Leadership Lesson from 9/11

9:11 org

The anniversary of the 9/11 Terrorist Attacks often causes me to reflect on a biblical principle: God doesn’t cause calamities, but God certainly makes use of tragedies.

In the spirit of this principle, this post uses the 9/11 experience to illustrate how churches can respond in the initial 24 hours of a crisis. 
Given the recent and current natural disasters afflicting the United States, the lesson is particularly timely. Here’s the first step.

Do whatever it takes to calm yourself when the crisis strikes.

A crisis triggers the “fight or flight” response. Some leaders want to immediately dive into damage control. Others desire to quickly retreat a safe distance from the turmoil. Do neither. Instead, stop and gather yourself. Ask God for clarity and guidance. Take deep, cleansing breaths for three or four minutes. Quiet your thoughts. Then take stock of what you know for certain and what you are surmising about the situation. Then act.

You should become a “non-anxious presence” as a leader. The greater the anxiety in leaders, the greater the anxiety in an organization. While it is vital to reach this calm state the initial 24 hours, being the non-anxious presence benefits the congregation throughout the crisis.

On 9/11 I was serving a church in a military town. As I started to write this post, four church leaders who were models of the non-anxious presence on 9/11 immediately came to mind.

Gather a team to deal with the crisis.

Even if your leadership style is very individualistic, create a team to lead through the crisis. It is highly unlikely you understand just how much the crisis is affecting you personally. Team members help one another see personal blind spots. A team can piece together a clearer picture of the crisis than individuals. On a whole, a team collaborating on solutions is more effective than an individual coming up with solutions.

On 9/11, our church did not know for certain which members or former members were in the Pentagon. We didn’t know where some members were being deployed in defense of our country. As I write this post I can see the face of each member of the team we pulled together to deal with the crisis as a church. There is absolutely no doubt we served our congregation and community better as a team than we could have individually.

Once formed, the team must address the following:

The team must first pray.   

Just as individual leaders are tempted to immediately act during a crisis, so the team usually wants to act. The first act is prayer. Acknowledge to God that your combined experience and skill are insufficient to meet the task at hand. Ask God to provide wisdom and discernment.

The team must name the crisis. 

The initial shock of a crisis is often surreal for church members. Naming the crisis helps members accept the reality of the situation. As members reach acceptance, they start participating in crisis management. A crisis such as a natural disaster is relatively easy to name. The public fall from grace of a staff member is more difficult. Nevertheless, within the guidelines of Scripture and legal statutes, leaders must name a crisis.

Serving in a military community, our team on 9/11 spent a good deal of time processing how we would name the crisis. We decided to tell the congregation very simply, “We are now at war.”

The team must determine the initial steps.

The team should not try to create a plan to manage the entire crisis at the first meeting. It should determine the initial steps. These steps should address the greatest concern of members and the greatest need of the congregation. It is important for team members to leave with specific tasks with deadlines. If possible, send two members to implement steps of plans together. Ensure communication is one of the action steps.

On 9/11, one of our steps was to hold prayer vigils that night at our campuses. Team members who never helped design worship services ended up doing just that. We were in crisis. It was what God’s people needed. We each embraced our task and got to work.

Once the team is in action, the congregation’s overall leader should be as visible as possible. This visibility allows the leader to communicate the initial response, calm God’s people and create a sense of confidence that God will lead the church through the crisis .

What additional vital actions should leaders of churches take the initial 24 hours of a crisis? Share your thoughts in the comments or shoot me an email.


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