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.

3 thoughts on “Leading in a Coronavirus World

  1. Thanks, Laurie,
    You send encouraging/uplifting words that employ common (human) sense within the scope of God’s good gifts while simultaneously pressing a clear focus on the spiritual nature of life in community with the triune God and the missional family of the Church.
    Being a fair-to-middling Calvinist, I do not believe in co-incidence, so I’m just going to surmise that the Joshua verse you have cited here was a recent RCL lection. It was the benediction that came to mind earlier this month in prayer with/for some of my friends who are in key leadership positions in local churches.

  2. The diagram of randomly interconnected geometric figures – WONDERFUL!!! This is the flow chart for how work gets done in the organization (e.g. the Church) that empowers, delegates, and adapts. This depicts “thinking outside the box.” This is how the Church’s efforts to witness and serve can be maximized. Thanks, Bishop, for your encouragement – speaks to my heart.

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