This morning, the Surgeon General said, “This week it’s going to get bad.”
Yesterday at church, I said, “THIS is not the crisis.” And it is not. This is the calm before the storm, and we pastors and church leaders need a change in mentality.
We need to start framing this in ways people can understand, so yesterday I tweeted what is increasingly becoming clear:
This week, some you know will probably be diagnosed with Coronavirus. Next month, someone you know will probably die from it. Tomorrow, I am going to talk about why that needs to change our ministry conversation, starting this week.
Yes, COVID-19 has completely interrupted the rhythms of our normal, everyday life.
Over the coming days and weeks, the crisis will seemingly get worse. However, some people still do not understand that the coronavirus crisis will be the most significant historical event of our lifetime. It will be bigger than 9/11.
Therefore, it will indeed be a dark hour for many we lead and for many who live in our cities and communities.
As a leader, during this crisis, it’s important to follow Mordecai’s advice to Esther: “And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” In other words, look at your current position as God’s sovereign placement for you to courageously lead those God has placed in your care.
To help you lead well over the coming weeks and months, I want to go over four phases that you (and your team) will have to navigate in this crisis.
Phase 1: Pause and Innovate
We are actually in this phase right now. Over the last week and a half, there’s been barrage of information regarding COVID-19. As a result, our national and state leaders—through the advice of health and medical professionals—have constantly updated the public on measures they are taking and that we can take to help “flatten the curve.”
The significant move taken to flatten the curve hasn’t been the recommendation of “social distancing” but of public gatherings. This recommendation has disrupted in-person education, sporting events, recitals, bars and restaurants, and corporate worship gatherings. As of the time of this writing, President Trump has recommended the cancelation of gatherings of 10 or more. In addition, governors like Governor Pritzker (of Illinois) has issued a “shelter in place” order for their states.
These recommendations should be and have been (for the most part) taken seriously in the faith community (although there are outliers that continue to meet in almost prideful defiance). As such, church leaders have had to pause, pivot, and innovate in ways that are different than their normal patterns. For example, many church leaders are learning how to do “online” ministry for the very first time.
In this phase, with all the changes, recommendations, and cancellations, churches must hit the pause button on what they are doing and start making lists of what changes and innovations have to be made immediately. I’ve heard of one church in the Chicagoland area using their project management software (monday.com) to create a running list of ways they can innovate during the coronavirus.
Phase 2: Prepare and Plan
According to many medical experts, and unless something changes, the United States is about 2–3 weeks from what we are seeing in Italy. In other words, the coronavirus wave has just begun. With more testing becoming available, experts expect we will see a significant rise in those infected by the virus as well as deaths from the virus.
Here at the Billy Graham Center, our normal activity has ceased. We are now taking things on a month-by-month basis. In other words, we are preparing for what is being projected by canceling all of our April in-person meetings and moving our staff to working remotely. In a few weeks, we will be assessing our May calendar in light of the national and state recommendations and planning accordingly.
For church leaders, it’s important that you begin making a list of how you and your church will be prepared for the eye of the crisis. For instance, if you live in an area that experiences hurricanes, and the meteorologist tells you when you can expect the eye of the storm to come upon you, you begin making preparations to your house in an effort to weather the storm.
Same principle applies here. The eye of the coronavirus is coming. Given the nature of this virus, it is impossible to predict when the eye will hit and how long it will endure.
In light of what is coming, church leaders will need to make preparations for how they will:
- Maximize communication to staff, leadership bodies, and congregants
- Pivot staff roles and responsibilities
- Plan for generosity (and giving)
- Follow up with online visitors and new believers
- Weather a financial crunch
- Care for their neighbors
- Serve the sick, hurting, and shut-ins
- Conduct counseling to those with mental illness, addictions, etc.
- Launch virtual small groups
- Minister to families (including children and students)
- Love their community and city well
- Seek the peace and prosperity of their community and city
Phase 3: Engage and Execute
Phase 3 is all about execution, management, and flexibility. Think of it this way, preparation is the vision whereas engagement is the execution. You can prepare all day long and have an incredible vision for how you will lead your people through the crisis. But if you don’t do the hard work of execution, you will notice it when the eye of the crisis hits.
There are four elements to engage and execute. They are, communication, delegation, management, and flexibility.
First, you need to have effective communication between all parties. In the case of churches, there needs to be solid communication between the staff and leadership bodies where everyone is on the same page with regards to the plan. In addition, there needs to be solid channels of communication to the larger church body regarding the plan.
Second, delegation is also a major key in the engage phase. A time of crisis is a time where all hands should be on deck. It’s easy for many main leaders to do all the work while other leaders sit in pause. In a crisis, leaders cannot allow people to live in pause, but rather must mobilize them to engage in the mission. With that said, their engagement in crisis might be different than their engagement in calm.
Third, you will need to implement a management system. Once you effectively communicate and delegate responsibilities for what you prepared and planned for, you will need to have good oversight to make things get done.
Last, and this cannot be overstated, you and your whole team will need to be flexible. You’ll have to be more flexible than Gumby. Why? Because what may be true (or work) today will not be true or work tomorrow. For instance, in a period of three days the recommendation of public gatherings went from 250, to 50, to less than 10. Even now, for a few states (and it will continue to trickle to other states), there is a “shelter in place” announcement for residents.
In short, leaders must be able to manage the whirlwind of crisis by being flexible. Let the following maxim guide your team in times of crisis: Blessed are the flexible for they shall not be broken.
Phase 4: Recover and Reemerge
Not all churches will survive this crisis. No, I’m not a pessimist. I’m a realist. We saw this in Katrina. That’s simply the reality of the effects of this kind of crisis. However, most will recover and reemerge.
How they reemerge will depend upon circumstances out of our control, but also largely on how leaders navigate this time of crisis. My prayer for every church in every place would be for them to rise up “for such a time as this” by sharing and showing the love of Christ. That they would love well—both Christians and non-Christians alike. That pastors and church leaders would lead well. That they would lead with gentleness, wisdom, discernment, and integrity. That they wouldn’t lead with a haughty or prideful spirit as if they know it all; or [even] a rebellious spirit towards the recommendations given to U.S. citizens in this national crisis.
As I wrote in USAToday last week, my hope and prayer would be that we would be like the Christians Eusebius descibed from the 4th century. My prayer is that once this crisis has subsided (and it will), they will say of us (as Eusebius said of them), the Christians “deeds were on everyone's lips, and they glorified the god of the Christians.”
Ed Stetzer is executive director of the Billy Graham Center, serves as a dean at Wheaton College, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group. Josh Laxton contributed to this article.