Fuller

Leading in a Crisis:
The Difference God Makes

by Mark D. Roberts, Ph.D.
Executive Director of Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership

© Copyright 2020 De Pree Center. All rights reserved.

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Table of Contents

Part 1: The Difference God Makes (Psalm 46:1-3)
Part 2: Don’t Panic . . . Trust God (Psalm 46:1-3)
Part 3: But Shouldn’t We Be Afraid? (Psalm 46:1-3)
Part 4: Don’t Do It Alone (Acts 15: 2, 22, 28)
Part 5: Don’t Do It Alone – Scripture and Story (1 Corinthians 12:7-10)
Part 6: Where Should You Start? (Nehemiah 1:1-4)
Part 7: Before the God of Heaven (Nehemiah 1:1-4)
Part 8: Honoring Emotions (Nehemiah 4:12-13)
Part 9: Honoring a Variety of Emotions (Nehemiah 5:1, 6)
Part 10: The Need for Vulnerability (Nehemiah 1:1-4)
Part 11: God’s Astounding Desolations (Psalm 46:8-9)
Part 12: Let Go and Know God (Psalm 46:10-11)

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Part 1: Leading in a Crisis: The Difference God Makes

God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult. Selah

Psalm 46:1-3 (NRSV)

people holding hands in churchI’m writing this on Thursday, March 12, 2020. Today, the Centers for Disease Control reported that 1,215 people in the U.S. have COVID-19 (AKA, the novel coronavirus). 36 people have died from this disease so far. By the time you read this on Monday, those numbers will surely be higher. We are just beginning to experience what the World Health Organization now identifies as a pandemic.

A few moments ago I received a text from my daughter who lives in the Bay Area. The high school in which she teaches tenth-grade history will be closed for at least two weeks because of fears of COVID-19. No doubt that was a weighty decision for the principal, balancing health concerns with learning goals and overall student wellbeing.

According to the latest news, the NCAA has cancelled March Madness. The NBA has suspended its season. Major League Baseball has ended spring training and delayed opening day for at least two weeks. Across the United States, conferences have been cancelled, businesses closed, and major universities emptied of students. Church leaders have decided to have worship services only online. All of these decisions must have been painful for the leaders responsible for them, given the huge disruption they will cause and the clash of deeply held values.

Closer to home, I cancelled my speaking trip to Seattle on the advice of a trusted Northwest friend. Fuller Seminary, where I work, now prohibits gatherings of more than 50 people at a time. All classes will be held online. I’ve encouraged my staff to work from home if they can. Plus, my newsfeed just reported that the city where I live, Pasadena, California, has its first case of the novel coronavirus. The school district has cancelled all non-essential gatherings, but not its classes—at least not yet. No doubt the school board is struggling with how best to care for its students and staff.

Across our country and, indeed, throughout the world, leaders in all settings are dealing with some of the hardest decisions they’ve ever faced, whether they are responsible for millions of citizens, thousands of students, hundreds of workers, or their own two children. Exercising wise leadership is never easy. Leading in a crisis can be excruciating, especially when there are so many unknowns, so many risks, and so many fears.

I had already been wondering about whether I should change course and write a series of devotions related to the COVID-19 crisis when I received an email from a thoughtful Life for Leaders reader encouraging me to do so. I was grateful for his counsel and have followed it. Note: One way God makes a difference for leaders in a crisis is by giving us wise brothers and sisters to help us. In the Lord we are not alone. So, in today’s Life for Leaders devotion, and in several more to come, I want to reflect with you, not on the facts of the COVID-19 crisis, but rather on the difference God can make for those of us who are leading in this crisis. No matter the context of your leadership, I expect you feel the heaviness of the responsibility entrusted to you. You want to lead well, to make right decisions, to care wisely for the people and organizations entrusted to your care. You long for God’s help. You understand, now more than ever, just how much you need the Lord’s wisdom, strength, and peace if you’re going to lead well, not to mention live well.

Once I decided to reflect on leadership in a time of crisis, I began to think and pray about where I might begin. Scripture is full of excellent places to start. Before long, Psalm 46 came to mind. As I began to read it, my heart responded intensely. “God is our refuge and strength.” O God, we need you as our refuge and strength right now! “A very present help in trouble.” We are in trouble, Lord. We need your presence, your very present help at this time! “Therefore we will not fear.” O, Lord, help us not to be afraid. Help me to fear not. Yet, at the same time, help me to be wise about the genuine threat we face, and to lead out of that wisdom.

I believe that we who lead need the truth, the promise, and the invitation of Psalm 46 today. I also believe that those whom we lead need us to lead from a place of deep trust in God. They need us to remind them through our words and our deeds that God is a very present help in trouble. When we make difficult decisions that upset people’s lives, and when we communicate difficult truths, we must do so in a way that also reflects God’s presence and care.

This devotion is already on the long side, so I won’t continue on in Psalm 46. I’ll get back to it tomorrow. For now, let me encourage you to read this psalm and let it percolate in your mind and heart. Know that God is your refuge, your strength, and your very present help in trouble, right now.

Something to Think About:

How are you feeling about all that is going on in relationship to the coronavirus?

If you feel fear, what are your afraid of?

How do you need God to be your refuge and strength today?

Something to Do:

Read Psalm 46:1-11. Pay attention to what in this psalm strikes your heart. What is God saying to you today through this psalm?

Prayer:

Gracious God, today I am profoundly aware of how much I need you. And I am profoundly grateful for the fact that you are there for me. You are not just available, but very present, a very present help in trouble. Thank you!

Fear seems to be everywhere right now, Lord: fear of disease, fear of death, fear of other people, fear of disruption, fear of economic ruin, fear of the loss of life as we know it. Without you, fear may well make sense. But if you are our refuge and strength, if you are our very present help, then we will not let fear overwhelm us. O Lord, may the truth of who you are keep our hearts from fear.

Today, Lord, we pray for leaders in business and government, in schools and churches, in families and neighborhoods. May they turn to you for strength and wisdom. May they have the courage to make difficult decisions for the sake of those they serve.

I pray especially for those who will read this devotion, that you might make yourself known to them right now. May they be reassured that you are their refuge and strength, that you are with them in this time of crisis, and forever. Guide them in their decisions. Help them to see what they need to see and bless them with your peace. Amen.

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You can access all of our Life for Leaders devotions HERE. You can also learn more about the De Pree Center and its resources HERE.

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Part 2: Leading in a Crisis: Don’t Panic . . . Trust God

God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult. Selah

Psalm 46:1-3 (NRSV)

"beautiful clouds in the midst of a storm"

Today I’d like to think with you a little more about one way God helps us lead wisely in times of crisis. This is the third part of a devotional series called Leading in a Crisis: The Difference God Makes. I’m writing this series to help leaders who are dealing with the crisis of the novel coronavirus as they seek to guide their businesses, government entities, schools, churches, studios, families, and non-profit organizations. I do not claim to have sufficient expertise to advise you about specific decisions you should be making. But I do want to share my biblically-based reflections on how God can make a difference in your leadership.

In Monday’s Life for Leaders devotion I began focusing on Psalm 46, with its strong affirmation of God as “our refuge and strength.” Because God is “a very present help in trouble,” according to the psalmist, “therefore we will not fear.” But, I wondered in yesterday’s devotion, shouldn’t we fear the coronavirus and its multiple threats? Shouldn’t we be afraid of something that could kill thousands of people and, in the process, do significant damage to our social and economic wellbeing? With Psalm 46 as our guide, I suggested that, when God is our true foundation, we will not build our lives on fear. We will take particular dangers seriously so that we might steward well what God has entrusted to us. But we will not be gripped by pervasive and persistent fear.

One implication of this is that we will not panic as we exercise leadership. The word “panic” comes from the Greek god Pan, who caused humans to overact in fear. Panic is fear of a particular kind. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “a sudden wild, unreasoning, or excessive state of fear or alarm.” Panic isn’t wise caution. Rather it’s a powerful emotion that obliterates wisdom and moves to make poor choices.

In a time of crisis, it’s easy to panic. And when we do, it’s darn near impossible to discern the right thing. Let me illustrate with a personal story.

Two summers ago, my family and I were vacationing on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. We went snorkeling at an unfamiliar beach filled with plenty of people. I was maybe thirty yards offshore, enjoying my exploration of the ocean bottom, when I began to tire. So I turned toward shore and started to swim for the beach. After a while, it seemed as if I was farther out than I had been. I watched the ocean floor as I swam and saw, to my alarm, that I was indeed being dragged out to sea. I was caught in a rip current. Several people each year die in rip currents in Hawaii, and I didn’t want to become one of them. In that moment, I panicked. My heart started to race and I felt overpowering fear, some of the greatest fear of my life.

There was nobody around to help me, no lifeguard on shore, so I did exactly the wrong thing and started to swim harder. Yet as I did this I sensed I was still losing the battle with the current. I remembered that people who swim hard against a rip current do sometimes drown when exhaustion overtakes them. So I was finally able to do two things. First, I prayed, crying out for God’s help. Second, by God’s grace, I remembered that the key to getting out of a rip current is swimming parallel to shore, not in the direction of shore. So I turned ninety degrees and began to swim slowly, careful not to tire myself out. After a couple of minutes I was free from the rip current and able to swim to the beach. When I got there, I was truly glad to be alive. (Later, I discovered that almost exactly a year before this experience another tourist from California had died in the very rip current I had encountered.)

My experience illustrates the difficulty of making wise choices when one is gripped by panic. But it also suggests that a certain kind of caution—you might even call it fear—is prudent. Someone who goes swimming on Kauai ought to be cautious about rip currents. Moreover, there are some beaches on the island for which outright fear is merited. Hanakapiai Beach, for example, is one of the most beautiful beaches in Hawaii and also one of the most dangerous. Its unpredictable currents have claimed dozens of lives, including that of a twenty-seven year old man just three months ago. When my wife and I visited Hanakapiai Beach several years ago, we were rightly afraid of going in the water.

Certain leaders, those in the military, law enforcement, public health, or medicine, may sometimes face actual life or death leadership challenges. Most of us will not. But we might still feel deathly panic when things entrusted to us go terribly wrong or when we’re faced with genuine dangers, like the coronavirus. When this happens, we need to catch ourselves and cry out to God for help. We need to remember God’s faithfulness and trust to him both our situations and ourselves. God will help to subdue our panic so we can think clearly. Sometimes God does this through the indwelling Spirit. Sometimes God uses other people to quiet our hearts and help us to think straight. As the Lord said through the prophet Isaiah, “In returning and rest you shall be saved, in quietness and in trust shall be you strength” (Isaiah 30:15).

Something to Think About:

Can you remember a time in your life when you felt panic? What happened?

Have you ever made a leadership decision that was, in retrospect, too influenced by unreasonable fear?

When you feel afraid, how intuitive is it for you to reach out to God?

In what ways do you need God’s help right now?

Something to Do:

Talk with your small group or a Christian friend about how you react when you feel fear, especially when it relates to your leadership. By the way, if your small group is not meeting because of COVID-19, consider “meeting” virtually, using Zoom or FaceTime or Google Hangout or a similar platform.

Prayer:

Gracious God, thank you for being present in our lives at all times. Thank you especially for being there in times of crisis.

Help us, Lord, to trust you at all times. When fear rises up, when panic begins to grip our hearts, may we turn to you.

Teach us to be wisely cautious, Lord. Help us to lead with confidence in you, stewarding well all that you have entrusted to us. Amen.

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Part 3: Leading in a Crisis: But Shouldn’t We Be Afraid?

God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult. Selah

Psalm 46:1-3 (NRSV)

a woman calmly swimming through deep dark waterAs I write this devotion, leaders throughout the world are facing incredibly difficult decisions related to the spread of the novel coronavirus. We who lead feel our own inadequacy at this time. We feel more strongly than ever the need for God’s help. We want to know the difference God makes for our leadership in this particular crisis, with its global and local implications.

I started my devotional reflections with Psalm 46, a passage of comfort and reassurance. What this passage offers is not the usual platitudes: “I’m sure everything will be fine” or “Things will be back to normal soon.” Rather, Psalm 46 begins, not with wishful thinking, but with bedrock, unchanging, life-changing truth about God: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (46:1). Don’t you need to know God in this way today?

Psalm 46 continues, “Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea . . .” (Psalm 46:2). This verse echoes what we hear again and again in Scripture: Fear not! Don’t be afraid! We remember that Jesus said, “Do not worry about your life” and “Do not worry about tomorrow” (Matthew 6:25, 34). But, we might wonder, isn’t it right to be afraid of the possible impact of the coronavirus? Shouldn’t we worry about what might happen if we don’t respond decisively to the threat of COVID-19? Won’t our fear help us to act in a timely fashion? Shouldn’t we actually be concerned about the financial impact of the difficult decisions we face?

When the Bible says “Do not fear” it does not mean “Never take seriously any danger” or “Dismiss any threat without concern.” There are many instances in Scripture of people acting wisely and decisively in response to a threat. In the Old Testament, for example, Jews in Jerusalem were threatened by their neighbors who plotted to attack them. Under the leadership of Nehemiah, they both “prayed to God” and “set a guard as a protection against them day and night” (Nehemiah 4:7-9). In a more familiar story from the New Testament, Joseph and Mary took seriously the warning of an angel of the Lord and fled to Egypt when Herod threatened the life of their son (Matthew 2:13-14). Later on, when there was a threat against the Apostle Paul when he was in Damascus, his associates helped escape by lowering him down the city wall in a basket (Acts 9:23-25).

The Bible’s prohibition against fear does not discourage the wise evaluation of threats and taking appropriate action. It doesn’t encourage us to live foolishly, as if nothing could ever harm us. Quite to the contrary! Take Proverbs 14:16 for example: “The wise are cautious and turn away from evil, but the fool throws off restraint and is careless.”

What Psalm 46 and similar passages call us to is a primary and permeating trust in God, one that reshapes our responses to all of life, including genuine threats that should be taken seriously. We mustn’t base our life on fear, letting it corrupt our decisions and taint our hearts. Even when we face real dangers, we do so standing on the bedrock of trust in God’s faithfulness and sovereignty.

Ironically, things that might easily fill our hearts with fear can, in fact, renew our trust in God. When all is going well in life, it’s easy to forget just how much we need the Lord each day, in our living and our leading. When we read about the threat of COVID-19, not only to our health but also to our social and economic wellbeing, we understandably feel afraid. We can allow this fear to take control of our minds and hearts. Or, we can let it turn us to the Lord, remembering his goodness and grace. We can let Scripture reassure us that God is our refuge and strength, not just in principle, but in this very moment. God is a “very present help in trouble” for you and me today (Psalm 46:1). This confidence allows us to lead, not governed by fear, but guided by our God who is right here with us now.

Something to Think About:

As you think about fear, when might a sort of fear be wise?

What kind of fear is overcome by the fact of God’s presence and power?

In your leadership, can you think of times you reacted in fear and made unwise choices?

Can you think of times you exercised wise caution?

How do you need God’s help today for your leadership?

Something to Do:

Be honest with God about your fears. Don’t hold back. You can’t surprise God with what you say. Then, ask for God’s help, to distinguish between wise caution and fear to be avoided. If possible, talk about this with your small group or a Christian friend.

Prayer:

Gracious God, thank you for being our refuge, our strength, our helper in times of trouble. Thank you for being present with me right now, in all that I am going through in my life and leadership.

Help me, Lord, to have such confidence in you that I do not let fear pervade my heart. May I know deep down that my life and the lives of all entrusted to my care are in your hands.

Give me wisdom to know how to take threats seriously, including, of course, COVID-19. Help me to make wise decisions in light of what is true. As I do, may I reflect your grace and sovereignty. Amen.

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Part 4: Leading in a Crisis: Don’t Do It Alone

And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the apostles and the elders. . . .

Then the apostles and the elders, with the consent of the whole church, decided to choose men from among their members and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. . . .

For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials. . . .

Acts 15:2, 22, 28 (NRSV)

an intense collaboration discussion amongst a group of peopleLeadership is often a lonely business. Even in collegial contexts, there are times when leaders need to stand alone in making difficult decisions.  As Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky observe in Leadership on the Line, “[E]xercising leadership might be understood as disappointing people at a rate they can absorb” (p. 142). Disappointing people and receiving their unhappy responses certainly amplifies the loneliness leaders can feel.

Surely there are times when leaders need to move quickly and decisively, using the unique authority given to them. We may well need to stand firm even if we stand alone. But even if a leader ultimately needs to make a hard call, it’s important that we do not isolate ourselves in the decision making process in times of crisis. Part of what God gives us for crisis leadership is the wisdom, knowledge, giftedness, and support of our Christian community. When leading in a crisis, if at all possible, don’t do it alone!

We see a stirring example of shared leadership in a crisis in the Book of Acts. The crisis began when Gentiles started responding favorably and in great number to the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. This happened in many cities of the Roman Empire, including Antioch in Syria. There, Jewish Christian preachers did not require male Gentile converts to do as Jewish converts would have done and get circumcised. The preachers believed faith alone was required, not circumcision. But some Jewish Christians from Judea came to Antioch, insisting that all male Christians be circumcised according to the Jewish law. This was a crisis of multiple dimensions for the early church because it threatened the success of the Christian mission, the integrity of the gospel they preached, and the unity of the early church.

We can learn much from how church leaders handled this crisis. The Christians in Antioch appointed several local leaders, including the Apostle Paul, to go to Jerusalem to discuss the problem with church leaders there (Acts 15:2). In Jerusalem, a group of leaders met together “to consider the matter” (Acts 15:6). After “much debate” (Acts 15:7), the Apostle Peter encouraged the group not to require circumcision of new believers. Paul also spoke to the assembly, laying out his perspective and experience. The “whole assembly” listened respectfully to Paul, including those who disagreed with him (Acts 15:12). Finally, James, the leader of the Jerusalem church, spoke. He agreed with Paul and Peter that Gentiles should not have to be circumcised (Acts 15:19).

At this point, “the apostles and the elders, with the consent of the whole church,” chose people to go to Antioch to communicate the church’s decision (Acts 15:22). These messengers brought a letter that said, among other things, “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials. . .” (Acts 15:28). Circumcision would not be required, which gladdened the hearts of the Antiochian believers (Acts 15:31).

As I study this story, I’m struck by how these early Christians exercised leadership in the midst of the biggest crisis they had known. Notice that the leaders in Antioch chose to consult with the leaders in Jerusalem. This consultation happened with many people present. Both sides of the debate were well represented and their opinions were respected (Acts 15:12). Though the “no circumcision” folk prevailed, a compromise of sorts was reached to assuage concerns of the “pro-circumcision” folk (Acts 15:20-21). The so-called Jerusalem Council acted “unanimously” in appointing representatives to communicate with Antioch (Acts 15:25). They believed their decision was guided by the Holy Spirit, though they recognized their own responsibility in making the decision (Acts 15:28).

This story from Acts 15 illustrates the wisdom of shared leadership in a time of crisis. Surely the Antiochians could have acted alone. So could the leaders in Jerusalem. The ones with greater authority could have wielded it without consulting others and listening to their side. But, in fact, the leaders chose to discuss, to acknowledge differences, and to seek the Lord together. This led to a decision that supported the mission to the Gentiles, acknowledged some Jewish concerns, and strengthened rather than weakened the unity of the early church.

The account of the Jerusalem Council encourages us not to isolate ourselves as leaders, especially in a time of crisis. We need the perspective, savvy, challenge and suggestions of our brothers and sisters in Christ. We also need their support, prayers, and love. The Holy Spirit speaks and guides as the community of God’s people unite their minds and hearts to seek God’s will together. Even when we are sheltering in place, we can use technology to facilitate the sharing of wise counsel and corporate discernment.

Something to Think About:

Are you inclined to be collegial in your decision-making? Or do you prefer to make decisions on your own? Why are you the way you are?

Have you experienced the loneliness of leadership? When?

In that lonely time, did you reach out to others for advice and support? Why or why not?

In a time of crisis, what factors would help you to reach out to others? What factors would keep you from doing this?

Who are the people in your life to whom you regularly turn for wisdom, support, challenge, and accountability?

Something to Do:

Are you facing a decision for which you could use the wisdom of at least one other person? If so, why not ask for that person’s counsel?

Prayer:

Gracious God, thank you for the example of leadership in Acts 15. As the early Christians faced a threatening crisis, they chose to lead in community with others. Their example teaches us and inspires us.

Help me, Lord, to exercise my leadership as a member of the body of Christ. Even if ultimately authority rests on my shoulders, may I be open to the insights and challenges of others.

In this day when leaders are facing the crisis of COVID-19, we ask you to help them reach out to others. Keep them from isolation. Help them to learn from others and to be loved by others. Amen.

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Part 5: Leading in a Crisis: Don’t Do It Alone – Scripture and Story

To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, . . . to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits. . .

1 Corinthians 12:7-10 (NRSV)

black and white image of a man standing alone in front of a window In yesterday’s Life for Leaders devotion, we considered the example of the Jerusalem Council in the Book of Acts, noting how, in a time of crisis, leaders of the early church did not lead alone, but rather worked together to come up with the best solution to their crisis. Today, I want to reinforce that lesson theologically and then illustrate it with an example from my own experience as a leader.

In the Old Testament, God’s Spirit was given mainly to kings, prophets, and priests. Though royal leaders were inspired to make decisions by themselves, they sometimes consulted with trusted advisors (2 Kings 2:14-20). Even kings could choose to follow the wisdom of Proverbs 15:22, “Without counsel, plans go wrong, but with many advisers they succeed.”

In the New Testament era, the Holy Spirit was given to every Christian and not just to church leaders. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7).  These manifestations included gifts to help the church make wise decisions: “To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, . . . to another prophecy, to another discernment of spirits” (1 Corinthians 12:8-10). Those who exercised leadership had divine resources to help them through the gifts of the Spirit given to the community.

Thus, Christians who lead, whether in church or family, business or school, government or non-profit, should regularly consult with, and if appropriate share decision-making with, their brothers and sisters in Christ. As I have written before, one of the major differences God makes for leaders in times of crisis is the opportunity not to be alone. When we find ourselves leading in difficult times, we need the wisdom, perspective, expertise, and support of others.

I learned this lesson many times while senior pastor of a church in Southern California. One experience stands out in my memory. The church was involved in a real estate transaction and my signature as pastor was needed on several key documents. We were facing a rapidly approaching deadline when I finally got the documents to sign. As I read through them, I saw something that worried me. There was a statement on one document that wasn’t actually true. Yet I was supposed to sign as if it were true. I called the real estate person who had prepared the documents and he assured me that it was no big deal. He said things like, “Everybody signs this stuff all the time” and “We all know what’s really true.” When I said I was still uncomfortable signing the document, he told me that if I failed to sign the church would blow the deal and lose a significant down payment. “Just sign it,” he advised. “It will be fine. You really don’t have any other options.”

But I wasn’t fine with this advice. I believed strongly that I should not sign something that wasn’t true, even if “everybody does it.” Yet I didn’t want to hurt the church financially. I was deeply distressed. I felt both desperate and desperately alone. This wasn’t a life or death crisis, but it was surely a personal crisis for me and my leadership.

As I prayed for wisdom, all of a sudden an idea came to me. I believe it was a gift from the Holy Spirit. “I should call Gary,” I thought. Gary was an elder in the church and a wise attorney. He’d be able to help me make the right decision. So I called Gary and explained the situation to him. Sensing how upset I was, Gary began, “Mark, don’t worry. You don’t have to carry this by yourself.” How relieved I was to hear that! “You’re absolutely right not to sign something that isn’t true,” he said. “Stay with that conviction. Stuff like this comes up all the time in legal matters. I’m sure there’s a way to figure it out. Please let me handle it for you. Give me the number of the other guy and I’ll see what I can do.” So I gave Gary the number and thanked him profusely. Then I thanked the Lord for the fact that I did not have to make that decision alone.

Later, Gary called back. He had figured out a way to move forward with the transaction that did not require me to sign anything untrue. “The guy will send over the new docs,” Gary explained. “You can check them, but they’re all fine now. Everything you sign will be true.” Again, I thanked Gary for his invaluable help. And, again, I thanked God for his help through Gary.

Of course difficult leadership crises won’t always end on such a happy note. Even as I write this, leaders are making decisions that will have negative consequences for many, at least in the short term. My nephew was supposed to get married in a few days in an area of California where people are now required to shelter in place. There will be no wedding for many months now because of decisions made by state and county leaders in California. I should say that my nephew and his fiancée, though understandably disappointed, are supporting the decisions of their government leaders. I simply want to acknowledge that sometimes the decisions we make as leaders will cause disappointment and pain, even if we make the right decisions in fellowship with others.

The point remains, however, that God makes a difference for our leadership—in  ordinary times and especially in times of crisis—by giving us advisors, counselors, and friends who can help us with the tough decisions we have to make. So, as you take on these challenges, don’t do it alone.

Something to Think About:

Can you think of a time in your life when you felt very alone in your leadership? What was happening at that time? What did you feel? What did you do?

Who are the people in your life – at work, at home, in your family, in church, etc. – to whom you turn when you need wisdom?

Are you facing a difficult decision right now that you are carrying by yourself? Is there someone who could serve as a trustworthy counselor?

Something to Do:

If you answered “Yes” to the last question, why don’t you reach out to that person now? Don’t isolate yourself from someone (or several people) who can be a partner in discernment.

Prayer:

Gracious God, thank you for joining us together as the body of Christ, and for giving us your Spirit. Thank you for sisters and brothers who can stand with us in hard times, who can help us make wise decisions even in a crisis.

Help me, Lord, to reach out when I need support. Give me the humility to seek guidance from others. And, may I be a wise counselor to others in their time of need.

Above all, Lord, thank you that we are not alone in our leadership because you are always with us! Amen.

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Learn More About Life for Leaders

You can access all of our Life for Leaders devotions HERE. You can also learn more about the De Pree Center and its resources HERE.

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Part 6: Leading in a Crisis: Where Should You Start?

The words of Nehemiah son of Hacaliah. In the month of Chislev, in the twentieth year, while I was in Susa the capital, one of my brothers, Hanani, came with certain men from Judah; and I asked them about the Jews that survived, those who had escaped the captivity, and about Jerusalem. They replied, “The survivors there in the province who escaped captivity are in great trouble and shame; the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been destroyed by fire.” When I heard these words I sat down and wept, and mourned for days, fasting and praying before the God of heaven.

Nehemiah 1:1-4 (NRSV)

a man in distress in the darkAn unexpected crisis hits and you’re a leader. What should you do? Where should you start? The Old Testament example of Nehemiah provides a striking answer to these questions.

Nehemiah, a Jewish man, was the cupbearer to the Persian king, Artaxerxes, in the fifth-century B.C. He lived in Susa, a city where the Persian kings spent the winter (modern day Shush, near the Iran/Iraq border, about 1,000 miles from Jerusalem). Nehemiah was one of many Jews who had been scattered throughout the Ancient Near East as a result of Babylon’s conquering of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.

One day Nehemiah received a report from some visitors from Judah about the dire situation of Jerusalem and the people who were still living in that region. They were suffering “great trouble and shame” because “the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been destroyed by fire” (Nehemiah 1:3). For Nehemiah, as well as for Jews throughout the Ancient Near East, this was a major crisis. It meant that the ancestral home of the Jewish people was on the verge of extinction, with no hope of restoration. The fact that Nehemiah felt this to be a crisis is obvious from his strong emotional and behavioral response to this alarming news.

If you look ahead in the book of Nehemiah, you’ll see that he exercised extraordinary leadership in the midst of this crisis, with extraordinary results. I’ll have more to say about that in future devotions. For now, however, I want to focus on Nehemiah’s first response to the crisis. Where did he begin in his leadership?

We see this beginning in verse 4 of Nehemiah 1: “When I heard these words I sat down and wept, and mourned for days, fasting and praying before the God of heaven.” What a striking verse! Here is the cupbearer to the king, a person of prominence and influence, whose heart is moved by the desperate situation of the people and places he loves. He not only feels deeply, but also shares this in his account he writes for others. Nehemiah is a man with a big heart, a person with strong feelings, a leader who is not afraid both to feel and to share his feelings with others.

Where does Nehemiah start in his response to a crisis? He starts by being fully human. He starts by feeling emotions and acknowledging them. This is both normal and healthy. Sometimes we have an image of leaders as people of steely will and steel-clad hearts. They think and decide but do not feel, or at least they do not express their feelings. To be sure, there are times when leaders need both strong will and guarded hearts. But godly leaders are not emotionally stunted. Rather, they are people whose hearts are open both to God and to others. They are touched by human suffering. They feel longings and losses. They are not afraid to reveal their big-heartedness to others. (For another stunning example of this, see 2 Corinthians 1:3-11. Of course we also have the example of Jesus in Gethsemane in Mark 14:32-42.)

Leaders mustn’t be governed by emotions, of course. They need to exercise all of their human faculties when they lead, especially in times of crisis. But Nehemiah’s example encourages us not to ignore or mask our true feelings. When it comes to your leadership in the COVID-19 crisis, I expect you have many feelings: fear, compassion, frustration, anxiety, confusion, distraction, hope, hopelessness, sadness, anger, love, and gratitude. I’m sure you could add to this list. My point here is that you will be a leader of integrity if you allow yourself to feel, acknowledging your feelings to yourself and others—and, as we’ll see tomorrow, also to God.

Why are feelings so important for leading in a crisis? In part, emotions are an integral part of being human and leaders are human. Those who forget this will not be healthy, wise leaders. Moreover, if we deny our feelings we may very well end up being dominated by them in ways that are unhelpful. On the flip side, if we pay attention to our feelings, if we nurture feelings of compassion and concern, we can harness the energy of our emotions for the strong leadership needed in a crisis. Plus, as leaders in a crisis we will need to help others deal with their feelings, and we can only do this well if we are in touch with and managing well our own feelings. (I’ll have more to say about this in Wednesday’s Life for Leaders devotion.)

Yesterday, I had a virtual meeting (are there other kinds now?) with a leader of an organization which, like most others, has been greatly impacted by the COVID-19 crisis. As we began our conversation, I said something like, “Wow! These are crazy times. I find myself pretty distracted and discombobulated some of the time. I’m sure you feel similarly.” He shook his head and responded quickly, “No, I’m doing just fine. My team is working from home and everything is in order here.” I said, “Wow! That’s great. I’m glad for you.” But as our call continued it was obvious that my colleague was not himself. Understandably, he was showing signs of the disruption he was feeling. I did not point this out to him. But I did wish that he had more freedom to know himself, to be honest, to acknowledge his humanness. It would help him as a leader and I’m sure it would help his team as they work with him. (Note to self: I need to be sure my team knows that I’m feeling more than ordinary anxiety these days, and that this might very well seep into my thinking and acting.)

So, as you lead in these challenging times, let Nehemiah’s example instruct and encourage you. Be fully human as you lead. Acknowledge that you have feelings and also the content of these feelings. Don’t deny what’s true about yourself. Don’t pretend to be the leader who is above it all. Reflect on your feelings and see what you can learn from them. Discover what God might be saying to you through your emotions. Let them give you strength for the leadership challenges you face. Share them with others, as is appropriate. And, be sure to bring your feelings to the Lord. More about this tomorrow. Stay tuned!

Something to Think About:

As you think about your leadership, what feelings are common for you? What do you do with these feelings?

What are you feeling these days in light of the COVID-19 pandemic? Consider the variety of feelings you might have, in addition to obvious ones like “fear” or “confusion.” At the same time, be sure to acknowledge fear or confusion if you have them.

Do you have safe places in your life where you can express your feelings openly? If so, what are these? If not, can you imagine a context in which you could be more open about your feelings, such as with a close friend or pastor or small group or spouse or . . . ?

Something to Do:

If you haven’t done so, set aside some time to reflect on what you’re feeling these days as a leader in a time of crisis. What might you learn from your feelings? Talk with God about this.

Prayer:

Gracious God, thank you for the example of Nehemiah. Thank you for his big heart and for his ability to share this heart with others.

Help me, Lord, in my life and leadership, to be a whole person. May I pay attention to what I’m feeling. As I do, I ask you to enlarge my heart. Give me greater compassion and courage. May my feelings be in service to my leadership, such that your will is done through me. Amen.

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Part 7: Leading in a Crisis: Before the God of Heaven

The words of Nehemiah son of Hacaliah. In the month of Chislev, in the twentieth year, while I was in Susa the capital, one of my brothers, Hanani, came with certain men from Judah; and I asked them about the Jews that survived, those who had escaped the captivity, and about Jerusalem. They replied, “The survivors there in the province who escaped captivity are in great trouble and shame; the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been destroyed by fire.” When I heard these words I sat down and wept, and mourned for days, fasting and praying before the God of heaven.

Nehemiah 1:1-4 (NRSV)

a woman praying in the snowAs I noted in yesterday’s devotion, Nehemiah was a leader in crisis. A thousand miles away from the Jewish homeland, he learned that the city of Jerusalem was in ruins and the Jews living in the area were “in great trouble and shame” (Nehemiah 1:3). His immediate response was great sadness as he “sat down and wept, and mourned for days” (Nehemiah 1:4). Though an influential, well-connected, and (as we’ll see later) brilliantly strategic leader, Nehemiah was a full human being, a person with a big heart as well as a sharp mind and decisive will. Nehemiah felt things deeply and shared his feelings openly in his account of exercising leadership in a time of crisis.

But he didn’t merely feel and share. Note Nehemiah’s own description of what he did: “When I heard these words I sat down and wept, and mourned for days, fasting and praying before the God of heaven” (Nehemiah 1:4). As he felt and expressed his feelings, he focused on God through fasting and communicated with God through praying. He felt, sat, wept, mourned, fasted, and prayed “before the God of heaven.” The Hebrew expression translated here as “before” has embedded within it the Hebrew word for “face.” The picture is of one standing in front of another person—or, in the case of Nehemiah, in front of God.

If the first thing Nehemiah did when learning of the crisis he faced was to feel powerful emotions, the second thing was to turn to God, to acknowledge God’s presence. He shared with God all that he was feeling and thinking. He had been formed by his faith to be a leader who takes the challenges he faced to God, instinctively and quickly.

We see another example of this in the second chapter of Nehemiah. As you may recall, he was the cupbearer to the king of Persia and therefore someone regularly in the king’s presence. When the king noticed Nehemiah’s sadness, he asked, “Why is your face sad, since you are not sick? This can only be sadness of heart” (Nehemiah 2:2). Nehemiah admits in his memoir that his first response was to be “very much afraid” (2:2). When he explained to the king the crisis his people were facing, the king asked Nehemiah what he wanted. Before answering this critical question, Nehemiah “prayed to the God of heaven” (Nehemiah 2:4). Then he explained to the king his plan to rebuild Jerusalem. Notice that in a crucial moment, even before speaking, Nehemiah turned to God and prayed silently. Whether weeping from sadness or speaking with a king, Nehemiah lived and led “before the God of heaven.”

Nehemiah’s example invites us to examine our own leadership. Are we, like Nehemiah, inclined to turn to God when we face difficult situations? Is it our instinct to pray in all sorts of contexts and conversations? Do we intentionally live and lead “before the God of heaven”?

Honestly, in some ways I am like Nehemiah. When I receive bad news, my feelings are strong. Sometimes I am sad. More often I feel worry and a compelling urge to act. I’m wired to come up with solutions, to solve problems, to make things better. I am not wired to turn to God in fasting and prayer. I am not wired, like Nehemiah, to do this for many days as I wait on the Lord. I want to press ahead, to be strategic, to get out in front and lead.

So, Nehemiah’s example challenges me to start “before the God of heaven,” to turn to God in prayer, to wait upon God for guidance and wisdom. Sometimes the discipline of being consciously before God deserves many focused days. It’s not something to be rushed. Sometimes, however, we should turn to God for a quick moment, offering up a prayer before answering a tough question or speaking out in a meeting or making an urgent decision.

Today, as you lead, no matter the context, whether in your online staff meeting, virtual classroom, church, family, school board, hospital, or encampment, may you be conscious of leading “before the God of heaven.” Moreover, may you turn to God for help, whether for dedicated lengths of time or for quick moments. In all you do, may you sense God’s presence and guidance.

Something to Think About:

When you face challenging situations in your work life, how regularly do you turn to God? Why do you think you act as you do?

Can you think of a time when, like Nehemiah, you offered a quick, quiet prayer to God in the context of your work? What was the situation?

What might help you to turn to God and speak to God more often as you work?

What might help you to consistently exercise your leadership “before the God of heaven”?

Something to Do:

Do something to remind yourself to pray more often as you are doing your work. You might put a sticky note somewhere or set an alarm in your smartphone. The point is to begin to train yourself to pray throughout the workday, especially as you face difficult questions or situations.

Prayer:

Gracious God, again we thank you for the example of Nehemiah and his leadership. We have so much to learn from him.

In particular, today we thank you for how Nehemiah lived and led “before the God of heaven.” His instinct in a crisis was to turn to you and pour out his heart to you. Help us, we pray, to learn to do the same.

Today, Lord, please nudge me by your Spirit to turn to you. May I be aware of your presence and speak to you as if you were right there with me . . . because, of course, you are. Thank you for your presence in every part of my life. Amen.

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Part 8: Leading in a Crisis – Honoring Emotions

When the Jews who lived near them came, they said to us ten times, “From all the places where they live they will come up against us.” So in the lowest parts of the space behind the wall, in open places, I stationed the people according to their families, with their swords, their spears, and their bows.

Nehemiah 4:12-13 (NRSV)

A gated FenceLeading in a crisis is not just about careful thinking and courageous deciding. It’s also about honoring emotions, both our own and those of the people we lead.

In the sixth part of this series, I began examining the leadership of Nehemiah, one of the Old Testament’s most impressive leaders. He was able to accomplish an extraordinary task through his compelling leadership, though Nehemiah would be quick to give credit to God, first and foremost (Nehemiah 6:16).

Yet, perhaps surprisingly, the first thing we learn about Nehemiah’s leadership from his own witness is that it began with his powerful emotional reaction to the crisis facing his fellow Jews in Judah. In his memoir, he admits that, having heard the dire report of conditions in and around Jerusalem, he “sat down and wept, and mourned for days” (Nehemiah 1:4). Now, this is not usually how we envision strong leaders. You can find hundreds of books on leadership in your local bookstore, very few of which will encourage leaders to feel deeply and/or share their feelings openly. (An exception would be the writings of Patrick Lencioni, which encourage leaders to be vulnerable. See, for example, The Advantage.) We think of leaders as being tough, and tough usually means being either unfeeling or not expressing feeling.

Nehemiah exemplifies the opposite. In Monday’s devotion I encouraged you to learn from and imitate his example. Rather than denying your feelings, acknowledge them. Rather than hiding them, admit them. I’m not suggesting that you become maudlin or self-indulgent. I am suggesting that your leadership will be stronger if you accept your full humanity and let others know of this acceptance. This is especially true, I suggested, in a crisis.

Since writing Monday’s devotion, my constantly-learning wife introduced me to a field I had not known about before: Crisis Communication. Often, this has to do with helping companies that are facing public relations nightmares (think Boeing, British Petroleum, etc.). But crisis communication experts also study how leaders can best lead in times of crisis. For leaders in government, public health, business, education, church, and more, the COVID-19 crisis is one for which we need guidance from such experts. As it turns out, much of what they suggest is surprisingly consistent with what we see in Nehemiah.

Two experts in the crisis communication field, Peter M. Sandman and Jody Lanard, created a document to help leaders in times of crisis. This document, “Crisis Communication I,” can be found on the website of the Centers for Disease Control in the U.S. It is full of wise, practical guidance for leaders dealing with difficult crises. I will not survey all of the advice offered by Sandman and Lanard, but I do want to share some of what they say about emotions.

About one-quarter of “Crisis Communication I” deals directly with emotions, since they are a major component of any crisis and affect the effort to lead in its midst. For example, recommendation #9 (out of 14) reads: “Don’t aim for zero fear. People are right to feel fearful in a crisis. A fearless public that leaves you alone to manage the problem is not achievable. Nor is it desirable; vigilance and precaution-taking depend on sufficient fear.” Leaders must respect the genuine fear of those they lead, among other emotions. (Previously, I wrote about different kinds of fear, and how the Bible’s imperative “Fear not” does not mean we should reject reasonable fear of specific threats.)

Consider the example of Nehemiah in chapter 4 of his memoir. As he was leading the Jewish people to rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, they began to be weary (Nehemiah 4:10). Sensing their vulnerability, their enemies threatened to attack and kill them (Nehemiah 4:11). So the Jewish workers came to Nehemiah and said, “From all the places where they live they will come up against us” (Nehemiah 4:12). They were afraid, reasonably so.

How did Nehemiah respond? First, he “stationed the people” in places where the wall was not complete “with their swords, their spears, and their bows” (Nehemiah 4:13). In other words, Nehemiah honored the fear of his people and responded strategically in response to this fear. No doubt they felt heard and valued. Yet, after doing this, Nehemiah said, “Do not be afraid of them. Remember the LORD, who is great and awesome, and fight for your kin, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes” (Nehemiah 4:14). What a great example of leadership that both honors the fear of people and reminds them not to live in fear, but rather to trust the Lord, “who is great and awesome.”

It’s likely that the people you lead are afraid these days. They may be afraid of contracting COVID-19. They may be afraid of dying from this disease. They may be afraid for their friends and loved ones. They may be afraid of going stir-crazy in their homes. They may be afraid of losing their jobs or suffering from a crippled economy. And on and on. As a leader, part of your job involves taking seriously the fears of your people. This doesn’t mean being governed by those fears. But it does mean honoring them and, more importantly, honoring the people entrusted to your care. They need to know that they, in their full humanity, feelings and all, matter to you.

Something to Think About:

What do you think of the notion that honoring emotions is essential for leadership, especially in a crisis?

Have you experienced this sort of leadership from others? If so, what memories do you have?

Are you usually a leader who honors the feelings of those you lead? How do you express this? What difference does it make in how you lead?

Something to Do:

Set aside a few minutes to reflect quietly and prayerfully on the emotions of those you lead, whether at work or home, in church or in your neighborhood. How are these folks feeling? How would you feel if you were in their shoes?

Prayer:

Gracious God, you have made us a full human beings, people of mind and body, heart and soul. Our emotions are part of your creation, even though they are tainted by sin. Nevertheless, we thank you for the gift of emotions, for joy and excitement, for compassion and tenderness, and so much more.

Help us, we pray, to be attentive to the full humanity of the people we lead. In particular, may we be sensitive to their fear. Give us wisdom to know how best to respond when they are afraid. Helps us also, we pray, to encourage our people to trust you, living by faith rather than by fear. Amen.

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Part 9: Leading in a Crisis – Honoring a Variety of Emotions

Now there was a great outcry of the people and of their wives against their Jewish kin. . . . I was very angry when I heard their outcry and these complaints.

Nehemiah 5:1, 6 (NRSV)

Black and white images of hands blocking the cameraLeading in a crisis isn’t only a matter of keen observation and decisive action. It also involves honoring emotions in yourself and those entrusted to your care. In the previous devotion, I talked about taking fear seriously. In the midst of a pandemic—with all of its personal, social, and economic implications—fear is both natural and sensible. Though we should not be governed by fear because God is with us, we do need to respect it in ourselves and in those we lead.

But fear is not the only emotion we need to honor in a crisis. Other emotions arise as well and need to be taken seriously by leaders. Consider, for example, the case of Nehemiah in chapter 5 of his memoir. While he was focusing on the rebuilding of the wall of Jerusalem and protecting his people from attack, some Jewish leaders used the crisis to line their own pockets. They took advantage of others by overcharging for food and other staples. Yes—price gouging is nothing new, I’m sad to say.

In response to their mistreatment at the hands of their own leaders, the people were understandably angry: “Now there was a great outcry of the people and of their wives against their own Jewish kin” (Nehemiah 5:1). They complained vigorously to Nehemiah, noting that their children were being forced into slavery to cover the exorbitant demands of the landowners (Nehemiah 5:5).

So how did Nehemiah respond to the irate protest of his people? He writes, “I was very angry when I heard their outcry and these complaints” (Nehemiah 5:6). His first response was a strong feeling of anger, based in part on empathy and in part on Nehemiah’s passion for justice. What did he do with his anger? “After thinking it over, I brought charges against the nobles and the officials” (Nehemiah 5:7). Once again we see the full humanity of Nehemiah in play as he leads. He felt strong emotions and took time to reflect thoughtfully. He acted judiciously and sensibly, motivated by his feelings.

We see in Nehemiah an example of a leader who took seriously the emotions of his people, no matter what they were feeling. He listened to them and felt empathy for them. He did not ignore or minimize what they felt. Nor did he ignore or minimize what he felt. Though he was not governed by emotions, he nevertheless honored them as a leader.

This kind of leadership is appropriate at any time, but especially in a crisis. Once again, I want to turn to the advice of crisis communication experts Robert Sandman and Jody Lanard, whose counsel appears on the website of the Centers for Disease Control. In yesterday’s devotion, I noted that Sandman and Lanard encourage leaders to take seriously the fear of their people. But they note that fear is not the only emotion that deserves to be taken seriously in the face of a crisis. Their recommendation #10 states: “Don’t forget emotions other than fear. When people are faced with a crisis, the ‘fear family’ is only one possible set of responses. The ‘empathy/misery/depression family’ is also extremely common, and deserving of the crisis manager’s attention. Among the other responses: anger, hurt, and guilt.” So, leaders need to pay close attention to a variety of feelings among those they serve. Doing so will allow leaders to communicate effectively and guide compassionately. People will be inclined to follow leaders who understand them and honor their feelings.

Tomorrow I’ll talk further about emotions and leading in crisis, drawing from the wisdom of Nehemiah, Peter Sandman and Judy Lanard. For now, let me encourage you to pay attention to the range of emotions in those you are leading. How are they feeling today, really? If they’re working remotely for the first time, what might they be experiencing? Confusion? Loneliness? Relief? Sadness? Of course, you aren’t limited to what your imagination cooks up. You could ask your people how they’re doing. Yet, remember that many might not feel comfortable sharing certain feelings with you, especially if you’re their boss.

The point is not to get everyone’s emotions perfectly today, but rather to let your leadership be empathetic in this unusual time and situation. If you sense, for example, that your people are feeling anxiety (which is likely), then you may be more encouraging than usual or more forgiving if they seem distracted or even short-fused. God will help you by his Spirit to attend to the feelings of others and to lead in a way that honors the full humanity of the people entrusted to your care. This is one more way God makes a difference for leaders in a time of crisis.

Something to Think About:

Have you had a leader who was particularly attentive to the feelings of the people entrusted to their care? In what ways did this later make their empathy know?

How are you when it comes to honoring the emotions of those you lead? How do you think they would answer this question if they were being really honest?

What might help you to be more aware of the emotions of your people?

Something to Do:

Talk with the Lord about the people you lead and how they’re doing. In this prayerful conversation, ask God to give you an extra measure of empathy and compassion for your people. If it would be helpful, jot down in your journal what strikes you as significant.

Prayer:

Gracious God, once again we thank you for the example of Nehemiah. His empathy teaches and encourages us. His emotional strength reassures us. His commitment to justice inspires us.

Help us, Lord, to honor the range of emotions in the people we lead at all times, and especially in this time of crisis. Give us eyes to see how our people are doing and open hearts. May we be compassionate and wise in all of our interactions with the people you have entrusted to our care.

We pray for these folk today, that they would sense your presence in the midst of whatever they’re experiencing. Grant them your grace and peace. Amen.

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Part 10: Leading in a Crisis – The Need for Vulnerability

The words of Nehemiah son of Hacaliah. In the month of Chislev, in the twentieth year, while I was in Susa the capital, one of my brothers, Hanani, came with certain men from Judah; and I asked them about the Jews that survived, those who had escaped the captivity, and about Jerusalem. They replied, “The survivors there in the province who escaped captivity are in great trouble and shame; the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been destroyed by fire.” When I heard these words I sat down and wept, and mourned for days, fasting and praying before the God of heaven.

Nehemiah 1:1-4 (NRSV)

A woman submerged in clear waterThis is the tenth part of the devotional series: Leading in a Crisis. In the last four devotions, we have been learning from one of the Old Testament’s most effective leaders, a Jewish man named Nehemiah. We can observe his leadership through a memoir he wrote, which shows up in the Bible with the appropriate name, Nehemiah.

I have been studying Nehemiah’s leadership for over 30 years. I began when writing a commentary on the books of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther (which, I’m surprised to see, you can still buy from Amazon, at a greatly discounted rate). I have continued to reflect on Nehemiah’s examples as I have sought to lead in a variety of contexts (church, retreat center, digital media platform, seminary leadership center). But, until recently, I have not paid much attention to the way Nehemiah honors emotions, both his own and those of the people entrusted to his care, as an essential aspect of his leadership.

In Monday’s Life for Leaders devotion, we focused on the first verses of Nehemiah’s memoir. There, we saw that Nehemiah, serving in a Persian government post, received a dire report about the condition of Jerusalem and the situation of the Jewish people living near that city. This is how Nehemiah describes his response to that report: “When I heard these words I sat down and wept, and mourned for days, fasting and praying before the God of heaven” (Nehemiah 1:4). On Monday I reflected on the fact that Nehemiah was fully human as a leader, a person of strong emotions in addition to strategic brilliance and solid will.

Today, I want to think with you about the fact that Nehemiah was willing to write about his emotions so candidly. We live in a world where people are self-revealing—often to excess. But this was not the case in the ancient world. Most people, not to mention most leaders, did not write about their feelings, especially feelings like sadness. You won’t find many first-person accounts from leaders in the Ancient Near East in which they admit to weeping and mourning for days.

Now, I’m not suggesting that we who lead should always bare our souls, putting our emotions in the center of our leadership. We mustn’t make ourselves the main thing when we are leading others, especially in a crisis. Remember, it isn’t about you! Rather, we need to focus on the situation that challenges us and especially the wellbeing of the people we lead. But we can contribute to their welfare if we wisely share our own emotions.

Again, I’d like to draw from the wisdom of crisis communication experts Peter Sandman and Jody Lanard. In “Crisis Communication I,” a document found on the website of the Centers for Disease Control, they offer fourteen suggestions for leaders dealing with a public health crisis. Number 14 in their list reads: “Establish your own humanity. Professionals are understandably preoccupied with looking professional. But especially in a crisis, the best leaders reveal their humanity. Express your feelings about the crisis and show that you can bear them; that will help the rest of us bear our own feelings, and help us build a stronger alliance with you. Express your wishes and hopes as well. Tell a few stories about your past, your family, what you and your officemate said to each other this morning about the crisis.” I’m struck by the encouragement here to express our feelings about the crisis “and show that [we] can bear them.” We might say, for example, “Yes, I do feel afraid sometimes.” But our demeanor and our decisions make it clear that we are not ruled by this fear.

The thought of letting those we lead know what we’re feeling may not settle well with some of us. We’ve been taught that leaders need to appear impervious to human emotions. Plus, the idea of being vulnerable can be a scary one. I surely understand this, as one not innately comfortable with vulnerability. But I am persuaded, by the example of Nehemiah and other biblical leaders, and the counsel of Sandman and Lanard, that judicious, honest vulnerability can be helpful when we’re seeking to lead in a crisis.

Leadership guru Patrick Lencioni urges leaders to risk vulnerability in order to build healthy, strong teams. In The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else, Lencioni writes, “The only way for the leader of a team to create a safe environment for his team members to be vulnerable is by stepping up and doing something that feels unsafe and uncomfortable first. By getting naked before anyone else, by taking the risk of making himself vulnerable with no guarantee that other members of the team will respond in kind, a leader demonstrates an extraordinary level of selflessness and dedication to the team.” (p. 37). He adds, “At the heart of vulnerability lies the willingness of people to abandon their pride and their fear, to sacrifice their egos for the collective good of the team” (p. 27). Notice this isn’t mainly about personal expression or freedom. It’s about what’s best for the team we lead.

Neither Lencioni, nor Sandman, nor Lanard, nor Nehemiah would tell you to simply “spill your guts.” Nobody is envisioning unrestrained emotional displays or the sharing of feelings that ought to be kept private. But leaders who can acknowledge having truly human feelings will build trust among their followers. Moreover, if they can communicate emotions like fear in a way that shows they can bear them, as Sandman and Lanard advise, then their example will help others admit and wisely manage their own feelings as well.

Our relationship with God will help us be leaders who are unafraid to be fully human. If, like Nehemiah, we can come before God with open hearts, knowing that we are accepted and loved, then we will find freedom to be prudently vulnerable with others. We will do this, not for our own benefit. Rather, as Lencioni observes, we’ll open our hearts “for the collective good of the team.” And, I would add, for the good of all of those we serve through our leadership. If my team is working well together, for example, then we’ll do a better job serving you.

Let me conclude this devotion by practicing what I preach. I’ll share with you that I have been feeling quite unsettled by the COVID-19 crisis. Besides worrying about health risks for my family and friends, I’ve been trying to figure out how to be a wise leader for my team and for all of those we serve, including you. I feel out of my comfort zone, unsettled but not gripped by fear. However, just a few moments ago, I learned that someone I know has COVID-19. I have not been with this person, so I’m not worried that I might have caught the virus from her. But I do feel a mix of feelings right now, including fear and sadness. What will I do with these feelings besides acknowledging them? In a few moments, I’ll take them to the Lord in prayer. I will renew my trust in God, even if it’s a struggle. And I will ask God to use my feelings to motivate me to focus on my work, including both my leadership of my team and my effort to write devotions that are faithful to God and helpful to you. Lord, have mercy!

Indeed, he does. Thanks be to God!

Something to Think About:

Have you known leaders – either personally or through the media – who are able to share their feelings in a way that is helpful to those they lead? If so, what makes their way of communicating helpful?

How do you respond to suggestion #14 from Sandman and Lanard? Does this make sense to you? If so, why? If not, why not?

Can you think of other biblical examples, beside Nehemiah, of leaders who are open about their feelings for the sake of others?

Something to Do:

Think about whether there is an opportunity for you to share you emotions as you lead. As you think about this, you might want to talk with a trusted friend or advisor. If you decide that you do have such an opportunity, work on a plan for communicating your emotions openly and judiciously.

Prayer:

Gracious God, you have created us to be people of mind and heart, thinking and feeling, notions and emotions. Thank you for making us this way and for being present in every part of our lives.

As we lead, Lord, may we lead as whole people. Teach us how to share our emotions in a way that serves others. Keep us from using our leadership opportunities to advance our own egos or selfish agendas. Show us how to be vulnerable and when it is wise to be so.

May all I do as a leader be honoring to you and contributing to your kingdom purposes. Amen.

See this excellent article on “Flourishing Amidst Coronavirus.” So much wisdom here from Tyler VanderWeele, Director of the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard. He writes about: helping others, strengthening relationships, finding happiness, and facing suffering. I highly recommend this piece to you.

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Part 11: Leading in a Crisis: God’s Astounding Desolations

Come, behold the works of the LORD;
see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.

Psalm 46:8-9 (NRSV)

pine trees in a desolate fieldAs we watch the spread of the novel coronavirus, we worry about what might happen to our families and friends, our workplaces and churches, our cities and countries. We fear the desolations that might come as this virus continues to infect thousands and effectively shuts down our world.

In Psalm 46, God visits desolations on the earth, desolations of a most astounding and shocking kind. God’s desolations fill us, not with fear, but with hope.

We began this Life for Leaders series by examining the first verses of Psalm 46: “God is our refuge and strength . . . . Therefore we will not fear” (46:1-2). Today and tomorrow, we will return to Psalm 46 as we finish this series. This beloved psalm has so much to say to us in this moment of history, given all we are facing together. It speaks to all people, and in a special way to those of us called to leadership in work, church, community, and family.

Verse 8 of Psalm 46 extends this invitation: “Come, behold the works of the LORD; see what desolations he has brought on the earth.” We are to examine, not just God’s works, but also his desolations. This sounds rather unsettling, doesn’t it? We’d rather focus on God’s healings and blessings, not on his desolations. We understandably wonder what these desolations include. Perhaps God’s judgments on those who disobey him? His punishments for sin? A giant flood? Or . . . ?

The word translated in verse 8 as “desolation,” shamma in Hebrew, can mean “waste, desolation, horrific or atrocious event.” In Isaiah 64:10, for example, we read: “Your holy cities have become a wilderness, Zion has become a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation [shemama, a version of shamma].” Jeremiah 5:30 uses shamma with emphasis on how it makes us feel to see such devastation, “An appalling [shamma] and horrible thing has happened in the land.” So talk of God’s desolations rightly makes us distressed, at first. We might even be horrified.

But then we continue on in Psalm 46 to see just what devastations the psalm writer has in mind: “[The LORD] makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire” (Psalm 46:9). The things that usually bring devastation to the earth – war and its weapons – are the things devastated by the hand of God. We might say that God desolates the desolations. God destroys destruction and wages war on warfare, thus bringing God’s true peace to the whole earth.

Behind Psalm 46 lies a vision of God’s coming kingdom, a day when peace and justice will fill the earth (Isaiah 9:7, for example). In that day, human violence will cease. Under God’s reign, people “shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks” (Isaiah 2:4). Deathly weapons will become tools for life-promoting food production. Moreover, human beings will be healed of “all” our diseases (Psalm 103:3). As we read in the prophet Malachi, “But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall” (Malachi 4:2).

Thus, Psalm 46 reminds us that disease, including the COVID-19 pandemic, is not what God ultimately intends for our world. The future peace of God includes both health and flourishing. We who lead should at all times be strengthened and moved by a vision of God’s kingdom. During a crisis, we need this vision even more than usual because it’s so easy to become focused only on our challenges, disappointments, griefs, and fears. We can lose sight of what God is doing and will do in the world. Yet, when we keep this vision in mind and heart, when it animates our leadership, then we’ll be able to lead both wisely and resiliently.

Psalm 46 also reminds us that God is at work in the world right now. We can behold God’s work—including his ironic desolations—not only in our vision of the future, but also in our current reality. In fact, God often uses what we perceive in the moment as desolations to advance his kingdom. In this time of history, it’s hard to know exactly how God will use our current pandemic for good. Yet, we can be confident that the God who is with us now is also at work in us, through us, and around us. We hold tightly to the promise found in Romans 8:28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (NIV). “In all things” God is at work for good. With this confidence we lead, trusting that God is at work in us for his purposes and glory. As we read in Philippians, “[F]or it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13).

Something to Think About:

When you think of observing God’s works, what comes to mind for you? What works of God do you tend to envision?

Have you experienced God at work in your life in hard and difficult things? Can you think of a time–or many times–when God worked redemptively in a situation that seemed to be hopeless?

How might the vision of God’s peaceful kingdom make a difference in your daily work right now?

Something to Do:

Set aside some time to think about how God has worked through hard things in your life, bringing good both for you and for his kingdom. As you think of these occasions, thank God for his grace and goodness. Let these memories give you confidence in God’s sovereignty today.

Prayer:

Gracious God, how amazing you are! You do indeed bring “desolations” on the earth, desolating violence and warfare as you wage peace. You give us confident hope in your coming kingdom and allow us to experience even now evidence of your redemptive power. Thank you, Lord!

May our leadership be inspired by a vision of your future, Lord. In a world so torn by violence, injustice, and disease, may we keep before us the confident hope of your future.

O Lord, even in the “desolations” of this moment, be at work, in our world, in your church, in our work, and in us. Amen.

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Part 12: Leading in a Crisis – Let Go and Know God

“Be still, and know that I am God!
I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted in the earth.”
The LORD of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah

Psalm 46:10-11 (NRSV)

a man sitting with open palms surrendered upwardThe slogan “Let Go and Let God!” was popular back in the day. It appeared on bumper stickers, church signs, and Christian bookstore paraphernalia. I believe it originated in Alcoholics Anonymous. But its popularity soon spread far beyond that 12-step program. Whether you struggled with an addiction or not, it was good to be reminded to “Let Go and Let God.”

Psalm 46 offers something similar to this, though in a slightly different form. In English translation, the first part of verse 10 reads, “Be still, and know that I am God!” That’s a fine translation as well as a fine exhortation. But if you were to dig into the original Hebrew of this verse, you’d find something surprising. The verb translated as “be still” (rafa in the Hiphil stem) literally means “let drop” or “let go.” It’s not an exaggeration to say that the psalm writer meant to say, “Let go, and know that I am God,” or, more briefly, “Let go and know God!”

What a crucial imperative for leaders in all times and places, but especially in a time of crisis. As we finish this Life for Leaders series on “Leading in a Crisis: The Difference God Makes,” I can think of no better place to end. We who lead in this day – whether in our businesses or stores, our schools or churches, our city councils or families – need to hear and follow the simple exhortation: Let go and know God!

What enables us to let go of our fears and worries, to let go of our need to control things behind our power? Our knowledge of God. And who is God? Psalm 46 reveals God as: our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble, the Lord of heaven’s armies, the God of Jacob, the one who is working on earth, the one who makes wars cease, and the one who is exalted in the earth. The more we know God in these ways, the more we experience God’s power, presence, and protection, the more we will be able to let go and know God. Then, we will also “Let go and let God” in the sense that we will surrender our need to be in charge, our bearing the burden that is not ours to bear, our feeble attempt to carry the yoke that the Lord’s alone.

Being still includes but isn’t only a matter of quietness. Yes, it’s slowing down our rushing minds. It’s calming our racing hearts. It’s listening rather than chattering. It’s praying rather than pontificating. But it is also entrusting to God that which is God’s and doing only that which God entrusts to us. Even then, “being still” is making ourselves available to the Spirit of God at work in and through us. It’s surrendering our will as we seek the will of God.

When we as leaders let go and know God, we don’t stop leading. We don’t just sit there and wait passively for things to happen. No, we lead with humility before God and reliance on his grace. We recognize our limitations and receive our leadership as a calling and a stewardship. We know the God we serve and are passionate for his exaltation in the earth. We live and lead for God’s purposes and glory, trusting in his grace and relying on his strength. When we lead in a time of crisis, God makes all the difference in the world.

Something to Think About:

Are there things you are carrying right now that you need to let go of? What are these things?

Which aspects of God’s character in Psalm 46 resonate with you in a deep way today? Why?

Can you think of a time in the past when you were able to give over to God that which you had been carrying on your own?

What helps you to “let go” and trust more of your life and leadership to God?

Something to Do:

With your small group or with a close Christian friend, talk about how you’re doing with letting go and knowing God. (Yes, you may well be doing this virtually, either on by phone or digital conference.) See how you might be able to support each other better in your desire to trust God more.

Prayer:

Gracious God, you are indeed our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble, the Lord of heaven’s armies, the God of Jacob, the one who is working on earth, the one who makes wars cease, and the one who is exalted in the earth. And you are so much more! How we praise you for who you are and for making yourself known to us.

God, you know I struggle sometimes with letting go, quieting my heart, and knowing you. Help me, I pray, to be so convinced of your goodness and faithfulness that I can indeed let go of all that belongs to you. Show me, Lord, what I am to carry. And even then, may I carry it by your grace and for your glory. Amen.

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