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Leading Through a Pandemic: Three Questions for Ministry Leaders

Today I’m happy to have as my guest, Morgan Eseke.

After studying leaders during high-stakes, high-pressure situations for more than two decades, Harvard’s National Preparedness Leadership Initiative summarizes: “Crises are most often over-managed and under-led.” Researchers explained that leaders often find themselves making decisions based on the tyranny of the urgent. And in doing so they fail to gaze beyond the crisis to intentionally lead others through the uncertainty toward a more promising future. 

Certainly, woven into the DNA of Christian faith is an outlook oriented toward a promising future. As we sit in the midst of a pandemic that has overturned normal ministry operations and shattered plans, we can still stand confident of a future where there will be no more tears, death, or pain (Revelation 21:5). Yet we find ourselves operating under uncertainties in the face of a pandemic. So, how do we manage and lead well when group gatherings—central to the church and so many of her ministries—are illegal?

Leverage technology, but don’t confuse consumption with connection.

As we adjust to shepherding flocks in the absence of face-to-face meetings, many ministries are adopting digital tools such as podcasts, video conferencing, online streaming, and social media. But not every online effort is effective. Digitizing messages and creating content consumable in pajamas over coffee is helpful, but not if these efforts fail to engage hearts. A growing chasm of voices streams online, and leaders who fail to pair good content with personal connection simply add to the noise. 

Nika Spaulding, resident theologian at St. Jude Oak Cliff, a church plant in South Dallas, says her leadership team is intentional about when and how they stream messages. They make an effort “not to over-digitize the incarnational aspect of church.” Ms. Spaulding said, “Our new normal is figuring out how to individually love people while still maintaining consistent rhythms in this new reality.” For St. Jude, that means prerecording Sunday morning messages, hosting theology courses and small groups via Zoom, and individually calling all members to check in. 

Mega-church contexts are pairing technology with individual connection, too. Callie Nixon, women’s ministry director at Dallas’s Watermark Community Church, says staff members at her church are making phone calls to each of their church’s 12,000+ members and leaning on their network of community groups to fight against isolation. At the same time, Watermark spun up a TV channel via Instagram in less than a week. They are also sharing digital resources daily (e.g., podcasts, kids’ at-home Bible study resources, and devotionals) on top of streaming the usual Sunday messages. 

Polished Ministries, a national outreach ministry geared toward young professional women, was set up surprisingly well for a pandemic. Though Polished is primarily events-based, their network of members is naturally tech-savvy, their podcast and social content was already thriving, and they had just invested in an online training tool to support all twelve of their chapters. Still, Kat Armstrong, the ministry’s co-founder, says, “There must be a marriage between technology and pastoral work.” Great technology tools enable pastoral care; they will never replace it. 

There is benefit in leveraging present circumstances to “get up to speed” on technologies that may have been put on the back burner, but the hearts of our people must remain the focus of all these efforts. 

Based on these realities, we ask ourselves (question one): As leaders, how can we intentionally leverage technology to further enable personal connection?

Model healthy rhythms, including lament.

Most ministry leaders—at least cognitively— understand the importance of serving others out of the overflow of one’s own personal and spiritual health. So, leaders themselves need to lean into healthy spiritual rhythms, not only for the sake of personal emotional and spiritual health, but also for those who are looking to them as models. Jesus said good fruit comes from abiding (see John 15).  

Dr. Sandra Glahn, an author and professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, aptly pointed out, “It’s not a good time for a pep-talk. That’s not congruent with what we are feeling.” She notes that many western Christians lack a context for healthy lament. So, perhaps one of the most helpful ways to lead in this season is to show others what it looks like to go to God with our pain, fear, and uncertainty. We must avoid spiritually by-passing people’s emotions and instead be willing to recognize and sit with the grief. An explanation is not always the most helpful response. 

As leaders, we often feel pressured to have a polished response to current events. But possibly one of the most cathartic responses of a leader today involves uttering far fewer words. Simply listening—both to the Lord and to those we shepherd—might be the best use of our energy in this season. For example, Ms. Spaulding is encouraging her ministry leaders to serve others as “emotional sherpas” whenever possible. She defines such “sherpa-ing” as being a “non-anxious presence” and helping others process their feelings of pain and grief by listening, asking questions, and reminding them that it is okay to grieve. 

Question 2: We must ask ourselves: How can we usher others into a healthy expression of grief? 

Embrace the gifts of forced flexibility to catalyze creativity.

Although an unwanted stimulus, COVID-19 presents unparalleled potential for Americans to rediscover important biblical foundations while forcing organizations to adapt. Christian leaders have a unique opportunity to respond boldly in the face of great fear and uncertainty.

Polished, for example, migrated all in-person events to an online video-conferencing platform. In place of a physical table with volunteers who facilitate discussion, Polished is now using an online tool that enables digital breakout rooms. Trained volunteers are assigned to each digital room and will lead discussions and build relationships just as they would have done over chips and salsa at a luncheon.  

The changes in daily life due to the coronavirus have had an impact on volunteer availability and capacity, putting pressure on ministry leaders as they determine how to function effectively with less (physical) volunteer support and presumably fewer financial resources. 

Michelle Attar, pastor of Adult Ministry at Bent Tree Bible Church in Carrollton, Texas, believes this is a unique time for the church to use the God-given giftings of individual members. While many ministry volunteers are consumed by added responsibilities such as homeschooling young children, working longer hours, and/or caring for sick loved ones, some do have extra time, and they can bring important skills to the table. 

“We are thinking creatively about how to tap the right person on the shoulder and let them loose,” Ms. Attar said. “Though it is out of my comfort zone, we are consciously thinking about how to get the church staff out of the equation as quickly as possible and empower lay leaders.” An organic, member-empowered form of ministry is likely a more sustainable model in the coming months, especially if group gatherings remain limited, as many are predicting.

When loving others means staying home, we must re-contextualize how we serve those we love outside of our homes. At the same time, we have an opportunity to be on the front lines of dramatic transformation. The forced change of pace and natural reconsideration of our own mortality is cracking open the door for a renewed prioritization of the family and a revival of life-on-life discipleship and smaller church gatherings. 

Question 3: How can we unleash others in their areas of giftedness?

So, this is a great time to think ahead and ask ourselves these questions: What innovations, resources, or process changes do we need to make to effectively love and serve others in our new normal? How can we usher others into a healthy expression of grief? And how can we proactively prepare our people to respond to needs that will continue to arise? 

This is a difficult season for ministry leaders, forced as we are to change how we care for those we serve, grieve well through uncertainty—and help others do so, and innovate at an uncomfortable pace. But Ms. Nixon says her earnest prayer in this season is, “Lord, don’t let me miss it.” Because like other pandemics throughout church history—the plagues of AD 251, the Black Death in the Middle Ages, and the yellow fever epidemic in the early 1790’s—the COVID-19 pandemic is an opportunity for shepherds to lead through, rather than merely manage the crisis. And as a result of our serving well those entrusted to our care in this high-stakes, high-pressure time, the church can more brightly shine.  

Morgan Eseke is a student at Dallas Theological Seminary, and a strategic marketer with ten years’ experience consulting for organizations of all sizes. She is passionate about discipling the next generation and helping all ages of women experience a deep, meaningful relationship with Jesus Christ.

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Sandra Glahn

Sandra Glahn, who holds a Master of Theology degree from Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS) and a PhD in The Humanities—Aesthetic Studies from the University of Texas/Dallas, is a professor at DTS. This creator of the Coffee Cup Bible Series (AMG) based on the NET Bible is the author or coauthor of more than twenty books. She's the wife of one husband, mother of one daughter, and owner of two cats. Chocolate and travel make her smile. You can follow her on Twitter @sandraglahn ; on FB /Aspire2 ; and find her at her web site: aspire2.com.

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