Gretchen E. Ziegenhals: Leading when things go awry

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When there’s a hitch in the event, meeting or worship service -- and there will be -- leaders must improvise, be mindful, check the process and trust God’s plans, writes a managing director at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

The same drivers ed instructor taught all four of my kids to drive. In one valuable exercise, he required each to steer the car slightly off the highway at 65 mph, continuing with the left wheels on the road and the right on the shoulder until safely steering back into the travel lane. The goal: to maintain control of the car without panicking.

It’s a scary scenario, but I’m grateful that they practiced it.

Every Christian leader, sooner or later, faces this same scenario. What do we do when we suddenly find one set of wheels off the road while we are preaching, teaching or leading an event or meeting? What do we do when our technology fails, our featured speaker doesn’t show, the conference room is locked, a blizzard descends or conflict erupts? How do we manage until we can navigate safely back into the travel lane?

Four simple principles can help -- two for in the moment, as the sweat begins to roll, and two for reflection afterward, as we dig into some consoling chocolate gelato.

Improvise

When faced with a change in plans in a meeting, a sudden crisis in the pulpit, a hitch in a big event, we can improvise. It’s usually the only choice.

When I was a college student studying Shakespeare in Wales, our group of 20 students was snowbound for a week at a small country inn. Unable to get us to the performances we had booked and paid for, our quick-thinking professors asked us to spend the week preparing to perform scenes ourselves. We scurried around the inn, collecting props and costumes.

Improvisation can cause anxiety; it requires leaders to be vulnerable, willing to hold open an uncertain space. We can’t predict the results. But I will never forget that experience in Wales, not only because of what I learned about Shakespeare but also because of what I learned about the power of improvisation to create something new and good.

How can we develop the ability to improvise when something goes awry? Like the student driver practicing control with two wheels off the road, we need to practice going off script. To start, we can study people who improvise naturally -- keep company with artists, innovators and visionaries, people who don’t read off a piece of paper in a meeting -- and identify one or two improvisational habits we can adopt or adapt. The aim here is not to make things look spontaneous but rather to discern truly improvisational moves and then learn from them.

Be mindful

Second, we can be mindful. When things don’t go as planned, I have learned to get to the place that leadership expert Ron Heifetz calls “on the balcony.” He recommends, in that moment of crisis or surprise, “taking yourself out of the dance, in your mind, even if only for a moment,” to get perspective on the dance floor and see the patterns emerging there.

Heifetz says that good leaders can switch back and forth from the dance floor to the balcony to check in on the action as well as the patterns. We can practice these moves, so that they come naturally in a crisis. Heifetz even suggests moving our chairs back from the table a few inches after we’ve spoken during a meeting to get “literal as well as metaphorical distance to help you detach just enough to become an observer.”

For Christian leaders, this mindfulness may also include a moment to ask God what is really going on. I try to ask God, What did you intend for this disruption? How can I get out of the way so that you can work here? God’s intention may be very different from ours, but it’s much better!

Check the process

After a crisis or disruption has occurred, and we’ve had a chance to sleep on it, there are two more moves we can make. First, we can check the process. While we may get good at improvising and discerning mindfully God’s hand in our disruptions, none of us likes a steady diet of crisis. Nor do crises help sustain the institutions and constituents we are called to serve.

We can ask ourselves, what processes are in place to ensure that things go as planned? How do we prepare to mediate or defuse conflict? Whom should we have on speed dial for when a deer crashes through the church window and is running around the sanctuary an hour before the service begins (true story)? Who should step in when someone is speaking too long on the panel? What is Plan B when we arrive to discover that the yoga class will be using the projector until 11 a.m.?

These questions are not meant to focus blame but rather to ensure that processes are in place and that they are readily understood and followed. Accidents happen, despite our best intentions. But planning and following good processes goes a long way in preventing those accidents and unwanted disruptions.

Trust God’s plans

Finally, after the crisis has occurred, we can trust that God’s plans are bigger than ours. Writer Anne Lamott says that whenever something bad happens, God is usually trying to distract us in order to get something more important done in our lives. This is not a Pollyanna attitude but rather a posture of deep faithfulness.

As Christian leaders, we may feel bad about these crises. One pastor told me, “I feel like it was all my fault. I keep going over in my head, what could I have done differently?” And an academic director said, “But my intentions were so good! I had set it all up so carefully, and it was going to be great! Then one person took things the wrong way, got mad and spoiled the entire evening.”

The disciples encountered a feeding crisis with only a few loaves and fishes. Who was supposed to be in charge of catering for the multitude? Did some of the crowd not register for the event? Should the gathering have been scheduled earlier in the day?

But Jesus saw, understood and improvised, feeding all 5,000. With leftovers. That crisis of scarcity opened the way for a miracle of God’s great abundance.