Leading in a Coronavirus World

The outpouring of grace, generosity, and ingenuity across our world over these past several months has been beautiful to behold. A story in the March 24 Des Moines Register immediately caught my attention because of my Anabaptist religious heritage, which includes the Mennonites, Church of the Brethren, Hutterites, and Amish. A woman named Mary Swander, who lives in the Kalona area, became concerned when she talked with an elderly Amish man who did not seem to be aware that a coronavirus pandemic had reached Iowa. Talking with a few other Amish folks, most of whom do not have telephones, TVs, cars, or computers, confirmed her suspicion.

Swander, who has lived in Amish areas for many years, did all she could to ensure that they understood the danger of the coronavirus and the need for social distancing in the midst of their communal society. In addition to distributing information about COVID-19 to her Amish friends and neighbors, she contacted other professionals who could help Amish leaders understand the seriousness of the virus and take appropriate precautions.

As we struggle with the spread of COVID-19 here in Iowa and around the world, the initiative that Mary Swander took in reaching out to the Amish was a perfect example of the kind of leadership we need right now. It is critical for all of us to learn how to lead with vision, confidence, and courage.

Last week the New York Times published an article by Stanley McChrystal and Chris Fussell called What 9/11 Taught Us About Leadership in a Crisis. McChrystal, a retired four-star Army general, is best known as the commander of the Joint Special Operations Command in the mid-2000’s and founded the McChrystal Group in 2011 as a management consulting and leadership developmentfirm. Fussell is a former Navy Seal and is the president of The McChrystal Group.

McChrystal and Fussell wrote, “On Sept. 11, 2001, the job of every leader in the U.S. Special Operations community changed. In the ensuing years of fighting a highly complex, networked enemy, we redesigned how our organization communicated, shared information, made decisions and, most critically, maintained a cohesive culture while operating in almost every corner of the globe.” They proceeded boldly with a new vision, even when there was no clear end in sight.

Knowing that our darkest moments can often bring out our best leadership, I’d like to share a few reflections based on learnings from McChrystal’s and Fussell’s experiences in leading after 9-11. How is God calling you and me as leaders, whether clergy or lay, to be the hands and feet and head and heart of Jesus during this time of worldwide crisis?

Such a time as this requires us to creatively be the church when we can no longer gather together.

One of the biggest mistakes leaders can make is to ignore the crisis and hope it goes away. The overriding issue facing our world at this moment is a spreading coronavirus pandemic, which, in turn, is endangering lives, affecting our economy, causing jobs to be lost, and creating deep social isolation. Here in Iowa and around the country, we have to carefully and prayerfully make difficult decisions in order to address the ripple effect of COVID-19. Faced with our governor’s wise prohibition from being in groups of more than ten people, the first thing we’ve had to do as United Methodists is immediately change the way we “do church.”

  • It is important for local churches to develop a comprehensive strategy quickly, deliberately, and collaboratively, using the gifts of the laity.
  • How can we be creative in worship in an empty sanctuary and with an online congregation?
  • Since we are all shut-ins right now, how do we remain connected with each other and offer pastoral care, with a special focus the elderly and those with special needs?
  • How can we continue to offer small groups and Bible studies online?
  • How can we encourage our congregation members to keep current on their financial commitments to the church?
  • How do we offer support to church members who lose their jobs?

Be a visible and a calm presence, even when it cannot be a physical presence.

  • Congregation members take their cues from the demeanor of their lay and clergy leaders.
  • Reassure parishioners that we have a great opportunity to share Christ’s love in our communities.
  • Make use of social media to create inspiring videos that congregation members and others can access.
  • Make phone calls, send notes, and use social media to communicate.
  • Thank people and affirm their gifts.

Be compassionate, humble, collaborative, flexible, and as transparent as is appropriate.

  • Don’t sugarcoat the crisis or make unrealistic promises about when we’ll be back to “normal.”
  • Empathize with the fears and anxieties of your parishioners.
  • Be realistic and honest as well as hopeful.
  • Provide creative ideas about how church members can connect with each other and their community, even while staying home.

Empower, delegate, and adapt.

  • Leaders need to be clear about their primary responsibility: to be the face of the crisis, consult and make informed decisions, and then proceed.
  • Empower the laity to be the church and then get out of the way!
  • Continually RAD (reflect, adjust, and do). The best leaders continually adapt and adjust to changing circumstances.
  • Consider using a team of teams approach to create a flatter perspective on leadership.
  • Failure is inevitable, so don’t dwell on it. If something doesn’t work, end it and try something else. Not everything will go well all the time.

Be accommodating and understanding. Do not ask others to do what you would not do.

  • Listen to those who know more than you do and change accordingly.
  • A little bit of grace goes a long way.
  • Give feedback in a way that is gentle and encouraging.
  • Create an atmosphere where we are all in this together, no matter what our particular role is.

Undergird everything in prayer.

  • Enlist your prayer warriors to develop a prayer ministry during this time.
  • Take time for yourself and live in God’s presence, which is with you always.

I believe that God is calling us to rise up at this moment in our history, just as God spoke to Joshua after the death of Moses (Joshua 1:9), “I hereby command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” May you witness to others of Christ’s love, extend care, show grace, and embody the good news of Jesus Christ now and in the days ahead.

Standing Together by Standing Apart

What a week it was! Last Tuesday Governor Kim Reynolds issued a State of Public Health Disaster Emergency. This requires the closing of restaurants to the general public, except for carry-out, drive-through, and delivery. Health clubs, gyms, theaters, and gatherings of ten or more people, including worship services, are prohibited until the public health disaster is over.

Then, a few days later, we learned that our 2020 General Conference in Minneapolis will be postponed to a later date because of the health risks involved in holding a major event with thousands of people in attendance.

This is an especially tough time because many people in Iowa still remember the 1980’s Farm Crisis, when farmers in the United States, especially in Iowa, were confronted by an economic crisis more severe than any since the Great Depression. Many who relied on agriculture for their livelihood faced financial ruin. The same possibility may become a reality today if the COVID-19 Pandemic continues for months. Some smaller businesses may never recover, and social service agencies may not be able to recoup financial losses because of declining contributions. Even churches will be affected if congregation members are not able to keep current with their financial contributions.

Last Friday, there were 281,000 jobless claims in the United States, according to analysts at investment bank Goldman Sachs. They are also predicting that by this Thursday those weekly claims may balloon up to 2.25 million. It is critical to support our business owners, employers, employees, and all those who are suffering economically.

These are, indeed, unprecedented days, as we live into a coronavirus world. Paul’s words to the Philippians (4:6-7) seem appropriate as we seek to remain calm and centered in Christ. “Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus.”

A new word has entered our vocabulary over the past several months: “social distancing.” Because of the overly infectious nature of the coronavirus, we have been encouraged to keep at least six feet away from one another. This does not eliminate the possibility of infection, but it does reduce or slow down the number of infections.

Some people believe that social distancing has a negative connotation, as if we are not to be in any kind of connection with our friends and neighbors. On the contrary, it is absolutely critical that we stay in relationship with each other at this time. Various alternative phrases have been offered such as:

  • “Standing Together by Standing Apart”
  • “Social Distancing without Social Isolation”
  • “Spiritual Connection; Physical Distance”
  • “Socially Separate; Faithfully Engaged”

All of these options point to the essence of our human challenge at this moment in time. When you and I are forced to stay home and slow down, we realize that we have been given a precious gift: the opportunity to spend time with our family, reconnect with people from our past that we haven’t been in touch with for a while, and form new connections, all the time recognizing how much we really need each other in order to get through this.

In the past week, Gary and I have had multiple conversations with our three children and two grandchildren who are sequestered away in Seattle, New York City, and the Detroit metro area. Our grandchildren are not in school at the moment and their parents both work from home, so it has been a challenge. Last night our family members, who are living in Des Moines, Seattle, New York City, and Metro Detroit, caught up with each other for a half hour on Google Hangout.

Gary and I also reconnected with a mother and teenage daughter from Oregon whom we met while walking the El Camino trail in Spain last summer. We became good friends, but as often happens, we came home and returned to the same busy schedules we had before we left. A few days ago, we were surprised by a call from Laura and Mia, and we had a wonderful conversation, catching up with each other’s lives. The next day, three friends from Michigan with whom I met regularly for a number of years, reconnected with me, and we plan to stay in touch.

In my reading and conversations with others, there are simple things that we can and must all do to remain healthy and safe. At the same time, we can also make a difference in the lives of others who do not have enough material, financial, or human resources to live comfortably right now. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Every day, make a phone call, send an email, or write a card to a shut-in or someone who feels isolated.
  • Make a grocery run for someone who can’t get out.
  • Limit watching the news. It doesn’t need to be on all day.
  • Get outside in the fresh air and take a walk.
  • Take the initiative to reconnect with an old friend.
  • Start that book you’ve been intending to read. You can even check out my new book, Wandering into Grace; A Journal of Discovery and Hope.
  • Offer childcare to neighbors who work and cannot stay home with their young children.
  • Don’t hoard toilet paper or Chlorox wipes.
  • Thank people who are serving you in the grocery store, gas stations, or restaurant take-out counters.
  • Don’t forget to stay current in your giving to your local church.
  • Pray for all those who have been infected as well as for our health care professionals, who are working tirelessly to bring hope and healing.
  • Email your stories of how you and/or your church are making a difference at this time to iowacares@iaumc.org. I’ll include a few stories every Wednesday in my Caring Connections videos.

I would love to hear how you are coping with the COVID-19 Pandemic in your daily life and how you are reaching out to others in creative ways. Prayer for a Pandemic, written by by Cameron Bellm, a young mother from Seattle, helps us gain perspective.

May we who are merely inconvenienced
Remember those whose lives are at stake.
May we who have no risk factors
Remember those most vulnerable.
May we who have the luxury of working from home
Remember those who must choose between preserving their health or making their rent.
May we who have the flexibility to care for our children when their schools close
Remember those who have no options.
May we who have to cancel our trips
Remember those that have no safe place to go.
May we who are losing our margin money in the tumult of the economic market
Remember those who have no margin at all.
May we who settle in for a quarantine at home
Remember those who have no home.
As fear grips our country,
let us choose love.
During this time when we cannot physically wrap our arms around each other,
Let us yet find ways to be the loving embrace of God to our neighbors.




Is the Lord really with us or not?

Last week, I received this Facebook message from an old friend, “Several years ago you had David Lockington play his cello during your sermon…The piece was originally played in the city square of Sarajevo. Just the cellist. Can you let me know the name of the piece?”

David Lockington was the Conductor of the Grand Rapids Symphony (Michigan) from 1999-2015, during the time when our family lived in Grand Rapids. It was October 27, 2002, All Saints Sunday, when we recognized and honored all of the saints of First United Methodist Church who had died over the previous year. I had invited Maestro Lockington to play a specific piece at First Church that Sunday that I believed expressed the essence of my message.

The scripture for the service included these words from the apostle Paul in Romans 14:7-8 (CEB), “We don’t live for ourselves and we don’t die for ourselves. If we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we belong to God.” 

I told a story about the time in the late spring of 1992 when the great city of Sarajevo in central Bosnia was surrounded and held under siege by Serbian forces for months that would become years. Yugoslavia was splintering into different nations, including what would become the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Life was incredibly difficult, and large gatherings of people lined up every day at one of the remaining bakeries to buy bread to feed their malnourished families. One day, Serbian mortar shells suddenly exploded all around them, killing twenty-two persons and wounding over one hundred more.

Vedran Smailovic plays in the ruins of the National Library. Mikhail Evstafiev / CC BY-SA (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)

News of the massacre quickly reached the ears of Vedran Smailović, the young principal cellist in the Sarajevo Opera. Smajlović was tired of the killing, tired of the hating, tired of the destruction, so he decided to do something audacious, counter-intuitive, and life-giving. The very next afternoon, at 4 pm, Smajlović changed into his formal black suit and white tie, went to the cobblestone street in front of the bakery, set up a cafe chair, got out his cello, and began to play the soaring yet sorrowful melodies of Venetian Baroque composer Tamaso Albinoni’s Adagio. (There is no agreement about whether the piece was entirely composed by Albinoni or with the help of 20th-century musicologist and Albinoni biographer Remo Giazatto.)

Smajlović would also play at graveyards and other sites of destruction from the shelling. This was a particularly courageous act because snipers were targeting funerals as a way to create even more painful carnage. “Though exploding mortars and sniper fire could be heard around him, Smajlović continued to play. As the magnificent Sarajevo crumbled into dust by a never-ending civil war, he came back the next day and the next and the next and did the same thing.”[i] For 22 days straight, varying the time because of security reasons, Smajlović risked his life to play the Adagio, not only to honor each person who had died but to give hope to those who still lived.

As a response to the sermon that Sunday in 2002, Maestro Lockington played Albinoni’s mournful, haunting, lilting Adagio with his cello. Through his music, Lockington reminded us that God has placed us on this earth to make a difference and that even when all seems lost when we cannot seem to find a way, God will make a way.

It also reminded me of yesterday’s Old Testament scripture from Exodus 17 when the Israelites were in the midst of their wilderness wanderings and were desperate to find water.

“Moses, give us something to drink!”

“Why are you testing the Lord?” Moses said.

“Why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us, our children, and our livestock with thirst?”

Moses cried out to the Lord, “What should I do? They’re gonna stone me!”

“Take … the shepherd’s rod that you used to strike the Nile River, and go. Hit the rock. Water will come out of it, and the people will be able to drink.”

“Moses called the place Massah and Meribah because the Israelites argued with and tested the Lord, asking, ‘Is the Lord really with us or not?

Residents of Sarajevo wait in line for water. Photo: Mikhail Evstafiev / CC BY-SA (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)

Is the Lord really with us or not? Lord knows we’re in a fix all as the COVID-19 virus continues to spread worldwide. The NCAA basketball tournament has been canceled, the Boston Marathon has been rescheduled, companies are asking their employees to work from home, children are home from school, and colleges are sending students home to participate in classes online. Trips are canceled, airlines are drastically cutting back on flights, the stock market is plunging, and churches are holding virtual worship. In the Iowa Annual Conference, we have suspended, canceled, or postponed all large upcoming events for the months of March and April and have recommended that congregations pause in-person worship at least until the end of March.

In the midst of it all, the Holy Spirit is moving across the face of our planet, bringing hope and encouraging acts of kindness and generosity. Even the important decisions that will be made at our 2020 General Conference in Minneapolis seem insignificant right now.

Is the Lord really with us or not? What I am learning is that we humans cannot live disconnected from each other, despite the isolation in which coronavirus patients find themselves; and despite the isolation that some parts of our United Methodist Church may wish on each other. We are not self-contained units. Despite differences that threaten to divide, we are ultimately links in a chain. We humans need each other; for, in fact, we do not live to ourselves. The life that we have received we hand on to others by how we live and what we pass on to those who follow. If we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we belong to God.” 

Vedran Smajlović refused to stop playing, even when sniper fire continued around him and mortars still rained down in the neighborhood. Even when those who were targeted wondered whether the Lord was really with them, Smajlović’s music was a gift to all who were hiding in their basements with rubble above their heads, a voice of hope for those daily dodging the bullets of the snipers. Is the Lord really with us or not?

“As the reports of Smajlović’s performances on the shattered streets spread, he became a symbol of peace. A reporter questioned whether he was crazy to play his cello outside in the midst of a war zone. He countered, ‘You ask me am I crazy for playing the cello, why do you not ask if they are not crazy for shelling Sarajevo?’”[i] In late 1993, the Cellist of Sarajevo left the city and moved to Northern Ireland, where he continues to perform, compose, and conduct music that promotes peace and justice for all.

Source: https://blogs.goucher.edu/intheloop/1554/community-read-the-cellist-of-sarajevo/

I wonder all these years later. Was Smajlović mad to be exposed on the streets of Sarajevo as he played the Adagio? Did he really believe that the Lord was with him and would protect him? Was Smajlović crazy to believe that through playing his cello, he could bring us one step closer to peace, not hate?

What might happen if Vedran Smajlović appeared at our General Conference and played Albinoni’s Adagio during our opening worship service? What might happen if we really believed that God is with the people who are infected or rejected, the people who are dying, the people who are grieving, the people who are caregiving, and the people who are living in uncertainty? How might things change if, through God’s grace, we responded to all those wandering in the desert by making sure they had access to enough clean, potable water? How might we become more grace-filled and compassionate by finding ways to care for all those who are struggling just to survive?

What could a cellist do? The only thing he knew how. Let the light shine through a wooden box and a hair-strung bow. And commemorate the hope that must never die – that the best of humanity will overcome the worst, not through extraordinary miracles, but through daring acts of ordinary people. After all, Is the Lord really with us or not?

[i]Vedran Smajlović: Cellist of Sarajevo still moves the world, ”  (https://readthespirit.com/explore/vedran-smajlovic-cellist-of-sarajevo-still-moves-the-world/)

[i] “The Cellist of Sarajevo and the Prince of Peace,” Hope Douglas J. Harle-Mould, Church Worship, October 1998, p. 12.