Leading during disruptive circumstances is hard. I learned this as a leader of many wilderness ministry expeditions and director of a wilderness ministry school, with courses lasting up to 40 days in the backcountry. I carried a Wilderness First Responder certification for 11 years and served as an incident commander for every evacuation (usually lasting 3-5 days) during my tenure. I have led and trained many to respond during challenging times.
In any crisis, decisions need to be made in a timely manner and things come at you fast. But leading through a prolonged crisis takes a different kind of mentality. Crisis over time requires a different kind of pacing and a different kind of leadership strategy.
Instead of a hard sprint, it might be better to think of your leadership in the crisis as an expedition. You have to strategize resources for the long haul. You will be with a small group of people over a long period of time. There is inherent danger and decisions that have to be made soberly, but not in fear. Anxiety, emotional fatigue and mental health are very real things to consider—possibly more important than toilet paper roll count.
Any kind of emergency response training includes training on how you need to restrain yourself as a leader. You can’t do everything or help everyone. The mantra “don’t become an additional victim” is used to help a leader breathe and remember that if you go down the entire group loses a leader. You have to take care of yourself in the midst of leading in crisis. Similar statements are made in military emergency medicine—“slow is smooth and smooth is fast.” I have adapted this for organizations with “go slow to go smart, go smart to go fast.” As the leader it is your job to manage the pacing. So what should you do?
BUILD A TEAM
You are not going to be able to do this by yourself. You will need other people to help you. We all get tired, we all think of different ideas and we have to share the weight of the burden or it will crush us. Sharing the burden is not abdication. It is trusting Holy Spirit to move and speak to other people as well. It is trusting God to hold us all together in his hand.
Create a team that will help you make decisions together. You might have to meet with them daily until things ease up. Make sure you have the voices you need around that table:
- Apostolic – Convening strategy: These people determine what is scalable, what is sustainable, what is the process for selecting for possible opportunities;
- Prophetic – Prayer strategy: They provide intercession, healing, spirit of true worship, true ekklesia, and give voice to how we are the church even without the building;
- Evangelistic – Communication strategy: They help us know how to love your neighbors well and reach out;
- Shepherding – Needs strategy: They manage emerging situations and get people help;
- Teaching – Resources strategy: They provide supplies, information, and helpful links;
These could be chaplains, disaster relief trained specialists, teachers, stay at home moms and others who know how to deal with crisis, isolation or long-term challenges. No one of us knows all the answers. There is no silver bullet for traumatic times— just relentless love and friendship committed to sharing the load and journeying together while we serve and lead.
BUILD A NETWORK
Good leaders lead their followers; great leaders lead their friends. You need friends. In fact, the highest position in the Kingdom is friend.
My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: Love each other. (John 15:12-17, NIV).
This passage tells us what Jesus wants us to remember in the midst of crisis. You are not going to be able to bear the emotional weight of this crisis on your own. Even Jesus needed friends to help him with the emotional weight of the impending crucifixion. For your own health, heart and sanity you need people to talk to and in whom you can confide. You can reach out to the other pastors in your area and talk with friends about the reality of life and ministry in these days. Jesus did.
In a crisis, we tend to revert to old patterns that helped us cope in previous stressful times; one such pattern among pastors is that of fixer. In times of crisis, it’s not always possible to fix the situation. Providing space for people to share the depths of their heart and then honestly sharing in kind (without solving all the problems) could yield a deeper authenticity in our churches than we’ve seen before.
BUILD A SCHEDULE
Any emergency responder will tell you, in a crisis, it is easy to forget or neglect your own personal needs. We do the “laying down” part of John 15:13 above, but we forget the “living and bearing fruit” part in John 15:16. You should create a personal schedule that includes not only daily rhythms, such as meal and exercise, but also weekly rhythms such as sabbath, celebrations and family routines. You need to schedule these things or you will either end up working from morning to night or just binge-watching shows in a depressive gloom.
The leader is not the only key component of a crisis moment. We also have the people to care about.
BREAKNG THROUGH FEAR
Fear, anxiety and stress are very real. Like Jesus, your communication needs the regular and repeated admonition, “Do not fear!” We have to pray personally, as a small team, and create moments for encouragement and prayer. Facebook Live, Zoom, and other sharing apps provide ways to pray together, even when we cannot physically be with one another.
A large task you will have as a leader is helping to manage the anxiety in the people you lead. You also have to manage your own anxiety, which is why you need friends. But when comforting the people you lead, it is important to know that you cannot simply rebuke fear and expect everyone to be okay. You have to lead in a way that diminishes fear. Here are three key things that will reduce fear and anxiety in the people you lead.
- Orient – Communicate with them regularly. Create an expectation of when they can hear from you and when you plan to inform them of changes.
- Support – Let people know how they can communicate back to you. What do they do if they have a need—whether urgent or simmering? How can they submit an idea? How can they have agency in the situation and how can they be a part of the solutions?
- Valued – Continually let people know how they are valued, not as passive followers, but as part of the solution. We all want to help others—whether because we are altruistic or we just want to be distracted from our own struggles. We must do more and demonstrate value to the people you lead by letting them play a role and have a part in serving and leading.
BREAKING THROUGH ISOLATION
While the idea of isolation can be exciting for those of us who are introverted, it is difficult for the other 50% of the population – extroverts. Additionally, most extroverts do not have a skill set of surviving isolation because they have not had to build one. Large gatherings are good for inspiration, but not for care. Care needs to be done in smaller groups of 5-15, or the isolation may get to people and they will drop off of the large, anonymous gatherings. We each need to be seen and loved, individually.
The good news is that your strategy for gathering, communication and care can be combined. Care is best done in small groups. So is innovating solutions to help meet one another’s needs, whether social or financial. If you already have small groups then you have a structure in place already.
If you do not have small groups, work with your team to find volunteers who will being to facilitate small group gatherings. It is likely that this will be through technology. If you, as the leader, meet weekly with the small group leaders, and they meet weekly as a gathering of 5-15, you will have the structure you need to communicate and care during this time.
The sobering truth is that you have only a couple of weeks to create this structure before the mood and phase changes. Use your time wisely and build what you need to sustain through the long haul that is likely to come.
Finally, we must also consider the church. It’s not the leader or the people as individuals, but also the church that is impacted in a time of crisis.
BUILDING TEAMS OF TEAMS
As the leader of your church, you need to focus on the coordination of a team that coordinates other teams of people. There are good resources out there on the multiplication of leaders, but some key things to remember are to keep the tasks bite-sized, be clear about what you expect from these teams and be clear on what they can expect from you. By keeping it simple, you allow things to scale and multiply.
Partnerships can be found everywhere in times like these. First, there are many generous churches who are willing to help other churches live stream or set up online giving. Reach out to the churches in your area or in your town. Foursquare has built-in support systems through districts. Other denominations and networks have something similar. There are also resources being shared all over the internet right now.
Support abounds for tactical needs, but don’t neglect to build partnerships to support the emotional needs as well. You can utilize your lonely extroverts to help you check in on people, both in phone calls and in web calls. You can have those who are home from college help care for kids. You can have those kids who are not in school build care packages for the elderly in your congregation. There are many creative people out there who can come up with ideas that fit your state and city directives.
The needs to be addressed will be many, as will the ideas on how to address them. In addition to having a structure for care, you need a process to manage all the ideas that will come your way. Innovation is a natural consequence of crisis. Encourage people to be creative!
When they come to you with ideas, here are three easy rules to help you sort through the ideas they submit. To get permission for a church-wide initiative, the following requirements must be met:
- You don’t break a law
- You (person with the idea) lead it or do it
- You understand that it may or may not continue after this is all over
The Long Haul
This is an expedition, not a sprint. It is a journey—it has an arc and a path. There will be things you feel from week to week and those feelings will change in a very predictable way. You can think of this journey in terms of phases.
BUILDING (1-14 days)– In this phase you focus on building teams and finding solutions to logistical issues. It is your first wave of innovation and where you have the most control. This is where you need to communicate a tactical response. Details need to be in order.
BREAKING (14 – 21/28 days) – In this phase you are learning what you can’t control, even beyond what you already thought you couldn’t. Logistical progress is being made, but emotional, mental and spiritual fatigue starts to set in. This is where you need to be WITH people. Speak hope and life, but don’t jump to the application and ‘opportunity’ of all of this too soon.
BAPTISING (21/28 – 60 days) – New normal sets in, maintaining plans and working rhythms can bring distraction, but fatigue, apathy and even depression can come here. Relational support structures need to be in place by this time to provide care and communication in this phase. This is where we get to be creative in how to hold one another, weep with one another, give hope and joy to one another and pray with one another in a way that does not violate the laws or guidelines in place. This is the place where there are no answers, just presence.
BUDDING (60+ days) – People will need a new call to action (that may come sooner, depending on how the crisis progresses). A second wave of innovation comes here, as new ideas arise and deep change happens. New things are birthed. This is where you can help the church become what you have always wanted for them.
Each of these phases will feel differently. It may be obvious, but being a leader during a long-term crisis means that you need to give yourself permission to feel how you are feeling. You need to manage yourself in a sustainable way. That is not just about making sure you don’t eat too much food or go through the toilet paper too fast, but also that you are processing your emotions in a healthy way.
You also need to know what is going to be coming for the people you lead. Knowing what is likely to happen during the struggle of the BAPTISING phase can help you prioritize what you need to BUILD now. It helps you discern from all that you could do and focus on what you must do to sustain through the long haul.
Leading right now is about time and timing. If this is a month-long situation then there is one kind of response. If this is a multi-month disruption, which is the most likely path, a different kind of response is needed. We need to give good information upfront to help people get oriented. But we should be using that ‘calm’ to build teams and create structures to support what comes next. The BUILDING phase is the necessary first wave of response.
During the BREAKING phase people will need the good news of the Kingdom, ministry, prayer and help. The mental health and financial crisis that comes next will be very impactful. In a short amount of time, people will need others to help them deal with all the stress. They will want small groups and need something more than anonymous prayer gatherings. We are all going to need call-in counselors. We are all going to need to be here for one another in very tangible ways, for much more than just groceries.
God is still on the throne
My time as an expedition leader, I found that EVERYONE breaks by day 30. The window is day 21-30, with an average of day 27. But everyone comes to the end of themselves in a month. That is why God did many things in 40 days. It allows for breaking and reforming.
As leaders, we need to have the structures and relationships in place to be there with each other through the breaking part. We need to be ready and have enough margin to help with the reforming part. If we are not there with others in the breaking, we won’t be invited to be part of the reforming. At that point, it will not be about recorded messages, but personal, peer ministry.
The results are amazing and beautiful. The Kingdom is revealed like a light on a hill. People are never the same on the other side of times like this because, while parts of them are experiencing death, other parts are coming alive. LIFE is on the other side of this. If we lead well, the potential for this time is phenomenal. It truly is a baptism and rebirth.
Every generation, every leader, has the moments that define them. This is ours. We get to choose who we will be on the other side of this. We are a people who lead with resilience, who offers realistic hope, who take care of themselves well, and will not be deterred by fear. We are a body and a church that looks like Jesus. We are family.