I live one hour north of New York City, an area where our church and the local population endure hurricanes, blizzards, ice storms, and a wide variety of other dangerous weather conditions. Our area is also affected by power outages that can go on for days, sometimes more than a week. Sometimes we cancel gatherings and sometimes we just press on. But how do you know which to do?
Do you cancel that board meeting? The Sunday service? That special program you’ve been planning for months?
I have a few rules that I have developed over the years which have thus far served me well as a rubric for cancelling or postponing church events.
Cancelling a Sunday service on Saturday night due to a weather forecast is usually a bad idea.
There are obviously exceptions—Hurricane Irene hit us on Sunday morning and we cancelled Sunday services that day—but there are many times when a predicted blizzard never materializes or it arrives with a whimper. Don’t cancel or postpone an event if your only worry is the chance of bad weather.
Follow the local and state government suggestions.
If the local officials have declared a state of emergency and told people to stay home, then you should cancel, too.
If you have no running water, heat, or lights, then cancel the event or send everyone home.
As I noted above, we have frequent power outages in the Northeast. At our Christmas Pageant this year, the power went out. For us, that meant no lighting, no heating, and no running water (we have a well). We were about to sit down to a post-pageant potluck, when suddenly the lights went out. Within two minutes of the power going out, several children were crying and the older kids were running around like it was Halloween.
After checking with the power company and being informed it would take hours to restore power, I sent everyone home. I know some people weren’t happy, but if you keep the event going and someone gets hurt, you risk serious liability. Even though in this case, the power came back on 30 minutes later, it was still the right thing to do given our inability to predict when it might be safe again.
If it is dark and cold when you’re without power, shut it down.
My church can temporarily supply running water to the church via a backup generator at the rectory. That allows us to finish a daytime, warm weather event that is still in progress because we can just go outside or see by the daylight and we can still use the bathrooms with the running generator. That said, if it is dark and cold, we shut down immediately.
Cancel every upcoming event when you have an extended power outage.
Each time we have an extended power outage, a committee leader or the head of the boy scouts or the AA liaison insists that “we can bring in candles and lanterns.” But that is asking for a fire hazard and even liability. No dice—safety first!
Design events with a secondary “rain date” in mind.
Some events can theoretically be postponed, like a Christmas pageant or a bake sale. Admittedly, we don’t do it enough, but I think a prudent way of scheduling any event includes having a predetermined rain or snow date. You can avoid a lot of handwringing if you have a rain or snow date.
Other events cannot be postponed – like a Christmas Eve midnight service. Thankfully, the church has seasons, so if Christmas Eve service is wiped out due to a snow storm, then the odds are good that the Sunday after Christmas will be packed.
Have reliable, accessible communication methods.
If you are affected by weather related postponements and cancellations, then it is important to have updated and accessible communication methods. We use a user opt-in/opt-out email list. Essentially, it is a blog and anyone can sign up for it. Once you are signed up, you receive every post. I can send out a newsfeed blast to everyone from my office computer, my home computer, my smartphone, tablet, or any device that is connected to the Internet. Because it is a blog format, the posts are public, and that means you need to refrain from sending out personal information to everyone (you shouldn’t do that anyway!).
Add an alternate service in lieu of a canceled one.
If you have good communication with the congregation, you can cancel one service and add an alternate one. When Hurricane Irene hit, we offered a Saturday afternoon Eucharist and cancelled our Sunday services. I sent out an email to the congregation on Saturday morning noting what we were doing. We had a 17-minute service including the Eucharist, singing three a capella hymns, and a homily. We had more than 50 people present and they all appreciated the fact that they were able to come together for prayer and worship despite the irregular circumstances.
Matthew Hoxsie Mead is an Episcopal priest and Rector of the Church of the Good Shepherd in the Episcopal Diocese of New York. This post first appeared on FatherMatt.com and is adapted with permission.