Gospel Advance During Crisis

Preparing for rapid change and new opportunities from the COVID-19 pandemic


Editor’s note: This article was requested following a discussion between Alliance Canada President David Hearn and Alliance U.S. President John Stumbo during a National Office online chapel. The valuable leadership principles shared apply both to pastors and other leaders, as well as anyone helping others process and adjust to the new realities created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Leading well in a crisis is both a challenge and an opportunity. It involves managing the concerns and fears of those around you while offering hope, confidence, and perspective. It forces leaders to recognize their own limitations and find new depths of dependence upon God. It is also an opportunity to cultivate new strategies and release those things that are no longer advancing the mission the way they once did.

COVID-19 is creating rapid change and new opportunities. The ramifications of this pandemic and the steps to mitigate it will have far-reaching implications. Because of the significance of this moment in history, I have spent considerable time thinking and praying about the potential for our leadership to shape the advancement of the gospel for years to come. Here are a few of my reflections, which I hope are helpful as you think about your own leadership role.

Balance Inspiration with Empathy

People need to be inspired, but we have to engage with them at an emotional level where their fears, insecurities, and vulnerabilities are acknowledged. One of our leaders reminded me that many people are in various stages of grief, paralyzed by an internal heaviness of heart. For example, during my last visit with my mom at her senior’s home, I left with the thought that she may die without ever feeling my physical touch again. That thought was profound.

Leaders who only focus on inspiration unwittingly create distance rather than cohesion. In John 20, when Jesus appeared to His terrified disciples who were locked behind closed doors out of fear of the Jewish leaders, He began with words of peace and comfort before inviting them into sacrifice and mission.

Be Truthful and Hopeful

Tell the truth about what is going on. This may feel uncomfortable, but anything less will damage trust and feed cynicism. Strategic and authentic conversations that clearly describe the current reality are essential. The truth should always be given in an atmosphere of hope. As Christ followers, we know hope is not focused on exaggerated promises but on a compelling exegesis of God with us and in us! He who holds the galaxies together can hold you together no matter what your current circumstances are.

Prioritize Connection Over Correction

Performance during a crisis inevitably decreases because high levels of emotional distraction keep us from having a clear head. Leaders must remain attentive to productivity, but relationship is always the starting point. In fact, crisis often deepens relationships which ultimately increases performance. It is when we are on the frontlines that heroic decisions are made and deeper relationships are forged.

Resist the temptation to jump to objectives and deliverables too soon. Ask your team how they are feeling and what new things they are discovering. It may feel unproductive, but it will create an environment for increased creativity and effectiveness.

Be Adaptable and Consistent

At first glance it would seem that adaptability and consistency are opposites; however, they serve each other. Adaptability is the ability to change direction, embrace new ideas, and strategically adjust to emerging situations. Consistency is being undivided and fearlessly unchanging on the end game. Remaining unrelenting on the “why” provides the stability required to be creative with the “how.”

We know our mission is to multiply disciples everywhere. This remains consistent. The “how” can be adapted through improvisation, creativity, and imagination. During the last face-to-face meeting I had with my leadership team, the topic of conversation was “creating a digital strategy for the future.” Little did we know that three days later everyone would be jumping in headfirst. COVID-19 may well be a gift to extract leaders from the mundane and launch them into the unexpected and unusual.

Take Greater Risks Not Fewer

The temptation is to play it safe in a crisis—to hunker down and ride out the storm. Don’t do it! Leaders need to keep experimenting, attempting innovative strategies, and optimizing limitations to increase influence and impact. Three words that I keep in front of me each day are release, reignite, and reimagine.

  • Release—What do we need to stop doing? Much is outside our control during this season of lockdown, but as we evaluate what we are able to continue doing, we need to discern where the Holy Spirit is saying, “Release—let it go!”
  • Reignite—What priorities is the Holy Spirit bringing to light that we need to lean into with fresh passion and energy? Courageous leaders will not attempt to restore a business-as-usual atmosphere when this is over. Instead, they will become laser focused on key things that need maximum attention. For example, the shift from a culture of the weekend event to a culture of creative disciplemaking is transforming the way we envision the Church. When we are clear about what to release and what to reignite, we give our teams the gift of focus during distraction.
  • Reimagine—What new things is the Holy Spirit revealing that need to become the focus of the future? Too many leaders are filled with information but running low on imagination. This is a time for Spirit-filled dreaming where we courageously ask the questions we were afraid to ask before.

It is important to remember that these risks must not be taken with unbridled arrogance but with unapologetic humility. Daniel “was found to have a keen mind and knowledge and understanding, and also the ability to interpret dreams, explain riddles and solve difficult problems” (Daniel 5:12) because he relied on the wisdom and counsel of God. It is not self-reliance but God-dependence that leads to Kingdom expansion.

Acknowledge and Address Your Insecurities

Every leader must deal with their internal voices of fear and inadequacy. These voices are always louder in crisis. “Will I be smart, courageous, and strong enough to lead in this time of uncertainty?” If we do not acknowledge and face these insecurities, we will shift to self-protection and image-preservation rather than self-sacrificing, courageous leadership.

Most leaders are at their best in the initial stages of a crisis. Courageous actions and critical decisions raise adrenaline and push boundaries. However, when we settle in for the long haul, many leaders experience discouragement, disorientation, and irritability. They can move quickly from rest to restlessness.

We do not know how to evaluate our effectiveness, and normal measurements of productivity no longer apply. We must recalibrate our worth based upon our identity in Christ, not our impact in public. Do not do this alone! Spend time in honest reflection with God and trusted companions where raw conversations are not just welcomed but essential.

Increase Solitude

Private intimacy with God leads to public impact with others. It is the internal shaping of the soul that opens the door to an external shaping of history. The temptation in crisis is for leaders to decrease solitude in order to increase solutions. The exact opposite is necessary. As leaders, we must resist the tyranny of the urgent and increase solitude and intimacy with God so we can lead from a place of fresh inspiration, insight, and confidence.

The danger is to rely on ourselves to stabilize the situation and fail to access God’s resources. When Jehoshaphat was faced with overwhelming odds, his first reaction was to “inquire of the Lord” (2 Chronicles 20:3). Instead of a plan, he immediately assumed a posture of radical dependence on God. He declared, “If calamity comes upon us, whether the sword of judgment, or plague or famine, we will stand in your presence before this temple that bears your name and will cry out to you in our distress, and you will hear us and save us” (2 Chronicles 20:9).

Embrace Isolation as a Gift Not Grief

Paul wrote some of his most powerful letters from prison, and John, while in exile on the Isle of Patmos, received his most glorious revelation of the living Christ. Could it be that in this moment of isolation God will grant us a fresh and overwhelming revelation of Jesus? I pray that we, like John, will fall at His feet, feel the right hand of Jesus on our shoulders, and hear His voice speaking to us, “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive forever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades” (Revelation 1:17–18).

May the dead places of our souls come to life, and may we the people of God lead with passion and sacrifice to see the dawning of a new era of immeasurable harvest for God’s Kingdom.

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