The Bad News and the Good News about Congregational Crisis

Written by admin on May 22nd, 2012

 (This article was originally written for and published by The Columbia Partnership – TCP. My book is a part of Chalice Press’s TCP Leadership  Series.)

I learned some very interesting things in the course of research for my book, Leading Congregations through Crisis. Some of what I learned was sobering. Crisis has a way of exposing a congregation’s weaknesses and putting its future at risk. Some of what I learned was heartening. There are wonderful congregations out there that have come through crisis alive and well. We have a lot to learn from them about preventing, preparing for, and recovering from misfortune.

Based on my research and my own experiences as a pastor leading congregations through crisis, here’s how I would summarize the bad news and good news about congregational crisis:

The Bad News                                                         The Good News

Your church is not immune to crisis     …but…           It can prepare.

Optimism is not your friend                 …but…           Hope is.

There are no shortcuts to recovery      …but…           There is a road map.

Your church will never be the same     …but…           It can be even better.

Leading through crisis is hard             …but…           You can thrive.

Lesson #1: Your Church Is Not Immune to Crisis…But…It Can Prepare.

No matter how many congregational crises make headline news, there’s a temptation to think, It could never happen to us. If your church has never had to deal with the devastations of a deranged gunman, a sexual predator, a dishonest money handler, a natural disaster, an accident, or some other situational crisis, it can be difficult to imagine that you ever will…which is exactly what many crisis-tested congregations admit thinking before their close encounters with calamity.

The fact is that faith doesn’t inoculate us against misfortune. Jesus was blunt about it: “In the world you will have tribulation” (Jn. 16:33; emphasis added). As long as sin and evil exist, and as long as nature remains untamed, trouble can drop in for a visit any time. Living in denial about this is foolhardy.

Crisis-surviving congregations echo the Boy Scouts motto, “Be prepared.” We can’t control the future completely or even predict it with absolute certainty; but we can ready ourselves to respond to it and even influence it through proactive planning and action. What are your church’s greatest risks? What is your current readiness to deal with potential crises in these areas of risk? What further steps do you need to take to lower these risks and prepare for things that might happen anyway?

Lesson #2: Optimism Is Not Your Friend…But…Hope is.

You may have heard that the Chinese word for “crisis” comes by combining the Chinese symbols for “danger” and “opportunity.” Unfortunately there’s a pop-culture tendency to misappropriate this idea to create a feel-good attitude toward adversity. It plays nicely to a spirit of optimism, the notion that there’s a built-in tendency for things to get better.

Congregations that have been through crisis will tell you that things don’t automatically get better. In fact, left to themselves, they get worse. Trauma can introduce a spirit of anxiety that steals missional passion in order to secure itself against risk. Grief can become a cloud of sadness that permanently darkens a congregation’s mood. Unresolved anger can leave a fault line between groups in the church. Effective congregational leaders act in wise and timely ways to offset the negative ripple effects of crisis.

Things don’t automatically get better; that’s the bad news. The good news is that there IS hope. There is hope because of God. The Bible, in fact, reminds us that because God is the
First Responder to every crisis, we can see our difficulties as a prelude to renewal (Romans 8:28).  Our future rests not in the built-in nature of things, but in the loving faithfulness of God. This allows us to have confidence as we partner with God to deal with the complications and opportunities that crisis presents.

Lesson #3: On the Road to Crisis Recovery, There Are No Shortcuts…But…There Is A Road Map.

A congregational crisis doesn’t end when the dust settles. Consider two examples that illustrate the point. The young pastor of a church is electrocuted while standing in the baptismal waters on a Sunday morning. The crisis of his death requires the church to process congregation-wide grief, deal with a vacuum of leadership, and cope with legal complications. A Church in the Southeast discovers that its treasurer has siphoned off hundreds of thousands of dollars from the church’s building funds. He then commits suicide. The church must deal with shock, grief, and anger; decide whether it can complete its building project; determine how it will meet its ongoing financial obligations; and resolve pastoral and legal issues related to the treasurer’s family.

These two examples illustrate that crisis leadership is a long-distance run, not a sprint. Whatever the nature of a congregation’s crisis, its leaders must respond faithfully over an extended period of time, shepherding their congregations through the difficulties.

The good news is that congregational leaders do not have to rely on improvisation alone when plotting their path toward crisis resolution. There are crisis leadership principles that transfer well from one crisis and one context to another. We can learn from the successes and failures of other congregational leaders, as well as from those in the worlds of business, education, government, and the military who have traveled the challenging road of leadership through crisis. My book, Leading Congregations through Crisis, harvests insight from all of these sources to create a best-practices guide for congregational leaders.

Lesson #4: Your Church Will Never Be the Same…But…It Can Be Even Better.

One of the definitions of crisis is “an unstable or crucial time or state of affairs in which a decisive change is impending.”[i] We might as well be honest about it: crisis always brings change. For better or worse, those who go through crisis are never the same again. The question, then, isn’t whether crisis will change things, but how crisis will change things. Leaders know better than to leave this to chance.

A real danger exists that crisis will change things for the worse. This, in fact, accounts for the anxiety that comes with crises. Crises threaten us physically, psychologically, relationally, and spiritually. They can put us in financial holes out of which it proves difficult to climb. They can harm people. They can leave ministries and relationships seriously damaged.

On the other hand, crises can become turning points for good. They can force us to reorient ourselves around core values and recommit ourselves to our true mission. They can create a sense of urgency to do things we’ve talked about doing for a long time. They can obliterate obstacles to innovation. Those who have led well through crisis will tell you that their congregations didn’t just survive; they experienced transformation and ongoing growth toward their full potential in Christ.

Lesson #5: Leading through Crisis Can Suck the Life Out of You…But…You Can Learn to Thrive.

Burnout is a serious issue among clergy in general. Research indicates that clergy today suffer from obesity, hypertension, and depression at rates higher than most Americans. In the last decade their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen. 80% believe pastoral ministry has negatively affected their families. 50% feel unable to meet the demands of their job. 50% have considered leaving the ministry in the last month.[ii]

These statistics come from the general population of ministers. Imagine what these statistics would look like if the study focused on those leading through crisis! Crisis leadership provides a severe test of poise under pressure. It challenges our durability and presents us with problems that can’t be fixed overnight. It heightens our risk of running on empty.

The good news is that we can cultivate specific skills that will help us thrive in the midst of crisis. We can harness our minds. We can refuel spiritually, physically, emotionally, and relationally. We can develop habits of action to confront and solve problems.

Leadership through crisis isn’t a sprint, though there may be occasions when sprinting is required. I’m not even sure that it’s best to compare it to a long-distance run. The Bible’s best metaphor for crisis leadership may be the journey, an image that opens up a wider set of possibilities. It aims us at a destination but gives meaning to everything that happens between here and there. It invites us to pace ourselves and explore the full potential of wherever we are at any point in time. It encourages us to take in the views along the way. It creates the possibility of companionship, which turns an otherwise lonely enterprise into a shared adventure. It reminds us that though we may not know exactly where we’ll end up, God knows where we’re going and escorts us every step of the way.

[i] Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, s.v. “crisis.”

[ii] “Pastor Burnout Statistics,”; and, Michael Jenkins, “Great Expectations, sobering Realities: Findings from a new Study on Clergy Burnout,” Congregations, May/June 2002.


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