Leadership in Times of Crisis
Finding God in the Raging Storms
The events of September 11th have attuned our minds to the reality of crises in our lives. This focusing experience, powerful as it may be, is but one of the many forms a crisis might take. Industrial accidents, plant closings, fires and the all too frequent car crash are all manifestations of the same fact. We live in a dangerous world and sometimes that danger becomes real in dramatic ways.
Our word ‘crisis’ comes from the Latin word for ‘sifting’, as one sifts flour. While I do not know all of the reasons for that root becoming our modern word, individuals and communities are shaken by moments of crisis. Our assumptions, our hopes, our reliance on a stable foundation are all disturbed and, in some cases, destroyed.
Grabbing for something solid
In a crisis people turn instinctively to the church in the same way a stumbling person will reach for a handrail. We want to be able to grab something solid while everything else seems to be shaking, sifting and falling. That instinct provides the first premise of spiritual leadership in a time of crisis. People are looking for hope that is a match for their fears and faith that is deeply rooted and grounded. Our first task is to see that they do not turn to us in vain.
While the canons are clear that vestry responsibility is temporal, vestries and clergy both share leadership in the faith community. Well balanced leadership will have substantial interplay between clergy and vestry. The question of what members of the community will seek from the church and what they will find there in crisis is essential. The purpose of this article is to set forth some tools for raising and addressing those important issues. The time for talking about these things is well before the crisis strikes.
One might begin by wondering if people would turn to your congregation in a crisis. Is your congregation known as a place where guidance and support are available in the routine ups and downs of life? Is the church accessible and welcoming physically (vestry) and spiritually (clergy)? Is your church a place where beliefs and hopes are regularly affirmed but questions and fears are allowed?
If the energy of the congregation’s leadership is devoted to issues of control, survival or any of the other lower rungs of Jacob’s Ladder, it is unlikely that the community within it will see that church as a resource in times of trouble.
One way to assess that quality of congregational life is to consider whether the church is such a resource now. When the oncologist’s report is not as good as one hoped; when a fairy tale marriage becomes an illusion; when the burdens of life exceed our natural strength; when a small child meets the reality of death through the mortality of a hamster, is your church a resource? Would you turn to your church at such a time? Please note that the question is “turn to the church” not just “turn to the clergy.” We all have a role in responding to one another in such times. The principle here is the same as in the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14- 30). When we are faithful with little things, people will trust us with great things.
Staying lit when all else is dark
Another perhaps more difficult question: Is the knowledge and love of God obvious at the center of congregational life? Buildings have exit signs lit so that they will not go out in a time of crisis and panic bars on the doors so that they are easily opened when the need arises. Is the love of God like that in your congregation? Will it stay lit when all else goes dark and can you access it with even the clumsiest of efforts?
Spiritual leadership in a time of crisis grows directly from the spiritual development of the congregation between crises. The good news is that we have wonderful spiritual resources that have stood the test of countless siftings over the centuries. Our liturgies, psalms and collects are able to shine words of clarity and hope on the raging storms of our lives. Education programs can help people to tap these rich resources. The generosity of God in sharing the strengthening power of the Spirit is abundant. When the leadership team of a congregation consciously develops these resources, the church can be the beacon of hope and ultimate triumph it was created to be in crisis and in between.
The Rev. Frank Wade is Rector of St. Alban’s Parish in Washington, D.C. and was chaplain to the House of Deputies at the 2000 General Convention. He is the author of Companions Along the Way: Sermons about Relationships by Posterity Press, available through St. Alban’s Parish.