3 observations about crisis, leadership and the Church

Scott Ridout

Converge President

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“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

I love a comeback.

It doesn’t matter what category — sports, history, ministry, finances — hearing a good comeback story inspires me.

Most of you know that I am a sports junkie. I will drone on with anyone about March Madness, the NFL playoffs, MLB or the Masters. In all those sports, the most exciting moments are when the once-thought defeated competitor shows resolve, ingenuity and grit to get back into the game.  

I love sports, but I also love history. Reading about George Washington in the American Revolution, the French Resistance in World War II, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s, the growth of the Chinese church since 1948 and many other underdog stories have taught me so much about leadership when the odds are against you.  

Over the last few days, I have had the privilege of interacting with many of our outstanding church leaders over our present crisis. (Watch one conversation with several Converge district and church leaders.) I have observed that we have many different types of leaders who see the world through different lenses. 

Some are extremely practical and focus on the next steps of ministry. Others are more theoretical and have the God-given ability to see trends before they happen. Many are primarily theological, interpreting the times through the filter of Scripture, protecting the church from presumption and yet reminding us to live by faith. All are different, yet essential, in this moment. We need each other.

As a result of these interactions, I thought I should take a moment to share some of the distilled wisdom of these groups. This article contains several insights that are from their practical, theological and theoretical lens. However, before I get there, let me first share the most common insight from how we should respond to our present crisis:

In times of uncertainty and instability, the most important tools are clarity and agility.

Crisis rocks our emotions. It blurs our vision and rattles our thinking. In difficulty, people have a greater tendency to react emotionally rather than respond sensibly. This kind of response creates unnecessary chaos. (If you have been to the grocery store recently, you have seen this — why is there no toilet paper?) Mixed messages have led to muddling emotions. Clarity creates calm.

“The church has always been looked to for stability, but in this season, it needs to show agility.” – Stephanie Williams O’Brien, Mill City Church, Minneapolis 

Crisis forces ministry leaders to operate in three planes: being situationally aware, biblically faithful and culturally astute. Leadership agility requires pivoting from normal procedures and methods, leveraging limited resources (money, time and people), overcoming obstacles and flexing with new information. Agility begins with the ability to recognize what is essential and what is extra. It requires leaders to have a learning posture — learning from God, each other and the experts who are elsewhere in the world. In a season where the rules of relational engagement change by the hour, agility wins the day.

Jesus started the church with clarity. “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matt. 28:19-20)

He then empowered it with the agility of the leading of the Holy Spirit, the wisdom of his Word and the encouragement of his people.

 

THREE OBSERVATIONS ABOUT CRISIS

Observation #1:

In crisis, the leader must view change as opportunity.

Leaders respond differently in crisis. They see crisis from a different lens. 

Leaders see crisis as an opportunity to determine health.

Leaders also recognize that crisis acts like a thermometer. It tells the temperature of how we have led up to this point. The strengths and weaknesses of our preferred ministry model will soon be on full display. Many of us will soon learn the value of having financial margin. We will find out just how strong our discipleship pathways and leadership pipelines are. 

I’ve talked to a lot of large churches that are doing well regardless of the ability to convene large crowds, but others realize that in all the busyness of programs, they have lost their focus on discipleship. They drew the crowds but didn’t develop the core. 

On the other hand, I’ve seen small churches that are doing well, but others that are struggling because they failed to see the power of technology. Even in the missional community church, among those who seem perfectly designed for this kind of scenario, some are struggling while others are prevailing. But all are learning. 

Leaders also see crisis as an opportunity to increase agility.

We can’t do the same old thing the same old way when the rules have changed. We must embrace experimentation as a natural part of the growth process.

My father had a banner behind his desk that my mom made for him during his pastoral career. It said, “The seven last words of the church: We’ve never done it that way before.” And another very famous theologian, Mike Tyson (you see, I told you I was a sports junkie), said this: “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

Crisis teaches us to make adjustments in our strategy. In crisis, we must give ourselves permission to try new things, think new thoughts and find new sources of practical wisdom. We must lower our “risk rating” (how much information we need to be willing to act) and be OK with mistakes. We must move from master-planning to become masters of midcourse correction. 

I heard one leader recently say that “creatives are the quarterback of the church in times of crisis.” Those church leaders who are wise in the Word must empower those who are swift of thought with those who are adept in action to develop a wise, nimble, decisive team. We need unfamiliar ideas on how to implement timeless truths in new ways in an ever-changing world.  

Leaders see crisis as an opportunity to accomplish mission.

The church’s goal is not to survive, but to thrive. The church’s goal is not just to understand the times, but to change the world. We have learned through history that people are most receptive to the gospel message in times of crisis. The main thing is to help the church keep the main thing the main thing.                 

Church planter EXTRA TIP: Church planters, I know you have never gone through this before, so let me give you a little extra advice: This is a huge opportunity for you to strengthen your congregation’s confidence in your leadership. Good preaching will not be enough. Create ways to engage with your constituency that is personal, pastoral and visionary. 

Here’s an idea: Write down the list of your 25 most essential leaders. Each week, call them personally, care for them compassionately, communicate the needs of the church family clearly and challenge them to join you in ministering to the crowd that calls your church “home.” And don’t be afraid to ask for help from an established church leader, a coach or the district. We are with you!

 

Observation #2:

In crisis, the church must decentralize ministry and centralize messaging.

There is a need for extreme practicality in difficulty. Crisis strips away nonessentials and forces us to go back to the foundation of who we are, what we do and why we do it. People need a constant stream of consistent, centralized messaging — a few things that leaders say over and over in clear, concise, completing, catalytic and contextual ways. 

In a time when facilities may not be accessible, it is vital that leaders remind everyone that the church is not a building we sit in, it is a movement we choose to be a part of (Chad Moore, Sun Valley Community Church, Arizona). We have to remind them that church is not a group of professional Christians, a location on the corner or an hour on the weekend. 

In crisis, clear beats clever every time. 

The church is the people of God living life on the mission of God for the glory of God. The church is tasked to live out the priorities of God in the character of Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. Wise leaders will give clear instructions from Scripture and then create “story capture mechanisms” to share stories of how the people of the church are acting like the church. And remember, when you catch people doing the right things in hard times, others will follow. What gets celebrated gets repeated.

While we need to centralize messaging, we also need to decentralize ministry. Ministry strategy has to move from “envision, plan, control” thinking (I come up with the vision, devise the plan and divide the responsibilities) and move toward “empower, mobilize, support” (I remind them that they are smart and spirit-filled leaders, challenge them to ask God for wisdom and promise to give them any support they need to succeed).

In my interactions with leaders over the last week, three themes in this vein have risen to the top:

Digital: How can we leverage the digital world for discipleship purposes?

I’ve talked to many churches that are leveraging those with Bible knowledge to do online Bible study. They have also asked medical and financial professionals to do webinars on how to navigate this crisis. They have asked small group leaders to meet online (Side note: Our government is using the wrong term for what to do — we are being asked to insulate physically, not isolate socially)

Some are convening group texts among the congregation to help them interact. (Church leaders should do the same with ministry leaders in other churches!). They are finding ways to develop digital outreach. They are remembering the marginalized, elderly and those in high-risk health scenarios by calling them, praying for them and providing for their needs.

We can do these things and more. Find ways to increase the use of FaceTime, Zoom, Instachat, Facebook Watch parties, Church Online Platform and more. And if you are not sure what language I just used, I suggest that you empower the digital generation to take the lead on the conduit while you develop the content. 

Converge has created a resource page at converge.org/coronavirus.

Daily: How can we make spiritual growth an everyday occurrence?

Spiritual growth doesn’t happen in a day; it happens daily. Find ways to help people shore up their spiritual life through daily disciplines. 

Families are looking for rhythms in a chaotic season. What if you could provide a digital gathering for kids every morning at 9? Or for students at 7 p.m.? (Resources like RightNow Media will help with this.) 

Think through if the church can provide daily devotions for adults (our church is doing a five-minute video from various leaders and sending it out daily) or perhaps a time of prayer (by the way, this Sunday will mark 21 days to Easter — I can’t think of a better time to start a 21 Days of Prayer emphasis!). 

Dinner table: How can we move ministry to the family level?

Family means a lot of things these days. I am talking about more than just the nuclear family. For some, family might be their small group. For others, it will be their neighbors or coworkers. What I am aiming at with the “dinner table” concept is engaging your inner circle with spiritual growth in such a way that it dominates your discussion. 

Spiritual growth will result in spiritual conversations becoming the new norm for believers (I believe that one of the reasons most of us have such a hard time talking to nonbelievers about Christ is that we don’t talk to each other about Christ.). So, let’s train parents how to lead their kids in devotions. Let’s train everyone how to open the Bible for themselves. Let’s help them develop the disciplines that lead to deeper fellowship — like Bible study, prayer, memorization and journaling. Let’s use this time to give them tools, not just teaching. 

Perhaps you could choose a verse for this season for your church. I’ve talked with several of our district leaders who have chosen theme verses.  

Ken Nabi, leader of our Great Lakes district, has chosen “Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer” (Romans 12:12) because he feels that this verse gives instruction to our hearts, response to our situation and points us to reliance on our God.

Gary Rohrmayer, leader of our MidAmerica district, has chosen “Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and always to be gentle toward everyone” (Titus 3:1-2). Gary chose this verse because it reminds us that this is not a political problem, so why spend your energy fixing the blame when you can fix the problem by following God? At Converge, we choose to live on the solution side of every issue.

I have chosen “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:15-17). I sense the need for us to develop life-giving thoughts, relationships and actions to be healthy on the other side of this issue. All of these can only be accomplished in the character of Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.

 

Observation #3:

In crisis, God glorifies himself and uses the church to do it.

Rod Hairston, lead pastor of Messiah Community Church in Reisterstown, Maryland, had a great insight in one of our group conversations. He pointed out that the most beautiful part of this pandemic has been that it’s happening to all of us. We are all on a level playing field — people of every race, ethnicity, background and bank account are all on equal footing. 

It reminds us that the things we have in common are much more fundamental than the differences that divide us. And to get through this, we release differences, join hands and work together.  

Jesus prayed that we would all be one so that the world would know we are his disciples (John 17:23). Our unity is a megaphone to the world. Crisis brings Christians together to overcome our common struggles through our common faith. Large church and small, multi-mega and micro, rural, urban and suburban, Baptist, AOG, Presbyterian and more have the opportunity to display the unity of Christ by reaching across the differences of color, culture, class and creed to be mobilized together — not to curse the darkness, but to proclaim the light. 

The witness of our working together can create a new narrative about the value of faith communities in our country. 

I think this is one of the greatest opportunities we will have in our generation to show what it means to be the church.

In God’s power, you can do this. By God’s grace, we can do this. And for God’s glory, we will do this. Together. Because we have the story of the greatest comeback of all time — the resurrection of Jesus. 

The message of the gospel — forgiveness for the past, power for the present and hope for the future — is exactly what this world needs now. The gospel will bring help, hope and healing to a broken, fallen and fearful world. 

So, let’s go be the church.

God, help us know the right things to do and have the courage to do it.

“Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.” Eph. 3:20-21


Scott Ridout, Converge President

Scott Ridout has served as the President of Converge since November 2014. Prior to that he was the Director of Generosity for Converge from 2007-2014, concurrently with his time pastoring at Sun Valley in Gilbert, AZ for 22 years. He also serves on the Board of Church Multiplication Partners, GACX and The Timothy Initiative, all of which focus on starting churches and multiplying disciples. He loves God, the local church and simply wants to help people meet, know and follow Jesus.

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