Leading during disruptive circumstances is hard. I learned this as a leader of many wilderness ministry expeditions and director of a wilderness ministry school with courses lasting up to 40 days in the backcountry. I carried a Wilderness First Responder certification for 11 years and served as incident commander for every evacuation (usually lasting 3-5 days) during my tenure. I have led and trained many to lead during challenging times.
In any crisis, decisions need to be made in a timely manner, and things come at you fast. But leading through a prolonged crisis takes a different kind of mentality. Crisis over time requires a different kind of pacing and a different kind of leadership strategy.
Instead of a hard sprint, it might be better to think of your leadership in the crisis as an expedition. You have to strategize resources for the long haul. You will be with a small group of people over a long period of time. There is inherent danger and decisions that have to be made soberly, but not in fear. Anxiety, emotional fatigue and mental health are very real things to consider, possibly more important than toilet paper roll count.
Leadership for the Long Haul
This is an expedition, not a sprint. It is a journey; it has an arc and a path. There will be things you feel from week to week, and those feelings will change in a very predictable way. You can think of this journey in terms of phases:
- BUILDING (1-14 days)
In this phase, you focus on building teams and finding solutions to logistical issues. It is your first wave of innovation, and where you have the most control. The military mantra “go slow to go smart, go smart to go fast” is very useful here. This is where you need to communicate a tactical response. Details need to be in order.
- BREAKING (14 – 21/28 days)
In this phase, you are learning what you can’t control, even beyond what you already thought you couldn’t. Logistical progress is being made, but emotional, mental and spiritual fatigue starts to set in. This is where you need to be with people. Speak hope and life, but don’t jump to the application and “opportunity” of all of this too soon.
- BAPTIZING (21/28 – 60 days)
New normal sets in—maintaining plans and working rhythms can bring distraction, but fatigue, apathy, even depression can come here. Relational support structures need to be in place by this time to provide care and communication in this phase. This is where we get to be creative in how to hold one another, weep with one another, give hope and joy to one another, and pray with one another in a way that does not violate the laws or guidelines in place. This is the place where there are no answers, just presence.
- BUDDING (60+ days)
People will need a new call to action (that may come sooner, depending on how the crisis progresses). A second wave of innovation comes here as new ideas arise and deep change happens. New things are birthed. This is where you can help the church learn about, and do, what you have always wanted for them.
Leading right now is about time and timing. If this is a month-long situation, that yields one kind of response. If this is a multi-month disruption, which is the most likely, that yields a different kind of response.
Each of these phases will feel differently. It may be obvious, but being a leader during a long-term crisis means that you need to give yourself permission to feel how you are feeling. You need to manage yourself in a sustainable way. That is not just about making sure you don’t eat too much food or go through the toilet paper too fast, but also that you are processing your emotions in a healthy way.
You also need to know what is coming for the people you lead. Knowing what is likely to happen during the struggle of the baptizing phase can help you prioritize what you need to build now. It helps you discern from all that you could do and focus on what you must do to sustain through the long haul.
Leading right now is about time and timing. If this is a month-long situation, that yields one kind of response. If this is a multi-month disruption, which is the most likely, that yields a different kind of response. We need to give good information up front to help people get oriented. But we should be using that “calm” to build teams and create structures to support what comes next. The building phase is the necessary first wave of response.
The mental health and financial crisis that comes next will be very impactful. During this breaking phase, people will need the Good News of the kingdom, ministry, prayer and help. In a short amount of time, people will need others to help them deal with all the stress. They will want small groups and need something more than anonymous prayer gatherings. We are all going to need call-in counselors. We are all going to need to be here for one another in very tangible ways, for much more than just groceries. As leadership, you need to know the architecture and the structural rollout of your response, but the emotional experience of your people should be closer to just-in-time leadership.
In my time as an expedition leader, I found that everyone breaks by day 30. The window is day 21-30, with an average of day 27. But everyone comes to the end of themselves in a month. That is why God did many things in 40 days. It allows for breaking and reforming.
As leaders, we need to have the structures and relationships in place to be there with one another through the breaking part. We need to be ready and have enough margin to help with the reforming part. If we are not there with them in the breaking, we won’t be invited to be part of the reforming. At that point, it will not be about recorded messages, but personal peer ministry.
If we lead well, the potential for this time is phenomenal. The kingdom is revealed like a light on a hill. People are never the same on the other side of times like this because, while parts of them are experiencing death, other parts are coming alive. Life is on the other side of this. It truly is a baptism and rebirth. The results are amazing and beautiful.