It was either unconscionable callousness or really bad social media management. Televangelist Joel Osteen's Lakewood Church, with a congregation of more than 50,000 and seating for 16,000 is now welcoming Tropical Storm Harvey evacuees--but only after being severely criticized on social media for failing to do so.
The trouble began Sunday morning when the church posted on its Facebook page that it was "inaccessible due to severe flooding." It then listed several other shelters that were open around the city and the National Guard rescue hotline.
But in this age of social media, you can't just post that you're closed due to flooding and leave it at that. At least not if you don't look flooded, and Lakewood Church, the former basketball stadium for the Houston Rockets, definitely didn't. And so Houston residents began questioning the church's truthfulness:
Many observers took Lakewood to task for apparently ignoring Jesus' instruction to help those in need and questioned why it was failing to do so in the middle of a crisis, especially considering the church's great wealth and tax-exempt status.
On Monday, the church issued a statement saying it was mobilizing volunteers to work with relief efforts and accepting donations for Harvey victims. But it did not comment on opening its own facility and the Twitterverse continued to ask why not. Finally, on Tuesday, the church tweeted: "Lakewood is receiving people who need shelter." Someone tweeted a photo of rows of air mattresses laid out, apparently in one of the church's hallways (although the church has not confirmed this). One of the church's former critics tweeted: "It took a while but good news."
Why the heck did it take so long? The Christian site CBN News published a lengthy interview with Lakewood spokesman Don Iloff, offering multiple reasons for the church's apparent inaction. For one thing, the George R. Brown Convention Center, about five miles away, was open as a shelter and receiving flood victims, and wasn't yet full to capacity, Iloff said. He added that it was a better choice for a shelter as it had a kitchen and showers which the church does not. Church officials had been in touch with the city and stood ready to take overflow flood victims, but hadn't yet gotten word from the city that the convention center was full (it is full now).
Also, Iloff says the church was hard to reach due to flooded roads when the storm first hit, and also that the then Compaq Center had flooded badly during Tropical Storm Allison in 2001. With that in mind, and with underground portions of the facility already flooded, the church had waited to see whether rising waters would overflow the church's floodgates and affect more areas before taking in evacuees, even though there were some above-ground levels that were not in immediate danger.
Whatever the church's true motivations or intentions, it has made some huge communications errors no organization can afford in today's world:
1. It hasn't told one clear, truthful story.
It goes without saying that you should never post something on social media if people can see with their own eyes--and smartphone cameras--that what you've said appears to be false. One critic actually walked three miles from his home to the church and then recorded a video now making the rounds on social media, clearly proving that Lakewood Church was not "inaccessible."
If the church was holding off on accepting flood victims until the convention center was filled it should have said that (and recruited volunteers to drive people the five miles from one location to the other). If it was holding off because of the stadium's history of flooding, it should have said that.
Whatever the case, the church's multiple and shifting statements about what it was doing and why inevitably caused confusion and suspicion. Pick one--verifiable--account of what you're doing and then stick to that.
2. In a crisis, the leader remains silent and out of sight.
Joel Osteen has remained strikingly absent during this whole affair. Of about a dozen (possibly pre-scheduled) tweets since Friday, only three have mentioned Harvey, one asking people to pray for those affected, one asking people to make donations to Lakewood for Harvey victims, and finally on Tuesday afternoon, one saying: "Victoria and I care deeply about our fellow Houstonians. Lakewood's doors are open and we are receiving anyone who needs shelter."
Other than those tweets, no one has heard from or seen Osteen in the media despite a controversy which has more people across the country thinking and talking about Lakewood Church than perhaps ever before. All communications have come from spokespeople or official church channels such as its Facebook page. For someone so accustomed to the spotlight, who's continued to post videos of himself preaching throughout this crisis, that silence is odd and seems ill-advised.
3. It is unresponsive on social media.
During the 24 hours or so that Lakewood Church was taking criticism on social media for not receiving evacuees, it was almost completely unresponsive. When the media got involved, the church sent out some photos of its flooded underground and--so far as I can tell--granted only that one interview to CBN News.
A highly visible institution in the modern world should have done much more to publicly explain itself and respond to criticisms, even if it chose not to engage individual critics on social media. One person posted a screen shot showing he'd been blocked on Twitter by @JoelOsteen, and claimed that all he'd done was ask why the church wasn't taking in flood victims. If it's true that either the church or Osteen blocked people merely for asking why they weren't doing more, then that's very bad.
But Lakewood will soon have the opportunity to prove the sincerity of its intentions. Iloff explained to CBN News that the church's plan has always been to step in and help flood victims in the months and years after the crisis, after the emergency responders and TV camera operators have all gone home.
"Where we really focus our efforts...is on the aftermath of this thing," he said. "We're going to be dealing with this for years to come. This is when peoples' lives need to be put back together." There will certainly be a lot of needs to fill.