January 2002
Leadership in Times of Crisis

Doing the Advance Work

When someone asks me about vestries in times of crisis, my frank response is that vestries can be useless in such times – unless they have done their work in advance.

On the other hand, vestries that have done their work are just the opposite. They are better able to withstand stress, respond non-anxiously, make more informed and wiser decisions, and generally handle what life throws at them with faith. And the joy of all of this is that their work is not hard.

Being intentional
Work for vestries involves practicing and being intentional about a number of skills we already have or that are easily acquired. Christian discernment is high on that list. When used as a decision making system in easy times, it becomes natural in times of crisis. Discernment processes require intentional listening: listening for God in oneself and in others, listening to others knowing that together you will be wiser than if you were alone, listening to support the other person, and understanding disagreement as another example of the diversity in God’s creation.

The skill of paraphrasing can be particularly helpful in times of disagreement. When we can paraphrase what another person has said to their satisfaction, the dynamic changes, moving the spirit of the conversation from highly charged to collaborative. But a crisis is not the time to learn this skill. People feel too self-conscious and when feelings are running high, as they inevitably will in crisis, they will not tend to have the energy to hang in there with a new process.

Similarly, the work of the vestry entails being aware of group processes and group dynamics. When the group is conscious of the spirit in which it deliberates, when it is accustomed to observing and naming the climate in which its business is conducted, it will be more prepared to deal with issues when there is fear or anger or despair in the room. The ability to name the feeling reduces the tendency under conflicted situations to exaggerate. But unless this becomes habit, people are self-conscious about doing it and under stress will resist.

Responding from a different center
Vestries that have prayed together are like the proverbial “families that pray together...” They will deliberate and respond to crisis from a different center. When they have, as a matter of deep caring, been willing to share soul conversations rather than the surface communication of “who do you work for and where do you live,” it will change the nature of the conversation. When people can share with each other their awareness of God in their lives, just as a matter of course, the conversation takes on another dimension. Trust and authenticity are the results.

Parker Palmer talks about the necessity for leaders to have done deep spiritual work for themselves in order to be authentic and effective in their leadership roles. After participating in several training sessions with a vestry several years ago, the group started having authentic soul conversations at vestry meetings. One of the wardens frequently asked the “God question”: “Where is God in your life or this situation?” Very soon, their stewardship meetings followed suit and before they knew it, they were continuing the practice into the coffee hour.

The entire dynamic of the social hour changed. They talked quite easily of God’s presence. Newcomers were delighted and came into the conversation at a much deeper level with less self-consciousness.
The congregation was able to deal effectively and prayerfully with a very difficult situation when a daycare worker in the daycare center housed in the church was accused of sexual abuse.

Finding God’s grace
In the end, vestries that know how to be collaborative, how to handle conflict creatively, and who are not afraid of disagreements, will have fewer serious conflicts because they will handle the situations sooner.

Vestries who have developed a prayerful, open, fun loving climate in their meetings will respond more effectively when a crisis occurs. And they will be more open to finding God’s grace in that very process.

A partner in the consulting firm of Marshall, Towell and Emerson of South Orange, New Jersey, Tilly-Jo Emerson has worked with over 100 church governing bodies in areas ranging from conflict management to long-range planning.

This article is part of the January 2002 Vestry Papers issue on Leadership in Times of Crisis