out that spirit in its members and now leaders are considering how to maintain volunteerism and raise the church’s evangelistic temperature.
Many months after the flood, the church’s F1 database still holds self-populated lists of volunteers willing to serve in the clean-up. OEFC continues to assist not only individuals in need, but also other churches.
Three days after the flood, the staff of a church in High River walked into OEFC. Their own building was flooded with up to 8 feet of water and it would be months before they could use it. They asked if they could partner with OEFC for temporary offices and a place to worship.
The only data source they had with which to communicate with their evacuated church was one paper directory (which, undoubtedly, had some out-of-date information). It took them weeks to find every member of their congregation. Elsdon had achieved as much in a matter of hours, with a few simple emails through F1.
Elsdon states, "That could have been us a year ago, if not for Fellowship One."
Learn how Fellowship One's solution can help your church operate heroically, no matter the weather.