Snowmageddon Cancels Church: Communicating a Crisis

February 8, 2010 by

Stuck in the Driveway. Photo by Kevin D. HendricksWelcome to Washington, D.C., the snow capital of the country. In the past month and a half, we’ve had two major snowstorms of over 20 inches (affectionately named “Snowpocalypse” and “Snowmageddon,” respectively). Plus a smaller storm of about eight inches. For a city where it is unusual to get more than three inches of snow, having three storms of that magnitude has been unprecedented. What’s more, they have all happened just in time to wreak havoc with our weekend services here at McLean Bible Church. So since Dec. 19 we’ve had to cancel our services three times.

However, each time we’ve had to cancel we’ve still been able to run our Internet Campus. On a normal weekend we normally have about 3,000 people attend services online, but during each of these three snowed-out weekends we’ve seen almost double that. We also added the Saturday night service, which we normally do not broadcast.

So how do you best communicate in a mini-crisis, like an enormous snowstorm?

We’ve learned a few things this winter:

1. If possible, plan ahead.
Now, you won’t always have this luxury, but if you can, have a plan in place ahead of time. We were lucky enough to have warning a few days in advance that these storms were coming, and we were able to do a lot of the work in getting the Internet Campus broadcast ready. We recorded a few greetings explaining the situation and the weekly announcements, and then edited them into the service.

From a communications standpoint, we established a set of procedures and responsibilities for when we are forced to cancel services. Each person also has a backup who can step in and fulfill their duties. So from the time services are canceled we can have all of our communication in motion within a half hour or so. Having these procedures also help us to make sure that no one is repeating work someone has already done.

2. Let your congregation know in advance what the plan is.

After the winter we’ve had, our congregation is getting used to the procedures for announcing closings, but it’s still a good idea to let people know in advance how they can find out if church is closed. In our case we’ve used bulletin announcements, as well as sending out an all-congregation e-mail explaining how and when people would be able to find out if services were canceled, as well as information directing them to the Internet Campus.

3. Have multiple communication methods.

This one goes without saying, but it’s especially important when you’re trying to get crucial information out as quickly as possible. Here are some of the different mediums we used:

E-mail. We sent an e-mail a day before the storm and then when we found out services were canceled.

Television and Radio. Not just for school closings, TV and radio stations are some of the first places people look for closings, especially if your congregation’s demographic is older. These stations will usually put your information on their web sites.

Web Sites. We ran a popup feature on all of our web sites with current closure information. So when people came to check the web site they didn’t need to search for it.

Twitter and Facebook. Social networks also helped spread the message. Because let’s face it, when there’s 30 inches of snow on the ground, you don’t have much else to do but check Facebook…

Phones. Don’t forget to change the voicemail message of your main phone line to let people know about your closings!

Texting. We use a texting service to alert our staff of closings, and we’re likely going to roll out a service for the congregation soon.

It’s important to note that in all of our communication we directed people to our Internet Campus. We even got one of the TV stations to put the web address up on their ticker. We’ve used the storms to promote our Internet Campus as much as possible, and encouraged the congregation to use this opportunity to invite friends.

So those are a few of the lessons we’ve learned through this winter’s snowstorms. We were fortunate enough to have the Internet Campus available so that even though the buildings were closed, thousands of people still got to attend church!

Post By:

Ryan Spilhaus

Ryan Spilhaus is the associate director of the Internet campus of McLean Bible Church. He also blogs sporadically at
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19 Responses to “Snowmageddon Cancels Church: Communicating a Crisis”

  • Greg
    February 8, 2010

    Good information.
    I would also add that for smaller churches (like ours), tools such as Phone Tree work great as well. Setting your equipment to autodial and play an announcement can get to a ton of people in a relatively short amount of time (of course, depending on phone line availability).
    Even churches that don’t have a formal “Internet campus” can begin using free tools like Ustream to continue operations during inclement weather. We’ve been streaming for a couple years now and this has become something people expect to be available during weather events, sickness, etc.
    And we only run 200 on a Sunday, so size really is not a limitation

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  • cynthia
    February 8, 2010

    Those of us in California can’t even conceive of having to cancel church due to weather.
    In fact, the only crisis comparisons I can think of are 9/11 and an earthquake…. both of which caused our churches to be packed out.
    Thanks for the insights, Ryan.

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  • Vince
    February 8, 2010

    Our internet campus received about a 20% bump in attendees this past Sunday and we’re thinking the snow had something to do with it…even though we’re in Texas

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  • jenn
    February 8, 2010

    good stuff to know. we’ve had some of the same situations here in south florida (not snow of course!) with hurricanes.

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  • Mark Petereit
    February 8, 2010

    When I lived in the midwest, we attended a megachurch just north of Kansas City. Their official weather policy was “we never cancel services.” Pastor always said, “if it’s just me and my guitar, we’re having church.” I remember one especially snowy night it took me 5 hours to travel home on the interstate (usually a two-hour drive) because visibility was so poor. Only after I arrived home did I find out that the interstate had been closed shortly after I hit the on-ramp. (No wonder I didn’t encounter any traffic all the way home!)

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  • Nathan Davis
    February 8, 2010

    This is perfect. I just printed this and also emailed this out to our staff. Thanks!

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  • shelley
    February 8, 2010

    great ideas on multiple ways to communicate – and quickly- to a congregation. I think by thinking outside the box for communicating with people, regardless of the situation, is what will cause the church to have more of a presence in people’s lives, as well as being more relevant to multiple generations.

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  • Frank Ramage
    February 8, 2010

    I’m curious what service you use for texting staff/members…

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  • Ryan Spilhaus
    February 8, 2010

    Hey Frank,
    Right now we use a service called Amerilert for texting staff members. It’s designed specifically for emergency notifications.
    We like it because it also has options for sending emails or voicemail messages, depending on what people signed up for.
    Glad you guys enjoyed the post!

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  • Mark Brooks
    February 9, 2010

    This is ALMOST a good post. What is missing? The fact that on a typical snowed out Sunday the church will lose thousands of dollars in lost offerings. That money will never be made up. Why was there no plan for addressing this? If we are so thoughtful about getting our message out about closing, why not about giving? It totally amazes me that this aspect is almost never thought of. Yet with a good plan of action you can address this area also and not lose the offering. We advised our clients on a plan of action that save them thousands of dollars. They used direct mail and online giving to make up the loss of the offering. Any plan of action that fails to address your offering shortfall is a plan that is lacking!

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    • Kacie
      April 20, 2013

      Are you kidding me? Don’t you believe that the Lord will provide?

      If I miss church for some reason (travel, health, etc.) then I still write a check, I just bring it the next time I’m there.

      I just think your comment is so disappointing.

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  • Florida Fence
    February 9, 2010

    The weather has just been crazy this year.

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  • Florida Fence
    February 9, 2010

    The weather has been crazy.

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  • bondChristian
    February 9, 2010

    Mark, is the local church there to serve or be served?
    I think you’ve brought up a legitimate issue, but I wonder how much importance we should place on it. Perhaps the offerings aren’t lost… just redirected.
    -Marshall Jones Jr.

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  • Mark Brooks
    February 10, 2010

    Marshall, if the church does not receive donations it can not serve as effectively. In my experience lost offerings are lost to the church. The money all too often gets redirected to Pizza Hut!

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  • Paul Wilkinson
    February 20, 2010

    Mark & Marshall,
    I spend some of my time in a Christian bookstore environment and I can tell you that from a retail perspective you don’t make up the revenue from a weather closing the next day.
    I would expect that church offerings are not much different, hence the value of automatic withdrawal or automatic credit card donations.

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  • D. Hoage
    February 24, 2010

    This is a great article, considering present realities. However at the risk of sounding like an alarmist, churches also should consider a plan for when the current communication methods, upon which we’ve all come to rely so heavily, either fail or are restricted. What will we do then? I’ve joked that perhaps we should invest in carrier pigeons, but this is something deserving serious attention. We shouldn’t assume things will remain as they are now.

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  • Chad
    February 26, 2010

    Mark & Marshall
    As a full time staff pastor at both a small church previously and now a relatively large church i can agree that the offerings are indeed “lost”. Somehow people take a cue from sports and just think of it as a “bye” week for their tithe / offerings. But i have to say that for the little bit of hassle it was to set up “online giving”, it has been infinitely worthwhile in these kinds of situations.

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  • Noreen
    March 3, 2010

    I agree with Mark about the key missing piece–the ability to let people know how they can bring their offering. However, for us it’s with the perspective that people’s tithes and offerings are a key part of their worship to God, and a Christian discipline we want to enable them to practice. While we were snowed out (we’re in the DC area, too), we did much the same things Ryan did, but added info about online giving. Which some folks did, and which increased the number of people we have giving online regularly. We get so funny about “the money stuff” in churches, don’t we? But it doesn’t have to be at all awkward if we just remember WHY God calls us to give. So in the same way we remind our people–financial giving is yet another opportunity to glorify God and humble ourselves before Him.

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