Leading Through Crisis | Interview with Steve Gillen

In today's Vanderbloemen Live session, I interviewed Steve Gillen, former Interim Senior Pastor at Willow Creek Community Church, and Vice President of Consulting, Tim Stevens at Vanderbloemen, about strategies and practical ways for churches to lead their teams and congregations well during COVID-19.

Over the years, Steve has learned it’s in these difficult and challenging times of a crisis where we can also find opportunities to learn and develop leadership skills. Although we are in a time where we cannot control what is going on around us, we can control how we steward our time and leadership skills. When you’re faced with leading through a crisis, it’s critical to remember every day and every decision counts. As you lead with diligence and draw closer to Jesus Christ, you will notice that your leadership skills are sharpened and it’s the lessons learned from this crisis that will help shape you and your organization in the future. 

4 Ways to Serve Your Church and Ministry Through a Crisis

1. Keep in mind the phases of a crisis. It’s normal for some people to be filled with emotions and experience fight or flight as soon as a crisis arises. But it’s moments like these that require you to slow down even though your initial reaction is to speed up. It’s common for you to want to react first, but to ensure you make the best decision for yourself and those around you, it’s critical to acknowledge the phase you’re in and intentionally think everything through. This can help bring a sense of focus and peace to you as well as those around you. Remember that every hardship is a season to grow. Try to slow down and listen to what God might be trying to teach you in this season before acting on impulse.

2. The first person you have to lead is yourself. As a leader in the midst of a crisis, many people are looking to you for answers and it’s important to make sure you are in a healthy space spiritually, mentally, emotionally, relationally, and physically. This means making sure you get an adequate amount of sleep, exercise, and that you spend time focusing on your soul. Those you lead can ready your presence, so be sure to set a positive, calm tone for the people around you.

3. Build your team. Every leader needs an action-centered team around them that’s committed to getting things done. As imperative as it is for you to get things done, it’s just as imperative that you are not doing them alone; invite your team to help you. They will help encourage you and lift your spirits to keep you motivated during COVID-19. 

4. Do what you can today and leave the rest for tomorrow. Prioritize what you can control today. Sometimes it can be overwhelming and exhausting to try and get everything done all at once. Practically prioritize what you can do within today’s time frame and make a plan for tomorrow. It’s impossible for you to get everything right, so extend grace to yourself and those around you and focus on making a plan and carrying it out one day at a time. 

Mistakes Organizations Make When Leading During a Crisis

1. Lack of effective communication. The more significant the crisis, the more communication you should plan to do with your community. During a crisis, you don’t have to have all of the answers, you just need to communicate effectively with your church and ministry. As leaders, you can use this as an opportunity to set the narrative for your church and help keep everyone aware of what is going on. 

Tip: Sequence your communication and share information with your Board and leadership team first to ensure your leaders are aligned during the crisis. 

2. Underestimating the timeline of the crisis. Leaders can sometimes miscalculate the timeline of a crisis. Underestimating how long a crisis will last can  lead to exhaustion and other overwhelming emotions. Again, it’s imperative that leaders are healthy during a crisis. Steve suggested, “It’s better to under-promise and over-deliver.” This leaves room for you and your team to continue being agile during uncertain times. 

3. Being unprepared for tough conversations. The unfortunate reality of leading during a crisis is that you have to prepare for the tough conversations, especially if your church is faced with laying off employees. If you are faced with that reality, just remember in that conversation you are wearing two hats. You are the employer and also the Pastor. So, take time to diligently think through your delivery of that conversation and how you will carry that out with grace. You have to foster care and compassion toward your employees while also delivering facts. 

Ways to Organize Communication During a Crisis

1. Align your heart to serve your organization no matter what your title may be. Be willing to set this narrative for your team as well.

2. Have a leader of communication and decide on a communication team who can assist you with ideas and ways to communicate.

3. Over-communicate with your congregation and staff.

4. Funnel your communication to the appropriate audience. This prevents your community from getting overwhelmed with communication. 

Imperatives of Delivering the News of Layoffs

Clear communication.
Explain where your organization is and why you are having to resort to layoffs. It is normal for your employees to have questions about why layoffs are taking place, so you want to make sure you are prepared to communicate this clearly and honestly.

Have two people in the conversation. Tim and Steve both agreed that if you have someone such as your HR employee providing the facts, then you’re able to pastor more effectively in the moment. This is a time when your employees will need your guidance, support, and compassion so you want to make sure that you are able to do that. Having both roles will be beneficial to you as a leader and to the person being laid off because it provides them clarity on who to go to for which questions.

Put it in writing. Make sure you have something in writing for them when they leave the conversation. Most people are not in a space to remember everything at that moment and their mind may become a bit cloudy. Having something they can refer to later will help them once they can sit and process your conversation.

Have all of your layoffs on the same day. This will help alleviate the anxiety and stress of the rest of your team. Inform the rest of your team as quickly after the layoffs as possible to maintain trust.

Take care of your team. Keep your team motivated by caring for those you had to lay off. Be thoughtful and acknowledge the emotional toll that may take place.

Caring for your Soul as a Leader

Steve and Tim explained the importance of prioritizing your schedule and how it contributes to the health of your soul. Setting a schedule and solidifying a routine to follow can increase your productivity. You may not be able to follow your exact schedule daily, but it is a way to help you remain focused during this time of a global crisis. This is also a good time to take part in what rejuvenates you and what fills your soul. You will find it helpful to intentionally set aside some time to take a walk, read a book, and refresh your mind to help cultivate a healthy space within you as you are making hard decisions and leading your church and ministry well.