The day life changed

Saturday 29th February 2020 dawned warm and clear and continued to be a wonderful day as our family celebrated the wedding of our eldest son to our new daughter-in-law. There were lots of hugs and kisses and all the joy you’d normally expect at such a celebration. This day will be etched into the family memory bank for years to come. Good times.

The day before the wedding will also be etched into the pages of New Zealand history. It was the day that the first person in our nation was diagnosed with what we at the time called corona virus, what soon was to become known as COVID-19. This diagnosis began a chain of events that sent fear and anxiety through every layer of New Zealand society and culminated in a complete lockdown of the whole country for four weeks from 11.59pm on Wednesday 25th March 2020.

In less than a month we’d gone from joking and laughing and enjoying every freedom a prosperous Western nation can enjoy, to being formally restricted to our own homes, our own ‘bubbles’, where we could only walk the streets of our neighbourhood and were instructed to actively avoid any contact with anyone outside our bubble, except digitally. Internet traffic reached unprecedented levels of activity.

The pace of change

As a leader of a large community of faith nothing really could prepare me for what this rapid change would look like. I’ve searched my academic transcripts and it appears I was absent when my seminary taught the paper Leading A Church Through a Worldwide Pandemic: Leadership Principles No One Knew. Or maybe it is true that no one knows what leadership looks like in this situation because no one alive has led through an event of this magnitude in modern times.

One week we were meeting as a community across multiple services, the next week we were meeting with reduced attendance as fear swept the community. The following week we were livestreaming from an empty auditorium and then the next week we were cutting video filmed in our homes and kitchens as we, week-by-week, reinvented what a church looked like. As I write this article, the latter appears to be the new normal, for who knows how long.

Sometimes change sweeps you up in its arms and takes you on a roller coaster of fast-paced action with unanticipated corners and uncertain destinations.

Leadership in lockdown

Maybe it’s too early to write comprehensively about what good leadership looks like during a lockdown because the fruit of my leadership is yet to fully mature. But then again I’m a constant learner and an intuitive leader, so maybe my meandering thoughts have some foundation to them. Here are three things I’ve learnt, and am learning, about leadership in lockdown:

  • Leadership requires presence. As much as we value the priesthood of all believers in my Baptist denomination, and as much as we exercise servant leadership and the growth of team, crisis leadership requires a strong appearance of presence and personal visibility. People need a reference point. They want to take a lead from someone: they need a leader. As soon as events started happening at pace as the government brought in stricter guidelines to fight COVID-19, I started cancelling appointments and avoided off-site meetings that weren’t at the core of the community I serve. Being continuously present and being completely available for every interruption shows you’re ready to be the leader God designed you to be.
  • Be courageously decisive. Fast-escalating situations and rapid change raise multiple challenges across every area of life. Decisions need to be made and they need to be made quickly. While we usually value consultation and canvassing opinions, crisis situations demand a whole different style of leadership and decisive decision-making puts the organisation on the front foot. I have long ago learnt to trust my intuition in decision-making, but usually this is wisely surrounded with patience and process. However, under pressure, decisions need to be made, and we have to make them now. Those years of learning to be a good leader become visibly obvious under pressure.
  • Stay calm and stay connected. When leading people in uncertain and difficult times where life will sometimes be forcibly redefined, people need the assurance that it’s going to be okay, even if you don’t know what okay looks like. While I have to deal with all the organisational challenges that are coming my way, I also have to deal with my own personal challenges, my family and my own mental health. Staying calm and staying connected to the situation gives others an anchor to cling to. There’ll be time for my own reflecting in due course, but for now, staying calm, being decisive and being present is so important.

Review and reflect

These reflections resonate well with what I’m experiencing as a leader in a lockdown. The art of leadership needs to be fluid and open to change; it’s expression is likely to be different to anything you’ve experienced before. But isn’t the greatest test of a leader the way we cope when thrown into the fire of crisis and change in a complex generation-shaping set of events unlikely to be repeated in our lifetime? I’m up for it!

Of course in my next article I’ll reflect on these reflections; we’ll be further down the track and more change will have presented itself. My critique of my own critique should be an interesting addendum to these thoughts. I’m salivating at the thought already.

They say the mark of a true leader is whether they have any followers. Let’s see how many hugs and kisses come my way on a warm and clear Saturday sometime in the future.

Contributor: Grant Harris

Grant is the senior pastor of Windsor Park Baptist Church in Auckland, New Zealand, a church that was planted 65 years ago and comprises people of all generations seeking to reach a community that consists of people of all generations. The tagline of Windsor Park is ‘doing life and faith, together.’ Grant can be contacted here.

This article was originally published by Christian Today and is used with permission.