What do you do when the swamp is on fire?
The Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in the southeasternmost part of Virginia is on fire. For many of us this probably sounds counterintuitive.
When water levels drop in swamps, the humid decomposing material in the swamp dries out and a lightning strike can create an underground smoldering fire that is nearly impossible to put out.
The Richmond weatherman recently noted that with prevailing winds, Richmond was apt to get traces of smoke from the swamp fire.
This is becoming a bit of an apocalypse for us in Richmond: smoke one day, an earthquake the next.
All this reminds me of a minister’s life in a congregation. What do you do when “the swamp is on fire” in congregational ministry?
1. Embrace truth.
One of the healthiest things a minister can do is examine a congregational situation and say, “Oh my, we sure have a mess here.” Denial is deadly. Embracing truth is liberating. When things go wrong, don’t protect yourself or get overly defensive; embrace the ugly truth about the congregational situation. Own it.
2. Do not panic.
The biggest mistake ministers make in a crisis is to either deny a problem exists or panic. Often, ministers will face a crisis and go into a strange kind of panic/paralysis. The truth provides such a powerful emotional “hit” that it shocks and disables an adequate and strategic response.
If a trauma or crisis arises in a congregation and the minister hobbles around half-paralyzed, the congregation is in deep, deep trouble. A crisis calls for the minister to put on her or his “fix it,” “management,” “strategic” hat. And ministers know how to do this. For instance, in funeral situations ministers are accustomed to facilitating a process and doing personal grief later. That perspective must come forward when the swamp is on fire.
3. Look at the system, not people in the system.
When things go badly, we homo sapiens always point fingers at others and lay blame. The minister must be the one person in the congregation who consistently points a finger at the system. While people contribute to congregational problems 99 percent of the time, it is a system malfunction that creates a congregational crisis.
4. Take care of yourself.
A minster has to facilitate an effective strategy to move a congregation through crisis. Then the minister needs to provide herself or himself with a treat: a few days off, a chocolate-covered sundae without guilt and so on – whatever floats your boat.
5. Say your prayers.
Of all people, ministers “stand in the need of prayer.”