Max DePree was the CEO of Herman Miller Furniture company. Herman Miller produces some of the finest office furniture in the world and is acclaimed as one of the best examples of a company with great values and good management. In his book, Leadership is an Art, he begins his chapter on leadership as follows: “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.”
The COVID-19 crisis is full upon us. Those of us who lead need to define reality. The reality is this financial crunch is very serious, it will last longer than we expect, and that we do not know how the financial future will look. This may not be a matter of a few weeks and then back to normal. Even though the crisis may last weeks, it could be a year or more before some churches find their financial footing. Some churches won’t make it.
Leaders, immediately, share a few things. First, how much the decrease in giving has been in the church family. People can deal with reality. What they can’t deal with is the unknown. So, count it up and let folks know what the last couple of weeks have been like relative to the old normal. Now is not the time for a lack of transparency.
Secondly, feel free to ask many of your congregation if they plan to keep giving at their normal level. Will they fulfill their pledge? Are they going to have to cut back? Get an idea of what the giving is going to be.
Third, based on the facts above, make a plan. If giving goes down 25% what is the plan? Will we set the thermostat to 50 degrees? Will we contact the utility company and ask for deferred payments? Will we contact our lender about options? Will we cut staff positions, or cut hours?
Fourth, make a Plan B if things get worse than expected. If we reach a certain threshold, perhaps a 50% decline, what other measures will we put in place? Will we access the emergency provision of our memorial fund or endowment fund? What further personnel will we adjust? Would we consider borrowing any funds?
Fifth, share the plan with everybody in your church family. Again, now is no time for lack of transparency. The more people don’t know, the more they will create their own narrative. Find a way to allow for discussion with the pastor or the Council leaders.
Sixth, define again the nature of the church. We aren’t a volunteer organization. We are a called community, bound into unity by the Spirit and mission of Christ. This isn’t happening to the church; it is happening to us. It isn’t the church’s mortgage; it is our mortgage. There is no “they,” only “we.” As with any healthy family, this crisis can bind us more than hurt us.
Seventh, define again the mission and gospel of God. We love our church as an organization, as a building. However, we are engaged in a mission, not a building. That mission has gone on for 2000 years through plagues and wars, through catastrophes of nature and consequences of sin. We may be scared and scarred, but God will see to it that grace abounds, and ministry abides. We need to be open to hearing how God is calling us to great work in this great trial.
The first responsibility of a leader is to define the reality—not worse than it is, not sugar-coated. Define the plan. Define the ministry and victory of God. Your people will thank you.