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Leading In a Crisis

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I worry a lot about the “battle-fatigue” experienced today by so many clergy. So much conflict and so little peace, so many problems and so little time and so many demands and so little respect. This is true for all leaders, but clergy carry the added burden of their peculiar relationship to God. In times of conflict outside the church, they are supposed to sustain harmony within the church. Their prayers should have more influence to solve the problems. And they should be immediately available to every member whenever needed.

It is helpful to understand what crisis leadership looks like. Publics have three expectations for every leader in any sector in every crisis. Care about us. Manage the situation well. Be fair to all. Crisis leadership is a dynamic of love, power, and justice.

Love must be courageous and credible.

In a crisis, that love is like a parent with a prodigal child, or a true friend with a companion addicted to drugs, or like an abused spouse trying to save her family. It is “tough love”. It is love that encourages difficult changes for the higher purposes of forgiveness, health, or unity. But this only works if love is also credible. Crisis demands that the leader himself or herself “steps up” to a higher accountability for their own moral conduct, selfless expectations, and sacrificial behavior.

Power must be persistent and persuasive.

In a crisis, the exercise of power is like a doctor searching for a cure, or a general holding siege to a fortress, or a fireman stopping a wildfire. It requires unrelenting energy and creative thinking. But this only works if power is also persuasive. Crisis demands teamwork with complete strangers, network with new partners, and negotiation and compromise.

Justice must involve intervention and education.

In a crisis, the exercise of justice demands personal risk. There is no time for committee debate. Leaders step into the very midst of the crisis, personally intervene between danger and the endangered. They don’t fly over chaos in a helicopter but get their hands dirty on the ground. But this only works if justice includes education. Crisis motivates leaders to reconsider assumptions, teach moral principles, and mentor new leaders.

There is always a cost to discipleship.

Crises always raise the stakes for spiritual leadership. Leaders risk friendships, family stability, careers, and occasionally even their own health. You can do three things to manage the risks.

  • The link between love and power is competency. You can acquire and hone skills in persuasion, mediation, litigation, and advocacy.
  • The link between power and justice is urgency. You can find the leverage point that would bring greatest change and act as a tipping point for transformation.
  • The link between love and justice is empathy. You can immerse yourself in the lifestyles of others to feel their hurt, loneliness, brokenness, entrapment, depression, and despair.

The key to effective crisis leadership is to speak and act from a heart-burst for real people, and not just serve as an advocate of some ideological position or political cause.

Leaders in a crisis carry the people “on their backs”, so to speak, just as friends carried a paralytic to Jesus for healing.

There are two reasons why leadership in a crisis fails.

The first reason is that the leader has lost touch with one of three touchstones of the dynamic.

We see this often today. There are leaders who exercise power, but with little justice and no love. Other leaders who love deeply but are unable to act for change. There are still leaders who advocate justice but are unable to temper the law with love. Leaders who do this inevitable fail. The changes they make are temporary and cannot be sustained.

Why would leaders allow this to happen? It is because, when push comes to shove, they are too egocentric. They want all the attention for themselves and are motivated by neediness for applause. They expect to be rewarded for their service and are inflated by self-importance.

Some are unable or unwilling to acquire the skills needed to translate love into power. Others are unable or unwilling to exercise power for true justice. And still others are unable or unwilling to transform passion into compassion. Leaders that cannot make either or any of these connections inevitably fail. Crisis abates, but the causes of crisis continue to foment another crisis.

Why would leaders allow this to happen? I think the reason is the exact opposite of inflated self-importance. It is low self-esteem or lack of self-worth, revealed by endless excuses. A person is too old to learn anything new; another is too busy to drop everything to act now; yet another is too superior to forgive. They choose to be bystanders, protected by anonymity.

Leadership in a crisis is the test of leadership itself. Will you and I rise to the challenge?

I welcome all questions about using MissionInsite for ministry planning and leadership development.

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