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Crisis Leadership, Christian Leadership and the Coronavirus Epidemic

Every once in a while you get an ‘I’ve never been through this before’ moment in your leadership, and the current coronavirus phenomenon is one of them.

My guess is there is nothing in your leadership past that is quite like the current COVID-19 pandemic. I led through SARS in 2003, but this has eclipsed anything that happened during SARS with national borders being locked down, travel being impacted, empty stadiums, canceled seasons and daily life changing rapidly.

The question is how to respond as a leader.

This is part of a Crisis Leadership series to help leaders navigate the pandemic.

Here are the other (free) resources you can access (this list will keep growing):

5 Ways The Current Crisis is Accelerating The Arrival of the Future Church

How to Lead Through Rapid, Unexpected Change

8 Ways to Lead in the New Digital Default Church

My Top 7 Rules for Leading a Digital Team

8 Early Tips for Producing Digital Content During the Current Crisis

3 Simple Ways To Make Sure You Don’t Break In the Crisis

Why Motivation Alone Won’t Get Your People (or You) Through This Crisis

When circumstances are changing daily, even hourly, here are a few broader principles that I hope can guide you as a leader that I’m trying to bear in mind as well.

1. Practice Leadership, Not Reactionship

The weird thing about leadership is you have all the emotions anyone else does during a crisis. You’re thinking about your own health, your family, your own freedoms and your own fears.

Plus, you’re responsible for the weight of your entire church or organization, which adds a burden that’s difficult to describe unless you’ve carried it.

As you can see in the stock markets and crazy irrational stockpiling of necessities that borders an absolute panic, fear, greed and selfishness wreak havoc on our life together.

That’s not leadership, that’s reactionship.

Your job isn’t just to react to what’s happening, it’s to lead people in light of what’s happening.

That means you need to check your emotions and do what’s best for others, not just you.

Trust me, if your church or organization sees panic or stupid denial in your eyes, it fuels the panic in theirs.

Your jokes on social about how much toilet paper you’ve stockpiled, or, alternatively, that this isn’t any worse than the seasonal flu, or whatever cheap social media theory you’re peddling undermines their confidence in you.

Too many leaders practice reactionship in crisis, not leadership. Your job isn't just to react to what's happening, it's to lead people in light of what's happening. Click To Tweet

2. Embrace Sacrifice, Not Selfishness

Perhaps the thing that disappoints me most, both in myself and in the things I see via social, is the profound selfishness that Christians are displaying in the midst of a crisis.

I feel all those instincts too, and I realize they’re wrong.

It’s easy to spot selfishness in other people. A crisis simply reveals and amplifies what’s already there. For too many of us, that’s selfishness and self-righteousness.

I need to remind myself that the early church wasn’t known for stockpiling ample food and supplies for themselves and spreading fear on social media.

Mother Teresa’s legacy wasn’t built on hoarding months of supplies for herself and asking the poor of Calcutta why weren’t they as wise and smart as she was.

The early church wasn't known for stockpiling ample food and supplies for themselves and spreading fear on social media. Click To Tweet

You know this…the best leaders show sacrifice in times of crisis, not selfishness.

The sacrifice you show as a leader will bring out the sacrifice in others. Unfortunately, so will the selfishness.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t feed your family or wash your hands thoroughly and often. I’m doing both.

But that can’t be your only or primary response.

Mother Teresa's legacy wasn't built on hoarding months of supplies for herself and asking the poor of Calcutta why weren't they as wise and smart as she was. Click To Tweet

The world sometimes gets the Gospel better than pastors do. They celebrate people who give their lives in service of others. Historically, so do we.

Self-protection and self-defense may be some other religion. It’s not Christianity.

The best leaders show sacrifice in times of crisis, not selfishness. The sacrifice you show as a leader will bring out the sacrifice in others. Unfortunately, so will the selfishness. Click To Tweet

3. Gather Wise Counsel to Check Your Natural Instincts

I realize it sounds axiomatic to say you shouldn’t over or under react, but almost no one gets this right by nature: you have a natural bias to overreaction or underreaction.

The key is to know your bias. And, my guess is that you overreact to certain triggers and underreact to others.

Naturally, I’m not fear-driven so when a crisis like this happens, I definitely tilt toward underreaction. To be honest, I’m shocked at how rapidly this has spread and how much disruption it’s fueled in such a short period of time.

Literally, the first week the new coronavirus was announced at the beginning of 2020, I was pulled aside by a higher ranking health care official I trust and told that this would be bigger than SARS and could infect tens of millions of people. He had access to information on government and health channels I didn’t.

I hoped he was wrong. Now it appears he was very correct.

Social media is proving almost singularly unhelpful in providing reliable information on the pandemic, and the mainstream media (which I am generally not a critic of…I shudder to think about a world without it) has been impacted by the need for clicks in the attention economy.

It’s ironic that in an age of unprecedented access to information, during a crisis, thanks to social media, most of what you get is misinformation, hysteria and disinformation.

I suppose that shouldn’t be surprising. It’s always been said that truth is the first casualty of war.

So what do you do?

I would gather the smartest, most informed people you know with actual experience in healthcare and let them advise you. Let them tell you which sources are most reliable.

On your little advisory team, I would also gather a few people who are wiser and smarter than you in both leadership and communication and work on your communication together.

You will likely have to reach beyond both your staff and board to do this, although you will likely pull one or two from that group to help. Think of it like a war cabinet or special committee of especially wise people who are there to inform you during the crisis.

This team will help you both gather accurate information and make informed decisions. You may even want to try to get a local politician or civic official who’s well-informed to advise you.

In the meantime, unfollow the extremists online in either camp. The senseless noise will make it even harder for you to think, pray and form an opinion.

And to gather counsel outside your immediate personal network, follow, highlight, and track people in the community and in ministry you may not know but respect, follow and trust and who have led wisely in past situations.

This will help focus and clear your mind and heart.

It's ironic that in an age of unprecedented access to information, during a crisis—thanks to social media—most of what you get is misinformation, hysteria and disinformation. Click To Tweet

4. Communicate Clearly 

Once you’ve met with your wise counsel, plan your communication and action plan.

Again, most leaders tilt toward saying too much or too little.

Here’s a pattern that’s helped me communicating during a crisis:

  1. Acknowledge the problem. People need to know you know, so you might say, “As you know, we’re in a situation none of us have been in before and things are changing day by day.”
  2. Acknowledge both sides. I’m sure in the upcoming weeks outside of government directives, some churches will decide to shut down or go online. Others will continue to meet as long as they’re allowed. Acknowledging that both are options gives you more credibility, not less. Saying something like, “We’ve seen some organizations close. Others stay open. And both are options.” Too often you’ll be tempted to pretend like your option is the only option. That actually just makes you look stupid. Of course, there’s more than one option, and your people know that.
  3. Be clear about your decision. State the option you’ve selected. For example, “We decided to stay open this weekend…and here’s how it will work…”
  4. Tell people why. This is the most important thing you can do.  Whether you’re open or closed is less important than why you’re open or closed.  After all, people don’t buy what you do. They buy why you do it (thank you, Simon Sinek).
  5. Point to hope. Because it’s a crisis, you’re probably delivering news you don’t want to deliver. What you have to remember is that your job is to see the future and lead people there. There will be a time when the crisis passes, you’ll be around for all of it, and you need to point to hope.

If you want to see a great example of crisis leadership in a different context, follow Kevin Queen and the team at Cross Point Church in Nashville whose building was severely damaged by the tornadoes in Nashville in March 2020.

As tough as the situation is, they’re helping their city and pointing to hope all the while rebuilding their church. I love the Gospel instincts of Kevin and his team. Kevin, by the way, has mainly asked people to help rebuild the city.

Whether you're open or closed is less important than WHY you're open or closed. After all, people don't buy what you do. They buy why you do it. Click To Tweet

5. Stop the Spin

You are going to be so tempted to spin the truth to your side. Don’t.

This is a complex situation and the truth is most of us don’t really know how long this is going to last, how much damage will be done or what will happen.

Plus, you have a vested interest in this.

Churches don’t want to run out of people and money. Businesses don’t want to go bankrupt. People don’t want to lose their life savings.

So you’ll be tempted to put a spin on events so that things work out in your favour.

I’ve also seen people try to use the crisis to justify their right or left political leanings. Uh…no.

All of that is just really bad leadership.

Crises are human, not partisan.

Crises are human, not partisan. Click To Tweet

One of the best ways to combat this is to simply do what’s best for others. If you love the people you serve, help the people you serve and lead the people you serve, they’ll rally around you. Honestly, they will.

If you try to manipulate them, control them or use them, the smart ones will smell that out and leave.

Spin and sin are closely related. Remember that.

Grace and truth will get you through this. Stay tethered to those.

Spin and sin are closely related. Remember that. Grace and truth will get you through this. Stay tethered to those. Click To Tweet

6. Look for Opportunity in the Midst of All The Obstacles

Leaders find opportunity where others only see obstacles.

There are opportunities here. I left this one until the end because some of you (talking to myself here as well) would be tempted to gloss over the crisis and not see opportunity, but it is there.

Five years ago, I realized I needed a visa to do more of the work I wanted to do in the US. They’re not easy to get. It led me to think about how I could deliver content without having to jump on a plane every time.

I had also been wanting to write a book but my schedule was full, so in light of these two obstacles (uncertain travel and the lack of full margin to write a book), I created my first online course.

I had no idea that I was running headlong into one of the best ways to serve leaders I’ve discovered to date.

The appetite for online courses was much bigger than I thought, and I’ve been able to help thousands of leaders I wouldn’t otherwise have helped plus been able to significantly improve all the things I do for leaders as a result.

But that’s wasn’t some grand design. It was simply a response to a problem I didn’t really know how to solve. (By the way, I did get the visa and can now do both…a wonderful surprise.)

So what are some opportunities in front of us?  I’ll just list a few I see:

Improve your digital /online experience

You’ve known for a long time that your online experience needs to improve. Now’s the time to act.

Sink more time and attention to connecting with people virtually, and you will be able to lead them regardless of how you’re able to meet in person.

Whether it’s your only venue in the upcoming months or not, digital is here to stay. And when people can gather again, many will come running back. There’s nothing quite like face to face, especially after it gets threatened and taken away.

Help your city

In a moment where everyone’s obsessed with themselves, look for new ways to serve others.

When the people in your city see that you care, it will remind them that God does too.

Broker Hope

People’s spiritual instincts and questions get triggered in moments like these. Give them the Good News of the Gospel.

A world struggling with death needs both the hope of resurrection and the power of a God who suffers with them. The appetite for the Gospel has been whetted like it hasn’t been in years.

A generation that’s sick of hype is ready for hope.

Deepen Trust

One way or another, this crisis will pass. If you embrace humble, sensible, Godly leadership during it, you’ll have so much trust in the bank with the people you lead that the future will indeed be much greater than the past.

Having been together through a crisis, you’ll be able to tackle so much more together in the future.

You’ll spot a lot of other opportunities as well. I promise you they’re there.

A generation that's sick of hype is ready for hope. Click To Tweet

How To Lead Through Crisis: A FREE Course

The world is experiencing a series of unprecedented challenges, and you’re leading in the midst of it all.

I’ve got a brand new online, on-demand course, called How To Lead Through Crisisthat can help you lead your team, your church and yourself through the massive disruption.

The course is the gift from me and my team to you and leaders everywhere. In light of everything that’s going on, we decided to make it available 100% free.

Inside How To Lead Through Crisis, you’ll learn how to: 

  • Cultivate a non-anxious presence that inspires confidence and trust.
  • Care for yourself so the crisis doesn’t break you.
  • Master the art of fast-paced, clear decision making. 
  • Gather and interpret the most reliable data that will advance your mission
  • Advance digitally to scale past physical barriers and grow your outreach.
  • Lead your team and congregation remotely

While no one has all the answers in a crisis this big, in the course, I share the mindsets, habits, tools and strategies that I believe will help you lead through crisis to get you and the people you lead to a new (and better) future. 

You can enroll and get instant access for you and your team here.

What Are You Learning About Crisis Leadership?

What have you learned, and what are you learning, about crisis leadership?

Scroll down and leave a comment here.

Crisis Leadership, Christian Leadership and the Coronavirus Epidemic

50 Comments

  1. Christian Leadership in Crisis on August 8, 2020 at 8:36 am

    Thanks, Carey for helping us out through your article. I like all your points especially the second one, regarding selfishness. That’s the thing most leaders had these days and it must be treated in the right way.

  2. Aileen Rodriguez on April 8, 2020 at 4:22 am

    Such a beautiful post about CORONA-Virus and you clearly write very helpful points in this post. Helping each other is the great thing to do something for your nation in the real sense.

  3. Glenn Lyles on April 5, 2020 at 11:16 am

    Thanks Carey for all you do for The Kingdom. I concur with you that everyday requires new thought, insight ,and responses and those normal needs are definitely multiplied in times like these. “Dooms day prophet” is not my calling however it is clear that God is doing new things in new ways in these latter days. As a 62 year old Children’s minister, I am excited to see today’s challenges and opportunities unfold continuously in our society. Surely as His Body we must welcome, embrace and respond eagerly to each new day.
    I am not tech savvy but wanted to check out the Application Guide. How are those accessed?
    Blessings,
    Glenn

  4. Luke on March 27, 2020 at 2:41 pm

    Thank you,for sharing & serving with opean heart at no cost.

  5. Liping Feng on March 18, 2020 at 6:11 pm

    Thank you so much for demonstrating what leadership means, at a time of crisis. It is so true: the generation that is sick of hype is ready for hope. Your article gives me hope that modern churches can transform indeed themselves and emerge as the new spiritual leader that the world desperately needs. Peace & Blessings.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 20, 2020 at 12:52 pm

      Thank you Liping!

  6. Isaac Jayakumar on March 18, 2020 at 8:08 am

    Amazing write up, well written from years of experience and very helpful for young Pastor’s like me… Any pastor/leader in a time like this.

    Thankyou.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 18, 2020 at 9:16 am

      Glad to help!

      • Jen Ervig on March 18, 2020 at 11:12 am

        Also, I thought about just emailing Sarah, but not only did we do drive-in church like I commented above but our video on it literally went viral. We’re a church of only 1600 on a normal Sunday and even big churches haven’t seen the views on their media that we have. Also, we were on every news station Sunday and churches all over the country are asking how we did it. We’re not looking to be famous but feel it would be foolish not to leverage the success of that video. Tips? Thoughts?

  7. Bob Rost on March 17, 2020 at 5:50 am

    Thank you for a voice of reason, and practical guidance and wisdom to help each of us better understand what leadership is best and grounding us with your own thoughts.

  8. Steve Olivier on March 16, 2020 at 4:09 am

    Thank you so much for this article, we are implementing your advice in our church community and keeping cool heads and open hearts. This is a great opportunity to love and serve well. Thank you!

  9. Lindsay Oaks on March 13, 2020 at 11:25 am

    Excellent post that our church leadership is reading prior to making our decision. Thanks for the balanced guidance.

    • Beverley on March 13, 2020 at 1:09 pm

      Such truth,
      Such hope.

      Instead of focusing on the crisis I am energetically focused on the opportunity to spread hope and love.
      Thank you for this practical guidance.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 13, 2020 at 5:12 pm

      So glad to help!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 15, 2020 at 5:56 pm

      Thank you Lindsay!

  10. Mai Grace Hunter on March 13, 2020 at 10:08 am

    What a great post Carey! As leaders we do have a responsibility not to “panic or have stupid denial” about COVID-19. We should do what is best for everyone in this situation and if that means making drastic decisions to close church doors temporarily, then we must, however, we NEED a PLAN so that we don’t disconnect and lose our church family simply because we are not meeting in person and face to face. We know live streaming is here and has been growing in it’s use but who knew so many churches are looking to live stream (and rather quickly) because it’s now almost a necessity. I will remain in prayer about for all churches making decisions about services. I know of a hand full trying to make decisions about having services THIS Sunday and it’s just not an easy decision. There are tons of logistics and communication involved. Thank you for this logical and wise blog post. I appreciate your leadership and ministry.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 13, 2020 at 5:12 pm

      So glad to help!

  11. Boyd H. on March 13, 2020 at 9:23 am

    Thank you for a balanced and sensible approach to this issue. When we are commanded to “Love God with all our heart, soul, and strength, many often omit the MIND”. Thank you for helping us to love God and love others. Thank you for being a voice of clarity, compassion, and brevity during these days of a lot of voices and noise. You enrich my life, ministry, and thoughts. Thank you.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 13, 2020 at 5:13 pm

      It’s my pleasure!

  12. Salina on March 12, 2020 at 7:55 pm

    This article circulated amongst our ministry staff today. It’s the first word that landed in my heart in a “finally some truth” way. Thank you. I like the challenge of seeing the opportunities in the midst of crisis. Local colleges are reaching out for housing for international exchange students who are misplaced. Neighbors sharing resources. Moms banding together to home educate our kids. Crisis opportunities. Keep leading well.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 13, 2020 at 5:14 pm

      You too! So glad to be a voice of reason among the noise.

  13. David Levandusky on March 12, 2020 at 11:54 am

    Very Good advice on leadership during a crises time. I hope many take note of it all and share with their leadership and churches.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 12, 2020 at 1:38 pm

      Thanks David!

  14. CYNDY WARNIER on March 12, 2020 at 11:53 am

    Thank you Carey for this timely and wise article. To me, this IS the time that we people of faith step to the front and help others as best we can. And first, for ourselves and churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, even home-group gathers, we practice the CDC guidelines WITHOUT complaint! And since I work in a faith-based retreat center, we just are giving the rest up to God because we cannot control what is uncontrollable. Thank you for reminding us what we CAN and SHOULD do to help others and ourselves as well. God bless your ministry, it means so much to me and many others.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 12, 2020 at 1:38 pm

      With you on that Cyndy. 🙂

      • Mthr Mia on March 12, 2020 at 4:08 pm

        As a first-time Vicar, this advice is helpful. I plan to
        write exactly what you’ve offered – especially the why part.
        Thanks so much for this post.

  15. Peter Mueller on March 12, 2020 at 11:33 am

    Thanks for all your blogs, especially this week. I serve in Seattle, the U.S. epicenter of COVID-19 and your blog last weekend reminded me to check in with doctors and nurses in our congregation for advice, and as a result we cancelled services in order to “save lives” in their words. Hard to argue with that. Yesterday our state governor banned all events over 250 attendees and made it difficult for events under 250 to happen as well, so we were ahead of the curve. Thanks also for your words today about remembering to look for ways to improve online ministry and also serve the community – the first we are doing by necessity, the second by choice – thanks for your encouragement in this crazy time!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 12, 2020 at 1:39 pm

      I think that’s a great call Peter. Great leadership.

  16. Barry Hughey on March 12, 2020 at 11:27 am

    Thank you! This is very wise counsel and comes at a crucial time for church and mission leaders who are seeking to make wise decisions.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 12, 2020 at 11:31 am

      Thanks Barry!

  17. mark on March 12, 2020 at 10:45 am

    This was helpful but I thought the tag at the end to SELLING MORE CARY STUFF was completely inappropriate. This is obviously not the time – as you recognized even in the commercial message. Please stop. Either you’re trying to help or you’re trying to sell Cary. I thought you were helping. Then at the end I realized you were selling. Sad face.

    • Chuck Fenwick on March 12, 2020 at 10:56 am

      While I can understand where you are coming from, I believe all of it was to help. There is a place for leaders to work together and get insight from seasoned leaders. That kind of thing requires money. The free help we just received from a free blog isn’t feee. Someone pays for it.
      It’s all a tool and tools have a price. That’s not a bad thing.

      • Carey Nieuwhof on March 12, 2020 at 11:30 am

        Thanks Chuck. Appreciate you and your leadership. 🙂

        Carey

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 12, 2020 at 11:19 am

      Mark,

      Thanks for signing your real name and for the feedback. I debated it for sure and kept it short, but I hope you realize that the few things we offer at a price, in addition to serving the leaders we help through them, help us do everything we do for free, which is most of our work.

      I realize we may not always agree on this.

      Hope the free stuff continues to help.

      – Carey

      • Mark Roberts on March 12, 2020 at 12:21 pm

        Thanks for a kind reply. And you make a fair point. It’s a judgment call – and sometimes we see things differently. I do appreciate your writing and work very much.

  18. John Friesen on March 12, 2020 at 10:35 am

    These are great points Carey! I’m in Spain right now – hoping to squeak back into the USA just before the travel ban kicks in. I’ve been able to work with and develop trust in my leadership team back home to stick handle some of this in my absence. Lesson learned for me – build a team and trust the members. It’s a great thing to know you’re not leading alone.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 12, 2020 at 11:20 am

      Unprecedented times for sure John!

  19. Brian Cunnington on March 12, 2020 at 10:30 am

    On the ‘stockpiling’ issue, this an important time to give extra to foodbanks who serve the many who often live on a day-to-day basis.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 12, 2020 at 11:20 am

      Could not agree more Brian. Just left a meeting where we talked about acting on such things.

  20. Frank N Koob on March 12, 2020 at 10:23 am

    I am a 78 year old geezer and I’m still learning things, and now from you. Some are just for myself. Some I pass on to others who are in either church or Civic leadership. There are many ways to spread the gospel and practice it even if you do not sometimes mention the name of Jesus.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 12, 2020 at 11:21 am

      For sure. Walk can be far greater than talk, although both are so important.

    • Brian Crow on March 13, 2020 at 8:55 am

      Frank Koob, you may have the number that says you’re old but your heart and mind are in line with the love of Christ. That, my friend, makes you an example of the hope – the one true hope. That kind of hope is youthful and invigorating. Keep doing what you’re doing and spreading the Gospel.

  21. Chuck Fenwick on March 12, 2020 at 10:21 am

    Thank you for this information. And I’ll add that your prayers are appreciated. My daughter was living in Rome until the end of April. We had to wake her up in the middle of the night to get everything together and get to the airport by 7am (Rome time) to get the last Delta flight out of the country. Still not sure what will happen once she’s stateside.
    That, of course, adds a new dimension to what my congregation may think and feel about me being around them this weekend. Ugh!

    • Dawn on March 14, 2020 at 12:24 pm

      I am going to believe that as a leader you were already going to do this, but I am gong to say the obvious and say PLEASE do the right thing here. The guidelines are so clear. In Ontario, she would need to call public health (regardless of any symptoms), self-quarantine for 2 weeks, and so does EVERYONE in direct contact with her… asymptomatic carriage is well reported. Please save lives in your church, your city and your nation by doing this. This is a global pandemic, this is no joke, and Italy is at the heart of it. Now frankly so is the US. Please, please, please… our hospitals are already at over capacity and already understaffed.

      • Chuck Fenwick on March 14, 2020 at 12:30 pm

        Dawn, I assure you that we are doing what needs to be done.

        • Dawn on March 14, 2020 at 1:26 pm

          Thank you!!!!

  22. Filip Milosavljevic on March 12, 2020 at 10:17 am

    Appreciate this thoughtful summary.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 12, 2020 at 11:21 am

      Thanks Philip!

  23. Annie on March 12, 2020 at 9:15 am

    This was a timely article. Our church board is having these discussions now. I appreciate the reminder to get my own bias and emotions in check before leading the meeting. Thank you!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 12, 2020 at 11:22 am

      Thanks Annie. I think the independent counsel is critical. Your board hasn’t led through this before either and they’ll need help from people with access to more information than you do.

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