The phone rang repeatedly, and I awoke from a dead sleep and mumbled an answer. The church member on the line sounded frantic and said, “has anyone called you yet?” I managed a “no” before he interrupted me and said, “The church is on fire. You need to get down here.”
It was about 5 a.m. when I pulled up at the church and saw flames shooting out the top of the roof. The fire department was already there, along with a growing crowd. Even in the morning, people had come out to see the spectacle on Main Street. I felt helpless as there was nothing to do but watch. We have separate buildings, and the fire was in our offices and kids’ facilities. All the church records were in there, as well as my office and study, books and all. Who knows what could be lost.
They extinguished the fire, but not before extensive water, smoke, fire, and soot damage. Our old concrete block building avoided significant structural damage except to the roof, but the contents were not so lucky. Everything was a total loss. Many contacted and offered help, of course, other churches in town and across the country. But the days, weeks, and months later were a mess as we established new offices, inventoried the building, and dealt with insurance, contractors, and more.
I was baptized by fire (pardon the pun) and quickly learned about that world. While the building was a loss, the biggest hassle we faced was the contents. We had insurance for our contents, thankfully, but we had to present an inventory of every room in the building. If your church is anything like mine, it’s full of old curriculum, a random box of puppets, cleaning supplies, toys, and so much more. Not to mention all the tables, chairs, office equipment, file cabinets, computers, and the rest. Our church was phenomenal at cleaning out what we could and making an inventory to submit to insurance for the rest, but it was arduous. Upon reflection, a few things could have made it easier.
1. A video inventory of every room in the church.
Today we are blessed, or cursed, depending upon your view, to always have a video camera with us everywhere we go. It would be no small task for a pastor or other leaders in the church to make a video walk-through of the church grounds. This should be done at least yearly and perhaps more often. That way, you can see what is in each room, on the shelves, the name and brand of the sound equipment, and anything else that you need to be recorded. If there is a loss, these videos cannot only be sent to insurance, but they can help you in making an inventory of what is there. We were lucky to have a fire, as most things are still there, even if they have been damaged or destroyed. But in a tornado, hurricane, flood, or other disasters, you might have no way of going back in and seeing what was lost. A video inventory will be priceless, then.
2. A specific inventory of the pastor’s office.
We did not lose our sanctuary, but we did lose the offices and kids’ rooms. I’ve often thought that losing the sanctuary would’ve been much more dramatic but less hassle than losing the offices. We had to handle all these dealing with insurance with no offices to work out of. Many people asked me, “what did you have in your office anyway?” At that time, I had been at the church for seven years, and the office was my second home in many respects. Some weeks I spent more time there than at my own house. I had drawings and mementos from my kids and gifts from church members. Not to mention like most pastors, I had an extensive library. As a pastor I faced a personal loss from the church building. Those books belonged to me, were bought with my own money, and many could not be replaced. Thankfully there are many resources available to help a pastor keep track of his library. I use a website called LibraryThing to keep track of my books, and as it is free for an unlimited number of books, and you can scan books with a smartphone or enter them manually. This made it incredibly easy to give the list to the insurance for the claim. A pastor who keeps his books at the office needs to have an inventory of them in case of loss.
3. Regular backups of computer systems.
Today, most churches have all the essential documents on their computers. It might be the pastor, the secretary, or whoever else is in the office, but often bank statements, membership, records, giving records, and so much more are all located there. That’s why it is important to have regular and systematic backups of those computers. It’s not just in case of a fire, either. Computers crash for various reasons, and the church will always be glad they had a backup. There are many, many tools to help you with this. If you do not know, ask someone tech-savvy in your church, and they can probably walk you through it. And since most church records are now digital, it’s crucial to have a backup in case something happens.
You cannot prevent accidents or tragedies from happening. But you can ensure you are as equipped as you can be. Make regular inventories a part of the church calendar structure. For example, every January, walk through every room in the building. Create an inventory sheet to give to Sunday school teachers to have them turned back into the office with a list of what is in their room.
No matter what you choose, make sure to do something. Whatever system you can come up with will be better than no system.