By Eddie Pipkin

Well, Ian came and went, and while we have a profound sadness for our Florida brothers and sisters who took a direct hit on the southwest coast, here in Orlando the damage was relatively minor, with the exception of some truly biblical localized flooding.  Even as the winds dropped into the less intense tropical storm range, a few of my neighbors were out raking up piles of tree debris.  Not me!  It was a good reminder, as I watched the different approaches to restoring things to “normal” over the next few days, that we all have our different styles when it comes to disaster management.  There are pros and cons to each approach, and it’s a great idea for ministry teams to know which leaders prefer which method and how those nuances will be balanced when an institutional strategy is required.

My son had the good sense to be out of town on vacation for hurricane week, so I had the added chore of securing his house before the storm and the added responsibility of getting over there as soon as possible to check it out after the worst of the winds had passed.  It was still very blowy late Thursday morning (still definitely in the range of tropical storm level gusts) when I decided it was safe enough to head over.  And as always, I was surprised that there were a few folks who were already out there with rakes and trash barrels in hand, attempting to bring order to the chaos.  By late afternoon, the winds had continued to diminish, and more and more people were out there making piles of limbs at the curb.  Not everybody, though.  I was also tickled to see the longest line of cars I had ever seen streaming out of the parking lot and down the street at the local Dairy Queen!  Turns out, it was the only thing that was open that afternoon, and some folks had prioritized the value of a cheeseburger and a large Blizzard to ease the nerves.

As for me, I was part of the mindset that decided cleanup was tomorrow’s work to be undertaken after a good night’s sleep and a fresh pot of coffee to energize the new day.

Everybody has a different approach when it comes to these things.  There are probably measurable comparisons between folks who are instantly raking up fallen hurricane limbs and those who insist on washing the dishes immediately after dinner or making their bed as soon as they roll out of it in the morning.  It comes down to being able to claim some sense of order when havoc, mayhem, and disorder are trying their best to rule the day: “I can’t control the uncertainty of the weather, but I can at least control this.  I can bring order to this little corner of the world.”  There is a prime psychological urge to this need to control events, and you A-type personalities are not inclined to wait around for those limbs to organize themselves.

It’s great to have people like that on your team, because . . . well, stuff’s gotta get done.  But some of us are not wired for “break emergency glass and start doing immediately” mode.  Some of us need time to process, take a deep breath, grieve a minute (for that beautiful poolside oak we lost) before we fire up the chainsaw.  A crisis can be emotionally and psychologically draining, so while there is much virtue in jumping right in to start fixing things, there is also something to be said for taking a time-out to re-calibrate our psyche.

As an example, I am, myself a processor (and a guy who gets up in the morning and does last night’s dishes first thing).  We were planning on hosting a surprise birthday party for a good friend on the Friday night immediately following the hurricane, and the co-planner texted me the instant the winds began hinting of dying down: “Is everything okay at your house?” I replied, “Yeah, it looks like just some minor damage, and the power is out.” She typed, “Oh, well do you think we’re still having the party?”  I had to text her back, “Dang, girl!  Give me a minute to catch my breath.”  (The party went ahead to much acclaim, but at an alternate location.)

There are pros and cons to either disaster management style, but the key is to be aware of one another’s preferences and respectful of style differences.  “Approach A” to doing things is not morally superior to “Approach B.”  These things, however, are true:

  • Good communication IS morally superior to bad communication. Everyone should clearly know what’s going on and what the game plan is for moving forward.  If you’re going to immediately start trying to fix a problem before the dust has even had a chance to settle, let everybody know that’s the game plan.  If you feel like the organization needs to catch its breath before making any big decisions, let everybody know that’s what you’re doing.
  • Somebody must be the leader (although sometimes with help from the highly valued assistant leader). In moments of crisis, a clear and calm voice giving coherent directions is a comfort.  In terms of managing specific tasks, however, it’s okay to admit that such crisis management is not your calling.  You can be the voice of clarity, but it’s perfectly fine to delegate the details to people who thrive in that pressure-filled environment.
  • Sometimes you need a little of both. Emergency scenarios must be dealt with.  It is appropriate to say you’re going to deal with the truly emergency aspects of a crisis while taking a prayerful pause on things that can reasonably wait.  (In hurricane recovery parlance, you need to deal in a timely fashion with stuff in the freezer once the power goes out, but a downed tree that’s not on a house or blocking the driveway can wait for the cutting up—you don’t have to pay exorbitant fees to the first guy that comes by with a chainsaw.)  Safety, as always is the watchword in prioritizing responses.  You definitely want to protect your home or your ministry organization from anything that could cause future or permanent damage.  On the other hand, you don’t want to start making snap decisions that could have long range, unintended consequences.  Fix what you need to immediately.  Pause and think strategically about the things that you can.
  • Don’t force someone into a style that is not their natural style (if you can help it—sometimes, realistically, you can’t help it). And don’t belittle someone whose style is different than your own (or allow your team members to do that to one another).
  • Don’t forget that, as almost always, there are cherry-pickable scripture verses arguing in favor of both approaches—perhaps it is worth meditating upon why this is true! Proverbs 19:2, for instance, cautions against leaping before looking:

It is dangerous to have zeal without knowledge,
and the one who acts hastily makes poor choices. (NET)

On the other hand, James (as he so often does) advises us to get on with it:

So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin. (James 4:17, ESV)

Context, as always, is important.  Our navigation of context is our opportunity to shine.

This divergence of disaster management styles is also apparent in the pre-planning stage.  This shows up if you drive around your neighborhood 24 hours before a storm: some people are putting up their pre-cut and carefully stored plywood hurricane window covers; some people, like me, are timing when they can get in that last run to Chick-fil-A to get a bag full of original chicken sandwiches (essential storm supplies).  Among your ministry leadership, both staff and volunteers, there are some who love this intricate pre-planning, this preparation for crises that may yet come.  Let them do that good work with your encouragement.  Celebrate them for this gift of preparedness, while reminding them that is the specific role for which they have been called—other people have other tasks over which to obsess.

To reiterate, it all comes down to . . .

  • Being honest about your disaster management style.
  • Knowing one another’s disaster management styles and respecting those different styles.
  • Talking through where the differences might diverge (or intersect!) in ways that can cause friction.
  • Having a clear plan for the path forward when things go off the rails (from an event gone wrong to planning that doesn’t pan out to technical glitches on a Sunday morning to miscommunication-caused snafus to real and authentic disasters). All of those eventualities require a response, and each of them is guaranteed to make an appearance at some point in your tenure.  Hoping and praying them away is not an option.

By the way, did you know that in organizational psychology studies there is a hard-to-handle worker category called the “hurricane employee.”  I did not know such a clever classification existed until I read this explanatory article from the Wharton School of Business: “Havoc in the Workplace: Coping with ‘Hurricane’ Employees.”  I recognized the personality type immediately—heck, let’s be honest, I’ve been that personality type (urrrrgh):

They have been called many things: toxic, negative, dysfunctional, narcissistic, territorial, sociopathic, de-motivating, vampire-like. The words describe employees – from CEOs on down to mid-level managers and their subordinates – who tear through an office, disrupting everyone’s work environment and leaving a path of destruction in their wake before finally moving on, like a hurricane.

Everybody who has ever worked in (or volunteered in) ministry has experienced a version of this, whether a Cat 1 or a Cat 5 on the Hurricane Employee Intensity Scale.  Ministry, though sheathed in prayer and hopefully proceeding at all times from love, is not immune to this phenomenon:

Organizations experience hurricane employees in many different ways, but in general they are employees who “destroy the social fabric of the organization by creating friction, drama, tension and hostility among other employees,” says Michelle K. Duffy, a professor at the Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota. Research has shown that “strong and healthy social networks lead to better outcomes for employees and organizations alike,” Duffy adds. “Hurricanes damage not only the people in the network, but also the ties among them.”

It’s fascinating to think about the claim that the damage extends to the ties between individuals and networks.  Back to hurricane metaphors plucked from the real world, because of the harmful impact of Ian, our lovely oak was down for the count, although to look at it with your head tilted at exactly the right angle, it seemed fine.  Hardly a limb was broken off of the canopy.  Unfortunately, the root ball was sticking up from the good solid ground which had provided stability—the life-giving, connective root system was shattered and broken.  That same phenomenon also happens in our ministry spaces:

[W]hen an individual in the workplace begins to display negative behavior, “it consumes inordinate amounts of time, psychological resources and emotional energy,” and it may “underlie many people’s reluctance to fully commit to teams.” Management commentators frequently cite a study done by Felps, a professor at Rotterdam School of Management, demonstrating that one negative employee can cause his or her team’s performance to drop by 30% to 40%.

That’s an astonishing statistic, but it rings true, doesn’t it?  It turns out that one bad apple CAN do significant damage to the whole barrel.

Leaders gotta lead!  Whether it’s a real hurricane bearing down on the local church or a “hurricane employee” tearing apart the ministry cohesiveness, the one thing that is for sure is that it doesn’t do any good to pretend it’s not happening.  There are plenty of strategies for dealing with a tough challenge and plenty of ways to prevent further damage, as well as multiple approaches to repairing damage that has already been done, but standing on the sidelines with one’s hands in one’s pockets is not biblical leadership.  Even taking a prayerful pause before embarking on definitive action is—if done with intent and clarity—taking action, not ignoring the problem.

What is your own disaster style?  Think about the other leaders in your organization—what are their disaster styles?  Do you all mesh well together when a crisis is at hand and demanding a response?  Have you talked about these moments beforehand, formulating a plan for how you will work together in response when the time comes for action (or intentional inaction)?  What are your experiences with “hurricane employees”?  How has this phenomenon impacted your work over the years?