Leading Staff Through a Crisis
By: Northern Seminary
Written by Doug McPherson, DMin in New Testament Context Student
A series on pastoring during the pandemic crisis | originally posted on Jesus Creed, a blog by Scot McKnight
“Ok, last item on the agenda. Let’s talk through what we are going to do if the Coronavirus starts to impact our area.” Our staff had spent three hours in our semi-annual planning meeting, imagining what the next year might hold for our church. As the meeting wound down, this last-minute addition to the agenda was little more than an afterthought. We had no idea that those final 10 minutes were the most valuable of the entire morning. A few days later, we put our emergency plan into action and began the year-long challenge of guiding our church through the pandemic.
As 2020 began to unfold and one crisis gave way to another, I leaned on our small church staff like never before. Time after time, I drew strength from their diligence and was inspired by their creativity. But I also learned that leading staff members through a crisis requires intention.
Pastor the Staff
When crises arise, as pastors, we tend to give the bulk of our attention to the congregation and expect the staff to do the same. After things calm down, we debrief and evaluate. This approach usually works for short-term emergencies. But when a crisis lasts for weeks or even months, attention must be given to pastoring the staff. They, too, are members of the church family. Like the rest of congregation, they need the loving support of a pastor to encourage and care for their spiritual health as they serve the church in times of turmoil.
One simple way I tried to be more intentional with our team was through regular check-ins with each staff member. Usually this meant grabbing a cushy seat in their office and asking questions. “How are you doing? What’s on your mind? What’s going on with your family?” Taking an unhurried pace, these general questions started the conversation and left room for deeper dialogue. Regular, informal chats helped me gauge the concerns and overall mindset of the men and women on our team.
Next, to shepherd our staff, I am learning to tailor my approach to the needs of the individual. We see this practice in Paul’s ministry. His letter to Titus consists of direct instructions without the tender exhortations and tone  found in 1 Timothy, but he describes both as “true son(s).” Similarly, my approach to individual staff members must be shaped by their unique needs and personalities. Some of our staff need to talk through a problem; others need to process it on their own, first, and discuss it later. Some needed to know the “why” behind a project, while others mostly focused on the “how.” Pastoring the staff means learning how to care for each individual. This is true at any time, but its importance is multiplied in a crisis.
Another vital practice for pastors in a crisis is encouraging and modeling healthy boundaries for your staff. When you have a team of passionate and dedicated men and women who care deeply about the church, the perceived urgency can push them into unhealthy rhythms, crowding out life-giving relationships and hobbies. The pastor must give staff members permission to guard their own well-being and lovingly push them to do so. Also, the pastor should set an example for how to juggle the competing demands. When my children moved to remote learning in the early months of the pandemic, I began taking an additional day at home each week. As I explained this to our staff, I also urged them to look for any adjustments they could make to better balance their responsibilities at home and at work.
A final tip for pastoring the staff through a crisis: trust them with the truth. In the early days of the pandemic, most leaders experienced high stress levels around the possibility of budget cuts and lay-offs. Later, other issues arose about reopening procedures, how to care for disgruntled members, and even how to gauge “success” in the new paradigm. With each of these concerns, I had to resist the inner urge to gloss over reality in an attempt to shield our staff from pain. Sometimes pastors feel the need to avoid hard conversations or to spin the facts in a positive direction for the sake of morale. But this erodes trust between pastor and staff, and it fails to consider how the Holy Spirit works through discomfort to make the women and men on the team more like Jesus. Pastors model Christian hope for the staff not by avoiding the hard truth, but by facing it head-on while pointing toward God’s faithfulness.