The unfolding COVID-19 crisis presents unprecedented challenges for virtually every sector of our society. And every church leader is having to respond to challenges they couldn’t have imagined two months ago. But one thing that is certain when everything else is not: People are watching leaders. They are paying attention to what we are saying and what we are posting. Even more importantly, they are watching what we are doing. Our choices about our own behavior matter more than we think. These are some leadership lessons that I am learning as we lead through the COVID-19 crisis.
As Christians, our current reality and the suffering around us never get the last word. God’s comfort, power, and Resurrection actually do get the last word.
1. Pace yourself.
This is a marathon. We don’t have to have it all figured out immediately. Exhaustion won’t help anyone. We need to listen to our bodies and be mindful of our own needs. If we don’t store up energy, we won’t have it when we might really need it.
2. People who don’t normally need pastoral care are going to need it in this moment.
This includes our families and our coworkers. This includes the strong people around you. This includes us. People will internalize and externalize this as traumatic in ways we can’t yet see. Go back to some basics. Slow down interactions. Give space for people to process how they are doing. Don’t ask people how they feel. Ask people to tell the story about what is happening around them and help them focus on what seems possible as a doable next step. Create a pastoral care team by asking people who have extra time to reach out.
3. Give your brain a break.
Make a point of watching and reading things unrelated to this current crisis. There are only so many social media and news reports we really need to take in. Shifting your focus to other things gives insights you wouldn’t have otherwise considered. For example, I spent two nights watching “Angry Birds 2” and “The Secret Life of Pets 2” with my nine-year-old daughter. I didn’t want to watch them, but she did. When I forced myself to really listen and not dismiss them as mindless children’s movies, they offered me simple truths about working together.
4. Don’t think the way you normally think.
Listen to contrarian voices. Really ask the tough questions: Do I need to schedule that meeting in the same way? Does the meeting need to have the same agenda? Do I need to make that phone call or send that email in the same way? Am I really considering other people’s realities amid this crisis? Is this a priority anymore?
5. Balance and simplify the information you receive and give out.
Everyone processes differently. Some people want lots of connection and details and others don’t. Keep messaging simple and repeat important things. Organize things so people can choose how deeply into detail they want to go.
6. Think about the next step, not the next five steps.
Think about today and not about next month. Determine the date by which you think you need to have made a decision about something in the future. Communicate that date to others. Creating timelines help you and others plan and not just worry about all the things you can’t control or don’t yet know.
7. Read resources you wouldn’t normally read.
Read multiple disciplines from a variety of communities. Think less like a church leader and educate yourself about what others outside your normal communities are doing and saying. This experience is so widespread that everyone is adapting, and we have a lot to learn even from unexpected places. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. For example, yesterday I read an interfaith website for the first time and was really impressed by some of their resources. Later, I found helpful insights from statistical models that business leaders are using.
8. Don’t make assumptions based on one experience.
When a new experiment fails, don’t assume the same kind of experiment will fail the next time. When a new thing is wildly successful, don’t assume it will work just as well the next time. This season will involve multiple iterations and prototypes. So much will depend on context and timing, for example, online meetings and worship.
9. We don’t yet know what the future will look like or how long this will last.
It’s impossible to predict. We can’t anticipate what will change again tomorrow. We will have to learn as we go. That is what we have done the last few weeks. We will keep doing that again and again. Little by little, we will get through this.
10. The struggle is real. Grace and resurrection are even more real.
This is challenging and may get much more difficult. Don’t minimize what this means or may mean for people. At the same time, as Christians, our current reality and the suffering around us never get the last word. God’s comfort, power, and Resurrection actually do get the last word. How can we think and act theologically in the midst of this crisis? How can we reclaim and reflect the hope that is only found in Christ? How can we give and receive God’s abundant grace?
For those of us in the unique position of leading churches and organizations during this time, we must be deliberate in how we choose to lead, as we continue to pray for all those impacted by this pandemic.
The Rev. Alex Shanks serves as the assistant to Bishop Ken Carter of the Florida Conference of The United Methodist Church. This article was originally published on April 21, 2020 in Leading Ideas, the e-newsletter from the Lewis Center for Church Leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington, DC, U.S.A. Republished with permission.