Thoughts on Pastoral Leadership during Crisis

I’ve been amazed by the response of churches in and around my community to COVID-19. Pastors quickly devised online strategies for worship, fellowship, service, and mission. Churches are communicating, comforting, and connecting through online sermons, Zoom meetings, and other means.

John Piper once famously said, “Don’t waste your cancer” and he wrote a book about it. It’s important for us who are in Christian ministry to not waste this virus. I don’t mean that flippantly, of course. What I mean is, we need to reflect upon the current crisis as pastors, missionaries, and ministry leaders. What is the pandemic teaching us about pastoral leadership? What are we learning that will help us now and the next time a crisis arrives on our doorstep (and it will)?

In my own ministry there have been crises similar to the COVID-19 pandemic in terms of their negative impact. 9-11 of course comes to mind. I had been a pastor in Orlando, Florida, for just a month when that happened. But other things I’ve experienced include…

  • Hurricanes – it’s Florida after all
  • Suicides – I’ve had to deal with three or four as well as one attempt
  • Untimely deaths – I’m thinking of a father of three boys who was killed while riding his bike and a deacon who had a heart attack & died while I was administering the Lord’s Supper
  • Election seasons – the one ahead of us is going to be a real slugfest
  • Shocking events during the worship service – a man keeled over from a heart attack while I was preaching one time (hopefully not due to my sermon!); you can count on all sorts of unpredictable things happening during worship services, like protests outside the building, mentally ill people causing a disturbance, suspicious people who look like shooters, etc. These things are unsettling.
  • Key staff transitions – when a staff member is fired or decides to leave, it can take months or even years for people to heal
  • National tragedies – assassinations, stock market crashes, natural disasters, etc. all take their toll

Times like these can and should be our finest hour. We in ministry have a unique and solemn opportunity: to speak for God’s people and to God’s people.

Speaking for God’s people means to be the voice of their emotions, confusion, fear, doubt, and worry while communicating a sense of calm. We must expose and express our emotions, thereby giving our people permission to feel and express their emotions. There will be no healing without the acceptance and expression of feelings. Too many of us are out of touch with our own emotions and are uncomfortable crying, being sad, or expressing outrage. We must get in touch with our emotions and let these things out, otherwise there’s no empathy. We must be willing to express strong emotions, to weep, to show righteous anger, to grieve. But at the same time—and this is not easy to do—we must try to maintain a calmness and composure that will help people feel confident in our leadership. We can fall apart privately, but not publicly.

To be the voice of a congregation in times of crisis means to speak in the first person plural in our sermons and communications: “We are sad… We are angry… We are in distress… We are feeling isolated.” When people hear us affirm these things, they know we are one with them and they are able to vent their own feelings to God and to each other.

Speaking to God’s people involves picking up on a central biblical theme and reminding people of what they already know: God knows. God understands. God is in control. God has suffered too. God is with you. God will make things right. While simple concepts, these are the truths that will carry believers through times of trial. I suggest we take a break from our regular sermon series and preach on a Scripture passage that captures one or more of these truths. Keep to the simple gospel story.

However, speaking to God’s people does not mean doing a bunch of talking. It’s important to stop, be quiet, and let people have time and space to process what is happening. It’s tempting in times of crisis to think that our role is to teach principles, to fill up the air space with truth content and not leave people alone. No. Let’s not try to be Jesus. Let’s let Jesus be Jesus. Let’s allow our people to go through pain; don’t protect or distract them from it. It’s in their suffering that they will meet Jesus.

I would suggest, during a season of trial like the one we are currently in, that it’s good and right to slow down the programming of the church, to bring certain things to a stop, and to give people more time with their families, friends, and neighbors. We are not the Messiah. Our people will be OK. Let’s keep our messages basic and simple, and spend our time praying more and talking less.

Also, we should speak to God’s people without using formulaic, scripted, clichéd, easy answers. You may disagree, but the midst of a crisis is not the time to tell someone, “God is good all the time; all the time God is good.” Or, “All things work together for good….” Are these things true? Yes. But are they helpful? I don’t think so. Silence is probably better. We in ministry need to be OK with ambiguity, with not knowing why God does what he does. We need to be quiet and not feel we must justify God, explain God, or get him off the hook. I have found that it’s almost always better to just offer my presence to people who are suffering, either without words or with simple acknowledgments like “I know. God knows. God understands. God cares. I love you. Your church loves you. We will walk with you through this.”

Finally, during a crisis it’s really important to “touch” our people as often as possible. I don’t mean physically (although appropriate physical touch is a powerful way to love). I mean to make personal contact via phone calls, texts, notes, and messages with as many people as possible, as frequently as possible. And not just while the crisis is going on. The crisis will continue to rumble through our churches and ministries for weeks, months, and even years. So we ought to keep a spreadsheet of everyone in the congregation or ministry and figure out ways to reach out to them for a long time. Some individuals will obviously require more “touches” than others. We can recruit others to help with this. Elders and deacons should serve as caregivers along with us and other staff members. As we model caregiving, we will encourage the congregation to care for one another so that our churches become hospitals for the weak and weary, the sick and sore.

 

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