I still remember the moment I first saw the spaghetti models for Hurricane Florence heading right for us. I’m not a native North Carolinian and most of the folks who’d grown up on the coast told me not worry too much until it was a lot closer, but every day that cone of uncertainty got more certain. And then Jim Cantore showed up and we knew we were toast.
To be honest, it’s felt a little like déjà vu over these past few weeks. We could see the virus coming. We hoped it wouldn’t hit us but as the days turned into weeks and word began to spread about cases in the United States beginning to grow, it’s now clear that a very different kind of hurricane has come ashore. Most of us are battening down the hatches, and hoping that the damage won’t be too great.
I don’t want to make myself out to be some high-level expert in crisis management here. Actually, that’s a distinction no one really wants because it means you’ve got to live through enough major crises to really get good at managing them. But I do have a few hard-earned lessons to offer from pastoring a church through a hurricane and the recovery efforts.
- Normalize the (ab)normal – So much of what we’re dealing with right now is uncertain. In fact, the only thing you can count on is that life is not going to be the same anytime soon (maybe ever…but that’s a blog post for another day). My best advice is–wrap your brain and heart around that fact as quickly as you can, and start lovingly, gently helping others do the same. Worship, but worship differently. Practice discipleship and care for each other, but do those things differently. Give up the temptation to just sit and wait for things to calm down and go back to normal. Instead, start restructuring the way that you and your church do ministry in light of the new normal. The good news is that doing so will almost certainly teach you and your congregation some really wonderful lessons along the way.
- Communicate, Communicate, Communicate – Normalcy and predictability typically go together. When things are normal, people know what to expect. Moments of crisis on the other hand are, by definition, moments of uncertainty. Everyone will be reacting to the crisis through the lens of their own personality and experience. But churches are social organizations—to be the church requires coordination of hearts, minds, and actions. If your church is going to be the presence of Christ in the midst of a crisis, it’s going to require a massive surge in the amount of communication you’re providing. In Wilmington, that meant communicating what was taking place on an almost daily basis. And the value wasn’t purely logistical. It helped people stay connected, even when some of them had evacuated hundreds of miles away. When they got back, however, they were already emotionally and mentally engaged. Our current crisis will have much the same challenges and opportunities. Even though most of us are sheltering at home in the very cities in which we live, work, and worship, our routines and habits are completely disrupted. You can’t change that for the people in your congregation but you can creatively walk beside them and keep them connected by communicating more than normal.
- And Then Communicate Some More – What you need to put into practice in terms of communicating with your congregation will need to be proceeded by a surge in communication among your staff team. Many staff teams complain good naturedly about the number and duration of staff meetings, but as strange as it may sound, you’re probably going to need to have a lot more of them in the coming weeks. In a crisis everything is different. Existing patterns and programs go offline for a while. The tendency then is either for nothing to happen or for everyone to go off and do their own thing. But your strongest response to the crisis as a staff team is to figure out how to pull together as in the same direction. Doing that when everything is different, however, requires significant communication. What you can do, however, is check in far more often but for less time. For almost a month after the hurricane hit Wilmington, we had a daily staff meeting. It didn’t last long, but we all knew what was going on, what needed communicating to the congregation and the impact that we were having collectively because of that brief time we spent together first thing every morning.
- Don’t Let the Crisis Blind You to the Presence of God – I started reading a history this week of Winston Churchill’s crisis management style during World War II. One of the things he was best at was telling the stories of how ordinary heroes were turning the tide of the war. They were living through one of the most difficult periods in British history, but those moments of collective celebration framed the difficulties in ways that minimized the hardship, and amplified future hope. There’s a powerful lesson there. Crises are exhausting mentally and physically but they can also generate some of the most powerful spiritual insights and blessings of your entire life. I wouldn’t wish a hurricane on any church or community but watching the power of God unleashed through the people of my congregation in the aftermath of the storm was one of the most amazing spiritual experiences of my life. The nature of this crisis is very different because of social distancing but I have no doubt that God is powerfully at work around you. Stopping consistently to recognize that, lift up it for others to see and celebrate will be among the most important work you’ll do as a minister in the coming months.
As the Assistant Director of the Center for Healthy Churches, I’m not on the front line of congregational ministry any more, but I do get a front row seat to see all the amazing things that you’re up to across the country. This is a challenging moment, but God tends to do transformational things in challenging moments. Our hope and prayer at the Center is that God is doing just that through your ministry and in your church in this challenging moment. If there are ways that we can be of assistance to you in those efforts, please let us know.
Toward that end, we at the Center have decided to offer free coaching to ministers in the coming months as you lead your church in responding to this crisis. This coaching is available on a first come, first served basis. For more information, please e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.