Thousands of books, articles, and dissertations have been written on the subject of leadership in human organizations; I have read and pondered a whole bookcase full of them. Authors have analyzed in detail—and often with conflicting conclusions—business leadership, military leadership, political leadership, and non-profit charitable leadership. Some authors have attempted to discover the uniqueness of Christian leadership. (See the review of Ken Blanchard’s book Lead Like Jesus on page 16.) I recently finished a fascinating book by Dr. Larry Arnn (President of Hillsdale College and our Bonita Christian Forum guest this past February) about the leadership style of Winston Churchill.

Why has there been so much focus on this topic? Because everyone recognizes the crucial, essential role a leader plays in every single human endeavor. The 2020 coronavirus epidemic has shone a bright spotlight on our President’s leadership. Though politicians, journalists, and historians have and will analyze his actions in great detail (and usually from their own bias), the obvious fact to me is that our nation has needed a strong leader in this crisis. Imagine where we would be if our country’s direction had been left entirely to Congress! Their constant bickering, partisanship, pork-belly projects, and legislative gridlock would have left us paralyzed. A body of over 500 people is not capable of leading. In every situation the most critical determinant of success or failure comes down to the X factor—the quality of leadership.

Leadership skills and leadership style are clearly not “one size fits all.” A nearly unlimited number of circumstances, situations, challenges, and problems can arise. What works effectively in one time and place may be ineffective in another. Several times in my ministry I have served as an advisor to Pastor Search Committees in neighboring Presbyterian churches. One of the standard questions our denomination recommends search committees ask prospective pastors is, “What is your leadership style?” I personally find that question to be pointless and irrelevant. How can a leader know what style is needed in a situation until he or she fully understands the context and the issues the organization is facing? What works well in one place may fail in another.

Here is the context I have faced recently. The coronavirus epidemic has not only disrupted much of ordinary life in Southwest Florida (and around the globe), but it has also forced First Church to reinvent the way it cares for its congregation and community. Here are a few principles I have tried to apply during the past few months.

1. Keep calm. There was a significant amount of confusion and panic in mid-March as our public health leaders began to call for a shutdown and near-total quarantine of the whole nation. None of us had ever experienced anything like this. No leader’s file drawer held a folder on what to do in a global pandemic. In those first couple of weeks I felt it was most important for me, as the leader of a church staff and board of elders, to serve as a non-anxious presence. My first goals were to help them face and process what was happening and to begin problem-solving in a calm and rational way. Since my teen years I have cherished Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem “If—” which includes this wisdom: “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs…you’ll be a Man, my son!” Keeping our heads in a time of panic and change defines a leader.

2. Bring a team together. We are blessed with men and women on our church staff who have a wide range of skills and experiences, but not even one of us had all the skills we needed. I realized that my role as Senior Pastor was not to be a virtuoso solo performer but to function like an orchestra conductor. To adapt to a radically different environment we needed to pull together the ideas and abilities of our media, music, communications, pastoral, office, and facilities staff. Each had an important part to play in developing and implementing a new strategy. We decided to pre-record our full worship services with all six of our pastors in each service, and to make the services available to our widely scattered congregation on multiple platforms. We chose to keep our pre-determined preaching schedule so that our members could receive the Word of God filtered through the individual personalities of each pastor.

3. Communicate more rather than less. Though our church building was closed to the public, the six pastors made the decision to meet together in the building at least three times a week in order to plan our worship services, discuss how to do pastoral care, and to conduct our worship together. Although this involved some potential danger to us because we were not sheltering strictly in our homes, we decided to take the risk in order to better serve our congregation. We also decided that we would each work to provide fresh content on our website, social media, and email platforms so that our scattered members would receive regular communication and encouragement from the church. On Mondays and Fridays, new devotionals written by the pastors were posted and sent; on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, pastoral teaching was provided; on Wednesday evenings, a “Pastor’s Chat” was delivered; and each weekend worship services were available. The coronavirus emergency also helped us to rediscover the value of the old-fashioned telephone. Our pastors, nurses, deacons, elders, and ministry leaders routinely made phone calls to our members to check on them and to pray with them. When people are isolated and lonely, a wonderful reassurance comes from hearing a familiar voice.

4. When busy, take more time rather than less to pray. My early morning times with the Lord have become even more precious and essential to me. As I am reading through the Bible this year (using the Pray for America Bible), it is amazing how many times a reading for the day gives me just what I need. When I pray, I find freedom and release from the worries and burdens I carry for our church members and our future because I place all those requests in God’s mighty hands.

I am sure there will be many other lessons I will need to learn in the unusual and uncertain times that stretch before us. One of the challenges of being a leader is that you can never stop growing and can never think of yourself as being the complete and finished product. Every new situation requires something different. For as long as God has me in this position, may I continue to be teachable!

by Pastor Doug Pratt