I have a friend who, the day after coming back from vacation, discovered that 30 church members - including several members of their board - held a secret meeting in someone’s house, to talk about her, while drawing up plans to ask for her resignation.
Leaders are called to lead in the best and in the worst of times.
I have a friend who went to a conference. The day he came back, he found out that the youth director had been having an affair with the church organist, and both left their families, quitting their jobs at the same time. Oh, and it was two weeks before Easter.
I have a friend, who works as the technical director for a large church. They did a complete overhaul of the worship tech in the auditorium. They invested a lot of money, time and emotional capital into this project. Three days before using that new tech for the first time in a worship service, lightning hit the church and fried the consoles, projectors and computers in the booth.
I have a friend who headed a search team to find someone to fill a key position on the church’s staff. The search was a complicated one, given the job description, history of the congregation, and limited pool of candidates. After six months of an arduous search and barely keeping the department afloat, the top three candidates withdrew from the search. The team was forced to go back to the drawing board and start the search over.
I have a friend, who led a massive construction project in her church. After many months of planning, they launched a capital campaign. The money was coming in 25 percent lower than expected, and there was an air of unrest in the congregation in the midst of the campaign. The board decided to go ahead with the project anyway, and to borrow the rest. They began demolition, just as the financial crash of 2008 hit everyone by surprise. A few weeks later, the excavators on the project hit water, surprising all with the unexpected height of the water table. The entire construction site quickly flooded. The contractors decided the only way to dry up the site, was to do so with a chemical process that would extend the project timeline by an extra six months and increasing the cost by tens of thousands of dollars. The chemical treatment also made environmentally conscious neighbors very nervous (rightfully so). They in turn alerted the media.
I know by now you probably think I have very weird friends.
Some of you probably read the above and immediately identified things you would have done differently.
Others likely recognized yourself in a variation of these scenarios.
Still others may think each of those scenarios were all made up.
The nightmares above and many other similar ones happen all too often in churches, all around the country. They are as different as the contexts in which they happen, and yet, they all have at least one thing in common: a leader at the center of it all who is called to lead, while there is that feeling as if world around them is falling apart.
One thing has become clear to me throughout my years of ministry. Leaders are called to lead in the best and in the worst of times.
When life around you is crumbling, you still lead, because you know you are called to do so, because God has equipped you, because in spite of your brokenness, you know what you do matters, and because every fiber of your being reminds you of so many, who have gone before you echoing Esther’s tagline, “for such a time as this.” (Esther 4:14).
While this sounds good, you know this is easier said than done. How on earth are you supposed to lead in moments like these?
I offer the following thoughts, not as one who has it all figured it out, or who gets it right every time (or even most of the time). I offer these examples, however, as a fellow struggler who bears some of the same scars, and is hoping to learn from them.
Prepare as best you can.
Sometimes you see it coming. You are able to see trouble brewing in the distance and you know it’ll hit you.
At times, it feels like a freight train coming your way, and you know you cannot do anything to avoid it. You simply cannot get out of the way. In the rare moments when that happens, prepare as best you can.
In the words of W.H. Griffith Thomas, “…read yourself full and pray yourself keen.” Network as much as you can, knowing you will need colleagues and friends to hold you up in those uncertain times. Exercise and get yourself healthy both physically and spiritually, to endure the season ahead.
Once you’ve done all these things, brace yourself for the unexpected and trust God.
Most of the time, however, you don’t have the luxury of preparation, and freight trains just show up unexpectedly.
In such cases, let me offer the following. Redeem the time. I’ve often heard well intended advice saying, “the only way through it is through it,” or “all you have to do is survive it.”
I don’t believe, however, that Jesus advocates for survival. It’s hard to speak of survival and self-preservation in front of a cross. Rather, he said, “I have come that you may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10 paraphrased). Surviving it may end up being a missed opportunity. Paul’s concept of redeeming the time may prove to be more helpful. (Colossians 4:5)
Always err on the side of grace.
When you find yourself in the middle of difficult decisions and conversations, always ask if you are being guided by God’s grace.
Look up and keep sight of the greater goal. It is so easy to look down and focus only on where you are standing.
Do not lose sight of all that is at stake.
Observe the Sabbath. A burnt out leader is not a badge of honor that one should seek to bear. Nor is it necessarily a sign of faithfulness. When life is overwhelming, solitude and time with God should become our top priority.
Don’t go at it alone. Seek wise counsel. Keep sight of the goal, but do not be inflexible. Have the humility to be proven wrong and be ready to change course.
I was told many years ago that if you ever feel you are alone against the world, realize that the likelihood is that you are the one who needs to change. One against the world only happens once every 500 years or so. If you don’t believe be, ask Martin Luther.
And lastly, if you survive it, give God all the glory.
Take time to recover.
Learn from the experience.
Process it with wise people.
Let the lessons learn mold you, change you and prepare you for the next freight train.
If, however, you don’t survive it, then for the sake of the kingdom, finish well. This is incredibly hard to do, and most people don’t.
We tend to forget that all we do is a witness to the one who calls us his own and has promised to see us through.
Finish well, for that is how you will be remembered, and that is how you honor God’s call in your life.
Another example of someone who has been under intense scrutiny in both their professional and political life is Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard. In her book, Tough Choices, she speaks of her days at HP, of the monumental challenges and of high risk-decision-making moments.
Whether or not you agree with her, one needs to concede that those moments of leadership must have been incredibly difficult for her, to where she felt as if the world around was falling apart. I love how at the end of every major section, she wrote, “…and though it all, I did not lose my soul.”
You and I know we can’t lose our soul. God is greater than all our freight trains and strange decisions. God can work through us an inspire of us.
No matter how bad things get, we can’t lose our soul, but you and I know what she means.
My prayer is that God walks with you… no. My prayer is that you walk with God, through all the freight train moments of your ministry.