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Leading Virtually

By Stephen Blandino | Church Leadership

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, churches and organizations across the nation have been thrust into a new normal of leading virtually. They’ve had to pivot quickly and learn how to lead teams, programs, departments and organizations from kitchen tables and home offices. The question is, how do you lead effectively when everything is happening digitally?

Below are five tips for leaders navigating this new environment.

1. Clarify Strategic Priorities

When a crisis hits, two things happen to priorities. First, existing organizational priorities are immediately disrupted by the urgency of the moment. Any focus those goals had harnessed suddenly dissipates in the blink of an eye.

Second, with a team working virtually, normal daily priorities and routines are disrupted as the team tries to figure out what part of their role is relevant to the current situation. It’s essential for leaders to clarify what priorities are most important by doing three things:

Elevate the essentials. First, leaders have to pinpoint their primary ministry strategies. For most churches, this starts with their worship service, kids ministry, and small groups, but depending on your ministry model, it may be something different. Focus on the essentials, and then determine whether there’s a need for anything else. Then find the margin to make it happen.

Delay new initiatives. At any given time, a church has new initiatives in the works — programs or strategies they plan to start in the coming weeks or months. Unless the new strategy will add significant value in the crisis, delay it until a later date.

Maintain flexibility. Whatever priorities you establish at the start of a crisis will likely change during the crisis. The one consistent in crisis is that nothing is consistent. Things are unpredictable, which means new priorities may come onto the radar as the crisis unfolds. Be flexibly focused. In other words, clarify and focus on your priorities, but let new data, changing circumstances, and the Spirit’s leadership inform your need to pivot with new priorities.

2. Shift Job Descriptions

After COVID-19 shut things down, I pulled my staff together virtually over the next two days to clarify our strategic priorities and to chart a path forward. Once those priorities were clear, I let our team know that everyone’s job description had changed.

I wasn’t panicked, and I didn’t overreact. Instead, I needed our team to realize the priorities we had just articulated required our full attention and our collective energy from that point forward. Creating team alignment gave team members clarity about how to invest their time as they worked from home. They knew this was temporary, but during this crisis, our focus needed to unite around this moment.

Leading and working virtually makes communication even more critical.

3. Prioritize Communication

Crisis moments elevate the need for regular communication. Leading and working virtually makes communication even more critical. Through this crisis, I’ve prioritized communication to three groups: the board, ministry team and congregation.

The board needs regular communication updates on ministry, finances and other important organizational issues. For me, these updates happen through our regularly scheduled board meetings, as well as weekly texts and emails.

Additional meetings can be scheduled as needed, along with phone calls to check in on board members.

As for the ministry team, we meet online weekly as a staff. In addition, I do one-on-one meetings with staff members who report to me each week. (This is something we did prior to this crisis, and I highly recommend it for any team). We may schedule additional meetings as needed to address issues specific to various staff members.

Finally, it’s important to maintain meaningful and systematic communication with the congregation. This might be a daily five-minute devotional, a weekly ministry update, or emails, texts, and social media posts.

Whatever the approach, make sure your communication isn’t just more white noise. It should be clear, purposeful and hopeful.

4. Maintain Accountability

When you’re leading a virtual team, the need for accountability usually increases. This doesn’t mean you don’t trust your team; it simply means you need to attach clear assignments, expectations and deadlines to your strategic priorities.

Your weekly one-on-one time with staff members is a great way to get progress updates on priorities. And remember, your ultimate focus should be on outcomes, not techniques and tactics.

5. Connect Relationally

When you’re leading virtually, it’s easy to lose the relational connection with your team and your congregation. It’s also easy for doubts and fears related to the crisis to discourage your team and your congregation.

First Thessalonians 5:11 says, “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.” Three strategies can help:

  • Launch online small groups.
  • Elevate the focus on pastoral care by assigning staff and key leaders a list of people to follow up on.
  • Do a virtual lunch meeting every couple of weeks with your staff. Don’t focus the lunch meeting on work, but rather on connecting relationally.

As you lead virtually, these tips will help you create focus, routine and connection. When this crisis is behind us, you might even decide to continue implementing some of these tips as you move forward.