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Leadership is a Foul Weather Job

“With upright heart he tended them, and guided them with skillful hand.” (Psalm 7:72)

Anyone can stand at the helm, enjoying the feathered cirrus clouds and deep blue sky as the ship sails gently along. It takes a real leader, however, to guide a ship to safety through rough seas, exposed reefs and contrary winds on a lee shore. Inevitably, there are times when a priest or executive director is required to serve in this capacity.

Pray to God that the priest or executive director is not himself or herself the crisis!

A workable definition of a crisis in a parish is any emotionally charged situation that, once it becomes public, invites negative parishioner or larger community reaction and thereby has the potential to threaten the moral or financial well-being of the parish. Three elements are common to most definitions of crisis: (a) a threat to the parish, (b) the element of surprise, and (c) a short decision time for response. A fourth defining quality may be the immediate need for substantial change.

In contrast to risk management, which involves assessing potential threats and finding the best ways to avoid those threats, crisis leadership and management involves dealing with threats before, during, and after they have occurred. It is a discipline within the broader context of leadership and management consisting of skills and techniques required to identify, assess, understand, and cope with a serious situation, especially from the moment it first occurs to the point that recovery procedures start. Remember that management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things. When both work in tandem, then a crisis can often become an opportunity.

An effective crisis mindset requires the ability to think of the worst-case scenario while simultaneously formulating and suggesting numerous solutions. Trial and error is an accepted discipline, as the first line of defense might not work. The drawback is that trial and error may further complicate the crisis or delay an effective response.

The credibility and reputation of the organization and also the leader are heavily influenced by the perception of their responses during crisis situations. The communication involved in responding to a crisis in a timely fashion is a major challenge. There must be open and consistent communication with key leaders to contribute to a successful crisis communication process – the bishop, parish council members, legal authorities, attorneys, accountants, etc. and then outward to the general parish membership as effective responses are formulated.

There is often a short lived “first aid” type of response (e.g. putting the fire out) and then a longer term recovery and restoration phase.

Crises may appear in two forms: the sudden crisis and the smoldering crisis. Sudden crises are circumstances that occur without warning and beyond a parish’s control. Consequently, sudden crises are most often situations for which the parish and its leadership are not blamed – a sudden fire, for example. Smoldering crises differ from sudden crises in that they begin as minor internal issues that, due to negligence, develop to crisis proportions. These are situations when leaders are often blamed for the crisis and its subsequent effect on the parish. Leadership competencies of integrity, positive intent, capability, mutual respect, and transparency majorly influence the trust-building process following a smoldering crisis.

There are five steps to responding effectively to a crisis.

Signal detection – this can oftentimes defuse a potential crisis before it does damage to the trust a parish places in its leadership. For example, in one parish it was discovered that the person responsible for all technology, including access to all donor giving records and credit card information and bank accounts, was a convicted felon of drug trafficking and illegal possession of firearms. Sometimes, to repair a computer he would take it home for weeks at a time. After the priest was informed of the technician’s criminal past, his response was “We’ve never had any problems with him and the gospel commands us to forgive.” A strong signal was delivered. The response was to disregard the information.

Preparation and prevention – it is during this stage that crisis handlers begin preparing for or averting the crisis that had been foreshadowed in the signal detection stage.

Containment and damage control – usually the most visible stage, the goal of crisis containment and damage control is to limit the reputational, financial, safety, and other threats to the parish’s wellbeing. Crisis handlers work diligently during this stage to bring the crisis to an end as quickly as possible to limit the negative publicity to the parish, and move into the healing and recovery phase.

Community recovery – when the crisis hits, the parish must be able to carry on with its mission in the midst of the crisis while simultaneously planning for how it will recover from the damage the crisis caused. Crisis handlers not only engage in continuity planning (determining the people, financial, and technology resources needed to keep the parish running) but also actively pursue organizational resilience.

Learning – in the wake of a crisis, parish decision makers adopt a learning orientation and use prior experience to develop new routines and behaviors that ultimately change the way the parish operates. The best leaders recognize this and are purposeful and skillful in finding the learning opportunities inherent in every crisis situation.

The role of apologies in crisis management

There has been debate about the role of apologies in crisis management, and some argue that apology opens a charitable organization up for possible legal consequences. However, other evidence indicates that compensation and sympathy, two less expensive strategies, are as effective as an apology in shaping people’s perceptions of the parish taking responsibility for the crisis because these strategies focus on the needs of those who are hurt. The sympathy response expresses concern for victims while compensation offers victims something to offset the suffering. Here, it is particularly important that the gospel is the guide.

Crisis leadership

Five leadership competencies have been identified which facilitate parish recovery during and after a crisis.

  • Building an environment of trust

  • Reorienting the parish’s spiritual disposition

  • Identifying obvious and obscure vulnerabilities of the parish to negate extending the crisis or creating possibilities for a repeat of the crisis

  • Making wise and rapid decisions as well as taking courageous action

  • Learning from crisis how to effect change

Social media and crisis management

Social media has accelerated the speed that information about a crisis can spread. The viral effect of social networks such as Twitter or Facebook means that parishioners can break news faster than traditional media, such as announcements from the amvon – making managing a crisis harder. This can be mitigated by having the right social media monitoring tools to detect signs of a crisis breaking. Social media also gives the priest and parish council access to real-time information about how a crisis is impacting parishioner sentiment and the issues that are of most concern to them.

One short apothegmatic suggestion has been offered in the literature of crisis leadership and management that may serve to summarize much of what is written above: “Tell it Early, Tell it All, Tell it Yourself” – (and do it with humility and sensitivity). Let the crisis leader or crisis manager determine if this is the best strategy given the circumstances of his or her crisis.

Finally, keep in mind that, though the Lord resoundingly proclaimed, “You shall know the truth and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32), the world generally behaves as though there is no truth; there is only perception.


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