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Milestone UMCOR-UMVIM Meeting at Mt. Sequoyah, February 2007

By Michael DeBorja with Barbara Stone and Lorna Jost *

With the series of catastrophic natural disasters in recent years, relief and recovery work have loomed large in the work of the church. The United Methodist Committee on Relief or UMCOR is delegated by the Book of Discipline to oversee the church's disaster response. At the same time United Methodist Volunteers in Mission or UMVIM has been a growing movement in the church over the years, involved in repair and construction of churches, homes, schoolhouses, and various facilities; teaching of English, computer skills, Vacation Bible School, etc; medical and dental clinics; and relief and recovery work as well.

Sequoyah-groundsBoth UMCOR and UMVIM have performed remarkably in their work, but the two have not always acted together in the past. Although their coordination has gotten better in recent years, most significantly in Hurricane Katrina relief and recovery efforts, the time had come to put their relationship on a more systematic and explicit basis. This UMCOR and UMVIM set out to do in the first-ever meeting together of the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) Domestic Disaster Response staff, GBGM Mission Volunteers staff, Annual Conference Disaster Response Coordinators, and Volunteers in Mission (UMVIM) Jurisdictional and Annual Conference Coordinators on February 8 to 10, 2007.

Goal of the conference

The venue for the landmark meeting was picturesque Mt. Sequoyah Conference and Retreat Center, a 30-acre campus of cottages, lodges, low-rise buildings, and sugar maple trees overlooking downtown Fayetteville in northwest Arkansas that is owned by the South Central Jurisdiction of The United Methodist Church.

After early evening dinner on Thursday, Feb. 8, some 130 participants gathered at Bailey Hall where Tom Hazelwood, UMCOR executive for US disaster response, and Sheri Altland, co-executive director of Mt. Sequoyah, welcomed them. Tom introduced the other members of the planning committee: GBGM Mission Volunteers executive Clint Rabb, SCJ and SEJ UMVIM Coordinators Barbara Stone and Nick Elliott, UMCOR staff Barbara Tripp, Gordon Knuckey and Kristin Sachen, and resource person Dr. David Lowes Watson.

In his opening remarks, Tom recalled that in 1996, as a pastor in Ft. Smith, Arkansas, a tornado struck in the area. At that time he had had no disaster response training and didn't know about UMCOR or UMVIM. That's when he got an education about them and their roles in a disaster.

The greatest asset of The United Methodist Church, Tom noted, is its people. UMVIM seeks to put faith into action, challenging the church membership into service. During a disaster, UMCOR and UMVIM would often cross paths. There would be volunteers everywhere, sometimes with no one managing their response capabilities.


UMVIM numbers have grown in the past 10 years, and especially in the last couple of years due to the response to the Gulf Coast hurricanes. "Louisiana and Mississippi annual conferences alone are reporting 50,000 - and those are only the recorded ones." Yet UMCOR and UMVIM had never really sat down together to ask: How can we do disaster response together in a better way? "That's our task this weekend," Tom said.

We learned a lot from Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma. If the United Methodist Church is to deliver a stronger response, we need to be clear as to how we do it. The goal is to gain better understanding as we live out our faith. John Wesley reminds us to look upon the world as a parish. It's going about helping those whom we help in the right way so we don't hurt those we help. Right leadership here is important.

Meaning of Discipleship

Tom introduced Dr. David Lowes Watson, a retired elder of The United Methodist Church   who hails from England and has pastored congregations in the Illinois Great Rivers and North Carolina Conferences, served as executive for Covenant Discipleship and Christian Formation at the General Board of Discipleship, taught at Perkins School of Theology, and worked as Director of the Office of Pastoral Formation of the Nashville Episcopal Area.

Sequoyah-Watson3Dr. Watson shared his theological reflections on serving in disaster areas. He pointed out that "to believe in Christ is not discipleship per se, but merely the beginning of discipleship", and "those committed to reaching out to those most affected by disaster are at the cutting edge of discipleship".

"Our personal salvation, important as it is, is not the extent of God's redemption". A "disproportionately personal" gospel is "to the detriment of its social...dimensions". We should "[take] the church out of itself and into a world that God has created". In disciplined discipleship, "our supreme privilege will be to have helped with [redeeming planet Earth] in some small way".

Dr. Watson's keynote address and his several talks in the following days led the group to the point of the signing of the Covenant of UMCOR and UMVIM in US Disaster Response. His presence, comments, wit, erudition, and leadership helped facilitate the process of the participants working together. He also pointed out that "when we're serving people together, we're much more united than when we're talking about how to be united".

After breakfast on Friday, there was a session of singing led by Tony Rowley and a devotion by Audrey Phelps. Tom introduced the five UMVIM jurisdictional coordinators - Lorna Jost, Greg Forrester, Barbara Stone, Nick Elliott, and Jan and Kurt Kaiser, of the North Central, Northeastern, South Central, Southeastern, and Western Jurisdiction, respectively; and the UMCOR domestic disaster staff of Mary Gaudreau, Barbara Tripp, Christy Smith, Larry Powell, Gordon Knuckey, Ricky Hill, and Luz Knight.

A way of managing chaos

Gordon Knuckey then talked about the stages of disaster and transitions, and the roles of UMCOR, disaster response coordinators, and UMVIM coordinators. There are several phases of disaster: warning/ evacuation, disaster, rescue, relief, and recovery. Long-term recovery, the phase long after CNN et al have left, is a province of faith-based groups.

Gordon focused on what he called the "M*A*S*H unit" of disaster recovery, trauma care, and how we can fit in more effectively. He unveiled a chart of the Organizational Structure for Relief Stage Incident Coordination System (ICS), which is a way of managing chaos by taking it apart into little pieces and handling each piece effectively.

Somebody needs to be a leader - dealing with questions like the money, logistics, operations, and what to do next. In a small disaster, one person might be able to do all these, but in a complex disaster, it won't be that simple.

People call and they want to help - you have to figure out if you want their help now or later. Your duty is to provide spiritual and emotional presence, a ministry of presence, as well as putting tarp on the roof.

All this goes on in the midst of chaos. For example, we need diapers and water - and by the time they arrive four weeks later, it's the last thing we need. So disaster itself eats the agenda; it's a quickly evolving process, a rolling series of disruptions; but it can also be slow, plodding, case work and social service.


We need accurate information, we need volunteers who can be trained and can follow a script to create a seamless operation.

Now there is a lot of good which happens because of relationships, but there is also possible danger or harm. Sometimes, you might have folks ripping out 8 ft of sheet rock without knowing that the government will only pay for 4 ft, or without allowing for it to dry out, so you end up doing further harm and victimizing people even more.

We want to channel generosity into appropriate behavior. Our duty is to convey as much information as we can so that no further harm is done.

The annual conference owns the disaster and directs what happens. It's the annual conference's job to respond to that disaster. Our job is to advise.

Owning your disaster, taking charge of it, is the best way to heal from that because disaster takes away control. Secondly, from the outside we don't know the territory, or how the culture of a particular town or state works. Those in the area know better and understand the politics. We have to be sensitive to that, and where we need to be careful.

Money and Disaster Ministry

Money in disasters comes in stages, said Kristin Sachen. We have little money at the beginning, and more money nearer the end. This dictates to a large extent how UMCOR responds, and it is important to interpret this back to one's annual conference.

UMCOR uses the money we have in the bank rather than borrowing against other funds. If UMCOR doesn't provide large sums of money up front in response to a disaster, it is because we don't yet have it.

UMCOR is a long-term responder. We don't have helicopters and such type of capability to be rescuer. The rescue phase is what often dictates people's financial response. That is when the most is given because that is when a disaster receives the most media attention. UMCOR uses that time to plan for the long term recovery we will be engaged in long after the television cameras leave.

We don't want to use people who are hurt to raise money, or a sad incident to make people respond. We need to use that phase in ethical and dignified ways, to lift up the need without being exploitative about it. We must appeal to people's generous nature, not guilt.

Most of UMCOR's funds are designated, e.g., we can't take money that people give for Africa famine and give it to tornado relief. Thus when a tornado hits Florida, initially we don't have a big account to use for that. We have to wait during the rescue phase for the money to come in.

How long does that take? The money put in the offering plate may stay in your church until the end of the month. It is then sent to the Conference Treasurer. It may wait there for several months as the Conference waits until most of the churches have sent in their response. It then goes to GCFA, which in turn sends it on to the General Board of Global Ministries.

This is the process dictated by the United Methodist system. We've speeded it up a little bit with online giving. But this gives an idea of how the process generally works. If UMCOR doesn't provide a lot of funds at the beginning of a disaster, it's because it doesn't yet have the dollars in the bank.

Someone asked how an Advance special number gets assigned for a disaster. Kristen responded that UMCOR can use the undesignated disaster response Advance number; or an emergency Advance number can be assigned within 24 hours.

Undesignated disaster response enables us to give anywhere. However, at this time if your Advance number is domestic disaster and you want to give, let's say, to Florida tornadoes, we don't yet have the capacity to determine that online.

In regard to a question about UMCOR assistance in the Gulf Coast, UMCOR provided $10,000 quickly to each affected conference, then in October 2005 UMCOR sent about $1.4 million to each conference, and in April 2006 $52 million was distributed to the conferences to use in their responses over the next two to three years.

All the way through a disaster, UMCOR does its best to provide a donor report. An enclosure with the thank-you letter for a donation is a donor report on how their money is being used.

On whether any of the initial $10,000 UMCOR grant can be used for relief and the Emergency Response Team, the $10,000 initial grant to the Bishop of the annual conference is for the latter to use at his or her discretion. It might be used toward transportation expenses of people who do the assessment, to reimburse pastors who personally outlaid their funds, and the like. UMCOR tries to help the Bishop understand the strategic place to use it.

The majority of the money that is raised by UMCOR is for long-term recovery. How it gets interpreted in the local church depends on the pastor and lay leaders. A lot of people out in church pews think money comes to UMCOR and so it is UMCOR's money to spend, but it is really not.

Sometimes there's a misunderstanding within the church when teams do disaster recovery work, and wonder why supplies weren't there because they'd given money to the UMCOR advance special. Again, UMCOR cannot give money directly to teams but only to the annual conferences.

Relationship of UMCOR and UMVIM

Tom Hazelwood talked on the history of the relationship between UMCOR and UMVIM and looking to the future. Part of the reason we're here is that we're looking at working in a new way. If you look at the Organizational Structure for Relief Stage Incident Coordination System (ICS) chart, many of the positions are filled by volunteers. Those volunteers are being managed by the disaster response system. You should think of a disaster as the volunteer site, and the Incident response coordinator as the one in charge of the site.

Panel discussion with design team and jurisdictional UMVIM coordinators

When we need an Emergency Response Team, we need people who are well trained. We want to be the first in and the last out, and manage the whole picture. Early response is not the whole disaster.

In the Protocol for UMCOR/UMVIM Collaboration in US Disaster Response, we want to work together with more than a handshake, put something in writing, discuss what are the problems, what will work and not work. We want to be intentional that UMCOR and UMVIM are working in this together.

In most annual conferences, neither the disaster response coordinator nor the UMVIM coordinator has the experience to manage thousands of volunteers calling and saying they'll be there that afternoon - "me and my friends, we're coming" (or "me and my Sunday school class"); sometimes they don't even call.

So a big question is how to manage unsolicited volunteers in contrast to an Emergency Response Team which is solicited, well trained, and know what they're doing. We want to be intentional that the UMVIM structure and organization is included all the way from the beginning as part of the response, part of the mix.

Small group discussions and reports

The participants divided into 13 small groups to discuss five questions:
1. Based on the information you've heard this morning about the phases of disaster, where do you see yourself fitting into the overall disaster response?
2. What will you do in your conference to accurately share information about United Methodist disaster funding?
3. Transition between phases of disaster is rarely clear-cut. How can we as a partnership expedite a grace filled transition?
4. What does the collaboration between UMCOR and UMVIM mean for MY role in disaster ministry?
5. How can we prevent good intentions from harming those we seek to serve?

Small group session

The group reports emphasized training and education, flexibility, communication, going through channels, securing the bishop and cabinet's understanding, and volunteers in mission needing to be part of the conversation around the table.

Protocol for UMCOR/UMVIM collaboration

Dr. Watson pointed out that "by telling each other about the journey, we learn a lot more." He discussed why the Protocol is something we should value. You need a compass to know where you're going. The Protocol gives us guidelines and general directions.

The whole purpose of guidelines is not rules and regulations, but standards - not to regulate the right way but to avoid the wrong way. It's not so much to identify the right doctrine but to identify the wrong doctrine or the not-so-right stuff. Structure without spirit leads to entrenched mediocrity, but spirit without structure becomes license in which the bullies very quickly take over.

When we're seeking to work together, there has to be something that gives us this general direction. We exercise the responsibility and mutual accountability of being connected. There are things we need to have in place to help us do that.

Tom Hazelwood noted that over the past 10 years, UMCOR and UMVIM have walked together in a variety of ways. UMCOR helps the annual conference establish its response mechanism and serves as advisor to the annual conference.

During this time the management of volunteers has become unwieldy. Some annual conferences know how to manage volunteers, but many do not. This mechanism takes the burden off the individual person to do that. With management comes the accountability. We need to learn to do good well. We hope to now formalize that.

Each annual conference should have a disaster response committee - the decision makers when something happens. Most of the time, it is composed of the Bishop, director of connectional ministries, disaster response coordinator, treasurer, and district superintendent of the area. The disaster response coordinator is the incident coordinator who has the responsibility for managing the response.

The UMVIM coordinator should be a part of this disaster response team. When UMCOR brings its consultants to a disaster area, it now will include someone from UMVIM to be part of the conference disaster response team. They can give advice on management of volunteers as the conference make the transition from relief to long term recovery. This team could look at possible long-term solutions for housing volunteers.

The UMVIM persons assigned can help set up a call center to manage the potential volunteers who want to come. Many annual conferences have done a magnificent job of managing volunteers, but when one is thrown into a disaster, sometimes things go into a tailspin.

Emergency Response Teams (ERT) are trained volunteer teams, able to arrive on site self-contained and self-sufficient. Florida, for example, has an abundance of ERTs within their annual conference. ERTs that are working within the boundaries of their annual conference are deployed under the direction of their disaster response coordinator. In some annual conferences, the disaster response coordinator is also the UMVIM coordinator.

If the disaster is larger than the annual conference's capability, the call for ERTs would go to the jurisdictional UMVIM office. Jurisdictional UMVIM coordinators would need to get an accounting of trained and certified ERTs in their jurisdiction. The response should become systematic, so teams can go where they can do the most good.

The training of ERTs is the duty of jurisdictional UMVIM offices. If you are training teams in your annual conference, you need to let the jurisdictional coordinator know. The annual conference and jurisdictional UMVIM coordinators together will work out the ERT standards. ERTs need to be registered with the jurisdictional UMVIM coordinators; the annual conference needs to verify that you are a team.

Thus this becomes a complete system, not, say, 15 independent operations. If you have many independent folks working, the annual conference might not even know and money is not going there, then they blame UMCOR.

Another small group discussion

Friday afternoon small groups discussed
• the make-up of the jurisdictional disaster response volunteer management team (JDVMT)
• how we can make the JDVMT work
• what will be needed for training and collaboration
• how to educate the bishops and district superintendents
• standardizing training across the country
• trainers needing to be trained in diversity, and
• funding.

Discussion points highlighted were being intentional about racial/ethnic diversity, building the ERTs now, annual conference disaster plans needing to be in place, annual conference disaster response coordinators contact information being posted in the web as the UMVIM coordinators are, creation of a disaster response manual, every annual conference drawing up a checklist of skills they have and what they need, the time frames for these to be done, and funding options.

United Methodist Connection

After dinner, David Severe, SCJ Director of Mission & Administration, talked about the United Methodist connection. He said that one of the engines that will drive the church's ministry are the collaborative efforts of UMCOR and UMVIM. He saw the powers of the connection of the church in the response across the country to the Oklahoma tornado: over $600,000 was contributed directly to the Oklahoma annual conference, plus what UMCOR got. When the connection works, it works by allowing us to have a regular, ordered way of responding to the pain of others.

He mentioned something he came across in Central America. A US denomination built a church up in the mountains without the participation of the people there. They left it almost finished, but nobody would touch it because the people had no participation in it. On the other hand, UMCOR says your disaster is your disaster, we want to help you recover but we want your participation in it.

We are recognized as real players because of our combination of compassion and hard love: it's your disaster and we're here to help. Local ownership of a disaster is not easy but it is essential. In our ability to organize, mobilize and actualize relief with compassion, we are part of the whole world of compassionate Christians.

Every disaster is different in nuances, only it's the same - there's a pattern to it. The genius of the United Methodist connection is that we come early and we stay late. What the connection provides that other entities do not is unified budgeting, shared resources, and deployed volunteers. It helps us connect our theology to the reality of everyday life.

We have deployed volunteers so they come away feeling that they've made a contribution. We have a backlog of names of people who can volunteer, testifying to the unbelievable compassion of United Methodists. That is the genius of the connection.

If you give people a path and a process, they will participate. If it's just independent groups, it is very short-lived. Part of who we are is that we will be responsible for what is given to us and how it is used.

After group singing and prayer, Connie Thomas, Louisiana United Methodist Storm Recovery Center volunteer coordinator, led the devotional. It doesn't matter where you are in the process, Connie said, you're there now; being new to the ministry is no less valuable as those who have been working for years. As in the laborers in the vineyard story, all are needed and rewarded.


Dr. David Watson discussed the Covenant of UMCOR and UMVIM in US Disaster Response. If we make a covenant at a moment of high motivation and commitment, it will help us when we have a bad day or are weak. A covenant binds us when we are in a moment of strength so it will uphold us at a moment of weakness.

Presenting Signed Covenant
Participants presenting their signed Covenants at the altar

Sometimes we do break a covenant, but when we make it, our intent is the key. A covenant helps us not to say no to Grace. We make a covenant because God has given us the freedom to do something for our salvation. We're not going to do this on our own strength; we're going to need the Grace of God at every step.

Covenants are doable things but are also concrete. A covenant will keep something in your radar screen so that in a moment of weakness we will remember what we said we would do in a moment of strength.

A group dialogue followed that was organized by jurisdiction, then a panel discussion with the jurisdictional UMVIM coordinators, UMCOR staff and the design team. Tom Hazelwood said that the report on the UMCOR-UMVIM conference will be sent to every director of connectional ministry, disaster response coordinator, and UMVIM coordinator, posted in the web, and be part of training.

Rev. Clint RabbIn his sermon at the closing worship and communion, Rev. Clint Rabb talked on Matthew 5:5, "Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth". Portraying meekness as strength under control, he used several illustrations including that of a frightened horse in a parade managing to keep itself under control and that of a sheep dog that had lost its flock who started guarding a church instead. Sometimes in disaster response we lose our way, but our connection with God and with each other help us to know what we have to do. Before communion, participants presented their signed Covenants at the altar.

A new day of cooperation between UMCOR & UMVIM

Summing up the purpose of the UMCOR-UMVIM meeting, Clint said there were a lot of lessons learned from the Katrina and Rita disasters. They required a response the church hadn't really faced before, a lot of collaboration and working together from all the different sections of the church, community, country, and NGOs, so it stretched our ability to deliver disaster response ministry. Just from the magnitude of the disaster, we learned a lot. This conference was designed to focus on how UMVIM can work in collaboration with UMCOR and annual conference disaster response coordinators in delivering emergency services.

Seeing how United Methodist volunteers were part of UMCOR's response in a major disaster, the event was a way we could formalize the relationship between UMCOR & UMVIM, and put in writing the way we would work together.

The event went very well, and participants were pleased with the spirit of the whole conference and productive atmosphere. It was wonderful to have all the UMVIM coordinators and disaster response coordinators together so they know each other. It was a big achievement to get them all together in one place to discuss some of the questions that needed to be discussed, to have all the parties present and meet together face to face. The participants left the meeting greatly encouraged, while knowing that we still have a lot of work to do.

Closing worship and communion

The event provided an excellent start to a new working relationship between UMCOR and UMVIM. It brought clarity in responsibilities in disaster response for both organizations. The small group reports highlighted many of the areas that we need to concentrate on within the church, the two leading ones being training and communication.

The new guidelines and Protocol put the jurisdictional UMVIM offices in closer relationship with the disaster response coordinators who at the same time keep their identity because in a disaster in their annual conference they are still in charge. The Covenant of UMCOR & UMVIM working closely together portends a bright future for both.

* Additional information for this article was provided by Beth Buchanan, Nick Elliott, Greg Forrester, Tom Hazelwood, Jan Kaiser, and Clint Rabb.

Photo credits: The first photo is from the Mt. Sequoyah website; the rest were taken by Michael DeBorja.