By Eddie Pipkin
I was hanging out with some Middle Schoolers last weekend at their (safely socially distanced) Sunday night youth gathering when the time came for them to break out into small groups. I’ve been working with youth in some capacity for more than 30 years, but in this case I had no role whatsoever – I was just a friendly presence, observing (because we can’t ever turn off that observational radar, can we, ministry pals?). So as the intrepid leader started with the game time – a game designed to illustrate the “lesson” for the evening – and the game veered immediately off course, the dominoes of disarray started to fall, and a carefully planned evening collapsed into chaos. That moment we have all experienced when things don’t go as planned: that’s not an aberration, that’s just ministry.
In this example the game involved regular plastic Easter eggs vs. glow-in-the-dark Easter eggs and a challenge of tossing these eggs back and forth with a partner in a brightly lit rooms vs. doing the same thing in the dark. The lesson illustration depended on the viability of in-the-dark tossing being possible because of exotic egg luminescence, and if it turns out that your eggs glow too dimly to foster successful tossing . . . let the broken egg jokes begin. The point is that if the purpose of gathering is directly tied to a discussion that hinges on a game unfolding the way it’s supposed to unfold, and that game refuses to unfold as intended, you’re in trouble.
Key #1 is how to engineer activities and events to avoid trouble. Key #2 is how to deal with trouble once it occasionally (if inevitably) happens, even though you did your best to diligently honor Key #1.
Non-viable glow-in-the-dark plastic eggs serve as a fun cautionary tale. We all have plenty of alternate catastrophes we could use as examples: technical mishaps during worship (in person or online), service projects that went awry, stewardship campaigns that fizzled, creative projects that sounded great in the brainstorming session but failed in the execution, outings that were designed to be fun and informative but played out as boring and miserable. Provide your own list!
In the case of the noble volunteer who was fighting to salvage the Incident of the Imperceptible Eggs, I admired his tenacious commitment to the premise. He kept valiantly working to revive the broken metaphor, but the kids were resistant – they sensed his vulnerability and were ready to have some fun at his expense. I wanted to encourage him, so later I said, “Way to hang in there, brother. That was like watching one of those videos where a surfer is riding a giant wave and briefly disappear into the barrel for a few terrifying seconds, only to shoot back out triumphantly along the wave face.” I was being supportive. The truth was he had wiped out . . . hard. I did not know this brave volunteer – he seemed enthusiastic, confident, and of good cheer. I have no idea how much training or experience he had. And to some degree it didn’t matter, because even the best-trained, best-prepared, and most experienced among us are fated to endure periodic wipeouts. But we can position ourselves for limit the frequency of our splashdowns and prepare ourselves for survival when they come.
Key #1: Engineer activities and events to avoid trouble.
Principle 1: Avoid complicated scenarios.
Don’t make games, technical setups, program organization, or event logistics complicated. Keep things simple and streamlined to the extent you can control these elements of anything you are planning.
Principle 2: Practice / Rehearse / Test-Run.
If it has to be complex, then practice / rehearse / test run it more extensively. Do these preparatory rehearsals under the closest conditions possible to real-world conditions. If you can’t rehearse in reality, do multiple mental run-throughs or talk out a theoretical run-through with your leadership team.
Principle 3: Probe for weakness.
Brainstorm places where things can go wrong. Once you’ve think you’ve solved for all those possibilities, ask someone else (your team, or even better an independent observer) to spot for weaknesses and potential points of disaster.
Principle 4: Have an emergency response plan.
Think in advance about what you will do if something does not go the way it’s supposed to go. Don’t get caught by surprise. If the lights go out in the middle of worship, be the person who is unflustered because you once sat in a leadership team meeting and worked out options for “what to do in the unlikely event of an actual emergency” (I love this phrase because it’s the one they use when they are teaching you how to board your lifeboat on a cruise ship).
Key #2: Riding the Inevitable Trouble Wave with Dignity.
Principle 1: Take a deep breath.
Frequently, our response to the rising sensation that our carefully laid plan is swerving off the rails is to panic with frenetic activity. We start immediately hurling words or spot-solutions at the problem. It’s the metaphorical equivalent of slamming on the brakes when your car starts to slide on a wet or icy road. But if you know anything about driver safety, you know that is exactly the wrong response. You’re supposed to calmly steer through the skid. And that’s good leadership advice, too: calmly steer through the skid – take a deep breath, maybe even a full, official pause, and reorient things in the direction you want them to go.
Principle 2: Fall back on your training / planning.
If you (or anyone on your team) is saying, “What training?,” you’re in trouble. Training exists for moments like this. If you are leading a small group, you should have had small group leadership training. If you’re running tech for worship (a complex, dynamic environment), you should have had as much training and apprenticing as possible. Training is the antidote to panic. It gives you a comforting checklist of options to employ in any scenario. And good planning, likewise, gives us anchor points to figure out next steps and alternate routes.
Principle 3: Make a course correction.
This is the reorientation referenced in Principle 1. There are two potential directions to take when reorienting a course. Sometimes a leader just needs to acknowledge the way a plan is not working and publicly call for a reset. This can mean rebooting and starting over, or it can mean taking time to explain what was supposed to happen, so the group can proceed from there. Sometimes it means changing direction completely because the new and unexpected direction is an interesting and useful way to go. This happens frequently in group discussions which can take unexpected turns that open up new, unanticipated insights. [A note here on meticulous planning: sometimes we get caught up in thinking about methodical planning as a restrictive process that limits flexibility and creativity, but in reality, the better something is planned, the more comfort and freedom there generally is to divert in an improvisational direction.]
Principle 4: Don’t forget to laugh.
Ponder the possibility that it is for these moments of chaos and panic that God created laughter. Don’t forget to step back and chuckle at the absurdity of it all. This is also a great way to defuse the tension in the room, because you are not the only one to realize the plan has gone awry. The people you are leading (whether middle schoolers, Zoom participants, or event attendees) catch on quickly as well, and they will be waiting to see how you respond. Folks are quite forgiving and cooperative if you acknowledge the issue, but they can be merciless if they sense you are trying to pretend that nothing is going on, when something obviously is.
A couple of additional notes to add: first, always be wary of analyzing the wipeout while an event is still in progress. That comes later, not mid-event. It is okay during an event to consult with your leaders and note the issue but only to the extend of solving what can be solved, encouraging folks, and striking a positive direction forward. Mid-event is not the time for forensic analysis of what went wrong or assigning blame.
Secondly, even if you carried around all these principles on a laminated card in your pocket, and you made your whole team adhere to them with precision, occasional wipeouts would still happen. It’s part of being human, and we should not beat ourselves up about them. We should remember other essential leadership principles such as “If we’re not failing, we’re not trying anything new.” Fear of wipeouts has kept many potential surfers on the shore.
What are some of your best ministry wipeout stories? Did you learn from your splashdowns and carry over those lessons to you next endeavors? What principles would you add to the ones expressed in this blog? What are the biggest barriers to wipeout-proofing our ministries? How do you prepare your team to survive inevitable wipeouts with a smile and positive attitude?