By Eddie Pipkin

Be prepared.  Everybody knows the infamous Scout motto, but sometimes we miss its full meaning.  We embrace the micro-planning part: plan, plan, plan down to the tiniest detail to make sure our events are successful.  But we miss the part where we are comfortable improvising.  Like a good chef, we should be able to both execute a five-course formal meal AND throw together an impromptu dinner party using only the ingredients on hand in the pantry.

My inspiration for this column was an article in the “food” section of the morning paper in which Maria Zizka writes about the skill of throwing together a meal for a small group with no advance notice and no time for a shopping trip: 

I have always admired people who can cook a delicious meal when there’s nothing in the fridge. My mother-in-law is one such wizard in the kitchen. I have lost count of the times that she has, without any advance planning, transformed what seemed like nothing into breakfast for six. Over the years, I’ve learned that while this stone-soup cooking may seem magical, it is just a combination of creativity, cleverness and a well-stocked pantry.

Her premise (and its underlying assumptions) are threefold:

  • A good cook is not anchored to a line-by-line application of a recipe.  Cooking is not a paint-by-numbers act of engineering: it’s an art form.  It benefits from variation and a little creative flair.  Sometimes what is ultimately memorable is the result of a variation in the familiar (a substitute ingredient here, an unexpected preparation there).
  • A good cook has a basic pantry set-up that allows a foundation for creative variation.  In her article, Zizka recommends five specific ingredients that should always be on hand (basics like olive oil, pasta, dried beans and rice, etc.).  If a host has these ingredients and knows how to use them well (through research and experience), they become the building blocks of possibility.
  • A good cook is confident and fearless.  This is because of practice, experimentation, embracing failure (as a necessary cost of wisdom), and understanding that food and fellowship are a kind of dialogue, not a performance test.

Creativity, cleverness, and a well-stocked pantry.  Ministries can embrace those principles in ways that set us up for success, even when the best-laid plans go awry through no fault of our own.  The ‘Be Prepared” motto definitely applies to careful planning, but both human beings and forces beyond our control can derail even meticulous preparation:

  • The chaperone doesn’t show up (due to illness or forgetfulness).  Or the teacher; or the musician; or the guest speaker. . . .
  • The bus breaks down.
  • The power goes out.
  • Somebody forgot the key.
  • Somebody to make the reservation.
  • The weather goes sour.
  • The stage set falls over (during the quietest part of the service).
  • The cell phone goes off (during the quietest part of the service).
  • The programs didn’t get printed.
  • The Amazon delivery is late.
  • The tech you practiced a dozen times goes all wonky right in the middle of your presentation.
  • The crowd is bigger – or smaller – than you expected.

All of these scenarios – and many more – are familiar to anyone who has ever led any kind of ministry.  When we are honing our leadership skills and developing new leaders this reality of upended expectations should be something we anticipate as inevitable.  This is the other aspect of ‘Be Prepared’ in the way that the Scouts use it.  It means you are ready (and even eager) to improvise.  Your basic skill set is so strong, your confidence so high, that you embrace the challenge of “winging it.”

So here are some of the ways that we be ready.

  • Have an emergency plan.  For as many scenarios as you can reasonably imagine, have an emergency plan or a backup plan.  This is a useful exercise to do with your leadership teams – not everything all at once, but a ‘what if’ scenario every time you get together.  “If THIS happens, what do we do?”  It’s a good way to be sure everyone is on the same page.
  • Practice improvisation.   If you’re working with worship leadership, you might throw them an intentional improvisational curveball to see how they handle it and to give them confidence in their ability to roll with the punches when the unexpected inevitably happens.  Say to your music folks, “Hey what would happen if we lose power and you have no instruments and no words on screen?  What would you do?”  If you’re working with your youth leaders, say, “Hey, what would happen if a chaperone fails to show up on time?  How will you adapt?  What if the bus breaks down?  How will we use the time?”  There is no one right answer to any of these potential scenarios, and what works in one setting may not work in another – ideas are dependent on knowing the strengths of your leaders and the personality of your congregation, as well as the options available in your setting.  That’s why the next two suggestions are vitally important.
  • Know your “first responders.”  You may be a great leader who is extremely uncomfortable with the idea of improvisation, but there are people on your team (if you are building good teams) who thrive on this kind of chaos and have a gift for leading when the wheels fall off.  Know who they are!  Embrace their gift; communicate with them that, when the wheels fall off, you are going to call on them to take charge.  [And as a corollary to this point, if you are the first responder in a scenario, lean on your gifts: don’t try to do something you aren’t good at – that will just make the situation worse – even if it’s a hard shift, lead in that moment in a way that you are comfortable, confident, and gifted.]
  • Build that well-stocked pantry!  Depending on the ministry you are leading, have some basic supplies on hand with which you can whip up an alternative in times of chaos.  If you work in youth or children’s ministry, you should always have basic game supplies easily accessible and a familiarity with your team leaders on leading some fun, basic games.  [If you really want to make an impression, have an exotic game option you have heard about saved for just this moment.]  If you are in charge of scenarios that involve guest speakers, you should always have an “emergency sermon” or speech accessible, or at the very least a compelling video you can show as a backup – something good, something that has inspired you.  For your music team, have a go-to acoustic version of some songs most everybody knows.
  • Tech is inherently, infamously unreliable.  You should always have a backup plan for when the tech does not work the way it is supposed to.  What happens if the video doesn’t play, the live feed goes down, or the PowerPoint won’t project.  It’s gonna’ happen.  You know it is.  Mentally prepare an alternate course of action.
  • Don’t underestimate the power of prayer!  I don’t mean, in this case, the power of prayer to immediately heal a blown-out audio system – although I would not discount that miracle either – but the power of a prayer pause in a moment of chaos to re-center everyone and remind them what’s important.  It’s a good transition tool, calming and reassuring.

Most everybody has a story about the time things seemingly fell apart that turned out to be – thanks to some clever improvisation – one of their best ministry experiences ever: “Remember that time when the power when out in the sanctuary and we all went outside to the courtyard and had acoustic worship there?”  “Remember that time when the youth director forgot to bring the communion supplies on the camping trip and we had communion with Saltine crackers and grape Fruitopia?”  These can be wonderful memories, and when we, as leaders, are able to help those we are leading navigate unfamiliar shoals, we instill confidence that when crises happen, we’ll be prepared and flexible enough to lead in those times as well. What are some of your stories about times when you were forced to improvise?  How did it work out?  What strategies to you use with your leadership team to prepare for just such moments?  We’d love to hear YOUR stories.