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Leading in a Pandemic

By Robert C. Crosby | Church Leadership

At the beginning of 2020, how would you have responded if someone had told you, “In less than three months, a global pandemic will infect hundreds of thousands and kill tens of thousands, the borders of the nation will be closed, countless churches will not be able to meet publicly, people will be confined to their homes, the global economy will hit the pause button, and most colleges and schools will close and move to online teaching?”

Perhaps you would have said, “Are you kidding me? You’re crazy! That would never happen to us; not in this country.”

Yet, here we are. As pastors and leaders, we’re still trying to make sense of this moment and discern how best to navigate it.

Dr. Robert E. Cooley, former president of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, once said this about leadership: “Leaders do two things. They frame issues and engage conflicts.”

I have leaned on this definition so long, I formed a version of my own. Christian leaders do three things: They frame issues, build people, and engage opportunities for the kingdom of God.

But just how might this framework of leadership play out today, as we face this deeply challenging environment? How might it help us lead people through a global pandemic?

Frame Issues

There are no easy answers. We are not only dealing with a health crisis, but also a financial, educational, vocational and psychological crisis. The issues are complex, and they can feel overwhelming and confusing. People are looking to leaders to provide clarity. We must respond in three ways.

First, we need to ask the right questions. You don’t have to know all the answers to lead people well. But you do need to be able to ask and address the right questions.

In times of crisis, people often want to know why bad things are happening. However, when Jesus talked with people who were sick or in trouble, He didn’t focus on the “why.” Instead, Jesus brought them help, grace and healing.

So, a better way to deal with the why question may be to consider what. What good could God possibly bring from such a difficult season and situation?

The biblical narrative offers perspective for leading people through crises. The most famous journey of faith and struggle was that of the Hebrew nation following Moses out of Egypt and through the wilderness.

For the Children of Israel, the 40-year journey was fraught with challenges, delays, detours, twists and turns — with an army chasing them, a sea in their way, plagues, leprosy, droughts, fires in the camp and more. Yet God used this time to accomplish His purposes and teach His people to rely on Him.

What is God doing in and through His people today? How can our present circumstances bring glory to God and advance His mission in the world? That brings us to the second point.

We need to seek a Kingdom perspective. Scripture doesn’t guarantee Christ followers a trouble-free life. Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). We live in a world of trouble.

Nonetheless, even in intense seasons such as this, we ask, “Could this hardship be producing anything positive? Could God use it for some good?”

Deuteronomy 8 provides insight into how God was working in His people in the midst of difficulties:

Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. … He gave you manna to eat in the wilderness, something your ancestors had never known, to humble and test you so that in the end it might go well with you” (verses 2-3,16).

Adversity is humbling. It reveals our character and obedience to God. And when God is with us through the trials, we can trust Him to use them for our good.

In seasons of comfort and in seasons of challenge, we know God is at work. Throughout the Bible, God’s people have struggled with doubts, anxieties and questions. Yet God has spoken through His Word and provided perspective and comfort.

Finally, we must tell people the truth. Candor is a communication essential that inspires trust in leaders. The season we face is a difficult one, and Christian leaders should not deny that.

During the Civil War, several battles did not go the way Abraham Lincoln would have wanted. Yet he exercised honesty.

“I am a firm believer in the people,” Lincoln said. “If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts.”

Honestly addressing the issues we face today provides clarity for the people we lead. Hearing the truth helps them process and respond appropriately to difficult realities. Candor sets the stage for the second leadership step.

Build People

We are facing a spiritual epidemic of fear today. During a crisis, people can easily become self-absorbed and overwhelmed. In such an environment, leaders have the opportunity to inspire confidence in God.

Pastor Jack Hayford said it well: “God has not called us to build big churches, but rather big people.”

Paul wrote to a church in crisis in 1 Corinthians. The congregation was full of people problems, self-centeredness and spiritual error. Among other things, Paul addressed a misplacement of hope and overreliance on personalities, politics, performance and power (1 Corinthians 1:10-17, 3:3-23); a misunderstanding of grace (1 Corinthians 10:23-24); and an underestimation of the centrality of Christlike love as the primary motivation and goal of ministry (1 Corinthians 13).

In the midst of this cultural crisis, Paul instructed and led the Corinthian church in reform. He set out to teach, train and transform the minds and behaviors of these people — to grow big souls. Paul reminded them of the essentials when he wrote, “These three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13).

Build people with overcoming faith. Getting through a crisis, whether a global or a personal one, requires faith. Too often, people think of faith as a magic wand — something we use to get what we want from God.

On the contrary, biblical faith is not something we use to get what we want; rather, it is something supernatural God places within us to help us become the people He wants.

Faith is made for tough times like these. It is the God-given, internal, spiritual muscle we need to endure and overcome. Faith is more than the next sermon we preach. Faith is “the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8).

While the faith you teach as a leader will inform your people, the faith you live out during this season will help inspire them to walk by faith. Faith is a revealer of the hope we have inside. The writer of Hebrews defines faith as “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1).

Build people with unshakable hope. In difficult times, hope can feel hard to come by. On March 3, a series of devastating tornadoes hit Nashville, Tennessee, and wreaked havoc on the main campus of CrossPoint Church. On the heels of that tragedy, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down gatherings throughout the city and across the state. How does a pastor nurture hope in people during such a time of crisis?

Lead Pastor Kevin Queen is pointing people to Jesus and the peace that is available only in Him. On a recent church podcast, Queen talked about the disciples hiding in fear after Jesus’ crucifixion. When the resurrected Christ entered the room where they were gathered, He said, “Peace be with you” (John 20:19,21).

People lacking hope need to see leaders who are finding their own hope and peace in Christ. No matter what we face, hope is “an anchor for the soul” (Hebrews 6:19).

Building people with enduring love. This crisis is replete with suffering. People are sick and dying in so many places. Family members are hurting over their loved ones’ struggles and often are not even allowed to be present with them. The world around us desperately needs compassionate care from the Church, the people of God.

When ministers lead the way in loving people, including fellow pastors and neighboring churches, it may be the best sermon they ever preach.

During this crisis, many pastors are living more sermons than they preach. They are supporting medical first responders, feeding school children, and demonstrating the love of Christ through countless acts of service. The complex challenges are creating an agenda for refreshingly simple expressions of sincere love and ministry.

“I am encouraged by how I see churches banding together to take care of each other,” says Rich Guerra, superintendent of the SoCal Network of the Assemblies of God in Irvine, California.

“This has included some more tech-savvy churches helping other churches get their services online — in some cases, loaning out their staff to make sure other churches can get the right expertise. I have seen resource sharing [among churches] like never before.”

When ministers lead the way in loving people, including fellow pastors and neighboring churches, it may be the best sermon they ever preach. It builds in congregations what they need to engage opportunities for growing the Kingdom.

Engage Opportunities

In the midst of the 2008 U.S. financial crisis, Rahm Emmanuel, who served as White House chief of staff under President Barack Obama, said, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.”

The current crisis may present more opportunities than we realize. Three are already evident.

First, we have an opportunity to redefine “church.” This season is causing pastors and ministry leaders to reflect on a renewed vision of the Church.

Jason Burns, lead pastor of Access Church (AG) in Lakeland, Florida, says many churches are expanding their reach as they broadcast services online and find innovative ways to minister.

“I think of this season as a similar moment to Acts 8, when persecution broke out and the church decentralized and exploded in growth,” Burns says.

Nona Jones, director of global faith-based partnerships for Facebook, says many churches are just discovering the potential of social media.

“Up to now, church has really been deemed as a model that requires a date, a time and a location,” Jones said on a recent Barna podcast. “Social media lets us minister to people 24/7. [Church] can actually happen wherever you are.”

Mike Cameneti, pastor of Faith Family Church in North Canton, Ohio, says he sees churches excelling in sharing the compassion of Christ.

“I feel like for years, we learned about leading well, and we needed that,” Cameneti says. “But in a time like this, we need to show care more than anything. Our pastors are stepping up from simply leading to really tending to sheep through caring.”

Church is also taking on new forms.

“I have been absolutely amazed at the ingenuity the large majority of our pastors have displayed,” says Jason Tourville, director of minister care for the PennDel Ministry Network of the Assemblies of God in Mechanicsville, Pennsylvania.

“One of our Pennsylvania churches rented the drive-in movie theater and held service using their technology. The pastor told their congregation that if they wanted to shout ‘amen,’ they could flash their lights or honk their horn.”

Government-imposed restrictions and state orders can strike fear in pastors’ hearts and cause them to focus on what their churches cannot do. However, it is more productive to focus on what we can do. We may feel like we are wandering in the wilderness at times. But with God’s guidance and provision, the Church is finding its way.

Second, we have an opportunity to recover what matters most. For hundreds of millions, life has paused in ways we’ve never seen in our lifetimes. The shutdown of work, sports, schools and entertainment has turned lives on end.

As much of society came to a sudden stop, the Church has had a rare opportunity to “be still and know that [he is] God” (Psalm 46:10). But, what is God saying to us during this season?

Anne Graham Lotz, daughter of the late Billy Graham and founder of AnGeL Ministries, wrote in a recent blog post, “It’s time to pray! It’s time to turn away from our sin, self-centeredness and secularism, and turn to God in faith and trust. [Let’s pray that] it causes America to look up and listen to what God has to say, and therefore becomes the trigger for a national spiritual revival.”

What are the needed changes to which God may be calling His people, His pastors? Just a couple of years ago, an influential megachurch went through a leadership implosion. In the wake of numerous church leaders resigning, some of the remaining team members created a list of transformational mind shifts about ministry.

The convicting list challenges leaders to never again prioritize strategy over shepherding, competency over character, quantity over quality, celebrity over humility, command over collaboration, secrecy over transparency, or planning over prayer.

In a season of social distancing, could God be calling leaders and parishioners alike to draw closer to Him? Terry Yancey, superintendent of the Assemblies of God Kansas Ministry Network in Maize, Kansas, believes this can be an Ephesians 1:17 moment for the Church.

Paul writes in that passage, “I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better.”

“I’m praying any of us already guilty of being professional clerics will return to Ephesians 1:17,” Yancey says.

Third, we have an opportunity to engage a new generation of leaders. In the heat of his own crisis and fear, Elijah nearly overlooked something so important, something we cannot afford to miss: the next generation. As the prophet bemoaned his own struggles, God gently pointed him to a great opportunity in the form of a young protégé, Elisha (1 Kings 19).

While we work and lead through this season, we must remember people are watching. In particular, the next generation is watching. The sons and daughters of the Church will see the way the fathers and mothers of the faith handle this season.

As we confront the challenges brought by this invisible coronavirus enemy with faith, hope and love, the steps we take, the attitudes we convey, and the love we show to others will shape those who follow.

With millennial leaders assisting older pastors across the nation with new forms of ministry, the elders are suddenly seeking the advice of the Elishas around them. We must not miss this moment. Once we get through this crisis, we may see the next generation stepping up to lead on many fronts.

At the recent COVID-19 Church Summit, Assemblies of God General Superintendent Doug Clay said, “I have never seen the kind of generational unity like I have in the past couple of weeks. The boomer generation needs the millennial generation.”

Many leaders have already discerned that this season will be a game changer in many ways.

COVID-19 has, and will continue to, change America and the world as this subsides,” says Joseph Girdler, superintendent of the Kentucky Ministry Network in Crestwood, Kentucky. “We, and the Church, will never be the same again.”

Changes in Ministry

When Craig Groeschel, pastor of the Life.Church Network, returned from his own 14 days of quarantine, he decided to shelve the next two podcast episodes he’d already recorded, which covered the topic of how to grow an organization.

“The problem is, I don’t know too many churches or organizations today that are trying to grow,” Groeschel says. “Many right now are trying to survive.”

Nevertheless, the future of ministry is as strong as the One who promised to build the Church, even against “the gates of hell” (Matthew 16:18, ESV). Even as we navigate a new normal, more change is in the air. As leaders, we must be ready for it.

On the other side of this crisis, how will you answer these questions:

•How did you frame the issues for your congregation during this season?

•In what ways did you build people to help them endure and overcome?

•When did you engage opportunities available during this unique moment in history?

“If this crisis only helps more pastors effectively provide Facebook Live Bible studies and worship experiences, then we will have wasted the opportunity,” Yancey says.

Surely, God has more in mind. But the people we lead will need the same things as those led by Paul: faith, hope and love — the essentials of Christian ministry.

Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians 1:2-3, “We always thank God for all of you and continually mention you in our prayers. We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (emphases added).

Framing issues. Building people. Engaging opportunities.

In the best of times and in the worst, it’s what leaders do — for the glory of God.

Be still, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth (Psalm 46:10).

This article appears in the May/June 2020 issue of Influence magazine.