Leading In Crisis
In my lifetime, there has probably been nothing that has challenged the church more than the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic. While the year 2020 was perfectly set up to be a year of focus and many of our churches had developed themes around that idea, for many of those same churches, the focus was quickly knocked off balance as the pandemic impacted our nation and world. For many ministries, instead of thriving, survival became the order of the day.
Agility and Humility
From a personal standpoint, agility and humility became watchwords for me as I faced the challenges of the pandemic.
First, let me explain what I mean by agility. Since the crisis was evolving so quickly - and with such drastic impact on the health of our nation, as well as the economic stability of the world, I realized as the leader of the denomination I had to act quickly and decisively. There was little time to contemplate decisions and come up with grand plans. Instead, I had to rely on my experience to make expedient and informed decisions. When issues are coming at you quickly, there is not much time to sit back and hope that they go away, or hope somebody comes up with a solution to solve all your problems. During this crisis we had to act with speed and agility, and I hope our decisions reflected our concerns and hope for this great church that we call the Church of God.
But not only did I need to be agile, our decisions had to be made in humility. Just like in all leadership decisions, I realized that this was not going to be a one man show. I did not have all the answers and I had to understand that and have enough humility to admit it publicly.
In a crisis, you have to forget titles. It doesn’t matter if your title is General Overseer or not. Nobody has all the answers in a situation like this. Humility says “I need help.” Humility says, “I need a resource base and a resource team. I need experts.” I realized a long time ago that I am not an expert on too many topics - and I am certainly not an expert on COVID-19.
Realizing my lack of strength in dealing with a global health pandemic, I begin to put together a team of medical physicians, legal counsel, and people who could speak to the economic impact of the virus. I assembled a variety of people that could speak into and about this crisis.
Humility played a large part in this process. I had to be willing to say, “I don’t have all the answers and I need help.” This helps to accomplish a unified and dynamic purpose. A leader has to lead but as a leader, he must do his best to bring everyone along in the same direction. That doesn’t mean we are all going to agree all the time, but we can agree to disagree and still come together at the end of the day.
To that point, I want to commend the International Executive Committee - Raymond F. Culpepper, J. David Stephens, David E. Ramirez, and John D. Childers. I believe that history will record that in this situation, your Executive Committee worked as one. These men have worked in the best interest of the church, and all with agility and humility. The combined leadership experience of my brothers on the Executive Committee was invaluable. We did our best to model interdependence and hopefully make it easier for other leaders and pastors to say to their own teams, “I need you, I need your help, and I need your guidance.” So, for me, adopting agility and humility were critically important in addressing the crisis that we faced.
In times of crisis, it is also critically important to have complete and transparent communication. My motto in all things, and especially during this crisis, is to communicate, communicate, and communicate. From the beginning, I stated that I may not always say what you want to hear, but I’m going to be honest and I’m going to be transparent. If I know an answer or can offer a solution, I’m going to get it to our Church of God family. I also promised to do it quickly, so that in as much as possible, we can all be on the same page, having the same information.
I have found that transparent communication is greatly appreciated. There certainly have been times we could have communicated better. We could have said it more clearly, no doubt. But I think overall, there has been much appreciation that we at least tried to communicate through every forum, through every venue, and with every means possible. During the current pandemic, I have personally participated in some 200 different livestream/zoom/youtube media calls where I have been able to talk with people. I think that it is critical that we have been able to communicate in this manner. Without doubt, communication has been key, along with transparency, and that was especially true when we had to announce the decision about postponing the General Assembly.
In my ministry, I have never faced a more difficult decision than the one involving the postponement of the 2020 Assembly. I realize that the decision was not just my decision. There were a lot of leaders speaking into that decision. However, I must tell you that I watched grown men cry over the decision, myself included. We knew it was going to be hard to tell a family that there was not going to be a family reunion. Once the decision was made, I felt it was our responsibility to communicate the decision and then talk about all the nuances that were connected with the decision. Again, it was important to be transparent. And in a time of crisis, people have got to hear from their leader, and his or her communication must be upfront and direct.
Military leaders have said that when the bullets are firing and the grenades are exploding, basically you have a choice to go with the pre-planned battle plan or you must go with the terrain. Because of the circumstances, many times you have to go with the terrain. Of course, there are those who will argue with that concept. And I’m sure the best of both worlds would be to blend the two together. Do not get me wrong. I know we have to plan, we have to strategize, and there are plans we have to have regardless of the circumstances. But sometimes, especially in the midst of a crisis, we have to run with the terrain that we find ourself traveling on.
During a crisis, leaders also must be quick to counter misinformation. I have always believed that putting out correct and transparent communication as soon as possible is absolutely the best counter to misinformation that so easily gets out there in a time of crisis, simply because, honestly, people are scared, afraid, and are just looking for the best information they can get.
Because of the nature of this pandemic, we have never passed this way before and fear abounded. I understand that and I don’t condemn anyone for their fears. This is a deadly virus. And I certainly don’t condemn anybody that has different opinions because there are so many ways to look at how to deal with this situation. But as General Overseer, I have to tell the truth, put the right information out, and put it out frequently enough to counter misinformation.
While it is important to communicate what we know, we also must be honest to say what we don’t know. To be a leader in crisis, you simply have to say what you know and what you do not know. Your followers will appreciate your honesty.
Keep Things Running
Probably most importantly, during a crisis you have got to keep things running. The work for the Kingdom must go on whether there is a crisis or not. When the International Office had to close because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it would have been one thing if we could have said to everybody when we let them go home that day, “take a two-and-a-half-month vacation; we’ll all get back together soon and we will find everything as we left it.” But we couldn’t do it that way, because we knew that we had to keep things running. Missionaries still had to have their support. Business and Records still had to maintain operations. Local churches still had to produce ministry. And let me just say that I have never been more proud of our Church of God pastors. Many had never thought about going digital with their services. Some had never thought about preaching in any other way besides behind the pulpit on Sunday morning. But they were forced to look at new ways of “doing church.” Those pastors knew that if they were to have a ministry when this is over, they had to find new ways to do ministry during the pandemic. The bottom line is that we did not have the luxury of putting everything on hold. We just had to find new ways to do ministry. And our pastors and leaders have done just that.
We all had to keep things running. Pastors had to keep ministering to the people in their congregation during the pandemic. Talk about a challenge. How do we do that when members are in the hospital? How do we do ministry when we can’t even get close to people? The idea of laying hands on the sick has suddenly taken on a whole new meaning.
So, as we saw the impact of the virus lessen, some churches opened back up, with social distancing and required masking. Again, just trying to keep things running. As I noted earlier, we were out of the office, but we were not out of work, so we had to keep things moving.
We also must be engaged during times of crisis. We have to stay engaged with one another. Those who will lose when this thing is in the history book are those who refused to engage. Engage with their community. Engage with one another. And engage with things that are going on besides COVID-19.
Let me give you an example. Although Paula and I had taken a few days to get away, I spent one entire morning on the phone with pastors and leaders of African American churches, and with our African American state overseers, because in the midst of the pandemic, there has been other tragic situations that have inflamed the spirit of racism in our nation. I only bring that up to say that I chose to be engaged with these leaders to assure them that I was praying for them, that I was with them in the midst of this struggle, and that we are in this battle together. I put out several social media posts about racial strife, taking a strong position that may not be appreciated by everybody. I bring this up to simply point out that there are other things going on besides COVID-19. We cannot be so focused on one issue that we allow other matters not to be addressed. We must be engaged in all matters impacting those we serve.
There are family issues and there are other church issues that were going on before this started and will be going on when this is over. So, a leader has to stay engaged on all fronts, not just the current crisis, but everything that is going on.
Stay Focused on the Big Picture
Regardless of what is happening and the circumstances or crisis we find ourselves in, we have to keep the big picture in mind. So, what comes next? What does the church look like when the COVID-19 pandemic is over? There is a lot of talk about going back to normal. Personally, I am not interested in going back to normal. I want to go to better, whatever better is. I want to see us become the New Testament, book of Acts church that we never became. That’s what I hope we go to. During the crisis, our churches “left the building,” and even though we may get to use our buildings again, I want to see the church outside the four walls of our structures. Yes, it will be different, but I want the “different” to be better than what we had previously.
When I say keep the big picture in mind, I’m asking, are we planning? Do we have a strategy in place at our local churches, in our businesses, in our International Offices, World Missions, or wherever? Is there a strategy for going forward? And if there is not, I promise you, we can wait no longer. We must get our strategy ready immediately to move our churches and organizations forward.
Recently, I walked through Terminal D of the Atlanta airport - that is the terminal where most Chattanooga flights depart. It was empty. It was like a ghost town, at least at that time. Later that same day, I was in the Dallas-Fort Worth airport. DFW was almost empty as well. I use that example to just simply say that it is going to be different. It may eventually get better, but it’s going to still be different. Different doesn’t mean it’s going to be bad. It just means that it is not going to be the same.
We have to have a big picture mentality. We can’t get tunnel vision. We have to see the big picture. When I talk about the big picture, of course, I mean the Great Commission. What does it mean for us as a church to FINISH the Great Commission? We have not set that challenge aside. We didn’t put that command on an off ramp. We must keep following the commandment of our Lord and Savior, and yet COVID-19 has become a part of how we carry out that commandment.
For example, earlier this year the Church of God participated in the GO FINISH 2020 Day. It was a day set aside by different faith groups to emphasize soul winning. From that concentrated weekend of soul winning, I have received reports of thousands that came to know Jesus. How do you do that when you can’t knock on somebody’s door and say, “Do you know Jesus”? We found ways and as a result, thousands came to know the Lord.
Occasionally, Hit the ‘Pause’ Button
Finally, to not only survive but thrive during a crisis, leaders must learn to hit the pause button. Hear my heart - there is absolutely nothing wrong with hitting the pause button. This has been a grueling crisis. It has been a grueling time for our pastors, our laity, parents, children, and everyone else. At some point in time, you have to hit pause. If it is only an hour, or just a day, you have got to take a little bit of time and just sit back, breath deep, get some sleep if you can, work on a home hobby or project or whatever you enjoy, and just allow your mind to rest. It is important to pause, rest, and reflect, because when this is all over, we still have ministry to do.
The COVID-19 experience has reminded us of what Jesus did - get alone, pause, and rest.
Whether it is a sabbath or a sabbatical, pastor’s need rest. That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to take three months off at a time, but if you can, that is great. Sometimes it may only be an hour, a day, or maybe even a week. There is a reason God rested on the seventh day. He’s our example and our model.
None of us are able to select what we will be known for in the pages of history. I have recently told others that I really wasn’t looking for COVID-19 to be tied to Tim Hill’s work in the history of the Church of God. I was hoping that my history would be connected to more exciting things. But be that as it may, when history books are written for me, for you, and for all of us, I hope that it is said of us that we were found faithful, and that we followed the leading of the Lord.
One of my favorite things to preach about is the man who carried the cross for Jesus, Simon of Serene. When I preach about him, I title my sermon, “Lesson From the Unexpected Cross.” There are some lessons that we can learn from that story:
Lesson #1: Jesus carried the cross first.
I Corinthians 10:13 tells us no temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man, and that with every temptation, God will provide a way of escape. That verse reminds me that He is always there to carry our load. He understands the burdens that we carry, because Jesus carried the cross before Simon did.
Lesson #2: Jesus and Simon carried the cross together.
They worked in tandem. They practiced teamwork, at least for a while, as Jesus and Simon carried the cross together.
Lesson #3: Simon, whether he knew it or not, had been geographically, genetically, and spiritually prepared to carry the cross.
Why Simon? He was in the crowd, but why didn’t they pick somebody else? At a glance, they looked at him and knew this man had the muscular strength to handle this kind of a problem. Whether Simon realized it or not, his whole life had prepared him for this moment. And our lifetime has prepared us for the ministry opportunities that we will experience during this pandemic.
Lesson #4: People followed him.
Simon’s sons were there. From Bible history, we learn that his sons were Alexander and Rufus, both who showed up later in church history. These young men were impacted by the behavior of their father. Simon didn’t crash and burn during a crisis. He just picked up the cross and modeled behavior that impacted his sons’ lives in the future. People are watching me and they are watching you. I want to model good behavior in a crisis.
Lesson #5: As sure as there was a place of picking up the cross, there was a place of laying it down.
Simon picked up the cross when Jesus could not carry it any longer. He not only carried it along the Via Dolorosa, but he carried it all the way to Golgotha. Not one foot past it, nor one foot short of the destiny of the cross. There was a designated place to lay this burden down. And so, as sure as COVID-19 started, it will end and the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ will flourish and we as leaders will end this journey victoriously.
Let’s Talk About It …...leading in crisis.
Timothy M. Hill