By Ronald E. Keener
Congregational crises come in all forms and occasions: violence, natural disasters, accidents and medical emergencies, sudden death, money woes, sexual misconduct, community trauma and legal difficulties. Gregory L. Hunt writes about these in Leading Congregations Through Crisis (Chalice Press). Dr. Hunt is president of Directions Inc., Olathe, KS, which he and his wife founded. [www.GregoryLHunt.com] He shared responses to Church Executive’s questions:
You mention that six to 18 months after a crisis are times for essential relief, recovery and renewal actions. Describe what you mean.
Crises disrupt the normal life of a congregation, but they don’t last forever. Congregations eventually find their way to a “new normal.” For an optimal outcome, leaders need to act decisively, compassionately and ethically to deal with the problems that crises unleash.
At the outset, this means helping the congregation through the initial shock of crisis, rallying members and others toward an orderly, confidence-building response. It then means working patiently and systematically toward desirable outcomes, using good project management skills and paying attention to emotional healing processes.
Effective leaders are opportunistic as they do these things, recognizing that crises, however unfortunate their onset may be, can become occasions for congregational learning and transformation.
What was the research behind the book?
To begin with, I reflected deeply on my own experiences as a crisis-tested pastor. I also read everything I could get my hands on in the field of crisis management. This meant learning from experts in the fields of business, education, politics and the military, as well as from the few who are writing for congregations. Finally, I surveyed and interviewed dozens of leaders from a variety of faith traditions who have led their congregations through crisis.
The economic recession has put many congregations in a bind, disrupting the charitable giving of members and necessitating cuts to ministry and staff. Few congregations have avoided belt-tightening entirely. Most impressive are those who are managing to live within their means while remaining missionally-focused. For instance, Crosspointe Meadows Church in suburban Detroit, has put building plans on the backburner, reduced its number of paid staff, and at the same time developed a new financial planning ministry to serve those who are struggling with debt.
What trauma does a congregation go through in a crisis involving its members?
Congregational crisis creates chaos and uncertainty. It brings loss, necessitating grief resolution processes. Some of those impacted by the crisis find themselves experiencing post-traumatic stress, which calls for unique interventions. Conflict can result as well, depending on the precipitating events and the way the crisis itself is managed. In 2008, when a bus accident injured several and claimed the lives of two teenagers in the church I was pastoring, every single one of these things ensued. Teams of decisive, caring, and attentive leaders spelled the difference in how the trauma was handled.
What other things might church crises bring?
Congregational crises bring inevitable change, and not necessarily for the better. Crises threaten us physically, psychologically, relationally and spiritually. They can put us in financial holes out of which it proves difficult to climb. They can harm people. They can leave ministries and relationships seriously damaged.
On the other hand, crises can become turning points for good. Those who have led well through crisis will tell you that their congregations didn’t just survive; they experienced transformation and ongoing growth toward their full potential in Christ.