Practical Theology and Practicalities in Church Response to Emergencies

[1] What is striking about the review of materials prepared by various church organizations concerning emergency preparedness and health concerns is how amazingly secularized the response of the church (as a generic term for various denominations) has been. In an assignment for this Journal, I reviewed materials prepared by the ELCA, the churches with which the ELCA has full communion, and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS), in order to assess the feasibility of material for practical application by local congregations (parishes). The striking similarity in the review of material is how the material provided highly secularizes the issue of emergency preparedness and health education – as if there isn’t a theological basis for education and planning. It seems as if practical theology has been marginalized to the role of administration, as if there isn’t a need for noting God , faith, and grace in the implementation of practical solutions. This is unfortunately consistent with the relative lack of formalized church administration programs in seminaries, or at least required courses that provide basics in administration for those pursuing church leadership.[1] In reviewing the links that I have compiled, note how the responses of the various church organizations rely heavily on links to government organizations such as the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the US Department of Health and Human Services, the US Department of Labor, and various state and local derivative agencies. The CDC’s publication, H1N1 Flu: A Guide for Community and Faith Based Organizations[2], is most often referenced, and the CDC has produced excellent, downloadable flyers on a variety of subjects related to the education and promotion of healthy habits, which are readily available for use.[3]

[2] There seems to be a paucity of theological teaching by the church in its various responses. For instance, a memorandum distributed by an Episcopal Bishop and his suffragan addressed their interpretation of the perceptions concerning risk of the holy communion common cup and transmission of disease aims to be theological in its response but provides very little practicality for the local Episcopal rector and his or her vestry, as is borne out by the complete lack of supportive materials on the Diocesan web-site, noting mainly the availability of information within the Anglican Communion and providing absolutely no resources that a local parish could download and tailor to its own use.[4] In fact, the tone of the memorandum could arguably be considered patronizing. The link from the Diocese to the national church’s Episcopal Relief and Development web-site provides mainly links to the CDC’s H1N1 report and do not provide ready-made documents for congregational use.

[3] The National Council of Churches at least aims towards this aim by providing a biblical preface, noting 3 John 1-2a on its “Best Practices for Congregations” page.[5]

[4] The ELCA’s “How We Respond: Responding Faithfully to Pandemic Flu” provides the ELCA’s theological basis for response, as articulated in its social statements.[6] An edition of Caring Connections provides a segue for the link between theology and the practicalities of every life in a congregation, while also emphasizing Lutheran principles.[7] And yet, this still does not provide a practical application of theology to the issue of emergency preparedness and health issues, in that it does not give the local church congregation practical resources for immediate employ – a critical need given that the church leadership (ordained and lay) are, quite unfortunately, not typically educated in such means of administration. The ELCA’s document, Worship in Times of Public Health Concerns, provides practical guidance but without being overly patronizing, as in the aforementioned memorandum of the Episcopal Bishop.[8] [9]

[5] So what would constitute a practical theology for emergency preparedness and dealing with issues that could have an impact on the church community such as a flu pandemic? What is the role of the church in assisting the local congregation and its rostered leadership to manage such efforts?

1. Provide a theological basis. We are the Body of Christ. Caring for the Body means caring for us individually and collectively, and thus, preparedness and education is essential to maintain community with each other and with God.[10] Ecology of spirit is individual, community based and broadly ecological and ecumenical. This should be prerequisite in any materials developed for use as a way to establish and maintain the theological basis for the practicality of preparedness and education.

2. Provide a Lutheran context. In Lutheran theology, the Eucharist is the act of centrality that enforces community and provides the basis for the ensuing “liturgy after the liturgy”: ministry in our midst. As Samuel Torvend notes, “those who receive the bread and wine are bound socially and spiritually to each other and to Christ who gives nourishment to his body, the Christian community. Luther suggested that receiving the bread and wine, the body and blood of Christ, signifies the creation or confirmation of a community that receives “gifts” and consequently bears responsibility to respond in mutual assistance to one another.[11] While being sensitive to any concerns regarding transmission of health pathology, one must reaffirm the grace that comes in community through the shared meal. Taking precautions to ensure that the Holy Meal is available for all is an essential tenet of ministry that all are justified, and therefore, is theologically sound. Whether receipt of the wine/blood of Christ is by the common cup or by intinction, the availability of the Eucharistic elements must remain the central liturgical response that presents grace, and Lutheran perspective must be affirmed. The grace that is affirmed in the Eucharist, through community, is a healing grace,[12] and that healing grace must be presented and available to the church membership and visible to the church’s community.

3. Develop material for immediate use by local congregations. Not every congregation has immediate access to media resources and may not have the technical know-how to develop such resources. This is especially true in light of the fact that many congregations have had to reduce staff due to the economic downturn in 2008-09. Smaller congregations may simply not have supportive infrastructure. Development of “camera-ready” resources should be prerequisite for the national church and synods to develop for use by local congregations. This will ensure community between the local congregation, its synod, and the national church.

4. Leverage multimedia content. Amazingly, the resources that are available from the various denominations studied are almost completely print-based. While that certainly has its utility for the typical forms of communication with a congregation (web-site; newsletter; service bulletin), use of video would be especially helpful and could form the basis for effective teaching on the theology of community and preparedness.[13]

5. Avoid duplicative materials. The national church could form a partnership with the other denominations in which it has full communion to develop resources for immediate local congregational use, and thus, leverage costs and yet promote community with the communion. There is no reason why each denomination has to have its own web-pages to provide links to the same secular resources. Similarly, denominations could form a partnership for the development of multimedia content, as discussed in the previous point. Full communion exists to provide an extended community of believers – why not leverage it in practical means?

[6] I believe it is very important to avoid the sole reliance on secular resources within a church community in the issue of emergency and health preparedness. There must be an imputed reliance on theology – imparting the need for grace and justice – in the practical understanding of issues. Planning for emergencies, such as health pandemics, must be contextualized within the understanding of sustainability in the Body of Christ in order to provide resonance in the church’s response to its community and to the wider community of its surroundings as an essential tenet of faith and mission. The national church, and its synodical divisions, must provide practical solutions for the local congregation to impart, given limited resources of individual congregations in a marginalized economy and that such resources are simply not available in individual congregations in positive economic times. Leaning exclusively on secular resources ignores the Great Commandment to preach the Gospel and relies too much upon the Law. The community must receive grace imparted in the Gospel to provide sustenance to the Law, and the only way to receive grace is to know of its availability.

A bibliography of material consulted follows.

Government Resources

Department of Health and Human Services. H1N1 Flu: A Guide for Community and Faith-Based Organizations.

FEMA. Ready: Response, Plan, Stay Informed.

Center for Disease Control (CDC). Various Flyers.

o Seasonal Influenza., and
o Avian Influenza.
o Antiviral Medications
o Vaccines:
o Washing Hands
o Cough and Sneeze Etiquette.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration. US Department of Labor. Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for an Influenza Pandemic. (3327-05R, 2009)

Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

Congregational Planning for Flu Epidemic.

Worship and Liturgical Resources Section. Office of the Presiding Bishop. Worship in Times of Public Health Concerns.

National Council of Churches Best Practices H1N1 (Swine Plu) and Seasonal Flu Best Practices for Congregations.

“Caring Connections” An Inter-Lutheran Journal for Practitioners and Teachers of Pastoral Care and Counseling Volume 5 Number 1 (Summer 2008).

Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS)

Video of Presentations at 2nd Annual District Disaster Response Coordinators’ Conference (January 2009).

Preparing To Meet the Challenge. (available only via download)

The Episcopal Church (ECUSA)

Episcopal Relief and Development. Planning for Pandemic Influenza. Mainly commentary and links.

Sisk, The Rt Rev Mark S. and The Rt Rev Catherine S Roskam. Healthcare Concerns and Liturgical Practices.

Anglican Church in Canada

Cathedral Church of St James. “Liturgical Practices and Risk of Infection”

Gould, David H. BA, MD,CM, FRCPC, FICA, A.Th “Eucharistic Practice and the Risk of Infection”

Diocese of Toronto. Anglican Church of Canada.” A Summary Report Concerning The Tisk of Transmission of Conagion Via The Use of the Common Cup and Other Liturgical Acts” (December 2003).

The United Methodist Church

H1Ni Influenza A: United Methodists Respond.

Presbyterian Church in America

Response to H1N1 (Flu). Practical information, and links to various governmental agencies. Has information translated into Spanish, French, Russian, and Arabic.

General Articles and Research

“RISK OF INFECTIOUS DISEASE TRANSMISSION FROM A COMMON COMMUNION CUP” American Journal of Infection Control: Volume 26(5), October 1998 (pp 538-539) –

A Guide for Spiritual Care in Times of Disaster for Disaster Response Volunteers, First Responders and Disaster Planners ( Way_LINKS.pdf)

Scott Santibanez, MD. Church-Related Groups Will Be Vital Partners in Getting Ready for an Influenza Pandemic. Health Progress. (November-December 2007).

Simmons, Paul. Faith and Health: Religion, Science and Public Policy (Mercer University Press, 2008). Provides a good discussion on a host of health issues that would be excellent for pastoral care study.

[1] For instance, the recent economic crisis has demonstrated a weakness in social ministry in the church’s formalized response to assisting local congregations for financial literacy planning as an outgrowth of developing the spiritual growth of parishioners, imparting faith and stewardship to practical reality. See my book review, “Lutheran Ethics in a Troubled Global Economy” for an exploration of this theme: I am in the process of developing an annotated bibliography of financial literacy resources for publication that local congregations can draw upon; a similar document, prepared for a local public library, can be obtained here: Contact the author for customization at

[2] Available here: but often linked to from various denomination’s related web-pages.

[3] See here for a variety of helpful flyers and checklists:

[4] The memorandum is here:



[7] Caring Connections: An Inter-Lutheran Journal for Practitioners and Teachers of Pastoral Care and Counseling Volume 5, No. 1 (Spring 2008):


[9] Samuel Torvend, Luther and the Hungry Poor: Gathered Fragments (Augsburg Fortress, 2008); Carter Lindberg. No Greater Service to God than Christian Love: Insights from Martin Luther (Augsburg Fortress, 2008).

[10] Romans 12: 1-18.

[11] Torvend, op. cit., p 93-4.

[12] Martin Marty. Lutheran Questions, Lutheran Answers (Augsburg Fortress, 2007): 134.

[13] The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) is the only Web site that I found that contained video material. See especially their link on a conference on Disaster Response:

David R. Smedley

David R Smedley is associate director for compliance and training in the Office of Student Financial Assistance at The George Washington University. A member of St Luke Lutheran Church in Devon, Pennsylvania (ELCA), he actively communes in the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of New York. He is a graduate of Temple University, with a master’s degree in public administration, with emphases on urban studies and research and policy analysis. He is on deferred admission to a master of divinity program, currently in self-discernment for the permanent diaconate. Views expressed are personal.