We all–leaders and non-leaders alike–have personal experiences that shake us to the core. Experiences which will break us and threaten to shatter us, but can strengthen us if we survive and grow. So it is with church congregations. Beyond personal crises which happen every week in the lives of at least some people in a congregation, there are those crises which extend to the whole church. Sooner or later a church will feel the foundations shaken, and that is when we learn what we are made of, and whether we can engage with each other and with God at a time of need, or whether we end up a pile of rubble. In community crises we learn where our koinonia is strong and where it is weak, like an earthquake that makes some buildings sway and others break.
Here are some examples of whole church crises:
• a case of embezzlement by a church office employee
• an affair between two key leaders in the youth ministry
• a separation and divorce between the senior pastor and his wife
• a church fire that leaves the building uninhabitable for months
• gross vandalism of the church building that intentionally desecrates the space and taunts the beliefs of the congregation
• a sudden forced removal of a pastor by denominational officials
• a church split that finally occurs after years of division between two factions in the church
• an untimely death of a beloved family from the church.
Jarring experiences test the whole church. Buildings that are constructed too stiffly will crack easily in an earthquake; those that accept the reality of earthquakes will be built to withstand. So churches built on a stoic theology that considers cracks a lack of faith are living precariously. But expecting crisis, and being ready to deal with crisis, is the only way to survive grief and trauma. And it will be done as a whole church.
Here are some things that can be done to build into a church the kind of strength and flexibility that will help it be ready for crises before they happen.
1. Teach church leaders and the church in general to expect the unexpected. This is where building a church on solid biblical theology makes a difference. Death and moral failure are part and parcel of the human experience. Almost every page of Scripture shouts these harsh realities in our ears. Success is not our salvation. Image is not the same as reality. The more we think we are in control by our plans and programs, the riskier we are living. We also risk missing some of the most important ministry we will engage in: responding with grace to people in crisis. Let’s be honest. When we as leaders have our schedules all booked up with meetings and plans, we sometimes consider the unexpected tragedy an interruption. We need to be organized for the unexpected. If we (even subconsciously) think about crisis as an interruption to our flow of ministry, we will miss the best opportunity for ministry at the time.
2. Accept that grief work is some of the most important work we do in the church. What is our highest agenda?: life and death. We proclaim and we teach that faith in Christ will carry a person over the line between life and death. The unexpected tragedy is an opportunity for the Whole Church to remember why it exists.
3. Develop in church leaders a “minuteman mentality.” When church leaders and volunteers follow their better instincts to rise to the occasion when a tragedy happens, they realize that the church has this unique ability to respond quickly to human need. That may take the form of getting the church ready for a funeral, dealing with the media, organizing meals and other practical helps for a grieving family, or even organizing a ministry of mercy to a place where a natural disaster occurred. In the case of a different kind of crisis, a broad base of leaders with a “minuteman mentality” will immediately organize prayer, they will gather in their small groups and talk through the issues, comforting each other, keeping information clear (if there is a reliable source of information from the church in place).
4. Spread the task around. Tragedies take their toll on many circles of people. This is where the strength of the body of Christ can be brought alongside the weakness of some of the members.
5. Have plans for how to communicate during a rapidly unfolding crisis. Prepare the people who pick up the phone when the church number is called. Help grieving families to know who the spokesperson for the family should be. In the case of a sensitive development, a spokesperson needs to know what is public knowledge and what is confidential as the crisis unfolds. Speculation is deadly; and putting a spin on a bad bit of news is equally destructive.