This blog is the combined effort of four senior pastors of different churches. Their desire is to point you toward living a God-centered, gospel-focused, Christian life.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Leadership in a Crisis

 As we hit the two-and-a-half week mark post-tornado, I thought it might be useful to answer some questions people have asked me about leadership during this crisis.

I’ve been a little bit hesitant to write this article. To write an article entitled “leadership during a crisis” sounds a bit arrogant. It implies that the author feels he or she has successfully exercised leadership in a crisis and is now in a position to share thoughts with others—whether they want those thoughts or not!

So, let me start with some caveats. I have not implemented the following principles consistently. These principles are not original thoughts with me. Many of these principles were gleaned not by observing my own conduct but instead by watching other leaders in our church and community. And this list is not exhaustive. I keep wanting to add more and more and finally I've just had to stop. There's much more that could be added in terms of practical leadership during a crisis. Maybe I can get Ben Davidson to write an article about that.

My primary audience is other shepherds. Hopefully some of these thoughts will resonate with you as you serve your flock. All of us will lead our church through some storm, whether figurative or literal.

1.      Don’t force your leadership on others.

When a disaster strikes, two things are happening simultaneously: some people are looking for leadership and some people are asserting themselves as leaders. Those who are in the second group are not always suited to this task.

There were numerous times over the past few weeks when I thought about Alexander Haig, the Secretary of State under Ronald Regan. After Reagan was shot in March 1981 and undergoing surgery in the hospital, Haig proclaimed to reporters, “As of now, I am in control here.” This rather ambitious claim reflected the chaos reigning within the White House as people wondered who was making the moment-by-moment decisions for the executive branch.

In a crisis, there are going to be numerous voices shouting, "Follow me!". Many of them will be gone or will have faded within a day. Almost all will have disappeared within a few weeks. Now is not a time for egos and self-promotion. 

As a shepherd, begin with caring for those who have already been trusted to your care. If you are having to assert to others that they need to follow your leadership, there is a real chance that you aren’t really in a position to lead.

Here is how Peter describes it in 1 Peter 5:1-4:

So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.

Begin with your flock. Care for them with eagerness and as an example. Expand your care for others as God allows. He will provide other opportunities to you if He desires.

2.      Remember you are a servant, not a CEO.

Even in the best of circumstances, we struggle to understand the difference between secular and biblical leadership. Our flesh naturally wants our own name to be exalted.

That is compounded during a time of crisis. You are not a general directing troops. You are a shepherd caring for those who are hurting.

Failure to practice servant leadership during a crisis manifests itself several ways.

·         We become frustrated and convinced we are working harder than others (and wonder why more people aren’t noticing that!). Instead of focusing on serving others we’re wonders why others aren’t serving us.

·         We are impatient with those we are trying to help. Instead of being gentle with those who have gone through a crisis, we are frustrated that they aren’t receiving our help the way they should.

·         We refuse to do menial jobs.

·         We find ourselves in conflicts with our co-laborers.

May Jesus’ words be a strong corrective to the CEO-mentality we as shepherds are tempted to adopt:

But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matt. 20:25-28)

3.      Don’t make up answers to questions that stump you.

When people are looking to us for leadership, there can be a temptation to want to appear more knowledgeable than we actually are. People ask us questions and instead of realizing we aren’t the best person to answer that question, we give it a go anyway.

This is incredibly unhelpful. If you don’t know the answer to something, just acknowledge it. Yes, people will sometimes be upset with you and blame you for not knowing what they think you should know. That’s OK. Maybe you should know it, maybe not. But you don’t.

In a crisis, poor communication is always a struggle. Inserting wrong information into the communication stream will only make it worse.

4.      Stay calm and display that calmness in your demeanor, voice, and actions.

When we are tired or busy or scared, it is easy to justify ungodly behavior and communication. I have a, uh... friend who has definitely been guilty of that over the past two weeks.

A crisis is not an excuse for bad behavior. It is in a crisis that what is truly in our hearts is revealed. Leaders demonstrate what true spirituality looks like: not just a pleasant demeanor when the sea is calm but godliness when in a tiny raft in a hurricane.

How do we do this?

5.      Lead in the Spirit, not the flesh.

So much can be summed up in this statement. Our leadership is not of the flesh but in the spirit.

I think that’s hard to remember because the tasks seem so…physical. There are boards to be moved and teams to be organized and deadlines to be met. In the midst of all of that, it is hard to remember that even these are ultimately spiritual tasks.

On Monday morning, we had our first full staff meeting since the tornado. During our time of prayer, phones rang and people came in. At first, we responded to these interruptions. But as we did so, we realized we were neglecting that which was most important. We began our time of prayer again, agreeing that we would let phones go unanswered if need be while we sought the enabling work of the Spirit in our ministry.
Whether you are ministering in the Spirit or the flesh will be made evident by your fruit (Gal. 5:16-26)!

6.      Try to strike a balance in your decision-making process that allow for both decisiveness and contemplation.

Our associate pastor Ben and I have long realized that we offer important corrections for one another. Ben is a decisive leader who responds quickly to needs. I’m one who wants time to process and make sure we are making the best decisions.

In a crisis, both types of leadership are needed. When we have time, it’s good to think about how decisions fit into the overall picture and explore all options. But sometimes there isn’t that time and you need to be willing to pull the trigger quickly.

There were times over the past two weeks where brainstorming would have been a waste of precious time and a drain on Ben. There were other times where we could afford to take half an hour and make sure we were being most effective with our resources.

7.      Be willing to correct course.

I’ve competed in a few sprint triathlons. The part I enjoy the most is the swim. Swimming in a lake or pond is different than swimming in the lanes in a pool. There are people all around you and it’s hard to see. There aren’t the ropes on either side of you to keep you on course. It’s important to mark out some landmark while swimming to check periodically to make sure you’re still swimming in the right direction!

In a crisis, the waters around you are constantly churning. A leader who demands consistency is going to be disappointed and ineffectual. There should be a willingness to change direction quickly when needed.

There have been numerous times where, as we have kept our overall objective in mind (see below), we have realized a course correction was needed. Maybe our resources were not being utilized efficiently. Perhaps the needs had changed based upon a decision the city made. Whatever the case, a good leader is willing to correct course quickly when needed.

8.      Prepare other leaders ahead of time by entrusting and empowering.

You cannot begin the process of training leaders during a crisis. It’s too late.

A church that is effective in a crisis is not a church of one or two leaders but a church with a myriad of servant leaders. If your church only has one or two leaders, you are not prepared for every day needs much less a crisis. As Moses recognized in Exodus 18, shepherding the people of God is not a one man show. There should be many people in your church who are empowered by the church leadership to exercise their spiritual gifts.

If you were to ask me what my greatest joys have been in the midst of this season have been, one of the things I would point to is the way believers have been exercising their spiritual gifts. Everywhere I turn, I see competent, Spirit-filled followers of Christ working hard. As they direct people or traffic or volunteers or resources, they don’t need to constantly be checking in with someone else. They know the overall process and where they fit in and are equipped to serve.

I would argue for many reasons that this is a crisis we’ve been preparing for in many ways for quite some time by entrusting and empowering other leaders.

9.      You are leading people not projects.

As we get into the nitty-gritty of relief work, the temptation can be to focus on the projects that are before us. Resist it.

You are not serving projects. You are serving people. And not just the people who have been affected directly by the disaster. You are also serving the other volunteers and relief agencies.

10.  Don’t be manipulated.

All of us face the temptation to manipulate others to get what we in our pride think we deserve. I was shocked by some of my interactions with people and organizations who are volunteering to help our community.

Some of the people I talked with were incredibly demanding. A relief organization is angry we don’t know what work there is for them to do in a few days. A volunteer is indignant with one of the tasks we have for him or her. A donor can’t believe we won’t accept their collection of old socks. Don’t we care about those who are hurting?

I’ve learned that this is normal in the aftermath of a disaster. As one pastor told a group of church leaders in the Washington area, it is important to learn how to say no quickly.

Ministering out of guilt or by being bullied and manipulated will not lead to the most God-glorifying ends. The good news is that those who are manipulators were scarce compared to those who humbly wanted to help. I was encouraged by those who graciously accepted changes in plans, even when it inconvenienced them. Most organizations and people who showed up told us they were there to do whatever we had for them.

Build your volunteer teams around people like that. Let the manipulators leave. If you have to work to placate them today, you'll have to do it all over again tomorrow. You’re better off without them.

11.  Stay focused on what is most important.

Tasks can become so overwhelming we begin to think they are the end goal. They are not.

Before you begin any relief efforts, remind yourself of this truth: you are a church. Your primary task is to glorify God as you proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord to your community and prepare the Saints in your church to worship God forever.

At the end of the day, you are not leading a construction company or a hauling company or a bank. You’re leading a church. Your passion is the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Build from there. Put a strong organizational plan in place that begins with understanding your purpose. There are limitations to what you can do. Start with what is most important and build from there.

The bottom line is you’re not prepared for what lies ahead. But God is a gracious and faithful God. He will work through you and your church for His purposes and glory. 


  1. Daniel,
    as always, well stated.
    I am blessed and humbled to be a part of a wonderful team of dedicated people.
    You and Ben have lead with exemplary character and wisdom.

  2. You mentioned in church a couple weeks back that there was no seminary course for disaster prep. I thought at the time a small unit/session would in fact be appropriate in the pastoral training process. You have put down some very good ideas--maybe revise them down the road a few months in light of further experience and (perhaps in conjunction with the other staff) submit them to your school(s) or if there is some pastoral publication. The prayer time and purpose statements key. Your very last line is also key--maybe add the specific wording of "and your people" or the like.