Crisis a challenge but also an opportunity for parishes

By Ken Morgan

April 27 2020

The COVID-19 crisis is the most disruptive phenomenon our society has experienced since the Second World War. Its social, psychological and economic impacts are yet to be fully appreciated. For the church, social distancing laws have necessitated rapid and discontinuous adaptation. We’re trying to maintain some semblance of our pre-COVID service offer while confined to our homes. To misquote Star Trek’s Mr Spock, “It’s church Jim, but not as we know it.” 

A crisis requires different leadership to more predictable times. While the actual tactics adopted in response to the sudden challenge will be unique to each church and denominational structure, effective leadership in a crisis follows an identifiable, three-phase pattern. 

1 Stabilise. This phase requires directive and decisive leadership. On 4 November 2010 a Qantas Airbus A380 experienced an uncontained failure in one of its four engines. There was no time for the captain to call in a consultant or have a parish council meeting with the rest of the crew on the flight deck. In the immediate crisis Captain Richard de Crespigny took a series of rapid and decisive actions, giving clear and direct orders, wrestling the controls of the stricken plan to achieve stability. 

By this time, most churches have attained some kind of stability, making choices about how services will be offered by distance, and how parish council will meet. Clergy report experiencing “decision fatigue” after a couple of weeks of making dozens of quick decisions to keep the most basic functions of church life operating.  

This is not the time for perfection. “Good enough” decisions that give some degree of stability and certainty are the order of the day. There will be complaints and criticisms, and these are best ignored.  

2 Normalise. This phase requires leadership that is both decisive and inclusive. Once Captain de Crespigny had determined that the plane could be controlled and maintain altitude, he worked with the flight crew and the air traffic controllers to figure out a plan to get the plane back on the ground. This took nearly two hours. 

Once a church has figured out how to “do Sundays” the leader’s task is to figure out what other issues need to be addressed and to gain the involvement of other people. 

Further, the leader’s role is to keep their constituents reassured and informed.  

Most churches are now trying to ensure connection to their congregations. This usually means drawing a sociogram mapping out who’s connected to whom, and mobilising small group leaders and pastoral carers to intentionally build and maintain connection. Connection will need to include those who participate in church life outside the worshipping community, like those in playgroup, youth group and other environments where people belong but might not yet believe.  

For many churches, the isolation requirements have cruelled their revenue streams: no services means no cash offertory, op shops are closed and facilities rentals have evaporated. Leaders must initiate adaptations to electronic giving, and look at options to reduce or delay expenditure.  

The normalising phase requires broadening involvement of constituents to the greatest possible extent. The temptation for the leader is to hunker with their key people and confine responsibilities to this small group. Involvement fosters commitment, so getting as many congregation members involved in the maintaining the church’s modified operations serves to preserve and build commitment at a time when there’s risk of people disengaging.  

Most importantly, the normalising phase requires contact with constituents: personal, frequent and brief contact. It’s the equivalent of a captain’s update from the flight deck. It reassures and calms your constituents that things are okay. The impulse may be to send a comprehensive weekly mail, loaded with information about what’s going on and where to get resources. It’s better to send a very brief note with one topic every few days. If it can’t be read in the preview pane of the e-mail program, it’s probably too long. Detailed information belongs on the website – with a link provided in the email or detailed documents attached as PDF files.  

A church Facebook page can be a useful place for people to connect and keep in touch. Short, light posts are best. Longer pieces can posted on a blog.  

Congregation members will want to see their leader’s face and hear their voice. This can be achieved by creating a very brief piece-to-camera with a phone or webcam every few days and posting it on YouTube. Zoom or Google Hangouts can be used to set up a regular “chat” session with no agenda other than to touch base. People can drop in and out as they please. 

3 Mobilise. Move to goal-directed action in light of new realities 

Once the crippled A380 had landed safely, Captain de Crespigny took it upon himself to personally debrief the entire passenger group in the terminal, patiently explaining what had happened, what would happen and offering his personal mobile number. His thoughtfulness turned a potential PR disaster into a masterstroke, validating Qantas’ claim that it’s the safest airline because it has the best flight crew.  

Rather than “waiting it out”, churches will do well to identify opportunities created by the crisis. A chance to build some neighbourhood co-operation, provide contact and help to isolated people, find a way to serve people in essential services. Churches are good at providing food and solace. This is our opportunity to shine if we can spot the opportunities.  

Ken Morgan is Head of Parish Mission and Resourcing (Acting) for the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne.