How Should Leaders Respond to an External Shock?

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Leaders need to focus on core mission and values in the face of a powerful external shock says Meredith McNabb of the Lake Institute on Faith and Giving. Addressing this crisis with integrity, confidence, and hope requires knowing your congregation and its purpose.


COVID-19, caused by the novel coronavirus, has upended the lives of congregations’ members, overturned patterns of life and economic systems for entire communities, and brought individuals (and institutions, too) face to face with the sobering prospects of very real threats to their health and existence. At the congregational level, there is a convergence of personal, financial, safety, and spiritual crises.

As a congregational leader, how do you respond to such an external shock? A powerful force is casting its influence over your people, your finances, and your reputation, and there seems to be little you can do to influence it yourself. What especially can you do if your congregation is, as some leaders have described their present situation, “in financial free-fall”?

Remember your values, mission, and vision.

Here is where knowing who your congregation is and what it is for — its values, mission, and vision — is essential. (Along with taking a deep breath.) Now is hardly the time for anyone to be convening a mission and vision task force. Yet it is foundational that clergy, who have a spiritual as well as practical responsibility to lead, have a firm commitment to focusing on what they know to be at the core of their congregations.

The first response to seeing participation and/or giving numbers nosedive cannot be simply to say, “But the congregation has needs!”, and to plead for members to show up (virtually for now, of course) and open their wallets to keep the enterprise afloat. The focus must be on the core mission and values. Why does the congregation exist? What is the spiritual, transformational, life-giving, and meaning-making work that caused the congregation to gather in the first place? This should be the focus in times of trouble, whether the crisis comes from inside or outside the congregation.

What are your core spiritual strengths?

The faith, the sacred storyline running through a congregation, is the first port of call for a solid response, right alongside authentic care for the community who calls the congregation ‘home.’ Increased relational communication plus a clear focus on the core spiritual strengths and foundations can enable congregations to weather storms and perhaps grow stronger after the crisis has passed. Faith leaders have the responsibility to direct their congregations toward what is most important and to reflect the hope and encouragement inherent in their congregational beliefs.

Assess your assets.

On the practical management side, the leadership task in a time of external shocks might best be summed up as asset management. What resources do you have? What do your core values say should be done with those resources? A creative mind will be beneficial in identifying those assets.

The congregation’s giving households are certainly one key resource, but not the only one that is important to consider. A building, so often the next resource that a congregation would identify, may or may not be an asset in a season like today. So, what else? What kind of social media presence or tech savvy is in the congregation? What practices of care or prayer or connection already exist? What financial resources could be redirected? What are the congregation’s faith resources — its practices and beliefs that point to hope, that emphasize endurance, that care for the vulnerable and do justice for the poor? These are vital assets as truly as the congregation’s bank accounts or its committed givers.

Leaders who have clarity about values and mission and who take an asset-minded approach can handle the impacts of the external shock with integrity, confidence, and hope while demonstrating the spiritual strengths that are at the center of their existence. External shocks may define the circumstances in which a congregation finds itself, but they do not define the congregation itself whose grounding, guidance, community, and inspiration are needed now more than ever.


This article is condensed from “External Shocks,” that appeared in Insight, the online newsletter of the Lilly School of Philanthropy at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis.

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About Author

Meredith McNabb

Meredith McNabb is the Associate Director for Educational Programming for the Lake Institute on Faith and Giving. Meredith is an ordained clergy member in the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church who served as the Director of that conference’s Center for Clergy Excellence from 2014 – 2019. Meredith participated in the Lewis Fellows leadership development program for outstanding young clergy.


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