Leadership: Leading Your Faith-Based Organization Through A Crisis

March 23, 2020

by Alan Sears

Replying to NLI Staff, "Stewardship: Protecting Your Faith-Based Organization Through a Crisis"

“I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.” John 15:5

The impact of the Coronavirus pandemic is being felt across the country as cities and communities have all but shut down in response to this invisible threat. In addition to the tragic loss of life and the uncertainty of a resolution, Americans are being laid off as employers are forced to make hard decisions in order to keep their businesses afloat. It’s clear that what we’re facing is nothing short of national crisis.

From my prior experience in leading an international Ministry through several difficult periods of uncertainty—including the horrors of 9-11 and the 2008 financial meltdown—I have learned five key lessons in crisis leadership.  

1. Keep Perspective. While COVID-19 is a “novel virus,” facing a national crisis is not a novel experience. A leader’s priority in such times should be to provide perspective to his or her team members, both internally and externally. While everyone around you might be panicking and saying, “There’s never been anything like this before,” remind them that, in the thousands of years of human history, there’s been countless times that were even worse; that God is still God; and that what we have been called to do still needs to get done.  

For example, in the darkest hours of the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln reminded Congress and the nation that:

“The struggle of today, is not altogether for today — it is for a vast future also. With a reliance on Providence, all the more firm and earnest, let us proceed in the great task which events have devolved upon us.”  

By helping your Team members maintain perspective, you will be able to remind them that God has a plan and that we must submit to His perfect will. A faith is no faith at all unless it can weather the trails and tribulations of unforeseen circumstances.  

2. Devotion to Duty. As leaders we are required to think about our duty to our Team and our Mission. We should do so in at least “two time zones” – addressing the immediate crisis, (getting parts of the mission accomplished now and asset protection) as well as looking to “after” this moment is over (for long-term recovery and to maximize our opportunities).  

Though a great percentage of our focus is on the immediate and ever-changing horizon, we must continue looking ahead and seeking to fulfill our Strategic Objectives as we are enabled to do so. For the wise this can be a time to take stock of what is truly important by trimming down our agenda and sharpening our focus on producing results in those areas that matter the most.

3. Keep Calm and Carry On. We must never surrender to panic and emotional decision-making. Instead, we must rely on our faith to help us find the peace we need to make the decisions that have to be made. As Peter Drucker is to have noted, “When we know the facts, the decisions jump out at you.” In a time when we know few (if any) facts in a constantly changing environment, we should stick with the basics while avoiding as many unnecessary decisions as possible (all the while maintaining organizational flexibility). We should welcome ideas from everywhere, and if we learn we made a wrong decision we should immediately admit it to ourselves and our Team and adjust accordingly.  

4. Plan by Phases, Not by Dates. The uncertainty of the Coronavirus has made planning ahead difficult. We are told that the disruption of our daily lives could be as short as 14 days or perhaps as long as several months. As we look ahead, remember what my dear friend and consultant Bobb Biehl said about planning—every plan (personal and organizational) starts with the phrase, “At this phase…”. Phases allow us to make our plans intentional rather than arbitrary. Plan by increments of phase, not by increments of days, weeks, or months.  

5. Exemplify Servant Leadership (Make Stars of Others). At the end of the day, even during your most trying moments as a leader, you must keep your sense of humor and remember, “it’s not about me.” While you may have a title or a role that puts you at the center of your organization’s decision cycle, always remember that the best decisions are those that make stars of others.  

Adversity can oftentimes bring out the best in people, simply by necessity. You will find members of your Team who will rise to the occasion and prove to be extraordinary. Empower them and give them the tools to succeed. That is what defines servant-leadership.

I hope these lessons will serve you as well as they have served me during times of crisis. With that said, it’s important to remember that if you learn nothing else, learn this—without Christ you can do NO-thing (John 15:5). Trust in Him and your Team will come out of this crisis better than you entered it.  

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Alan E. Sears, Founder of Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) and Board Member of Napa Legal Institute (NLI). Mr. Sears is also Founder, Executive Director, and Senior Counselor for Kingdom Alliance Builders, a not-for-profit corporation providing non-legal consultation and business strategies to leaders of ministries, apostolates, and other faith-based entities.

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