November 2002
Buildings and Grounds

Flames and Faith

St. Edward the Confessor in suburban Minneapolis burned to the ground in April 2001 after a young man threw gasoline-filled bottles at the structure late on a stormy night. We asked the rector to share tips with our readers on coping with such a loss. 
The phone rang at 4:35 a.m. on Sunday morning. "Is this the Rev. Judy Hoover?" I responded affirmatively although I was trying to clear my brain. "This is the Hennepin County dispatcher. Can you respond to an emergency?" I am a volunteer chaplain and sometimes on call to assist the police when there is an emergency.

I tried to justify not responding because it had only been eight days since my husband of 47 years had died, and I was exhausted physically and emotionally. I suggested another chaplain but she went on. "Who would you like me to call? Your church is fully engulfed in fire!" I called the senior warden while hurrying to the church. Within less than an hour, at least half the membership was there, watching helplessly as the 35 year-old church burned to the ground level.

Five fire stations were called; TV reporters from five stations came immediately. One parishioner thought to bring the church directory, and those with cell phones made key phone calls. Our congressman, Jim Ramstad, came to stand with us. The Salvation Army brought blankets, food and coffee.

We wept together and reminisced. We laughed about the things we always wanted to change and we spoke of rebuilding as soon as possible. The convener from a nearby church called and offered their building for a service later in the day.

Some tips
So what have we learned since then? A multitude of lessons, too numerous for this page. Here are a few:
  • God is with us and will be our strength and our salvation, no matter what happens.
  • Get the area cordoned off as soon as possible as it is a major liability risk.
  • Call your insurance company ASAP for emergency funds and an adjuster to begin the process of evaluating the loss.
  • After a disaster like this, there is a sense of loss of control and a power vacuum in the congregation. Everyone who has always wanted to change something comes forward to assert themselves. Occasionally there are potentially divisive disagreements over things that do not warrant the attention or emotion that is evoked. This is what happens when the entire congregation is suffering from grief and loss all at the same time.
  • Immediately put parishioners to work making lists of all the contents of the building. A better idea is to have them do it NOW when there is no loss. Take pictures or video shots of the church inside and outside.
  • Anyone in the congregation who has personal property on the premises must have a record of what it is and its value. (We had a Steinway on loan. Fortunately, I had asked the owner to cover it with her own insurance, as it would not have been insured under our policy.)
  • Clergy should have a listing of personally owned vestments and their books. These should either be specially listed in their homeowners’ policy or they will not be covered as they are considered "business or professional" properties. (Bad news for me, as I lost about $10,000 worth of books.)
  • Gather the congregation together soon to talk about its loss and what it wants to preserve.
  • Make arrangements for grief counseling for those who are in pain. Children and youth should be included in some form of recognition of their sense of loss. (Many of our acolytes were devastated by losing their crosses.)
  • Many people step forward to offer help and contributions. Everything from old family organs to free services may be offered. Be sure what is offered is something you really need or want.
  • Store insurance coverage away from the church; duplicate it and put it in two places, one a safety deposit box.
  • Financial and parish records should be backed up or duplicated and stored off campus. We had our financials off site, but the parish records were not.
  • Set up a system for thanking people for their prayers, contributions and concern. (One parishioner has sent over 150 thank you notes on our behalf. I have sent over 300 that were memorials for my husband.) It is a big task.
There are many more learnings but this is what occurs to me right now. I just keep reminding myself that all things work together for those who love God and keep moving forward.
This article is part of the November 2002 Vestry Papers issue on Buildings and Grounds